North Shore Steelhead need your help

Anglers needed to gather scale samples from steelhead in 2017; and to harvest kamloops to reduce disastrous hybridization

For the past two decades DNR has been playing a dangerous game of roulette with our North Shore steelhead fishery.  Despite numerous studies indicating that stocking domesticated hatchery strain “kamloops” rainbows would likely interfere with steelhead reproduction and recovery, the agency has run an artificial put-and-take program using these domesticated fish.  Until last year the DNR lacked sophisticated genetic testing tools which could prove whether the kamloops which anglers observed spawning in steelhead rivers were in fact interfering with steelhead reproduction and producing viable hybrids.  At the urging of Minnesota Trout Unlimited, Mn Steelheader and others, the DNR began using new, more sophisticated genetic testing in 2016. 

The Steelhead Genetics Project was launched beginning with the spring 2016 steelhead run.  The program used volunteer anglers to collect tissue (scale) samples from steelhead adults which they caught in North Shore rivers.  Results from genetic analysis of first year samples were unveiled at the Great Waters Expo on March 18, 2017 and sent tremors through the steelheading and conservation communities.  Frist year genetic test results showed that:

  • domesticated hatchery strain “kamloops” are spawning with steelhead in the wild
  • despite being far less fit, some hybrids survive to adulthood and return to spawn with wild steelhead
  • hybridization by kamloops is occurring in most steelhead rivers from Duluth to the Canadian border, and is heaviest in rivers nearer Duluth
  • naturally reproduced “pure” kamloops were even found in several rivers

Earlier research determined that Frankenloops (kamloops-steelhead) hybrids produce only one-half as many juveniles as wild steelhead.  Consider for a minute the downward population spiral this will lead to.  While the results are alarming, they are not surprising to MNTU.  For two decades MNTU has been urging DNR to phase out this dangerous put-and-take stocking program precisely because a host of scientific studies and our field observations suggested hybridization was inevitably occurring. 

Take heart – It is not too late to save our steelhead.  Fish geneticist, Dr. Loren Miller, confirmed that it is not too late to stop and reverse the impacts of hybridization by domesticated kamloops and fully recover the wild steelhead fishery, so long as the dangerous kamloops stocking program ceases.  Here are ways that you can help save and restore our wild steelhead:

1.  Participate in the steelhead genetics study this spring. 

The DNR needs far more samples from anglers this spring.  Information will help DNR identify the strain composition, genetic variation and structure of each river’s steelhead population as well as its interaction with populations up and down the Shore.  It will also help determine how effective steelhead fry stocking might be to boost the steelhead fishery.  This is a fun and rewarding endeavor.  You need a special permit and supplies to gather the samples.  We strongly recommend you use a net and keep the steelhead’s head in the water at all times.  The DNR will provide the permit, instructions and sample envelopes.  Please contact the DNR’s Nick Peterson at 218-302-3272 or nick.peterson@state.mn.us

2.  Keep the kamloops you catch

While many of us embrace catch and release as a great tool to ensure reproduction of wild, self-sustaining fisheries, in this case harvesting domesticated hatchery fish which are interfering wild steelhead reproduction is the right thing to do.  Whenever kamloops enter steelhead rivers they are a clear and present danger to steelhead reproduction and long term sustainability of this uniquely adapted wild fishery.  This artificial put-grow-take hatchery program is maintained for one reason only, to provide anglers a ready harvest opportunity.  Please seize this opportunity and help protect our steelhead in the process.  The DNR’s intention and hope is that kamloops will not stray from the two rivers (Lester and French) where they are stocked.  We now have proof that kamloops are straying into steelhead rivers east of French River, spawning with wild steelhead, hybridizing with them and reducing the strength and size of the steelhead population.  Everyone can help reduce the negative impacts of kamloops on the wild steelhead fishery by removing kamloops.

3.  Urge DNR to stop stocking kamloops in Lake Superior and its tributaries

Minnesota’s steelhead originated from modest stockings on the Canadian shore in the late 1800s.  More than 20 generations of wild steelhead have survived and even thrived under the harsh conditions found in North Shore rivers.  These resilient wild fish have produced a self-sustaining fishery uniquely adapted to Minnesota’s North Shore, which provides high quality angling.  We now have hard proof that the dead end, put-and-take hatchery program is damaging steelhead populations and threatening to destroy them through hybridization.  Given the new information the only responsible course of action is for DNR to immediately cease stocking any more kamloops into Lake Superior or its tributaries.   Call or e mail DNR with a simple message: immediately cease the kamloops stocking program.

The final decision will get made in St. Paul, so consider directing your message there:

DNR Fisheries Chief Don Pereira

email: don.pereira@state.mn.us

telephone: (651) 259-5231

DNR St. Paul Toll Free: 888-646-6367