A successful pilot program launched last year that used genetics to determine the river origin of Chinook salmon caught off Oregon's central coast will begin its second season this month and expand to the entire coast off Oregon as well as to northern California waters.
The hope is to discover more about the distribution of salmon in the ocean so that fisheries managers can make in-season decisions and allow the harvest of healthy stocks while mitigating the harvest of weakened runs. The ultimate goal is to avoid shutting down the entire coastal fishery - as happened in 2006 to protect weakened runs from the Klamath River, say Oregon State University researchers who are leading the study.
'Every piece of the project that we experimented with last year worked,' said Gil Sylvia, director of OSU's Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station and a co-principal investigator on the project. 'We have the protocols down. We know we can identify with a high degree of certainty the origin of wild or hatchery fish caught offshore - and do it within roughly 24 hours. Now our goals are to learn whether Klamath stocks are aggregated within a specific area at a certain time, and whether there are differences in the catch composition close to shore and outside of six miles,' he added.
Dubbed Project CROOS (Collaborative Research on Oregon Ocean Salmon), the effort is a unique collaboration among scientists, commercial fishermen and fisheries managers. The 2006 pilot study was funded by a grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and coordinated by the Oregon Salmon Commission and researchers at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Centre in Newport.
During the field studies, 72 Oregon fishing vessels took part and provided 2,567 viable tissue samples from fresh-caught salmon to an OSU genetics laboratory in Newport, Ore. Of that total, OSU geneticists were able to assign a probability of 90 percent or more in determining river origin to 2,097 fish - meaning they could determine with a high degree of certainty the hatchery, river basin, or coastal region of origin of about four out of every five fish.
Confirmation for their protocol came from traditional research methods, pointed out Michael Banks, an OSU geneticist and co-principal investigator on the study.
'Thirty-one of the fish had coded wire tags attached, listing their hatchery of origin,' Banks said. 'We ran our genetic profile on the tissue samples without knowing what the coded wire tags said and correctly identified the hatchery of origin for all 31 fish. That's pretty good confirmation that the testing works.'
The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board has provided another grant, totalling $590,000, for the 2007 work, which will run from Astoria to Brookings encompassing all four of Oregon's offshore salmon regions. A portion of the grant will fund an expected 70-90 fishermen who will provide fins and other tissue samples to the OSU researchers, who hope to analyse more than 9,000 samples this year.
'The challenge is to figure out how to corral the fishermen into the right areas at the right time so that we can collect an estimated 1 percent sample of the stock at a given time,' Banks said. 'We're aiming for 200 samples every week, in all four regions.'
The National Marine Fisheries Service is providing another $400,000 to help offset costs of participating fishermen and the genetic testing of the samples at the OSU laboratory in Newport and in two NMFS laboratories. This funding will help support the new research in California, which is establishing its own pilot study this year based on the Oregon model.
During a four-week period beginning this week, the California Salmon Council hopes to collect about 1,600 tissue samples provided by 16 California fishermen who are working the waters north and south of Point Arena, according to David Goldenberg, CEO of the council.
'The goals are very similar to what Oregon is trying to accomplish with the Klamath River runs, but we're a year behind,' Goldenberg said. 'This is a pilot project for us, to get the kinks worked out, get the sampling procedures under our belts, and to hopefully secure federal funding for next year. We'd like to involve 100 to 150 boats next year. The other objective is to spread the word among the fleet that this research is not something to be afraid of,' Goldenberg added.
In Oregon, the fishing industry has gotten the message loud and clear and welcome the research, Sylvia said. Many of the fishermen are particularly interested in some of the oceanographic data the researchers gathered last year, using buoys and programmable undersea gliders to determine the ocean's temperature, salinity, chlorophyll level and dissolved oxygen content in the areas the fish were caught.
'I started fishing in 1970 and this is the most optimistic I've been about any kind of research relating to salmon,' said Paul Merz, one of the project's fisherman who fishes out of Charleston. 'I'm still a cynic when it comes to management decisions. But this is the science that has been missing in all of the policy arguments - and it's something where you can see the immediate results.'
Two other new initiatives will be part of Project CROOS in 2007, according to Sylvia. The OSU researchers will work with fishery managers to create a trial management simulation model for ocean salmon fishing.
'Before the science can realistically lead to new management protocols, we need to start thinking about the logistics of such a system,' Sylvia said. 'Right now, we don't even know all of the questions to ask. But if we start looking at such a management system - even in its roughest form - some of the challenges and opportunities will become clear.'
A second development will be the creation of a 24-hour website that will be part of the decision-making model. But it also will include a variety of data accessible to fishermen, and information about fresh-caught individual salmon that will be available to consumers.
'Think about going into a seafood market in Portland, or in New York City, for that matter, and buying a salmon caught off Oregon, and tracking down the day it was caught, the location, and the river of origin,' Sylvia said. 'Then you can click on another link and read about the fishing vessel that caught the salmon, and the crew that works the boat. Some of the fishermen are as excited about the marketing potential of the research as they are with the management potential,' he added.
The researchers hope to have the new website operational by late summer.