The way hatchery technician Gary Aitken, Jr. sees it, repopulating the endangered white sturgeon is the guiding mission of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho Sturgeon Hatchery.
Hatchery technicians Kevin James, Gary Aitken, Jason Feltham and Jack Siple (hatchery manager)
"This is the covenant we have with the Creator - to take care of the land and, in turn, the land will take care of us. We seek to live in harmony with the land."
Citing what he called "unprecedented cooperation" between the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Boundary County, Aitken said the past 10 years has witnessed a "new, vital direction" in the renovation of the Kootenai River and the revival of the sturgeon population to its former numbers.
When Libby Dam was built in 1974, he said white sturgeon in the Kootenai began to diminish due to ecosystem changes stemming from a food supply shortage. Building dikes and diversions also resulted in a loss of sturgeon spawning grounds, rearing areas and habitat.
The main facility of the hatchery is impressive. Reminiscent of a warehouse filled with the sound of continuously running water, it houses four 500-gallon tanks, an incubator and 15 troughs. A holding tank for heated, chilled and mixed-water fills the building to near capacity.
The hatchery has one of the best sturgeon survival rates, said Aitken, due to the hand-stripping method of egg gathering from the females. Unlike the method used by commercial hatcheries, which slits female sturgeons open and disposes of them, Tribal hatchery technicians push eggs out by hand, a process that enables the fish to return to the river unharmed.
"Every fish we can put back in the river is beneficial," said Aitken. "In our minds, these are wild fish; we just help them along."
Aitken estimated that more than 150,000 sturgeons have been raised in the hatchery and released back into the river since 1989.
In early February, six hatchery technicians capture twelve female sturgeons to use as breeding stock, which is cared for in monitored troughs until they are ready to release their eggs. Each female can release up to 30,000 eggs, which are then mixed with captured male milt. Technicians gently hand-mix the eggs, milt, water and a product called Fuller's Earth, with a feather for up to an hour until all eggs have been fertilized before transferred to an incubator.
Thousands of baby sturgeon are raised at the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho Sturgeon Hatchery.
Nine days later, tiny sturgeon larvae emerge. They are fed powdered food and kept in long troughs that are cleaned frequently. At about nine months old, each sturgeon is marked by removing a "scute" to identify the year it was spawned. A tiny personal identification tag is inserted under the skin for future tracking. As they grow, they are gradually moved into larger holding tanks. When the fish are two seasons old, they are transported to different drop-points along the river, such as the Twin Rivers area, Porthill, Copeland, the Search and Rescue dock and Deep Creek.
The Kootenai Sturgeon Hatchery program includes the Kokanee salmon restoration project, which Aitken said has seen a great deal of success in the goal to fill Westside tributaries from Myrtle Creek to Boundary Creek with Kokanee. Working with the Ministry of Fisheries of British Columbia - which provides the hatchery with fertilized Kokanee eggs - hatchery workers create artificial redds, a nest for salmon eggs underneath the water, in area creeks, where the fertilized eggs are planted.
Since it takes three to four years for the Kokanee to return to their hatching area to spawn, Aitken said the first return of the planted Kokanee was in 2007 from fish that were planted in 2004.
"We had a good survival rate," Aitken said. "It was a great success."
The most recent project the hatchery has undertaken is the burbot rescue program. Also called "Ling Cod" or "Leopard of the Kootenai," Aitken said the burbot is endangered but has not been officially entered on the endangered species list. Studies were conducted on how best to spawn the species at the hatchery and some preliminary hatching has taken place. Unlike the sturgeon, which take nine days to hatch, burbot eggs take fifty days to hatch. Aitken said that the program would begin in earnest during the winter.
The hatchery - which is financially-supported by the Bonneville Power Administration - also grows trout as bait for catching adult sturgeon and as a food supply for mature sturgeon. Additionally, it supplies trout for the Lion's Club Fishing Derby each June at the Snow Creek pond and plants extra trout in creeks around the county.
"We want the sturgeon to be so plentiful that eventually open-sport fishing will be allowed on the Kootenai River again," Aitken said. "I think the best case scenario is that in the future we will be pretty close to the way nature had it originally."