Scientists Team With Fishermen on Study of Ocean Salmon Migration

By Mark Floyd

A major research effort aimed at learning more about where salmon from specific river systems migrate in the Pacific Ocean will resume this year after a two-year hiatus – and expand to encompass the entire West Coast of the United States.

The research effort builds on a pioneering study by researchers at Oregon State University, who have worked for several years to streamline genetic testing of salmon. Their hope is to identify where in the ocean salmon from specific rivers travel so resource managers can still allow fishing while protecting depleted runs in the Sacramento and Klamath rivers, or other river systems.

This year, OSU researchers are working with colleagues in Washington and California – and with 200 West Coast commercial salmon fishermen – to collect tissue samples this summer from as many as 20,000 chinook salmon.

“That will triple the number of samples we’ve collected over the past four years, and provide a much clearer picture of how salmon from different rivers behave in the ocean,” said Gil Sylvia, superintendent of OSU’s Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station, and a principal investigator in the study.

“This is a great partnership between scientists and the fishing community,” Sylvia added. “The project is helping keep many of the fishermen on the water, and the data they contribute is leading to new insights about salmon migration and behavior. To my knowledge, there has never been a cooperative fishery project in the country this large using digital tools to record data within hours of completed trips.”

Participating fishermen will collectively receive $1 million in compensation from a variety of grants, contracts and disaster assistance funds.

The project has been shut down for the past two summers because the ocean was closed for most of that time to commercial salmon fishing. The re-opening of ocean salmon fishing coincides with an expansion of the research effort to include California and Washington. In the study, commercial salmon fishermen record data and clip fin samples that scientists will use for genetic testing.

As the fishermen catch salmon, they will log the time and location using global positioning system (GPS) technology and enter the data through the Pacific FishTrax website ( Sylvia said a new generation of data logging instruments will be tested this summer that ultimately will allow fishermen to send and record the data via satellite in “near real-time.”

Individual fish will have bar codes attached and when the fish are sold in local markets later, consumers can enter the bar code number in computer kiosks and learn when and where their fish were caught – and even learn about the fishermen who caught the fish.

The Pacific FishTrax traceability initiative was pilot tested in 2009 with albacore tuna last year at New Seasons markets in Portland with great success, Sylvia said.

“A lot of fishermen are pretty savvy and understand how marketing this kind of information really resonates with consumers,” Sylvia said. “You can envision as chef at a seafood restaurant, or a retailer at an upscale grocer telling the story of who caught this particular fish, and where it was caught.

“It’s a way of connecting people directly to the food they eat.”

The genetic testing of the fish is based on protocols developed in part through OSU researcher Michael Banks. In the first year of the project, he and his colleagues were able to match 2,100 salmon caught to their river of origin with 90 percent accuracy – just 24 hours after the fish was caught.

They also found some interesting patterns suggesting that fish from certain rivers – including Oregon’s Rogue River – moved in “pulses” through the ocean, or arrived early or late in fishery management zones. This kind of banding in the ocean could be critical to in-season management decisions, but needs to be validated through broader and more extended sampling.

“That’s what we hope to accomplish this year,” Sylvia said.