The secret lives of salmon: Groundbreaking genetic tests completed at seaFin clippings take about two days to process using the new technique, but the payoff is substantial for fisheries science, said Dick Beamish, organizer of an international salmon research expedition.
By RANDY SHORE, Vancouver Sun March 1, 2019
The science team aboard the Russian research vessel Kaganovsky has employed genetic analysis of West Coast salmon while at sea for the first time.
Biologist Christoph Deeg has linked salmon caught in a scientific test fishery to salmon stocks in the Stikine and Skeena river systems, and Puget Sound.
Fin clippings take about two days to process using the new technique, but the payoff is substantial for fisheries science, said Dick Beamish, organizer of an international salmon research expedition.
“Using the same methodology popular for human ancestry tests, we do this by comparing the genetic fingerprint of each fish to a baseline comprising genetic characterizations of hundreds of populations from rivers around the Pacific Rim,” according to a mission update from scientists aboard the ship.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada researcher Chrys Neville and Laurie Weitkamp, a biologist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, are on a five-week grid search of the Gulf of Alaska to study the winter range and health of Pacific salmon species. They’re joined by scientists from Canada, the U.S., Russia, Japan and South Korea.
The testing system is capable of an initial genetic analysis on coho and chinook salmon.
“Some of the questions the genetic data should answer are where each salmon came from, and whether the coho we’ve caught so far represent mixtures of stocks or largely come from a single population,” they wrote.
More detailed genetic tests will be conducted on hundreds if not thousands of salmon captured in about 50 one-hour test fisheries being conducted on a grid pattern across the open ocean
Early sets haven’t been as productive as anticipated, but the ship is now moving into waters that should produce bigger catches and more data.
But a recent set of the ship’s 40-metre trawl net produced six sockeye, six chum, two coho and one chinook, according to Neville.
“The chinook was large over four kilos,” wrote Neville in an email. “Laurie is wagering it is a Columbia River fish.”
“The sockeye were definitely (in their) first winter at sea, small, but not skinny like some of the fish we saw early on,” she wrote “A couple even had noticeable fat under their skin.”
The science team is taking samples of flesh and internal organs to detect the presence of disease, viruses and parasites, including nematodes and sea lice.
The stomach contents of the salmon will reveal the amount of prey the fish are able to consume during the lean winter months, and what the fish eat during their years in the open ocean, said retired fisheries scientist Dick Beamish.
Beamish conceived and organized the mission, including the charter of the vessel from the Russian government with $1.3 million he raised from government, B.C. salmon farmers and conservation organizations.
“Chinook and coho should be feeding on fish and they are finding lampfish in the stomachs of chinook, which means they are likely feeding in deep water,” said Beamish.
Pinks are known to feed on plankton, but they could be supplementing that with squid in the winter.
“Whatever we find in their stomachs, it will be new to us,” he said. “We really don’t know what they eat in the winter so that makes it incredibly interesting scientifically.”
Follow the expedition
The Vancouver Sun takes readers behind the scenes of a four-week expedition across the Gulf of Alaska as 19 scientists from Russia, Canada, the United States, Japan and South Korea probe the secret lives of five Pacific salmon species. This unprecedented international collaboration could revolutionize salmon science, fisheries management and even hatchery output as researchers uncover the mysteries of how salmon interact with each other and their environment between Haida Gwaii and the Aleutian Islands. Follow the series here.
SALMON BEYOND BORDERS is a campaign driven by sport and commercial fishermen, community leaders, tourism and recreation business owners and concerned citizens, in collaboration with Tribes and First Nations, united across the Alaska/British Columbia border to defend and sustain our transboundary rivers, jobs and way of life.
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