BONNERS FERRY — Just a tiny fish, barely six months old. A tiny burbot, resting in the net and hands of the little girl, her eyes wide as she gently releases the youngster into the waters of the Kootenai River.
As that tiny burbot swims away, it carries with it the hope and dreams of the people of the Kootenai Tribe, a people whose lives have been intertwined with the burbot long into the past. But it also carries the hopes of the future for the little girl releasing it. A tiny piece of her heart, her future, swims away with the baby burbot.
On Thursday, Aug. 16, about 3,300 young burbot were released into the Kootenai River by the Kootenai Tribe and the public was invited to attend. The first release happened in 2009, and over the following years, rapid strides have been made in rearing the young fish and working toward the ultimate goal of producing enough numbers to reestablish a self-sustaining population in the river, with Burbot Specialist for the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, Nathan Jensen, at the helm.
A once thriving population of burbot, a species of true freshwater cod native to Idaho, swam the waters of the Kootenai River. The Kootenai Tribe harvested the burbot for generations, relying on them during the winter months. The fish were eaten, smoked, and traded. In later years, the burbot were so rich in the waters that the river supported a commercial fishery.
“The dam went in, the river was altered, and the floodplains were drained. When the dam came online, shortly thereafter is when the population really began to decline, and that is where this whole generation gap began,” explained Jensen. “Kids today, here at the public release, a lot of these people have never seen a burbot before or don’t even know what they are, but they have heard their grandparents talk about them.”
Jensen looked out at the young children carefully dipping young burbot from the buckets and releasing them into the Kootenai, eyes bright.
“It is really cool that we are able to put them in the hands of the kids today; put it back out there for the public to begin to understand them again, and hopefully be able to harvest them again because they are a good food fish,” said Jensen.
Jensen graduated from the University of Idaho with his master’s degree in 2006.
“I was there at a time when the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho was interested in researching burbot aquaculture, to see if it was even possible to do in captivity. That is where I came in,” said Jensen. “I had a skill set. I came from the college in southern Idaho where I studied aquaculture and fish farming. I just happened to be in the fisheries resource program.”
Jensen had the opportunity to show the Kootenai Tribe that he could raise burbot in captivity. Once that was accomplished — along with a conservation strategy also formed about that time — the tribe funded a graduate student project, which Jensen took on, to develop aquaculture techniques.
“We looked at cryopreservation, and we looked at egg incubation, and we looked at live feed production, and larva culture, and then just juvenile grow out,” explained Jensen. “Those different components to their life cycle, which we still focus on, but those early days we were just developing the techniques at the University of Idaho at the aquaculture research institute.”
Through hard work and perseverance, they were able to develop the techniques to reliably spawn and raise the young burbot. Combining that with the conservation strategy and habitat projects, has led them to great success in their attempts to revitalize the population. At this time the annual production goal each year is 125,000 burbot released. With an estimated mortality rate of up to 90 percent in the first year, the high numbers are very important to the ultimate survival and rebuilding of the population.
“Back calculating on that initial 125,000 number, it’s believed that the historic population had about 17,000 mature adults,” explained Jensen. “So that is what we are hoping to arrive at, maintain and sustain, so hopefully we will see some natural reproduction in the years to come.”
Rebuilding a population that has been so badly decimated takes much more than just raising and releasing fish. For a population to thrive, it is essential that a genetic bottleneck does not occur. A genetic bottleneck can reduce the variation in the gene pool of a population. Because of that loss of genetic variation, the population can suffer a reduced ability to adapt to, and survive environmental changes, such as climate change or a shift in available resources.
“The genetic integrity of our year class is extremely important,” explained Jensen.
In January each year, the Kootenai Tribe and Idaho Fish and Game go out onto the Kootenai River and capture adult burbot and bring them back to the hatchery. They allow the adults to spawn in the hatchery, keep the eggs, and then release the adults back into the river. In February, they travel up to Moyie Lake in British Columbia and capture adult burbot with hook and line, or nets, at their native spawning grounds. They then spawn the fish on the ice before releasing them, then transport the eggs down to the hatchery.
“So we actually have two brood sources,” explained Jensen. “Eventually we want to wean ourselves off of that population. We have actually captured all of the genetic variability that we feel we need from that population in British Columbia. The genetics are already in the river system based on what we have done for the last 14 or 15 years.”
“I can count on one hand the amount of adults that we have reused over the last 10 years, so we really strive for genetic diversity, and getting as much genetic diversity out of that founder population as possible, to rebuild this population,” Jensen continued. “Just now we have come to a point where we believe we have actually captured the genetic diversity from that location and established it here in the river system. It is a huge milestone.”
The hope is that they will eventually start to see natural reproduction, as the burbot are a valuable species for the whole ecosystem. They have already made great strides. The adults brought into the hatchery are able to spawn naturally now.
“We feel it is more of a natural way to let the adults decide themselves who wants to spawn with who, and then we capture those eggs,” said Jensen. “We still track everything genetically. We know who spawned with who, and we actually track that all through the production cycle. Those specific family groups will go into specific locations in the river.”
“We hope that we can produce enough numbers to reestablish a self-sustaining population in the river, that could be harvested, and be available for tribal harvest,” said Jensen. “Actually, it is available now for tribal harvest but they choose not to. Essentially, there has been an entire generation that has not been able to fish for burbot in Kootenai system.”
“This is a conservation aquaculture program, not a food fish program,” Jensen explained. “We are literally rebuilding a wild population using hatchery techniques.”
The importance of this program is so much more than just repopulating a fish species. It is about putting back something that was lost. It is about the love of the land and its natural resources. The Kootenai Tribe has dedicated itself to protecting and preserving the native species, and in doing so, it breaking ground scientifically.
“It is really exciting,” said Jensen with a smile. “It is still new, cutting edge. For me, it is really exciting to see it happen. When I think of all the sleepless nights I had early on, when we didn’t know how to raise these fish, and now with those techniques developed, we’re constantly trying build in more and more efficiencies.”
“Now that we are able to reliably produce them,” said Jensen, “we are now starting to step back and watch the fish … and learn from them.”
So as the children gather at the water’s edge, asking questions, and releasing tiny fish one at a time into the Kootenai River, they are taking part in something historical. Someday they may even catch a burbot from the river with their own children or grandchildren — and they will know that they had a tiny hand in making that possible.