Steelhead Genetics Project - First Findings


For those of you not aware, the Steelhead Genetics Project (SGP) is a cooperative research project between anglers and the Department of Natural Resources. This project relies in great part on volunteer angler participation to facilitate DNA sample collections. Through a special collection permit granted by the DNR, trained anglers carefully remove scales from presumed wild steelhead, and these samples are then submitted for genetic analysis. The hope for SGP is that it will provide critical information needs to advance rehabilitation efforts for Steelhead in the Minnesota waters of Lake Superior.
This project is evolving, but initial objectives were as follows:
  • Evaluate hybridization between hatchery-raised Kamloops Rainbow Trout and naturalized (wild) Steelhead
  • Examine the utility of genetics to identify adult Steelhead that were stocked as fry and determine their contributions to the adult catch in the North Shore spring fishery 
  • Determine strain composition, genetic variation and structure of wild Rainbow Trout among North Shore Rivers using genetic markers

To this end, a list of sample rivers was developed which covers the entire north shore geographically. Scale samples submitted by each volunteer angler permit holder are individually tagged and marked with other information such as date collected, river location and sex. Where sample size is limited or deficient by location, follow-up surveys are conducted by the DNR using electro-fishing methods to collect additional samples.

Following cataloging of the samples at the Duluth Fisheries Office, each collection packet is sent to the genetics laboratories in St. Paul for testing and analysis.

On Saturday, March 18th 2017, the initial results from the first year of the SGP were released by DNR Migratory Fish Specialist Nick Peterson at the Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo. 

Minnesota Steelheader is here summarizing some of those initial findings from year 1 of the program. We are reserving comment at this time with the following notable exceptions:

1. We strongly encourage each and every one of you reading this post to first gain some historical perspective as well as necessary factual information by reading all of the technical papers located at the bottom of the SGP page in their entirety. Those research papers can be found Here:

SGP Relevant Steelhead Genetics Papers, Studies and Articles

2. The following results are what they are. We caution against a rush to judgement, there are even more critical information needs now going forward than ever before, and we cannot stress enough the importance of continuing with the SGP

SGP Year 1 History and Findings Summary
  • Kamloops have been stocked in Minnesota waters since the early 1970’s
    • Kamloops were originally stocked to provide a creel fishery while attempting to reduce potential negative impact on steelhead during population recovery
    • Limiting the geographic range of stocking was incorporated into the Kamloops program as a way to reduce the potential for genetic introgression (introduction of Kamloops genes into steelhead)
    • There has always been recognition that the potential for hybridization exists
  • Naturally-produced "pure" Kamloops juveniles and adults exist shore-wide
    • Naturally-produced pure adults were sampled in 4 rivers and in Lake Superior
    • Naturally-produced pure juveniles were sampled in 5 rivers
    • Naturalized pure/wild Kamloops are not distinguishable from Steelhead
  • Hybridization is occurring
    • The majority of fish sampled came back as pure steelhead >80%
    • These hybridized fish, "Steelloops" are not distinguishable from Steelhead
    • Gamete wastage (a negative reduction in reproductive/breeding success due to incompatibilities between steelhead and kamloops eggs and sperm) is a concern

Next Steps Year 2
  • Continue the Steelhead Genetics Project in 2017
    • Angler participation is critical
    • Increasing the sample size of adult fish, particularly at small rivers is critical
    • Additional study goals and objectives have been developed, more are being determined
  • Test all French River wild adults before using eggs to preclude hybrid or pure Kamloops from potential steelhead stocking
     We are just scratching the surface of what we can learn from scale sampling genetic research, and it is critical that this cooperative effort continues over the next several years. The SGP Project could not and can not be accomplished without the collaborative efforts of the DNR and volunteer anglers, so thank you to all who have participated. If you plan to continue as a volunteer sample collector, please be sure to contact Nick Peterson (info below) as the collection permit is required to be renewed on an annual basis. And please note, we greatly appreciate your continued participation as we move into year 2 of the project!  

Nick Peterson: Migratory Fish Specialist, MN DNR  |  218-302-3264

    As an organization, Minnesota Steelheader will continue to work closely with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to further promote and advance the development of the project. 


Anonymous said…
Looks like I will be taking my loopers home with me from now on.

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