Genetic Testing Promises
by Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
GOLD BEACH, Ore. -- The last time Scott Boley came home from salmon fishing, he had only 17 fish to show for three days of work.
"That's pretty skimpy fishing," said Boley, the skipper of the salmon troller Frances, a partner in the Fishermen Direct Seafood market here, and a veteran of six years on the federal panel that sets ocean salmon fishing seasons.
But Boley hopes these fish and the barcodes tied to the jaw of each one represent a better future for Oregon and California salmon fishermen, who are struggling to make a living after seeing their overall catch cut by nearly 90 percent this summer to protect struggling returns of wild chinook to California's Klamath River.
As part of a pilot program funded by $586,391 from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Boley and dozens of other Oregon salmon trollers are clipping a tiny piece of pectoral fin from each fish they catch, and sending it to the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore., for DNA testing that shows within 48 hours what river basin it came from.
Using a Global Positioning System receiver, they are logging into a computer the latitude and longitude of each fish they catch, plus their name, the date, the water temperature and the depth at which the fish was caught.
Then they tie onto each fish a metal tag carrying a barcode, which can be used in the future to tap into that information on a special Web site.
Within the next three years, scientists and fishermen up and down the West Coast hope that this fast turnaround on genetic testing and unprecedented detail on where salmon swim in the ocean will give fisheries managers the information they need to keep the commercial salmon fleet fishing while still protecting struggling runs like the wild chinook from the Klamath River.
Canada is already using overnight genetic testing to increase the harvest of salmon off the coast of northern British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands while protecting weak stocks on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
For the past four years, test boats from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans have gone out the week before the season opens to check the DNA of the fish they catch. If too many fish from weak stocks show up, fishermen have to wait or go somewhere else. During the season, fish landed on shore are checked to make sure not too many weak stocks are being taken.
"DNA-based stock identification has really changed the way the fisheries are managed and assessed in British Columbia in the last five years," said Terry Beacham, research scientist with the department's Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C. "That increased information allows managers greater opportunity to have fisheries conducted in such a way to provide conservation of stocks of conservation concern and at the same time allow fisheries to proceed."
The results have been dramatic.
Able to tap 90 percent of the quota for the Queen Charlottes instead of 30 percent, fishermen are landing an extra $17 million worth of salmon a year, Beacham said. Meanwhile, the harm to the weak stocks from Vancouver Island is less.
The Oregon program grew out of research Oregon State University salmon geneticist Michael Banks started in 1994 to distinguish the endangered winter run of chinook from California's Sacramento River from other runs. In recent years, a network of 10 labs has developed a salmon genetic database that covers 120 watersheds from Alaska to California.
Using 13 different genetic markers on the salmon genome, known as microsatellites, researchers can spot the native river basin of an individual fish with 95 percent certainty, Banks said. Using 16 microsatellites, they can distinguish between the winter, spring and fall runs of chinook from California's Sacramento River.
Testing of fish caught off Newport in June showed they came from rivers from British Columbia to California, with more than half from California's Sacramento River, and very few from the Klamath, said Banks. By the end of salmon fishing this fall, he hopes to sample 2,000 fish.
John Carlos Garza, a research geneticist at the NOAA Fisheries laboratory in Santa Cruz, Calif., has tested about 1,000 fish brought to port in Monterey Bay by sport fishermen, but has not been getting the exact location where each fish was caught. He sees great potential for managers being able to close down fishing when too many Klamath fish are being caught, and open other areas where they are not present.
"It's a really promising technique, although it's logistically challenging," he said.
Garza said the DNA testing is better than the current program of injecting a tiny piece of coded wire into the noses of fish spawned in hatcheries to tell where they came from. The DNA testing produces results in a matter of hours, while the coded wire tags take months to analyze. And coded wire tags cover only a small percentage of hatchery fish, while DNA testing covers wild fish, which are the ones of most concern.
All this is a long way from the way it was 31 years ago when Newport salmon fisherman Jeff Feldner started out.
Back then, the only electronics on his boat was a transistor radio he could use to check the direction of a radio station on shore. Now he is coordinating sophisticated data collection by fishermen using GPS units and computers.
"There was initially some skepticism over whether or not this was going to help in the long run," said Feldner. "But the fact of it is, it's been quite a few years since this has just been a free-range totally free-volition, go-where-you-want type of occupation. There probably isn't a fishery in the world as closely regulated as the salmon fishery off this coast."
Beyond the scientific and management applications, Gil Sylvia, superintendent of the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station in Newport, hopes that the genetic testing and barcodes will boost marketing opportunities for fishermen, and guard against farm-raised salmon being sold as wild-caught salmon.
"Say you are a restaurant in Chicago that buys a fish," said Sylvia. "You can go to a Web site, type in the barcode, and see just who caught the fish, where on the ocean it was caught, what river it came from, the fisherman who caught it. The fishermen themselves may have Web sites.
"This is pretty exciting."
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