Tribes advance DNA testing on salmon

by Joseph B. Frazier
Portland, Oregon (AP) 1-09

The Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission is testing technology to hasten the identity the makeup of salmon populations to determine the mix in any sample of fish, a potentially valuable tool for managing threatened or endangered stocks.

“The process started out a couple of decades ago when we were able to process tens of samples at a time. The new technology will give fish scientists the capacity to process 9,000 genetic markers in a four-hour period,” said Phil Roger, the commission’s fish science manager.

He said with a mixed salmon population the testing will allow the adjustment of human activity to have a greater or lesser impact on specific populations.

He said the speedup will lower the cost of testing and get information back to managers faster.

Commission spokesman Charles Hudson said the results will allow fishery managers to differentiate among weak and robust stocks. reduce the human effect on weak stocks and to adjust or eliminate harvests of weak stocks if necessary.

Doug Hatch of the commission’s Portland fish science staff said the new method will allow scientists to gain the genetic information with a small piece of fin instead of having to kill the fish.

One salmon looks about like another, but Hudson said the faster DNA process will help scientists differentiate more quickly between, say, a Sheep Creek run and a Walla Walla run.


Shawn Narum, the lead fish geneticist for commission tribes, said the process will work for any species for which the genetic makeup has been characterized, and that baseline research has achieved that for chinook salmon.

“We’re in the process of characterizing steelhead and in the early stages of moving to sockeye and coho,” he said.

Initially the equipment will be at research headquarters at Hagerman, Idaho, near Twin Falls, but the scientists said it could be placed at individual dams later.

Many of the Columbia River runs are threatened or endangered. Overfishing, hydroelectric dams, agricultural runoff and various predications have reduced some runs to 10 percent or so of their historical highs from the late 19th century.

“The tribes have been fighting for scientific respect for many years. We’ve been up against long-lived, well financed state and federal governments long-aligned with academia. Now (the tribes) are getting there,” Hudson said.

“Ten years ago you would not have seen academics and federal scientists sign on as sub-authors to a tribally led research effort,” he said.

He said Canada and Alaska are using forms of genetic identification to monitor stocks but that no other tribes are doing so.

The commission has been testing the equipment, made by San Francisco-based Fluidigm, for months.

“This technology will help clear the fog that surrounds genetic research in the Columbia Basin,” said N. Kathryn Bright, the commission chairwoman. “Genetic uncertainties have long caused management frustrations for the basin.”