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Salmon, Science and Sustainability

posted on April 4, 2008

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The Agriculture Department released its annual Prospective Planting report this week estimating U.S. growers will plant 11 million more acres of soybeans and 7.6 million fewer acres of corn. The announcement pushed nearby corn futures prices past $6.00 per bushel. And many producers are finding there is great incentive to get this year's crop in the ground.

But as optimism grows in the "Corn Belt," harvesters of a different commodity are anything but confident.

The past three years, the commercial salmon fishing season has been cut as much as 90 percent, primarily due to dismal salmon runs on the Klamath River. This weekend, the Pacific Fishery Management Council meets in San Francisco to consider shutting down the entire sport and commercial salmon fishing seasons on the entire west coast for the first time in history.

And with fewer fish being harvested, the industry now is hoping the science of DNA will yield sustainable salmon. Jeannie Campbell explains.

Mark Newell, Newport, Oregon: "Last year was terrible, it was disaster, some guys lost their boats and couldn't make their payments and mostly because of the Klamath River situation. Poor returns in the Klamath River because of drought and water diversions."

Mark Newell is a commercial fisherman and wholesale buyer. With an expanded season in 2007, Newell and other salmon fishermen were hoping that they would catch more fish. But they're reporting the salmon are even harder to find this year.

Gil Silvia. Superintendent Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station: "The salmon industry over the last 30 years has been under a significant challenge. If you look at the harvest levels from 30 years ago, they were harvesting probably close to 30 million pounds, today they're harvesting about 7-8 million pounds. So that's a dramatic decrease."

Gill Silvia is the Superintendent of the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station in Newport, Oregon and a marine resource economist. He and other scientists are looking for ways to protect salmon while increasing the amount of fish caught.

Renee Bellinger, Research Assistant. Hatfield Marine Science Center: "They just place a piece of fin on the paper and they put some scales in there as well."

Those tissue samples, taken by fishermen from fish they caught, are allowing scientists to use DNA in hopes of increasing wild salmon populations. The project, known as CROOS, or Collaborative Research on Oregon Ocean Salmon, is an experiment that is in its second year.

Michael Banks, Project CROOS Geneticist: "In the past, we always relied on something called a coded wire tag. That we put in the heads of hatchery fish as we released them."


Michael Banks runs the genetics lab for project CROOS.

Michael Banks, Project CROOS Geneticist: "Many of these stocks are actually wild spawning and, and couldn't be tagged in that way. But these genetic tags are present in all, all fish because all fish have DNA, and so we now have an ability to pick up any fish from anywhere and make estimations about where it came from."

Information such as where, when and how deep each fish was when caught, is recorded and put into a database. Last year 72 fishermen took part in the project and over 4,300 salmon were catalogued.

Renee Bellinger, Research Assistant. Hatfield Marine Science Center: "The fishermen could use these data as a tool for them to be able to fish better. And they will be able to see where their fish originated from."


Scientists hope this information will help them to protect salmon that came from a river with a stressed population, from being fished. Instead fisherman could pursue salmon from rivers with populations that are not in peril.

Another aspect of the CROOS program is aimed at adding value to harvested fish by sharing information regarding the catch.

Gil Silvia. Superintendent Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station: "For example, there may be a unique run of, let's say a run of fish from the Rogue River and we can identify 50 salmon that are being sold in the marketplace that are from the Rogue River. That

may carry a certain value to certain buyers. Maybe, for example, they're trying to match it with a wine that is produced in the Rogue River. But what we think is of value isn't necessarily with knowing the exact identification of every fish. Where we think the greater value, is to know that they're managing and doing the science in a way that is going to be sustainable."

The science of how to protect salmon as a sustainable resource however doesn't begin in the ocean. Many believe that the key to improving salmon populations lies in the rivers where they spawn.

Charlie Corrarino, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife: "Really the only one common thing that hatchery fish and wild fish have is water."

Charlie Corrarino is the Conservation and Recovery Program Manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Today, more than 70% of Oregon's salmon begin their life in a hatchery, but there is evidence that hatchery fish have had a negative impact on salmon in the wild.

Charlie Corrarino, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife: "But at the same time we also realize the importance and the value of hatcheries, and that's kind of brings full circle about why we have the hatchery research center here in Oregon and that is to try to understand differences that may exist between the hatchery fish and the wild fish."

The heart of the research center is four identical man made streams. Scientists can control various characteristics of each stream to study what impact different changes might have on the salmon in each stream. It allows scientist to study not only how environmental changes affect salmon but also why some salmon do better in adverse situations. David Noakes is the Director of the research center.

David Noakes, Alsea Hatchery Research Center: "We're doing things looking at development of the brain structure for example, and comparing that to the percentage and saying ya know, are certain parents more likely to produce young that it will feed on certain kinds of organisms that will do better in certain kinds of habitat. It's the kind of thing that you wouldn't have thought about a few years ago, but we can do that now."

There are nearly as many solutions as there are pieces to the puzzle of why salmon populations are dwindling. According to Nancy Fitzpatrick of the Oregon Salmon Commission, the puzzle must be solved if Oregon's salmon industry is to survive.

Nancy Fitzpatrick, Oregon Salmon Commission: "We're harvesting not land product we're harvesting ocean product, and we want to sustain the product as best as we can. We don't want to fish to the last fish, we want to make sure that there's more for the rest of us to continue fishing and for other generations to continue fishing."

For Market to Market, I'm Jeannie Campbell.


Tags: agriculture Energy/Environment fish harvest marine life news Oregon salmon science scientists