The Gene Scene
Researchers and fishermen discuss recording data to understand salmon behavior for Project CROOS.
//Photo by Gil Sylvia
There’s an easy way for Oregon’s commercial salmon fleet to help protect weak runs of salmon: Don’t catch them. But if they don’t know exactly which fish are struggling — and exactly where those fish are — the only way to do that is to not fish for salmon at all. That’s not much of an option for fishermen who make their living at sea.
But a unique project, led in part by researchers at Oregon State University and borne out of the collapse of Klamath River salmon stocks in 2005, has been collecting genetic information about salmon in the Pacific Ocean that can be used to identify weak stocks and guide fishermen toward healthier ones.
Called Project CROOS, Collaborative Research on Oregon Ocean Salmon, the project has so far involved more than 300 fishermen in Oregon — and several hundred more in Washington and California — as well as fishery managers and researchers. The fishermen take samples from the fish they catch, which the others then analyze and record in a searchable database. According to Gil Sylvia, director of OSU’s Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station, Project CROOS now has a database of more than 60,000 data points from an equal number of fish.
“Using this genetic information in real time, we can tell you how many fish a boat caught, when they caught each fish, where they caught it and at what depth,” Sylvia says. “It’s really a groundbreaking approach.”
The project is especially helpful because it could allow managers to close one particularly weak run of salmon and guide the fleet to other areas of the ocean. The technology also lends itself to marketing sustainable and locally caught wild salmon, which commands a premium from today’s consumers. Some of the technology from CROOS, developed by a Newport company called Advanced Research Corporation, has been spun off into a platform called Fish Trax, aimed not only at fishery management but also at seafood buyers, distributors and consumers.
Sylvia is hopeful about the collaborative effort, but he also knows it’s going to take a lot more than that to improve the lot of Northwest salmon. “We could lose the salmon troll fishery if we can’t figure this out,” he says. “How much is it worth to people? What does society want to do? Those are the questions we are facing and need to have some honest discussions about.”