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October 20, 2006, Columbia Basin Bulletin

A pilot study aimed at determining the origins of ocean-caught chinook salmon proved successful this summer, raising hopes for the eventual implementation of in-season management protocols.


Much of Oregon's offshore commercial fishing has been closed or restricted this summer to protect weakened runs of fish from the Klamath River basin. But the study by Oregon State University researchers -- done in cooperation with Oregon commercial fishermen and the Oregon Salmon Commission -- showed that it is possible to determine within 24 to 48 hours the origins of ocean-caught fish.


The next step of the research, the scientists say, is to broaden the study to see if fish from different river systems mingle in the ocean, or migrate separately as groups.


"The conclusions reached through genetic testing were consistent with the results from traditional coded wire tags we found in some of the hatchery fish," said Gil Sylvia, director of OSU's Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station. "What is remarkable is that the genetic testing has such a rapid turnaround time; instead of waiting for weeks or months, you get the results right away. And it works for wild fish, not just hatchery fish."


In their study, the OSU scientists found that about 5 percent of the fish caught off the Oregon coast originated from the Klamath basin. About two of every three fish caught during the research -- which included testing in June, July, August and September -- came from California. Most of the others were from Oregon's rivers, primarily the Columbia and its tributaries, with the exception of a small percentage of fish from British Columbia and Alaska.


The preliminary research findings underscore the importance of broadening the study to include Washington and California, the researchers point out. During a September meeting in Portland, the National Marine Fisheries Service labs in both those states agreed to work with OSU and other researchers from Oregon on a joint proposal to expand the research effort.


"One of the things we're all interested in learning is how the distribution of fish is related to oceanographic data," said Michael Banks, an OSU salmon geneticist and lead scientist on the study. "The fishermen are fascinated by the potential of the data, but for them to provide that data requires them to stop, and drop instruments to monitor those conditions, and check their (global positioning system) unit.


"It isn't the most convenient approach," Banks added. "By the end of the summer, though, we tested a glider from colleagues at OSU's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and it followed the fishermen and recorded all of the data we needed. It was really slick."


During the research, the OSU scientists tested more than 1,500 salmon caught off the Oregon coast and compared their genetic sequencing with that in a NOAA database of unique genetic signatures of fish from 200 river basins from California to Alaska. Klamath fish are genetically more distinct and can be identified 98 percent of the time.


But simply determining whether a fish caught in the ocean is a Klamath fish, or from some other river, won't change management decisions unless more data pinpoints how the fish congregate and travel.


"We have one working hypothesis that Klamath fish tend to be further offshore than fish from most of the other river systems," Sylvia said, "but we don't have any firm data to back that up. It is the kind of hypothesis that would be valuable to test. This year we determined that the genetic testing protocols worked. The next step is to see if we can determine whether certain fish are more likely to be found farther north or south, near shore or offshore, and at what time of year.


"It's a big project," Sylvia said, "that may require 150 fishing vessels in California, another 100 in Oregon, and a few more in Washington. It is not trivial. But there is real potential here for real-time management, and the fishing community would like to make this happen."


This summer's research was funded by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and managed by the Oregon Salmon Commission. About 50 Oregon commercial vessels have thus far made nearly 200 fishing trips as part of the study, and supplied the scientists with more than 1,500 tissue samples and other data.


The OSU researchers also are keeping track of the salmon through an onboard electronic traceability system developed by the university over the past several years. This innovative "barcode" system allows commercial fishermen to log the location, date and time of the capture, as well as onboard handling techniques, for every fish captured.


Eventually, such a tool may play a major role in marketing, according to Michael Morrissey, director of the OSU Seafood Laboratory in Astoria, and a principal investigator in the CROOS project.


"By identifying the river system through genetics, and being able to accurately label a fish as 'wild,' the potential exists for fishermen to brand their product and increase the value to consumers," Morrissey said. "One such example is Copper River salmon, which often command twice the market price of similar fish, because of the attributes attached to it."


More information on this project is available at www.projectCROOS.com

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