A tank full of young steelhead at a fish hatchery.
Travis Smola

250,000 Steelhead Smolt Just Escaped from a Washington State Fish Hatchery

Great escape of steelhead thought to be fault of equipment failure.

Call it a "Great Escape," because approximately 250,000 steelhead smolts are mysteriously missing from a Washington state fish hatchery and officials aren't sure of their whereabouts.

It happened at Lyons Ferry Hatchery near Palouse Falls. The Spokesman-Review reports the loss of hundreds of thousands of fish accounts for more than half of the hatchery's stock of summer steelhead, equalling approximately 65%. The fish were approximately 12 to 15 months old.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is now investigating in an attempt to figure out exactly when the escape occurred and why. However, their early analysis is that it is likely that a rubber gasket failed in a rearing pond. More specifically, the failure appears to have happened in a screen rotating drum. This left a small gap that flowed out into the Snake River.

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Unfortunately for hatchery officials, this problem was only evident when staff lowered the water levels in the rearing pond, according to WDFW eastern region fishery manager Chris Donley.

"In this case I don't believe it was a staff failure," Donley told reporters at the Spokesman-Review. "This was an equipment failure."

The good news is that there were approximately 135,230 smolt still remaining in the rearing pond when the waters were lowered. The bad news is the loss represents approximately eight percent of the hatchery's overall steelhead production in the Snake River Basin. It's likely the trend of poor steelhead fishing past few seasons will likely continue in certain parts of Washington.

The WDFW will also be unable to complete steelhead stockings in Dayton Acclimation Pond or Lyons Ferry this spring. The remaining fish are slated to be released in the Grande Ronde River once April rolls around.

The timing of the escape is likely key here. The best-case scenario is that the fish escaped while the pond was being drained down. If that's what happened, officials believe the steelhead have a good chance of surviving and leading to a surge of steelhead in the immediate area. However, there is also the chance the escape took place over many months, perhaps even as early as last fall, or more likely through this past winter. In that case, officials worry that walleye and other predators may have had a feast on the young steelhead.

At this point, it's not known what the loss will mean monetarily for the state. Officials plan to change up their equipment and perform more frequent checks to avoid such a problem from happening again. Either way, it's unfortunate news for Washington steelhead anglers, who have had some rough seasons the last few years.

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