Tribal hatchery set to release first sturgeon

By Phil Ferolito
Harrah, Washington (AP) March 2011

Nearly two years ago, Donella Miller began a project south of town to bolster the survival of an ancient friend – the sturgeon.

For decades, the Yakama Nation focused its efforts on restoring salmon in the Columbia River basin. But now, the tribe is looking to Miller to help the prehistoric fish that has been all but forgotten.

Working off a shoestring budget, she acquired holding ponds, filters, plumbing supplies and surplus hatchery equipment to create the tribe’s first sturgeon recovery program on 15 acres of Yakama Nation land along Marion Drain.

When power was extended to the site in January, Miller, who works for the tribe’s fisheries department, was more than ready.

“We actually had our first fish before we even had power,” she quipped.

“Sturgeon have kind of taken the back burner to salmon all these years,” said 36-year-old Miller. “There hasn’t been much restoration efforts. I think if it weren’t for the extended life cycle of them – they can live a hundred years – they’d be extinct on the Columbia River.”

Next month, her efforts will come full circle when she releases her first sturgeon – actually a few thousand – into the Priest Rapids, Wanapum and Rocky Reach reservoirs of the Columbia River.

“I’m getting excited. We’re going to have our first release,” she said. “We’re going to be doing monitoring, tracking.”

About 40,000 sturgeon at a time can be raised at the hatchery, and the plan is to release them into various areas throughout the mid-Columbia River. As the program grows, there will be releases in lower sections of the river as well, she said.

Because of their cultural importance to the Yakamas, improving the sturgeon population in the basin is an important step, said Yakama Tribal Councilman Gerry Lewis.

“Sturgeon have been a staple (in Yakama culture and diet) just like salmon,” he said. “It’s important to bring back the sturgeon.”

Tribal leaders praise Miller’s initiative in building a hatchery mostly from scraps on idle land backed by the Toppenish Ridge. Her project has also caught the attention of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, a federal body that represents the fishing interests of the four river tribes – Yakama, Umatailla, Nez Perce and Warm Springs.

Last week, members of the four tribes and the fish commission – 35 people in all – toured the makeshift hatchery.

Miller, a Yakama, showed them a dozen above-ground pools that dot the gravel-covered area. A manufactured building holds an office. Sturgeon, some already 3 feet long, fill the 4-foot swimming pools.

Miller’s interest in fish restoration grew out of her experience in commercial fishing with her family on the Columbia River.

Like salmon, sturgeon are migratory fish, hatching in rivers and living in the ocean before returning to spawn. But unlike salmon, they live through many spawning cycles.

But when the dams went up on the Columbia and Snake rivers, sturgeon were trapped. As bottom feeders, they don’t access the fish ladders like salmon. As a result, they don’t reproduce like they used to, said Steve Parker, technical service coordinator for the Yakama fisheries program.

Using hatchery fish to bolster populations will eventually lead to more sturgeon for both tribal and nontribal fisherman, Miller said.

But first, sturgeon populations need to be sustainable, she said.

“So that they will be here for future generations,” she said. “At the same time, we have a responsibility.”

The tribe has long been interested in sturgeon restoration so Miller came along at the right time, Parker said.

Her focus on sturgeon began at the University of Idaho, where she earned a degree in fisheries resources.

After graduating in 2008, her tribe gave her the use of a travel trailer so she could visit other tribes and their sturgeon restoration efforts throughout the Columbia River and Snake River basins.

“It was interesting – I was just absorbing all the information I could,” she said. “I was learning all the little tricks that they had to get (sturgeon) to spawn, all the little tricks to get them to feed.”

Female sturgeons are put on stretchers and massaged to help them drop their eggs into a tank, Miller explained.

The eggs are washed with a clay mixture, which removes a sticky membrane from the shells. Then they are put in incubating jars, where they hatch about a week later.

There is no formulated sturgeon feed, so getting them to eat in a hatchery can be tricky, she said. They are fed every few hours, and tanks are frequently cleaned so feed stays fresh.

“Kind of like you would treat a baby,” she said. “They have to eat every couple of hours – (sturgeon) are the same way.”

Parker says Miller could fill an encyclopedia with her knowledge of sturgeon.

“Every job she did, it just stuck in her head,” he said. “I’m really proud of her, of just how creative and relentless she’s been with the program.”