Hatching Answers to Long-Held Questionsby Mitch Lies
Capital Press, November 26, 2004
ALSEA, Ore. -- After more than 30 years of looking for answers, a leading Oregon fish biologist believes it’s now only a matter of time before scientists understand the complex relationship between wild and hatchery salmon.
Key to the newfound optimism surfacing in Mario Solazzi, a research project leader for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, is a state-of-the-art hatchery research center under construction in the Oregon Coast Range.
The center, Solazzi said, will help scientists understand if genetics dictate differences in behavior between wild and hatchery fish or if it is possible to remove those differences by altering hatchery environments. The center also could help scientists improve survival rates of hatchery fish.
“I’ve been with the department for 30 years, and when I started, hatchery and wild issues were an issue. Thirty years later, they are still an issue,” Solazzi said. “Part of the reason is we’re not set up to do the experiments that will provide us with answers.”
One key to unearthing answers to questions over genetic differences in the fish is the ability to conduct experiments in controlled environments. By holding the environmental constant, scientists can discover genetic differences or similarities, Solazzi said.
Scientists may find that hatchery fish take on characteristics of wild stock by mimicking wild conditions in hatcheries – a finding that could result in the use of hatchery fish to replenish wild stocks. Or suspicions that hatchery fish will always lower survival rates of wild stock when interbreeding may prove true.
“There are a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Solazzi said.
The center, a $7 million research facility funded in large part by grants from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, will be operated by Oregon State University and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The facility includes raceways, which are 250-foot-long, 25-foot-wide segregated pools designed for experimental purposes, and hatchery rearing pools, which are designed to operate as a production hatchery for winter steelhead harvest. The raceways and rearing pools will be filled with water from the Alsea River.
If nothing else, Solazzi said, the facility will provide an opportunity for scientists to determine if they can improve survival rates of hatchery fish by mimicking wild conditions in the rearing pools.
Among experiments on the horizon, scientists are expected to introduce predators into rearing pools and alter feeding practices. Scientists also could introduce flooding just before releasing fish to improve a smolt’s ability to survive in fast water.
The center was proposed by ODFW Director Lindsay Ball prior to the 2003 legislative session and was given a green light by Gov. Ted Kulongoski.
“The governor said: ‘If I don’t give my agency directors the tools to do their jobs, this will never get resolved,’” Solazzi said.
The Oregon Legislature approved funding for the center in the 2003 session.
The center is expected to be operational by July 1 of next year. It is being built on the site of the old Alsea River fish hatchery. It will include a 12,000-square-foot main hatchery center, with an upstairs living area for visiting scientists and three houses to accommodate a full-time staff. The state also plans to build interpretive trails at the center for educational outreach.
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