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Proposed research project could change coast fisheries management
By Joel Gallob Of the News-Times 6/30/06

One of the projects being funded in the state's effort to aid displaced commercial salmon fishers holds the potential to not only help becalmed salmon trollers but also do a whole lot more. A research project that will create a database detailing which parts of the ocean are used by different salmon from different rivers, streams and hatcheries could become the basis for "a new era in fisheries management and fish marketing," says Gil Sylvia, Superintendent of the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiments Station (COMES) in Newport.

That is not the present goal of the pilot project funded last week by the legislative Emergency Board, Sylvia notes, and COMES made it clear to the E-board it understands this funding reality. For the present, Sylvia and others with the research project aim to aid displaced salmon fishers and utilize their skills and knowledge of the ocean to benefit science and fisheries management while doing so.

But over the long haul, the research project - which involves scientists and fishermen in cutting-edge genetics research, bar-coding of salmon, and the potential for "near-real-time management of fisheries" - represents a potential revolution in how coastal fisheries are managed and their fish marketed.

And that applies off the entire West Coast, from Alaska through British Columbia, down to southern California.

Currently, scientists seek to track salmon by clipping the fins of hatchery-born fish and/or inserting a thin data-bearing wire into the lip of the fish. Once caught, those devices can provide scientists with data about fish migrations. But that works only for hatchery fish, and the amount of data produced is limited.

By using DNA sampling, genetic testing and the study of salmon otoliths (ear bones), Sylvia and his crew of scientists, graduate students and fishermen hope to take fisheries management into a new, more flexible era.

The project began, Sylvia said, when Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked scientists at Oregon State University last year if there was a way researchers could help with the problems of the Klamath River Chinook. Low abundances among those salmon prompted this year's virtual commercial salmon season closure on 700 miles of Oregon and California coast. COMES, Sylvia said, quickly got back to Wyden with the idea of genetic sampling and tracking salmon for scientific, management and marketing purposes.

Various research involved

Several kinds of research are involved, with several potential benefits.

The central concept was to find a way to track salmon over time as they make their way through the ocean. Two kinds of data are needed for this: one set that tells where the fish came from, the other that tells where they were caught and the ocean conditions at that time and place.

With 10,000 fish likely to be caught and tagged in the pilot project, and 2,000 of them analyzed, the scientists at COMES hope to gain insights into where fish from different streams travel and feed, and whether they mix or stay with others from their parent stream.

That, in turn, might let future regulators close fishing only along a certain path or location in the ocean.

COMES is working with fishermen who will be going out in the current limited season. On-board data loggers, or log books, will be used to record the depth at which a given fish was caught and the temperature at that depth, the ocean salinity and ocean conditions.

But that's only the beginning of the data base to be created.

Samples from fish scales, and/or from their otoliths, can tell a lot about the fish, specifically, what genetic subdivision an individual comes from. With several years of DNA data now accumulated from the sampling of fish in streams and hatcheries, scientists can fingerprint which stream a fish caught at sea came from.

Also, there are oxygen isotopes - atomically different forms of a given element - that show up in different quantities in the otolith of fish from different streams.

Further, the otoliths grow like tree rings. The oldest, smallest rings, can tell scientists what stream a fish came from by their oxygen isotope levels; and later, younger rings can provide data on where the fish have been between their home stream and the site they were caught. All this requires a solid background database, but that database exists. With it, the scientists should be able to tell with a high level of certainty just what stream a given salmon calls home.

With enough salmon caught, patterns are likely to emerge, and this information could change fisheries management.

But questions remain. For one thing, it will take a lot of data and much study before researchers can reach high levels of certainty - not for individual fish but for whole runs and whole rivers. Initially, there will be questions of whether apparent patterns are true patterns or false signals that will wash away with new data.

Then there is the problem of changing ocean conditions. First, there is the several-years-long El Niño and La Nina cycles, and the longer-term pulse called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. On top of that there is the marine side to global climate change.

Yet one must start somewhere, and with the pilot program now funded, Sylvia hopes to get nine or ten months of fishing, working closely with coastal commercial fishermen, that will begin the process of building the ocean-side data sets needed.

Doing so will take more than one year, though. COMES continues to work with Wyden and the entire Oregon congressional delegation to seek federal funds for a three-year program, during which the data could really be built up.

Ultimately, Sylvia says, the information could lead not only to improved fisheries management, but to greatly increased added value in the fishing industry.

A fish could be shown to have come from one or another wild Oregon stream, and marketed as such. The fisherman who catches it would not only log data about the fish, but add a bar code on a wire tag. With that, the fish could be tracked and its origin and place of catch made known, from ship to seafood buyer to retail outlet to the dinner table. High-end buyers (for restaurants or for families at home) could buy the fish with a history of where it came from and where and when it was caught

A project like this - termed CROOS, for Cooperative Research on Oregon Ocean Salmon - is not accomplished by scientists only. The group working on this effort, he reports, includes several institutions - Oregon State University, the Oregon Salmon Commission, and Sea Grant - and several fishermen, including Scott Boley, Jeff Feldner, Mark Newell, Paul Heikkila, Blob Kemp, Palk Merz, as well as former fisherman and Lincoln County Commissioner Terry Thompson.

Heikkila, Feldner, Boley, Kemp and Merz, he adds, began work on the project as volunteers, well before the E-board learned of it, helping bring the effort to the point where the E-board would consider funding it. Graduate student Renee Bellinger "juggled several balls," Sylvia said, and Michael Thompson at Sea Grant and Jessica Miller at COMES both began designing protocols and analyzing samples for the project even before there really was a project.

Although cutting-edge, the effort is not unique. "British Columbia is doing this now," Sylvia reports, "though they're not using fishing boats. But they are doing daily genetic sampling." There, too, a key purpose is to enable more precise fish management. California is collecting similar data, but only on the sport fishing side.

Over the longer term, all their data bases may be linked, enabling a regional management regime attuned to localities and local needs.

"It's very exciting; it's a new era for fisheries science, fisheries management, and fish marketing," Sylvia says.

Joel Gallob is a reporter for the News-Times. He can be reached at 265-8571, ext. 223 or joel.gallob@lee.net




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