Wrapping up the Summer in Portland

This summer has been full of learning opportunities, interesting times in Portland, and making great connections with others. Working at a cubicle was by no means my first choice this summer but looking back I couldn’t have asked for a better internship! My aspirations to help salmon and steelhead populations could not be better achieved than to assess the impacts that climate change will have on them. Research on salmon and steelhead has reached new heights in the last decade thanks to technological advancements such as PIT tag technology (used in some pets), genetics, and modeling.

To start, not a lot has been understood about the life history of salmon and steelhead until we were able to track and monitor their migrations. PIT tags and acoustic tags have helped researchers track where in the ocean these fish go to feed and undergo metamorphosis. Although we have been able to establish migratory routes for many of these fish one thing that we need to better understand is the diversity of life histories that exist with these species. Some anadromous fish spend only a year in the ‘salt’ (as anglers say) while others spend two to five years in the salt. As you can imagine this results in huge differences in the size and fecundity of the fish. Because salmon are semelparous, meaning they put all their energy into one large reproductive event, size does matter. Bigger fish produce more eggs and therefore have higher fitness than smaller fish. One concern for salmonids in the ocean is that the longer the fish spends time in the ocean the more likely it is to be caught by fishing boats, prey, or die due to pathogens and disease. Currently research is being conducted to better understand alternative life cycles of salmonids and what can be done to increase their chances of recovery in the Pacific Northwest.

Another fascinating and fairly new technology is genetic analysis. One interesting finding is that some parents contribute more to the next generation more than others. A hypothetical example is if two all star athletes produce offspring compared to if two people with poor health produce offspring. The all star offspring are more likely to survive and pass on their genes to the following generation. This is important because if we remove the all stars through fishing we may reduce the fitness of subsequent generations. These kinds of studies are being conducted throughout the range of salmonids to analyze the effects of hatchery fish breeding with wild fish.

Lastly, models have come a far way by having a better understanding of what assumptions must be put into the model. As we learn more about the ecology of salmonids models can be improved to better represent the reality of population cycles. One difficulty that remains in modeling is taking into account genetic interactions with hatchery fish as well as how does a one year salt fish breeding with a three year salt fish effect fitness. These small details are hard to account for in models and often time little is known about these interactions to begin with.

My work will play a role in addressing the impacts of projects that affect salmonids in light of the struggles they face with climate change. I am looking forward to seeing my work applied in the NEPA process as well as continuing to work with salmon and steelhead in the future. Thank you Sea Grant for helping me follow my passions!

NOAA Fisheries Fish Cutting Party

In an effort to escape the snail pace of cubicle work I reached out to my Marine Biology professor at Hatfield Marine Science Center to discuss possible field opportunities. I was very fortunate that professor Itchung Cheung (also how I learned about the Summer Scholars internship) recommended an upcoming NOAA event at Hatfield. So on his recommendation, last week I was fortunate to attend the NOAA Fish Cutting party 2018 during which we processed 1981 salmonids (primarily coho and chinook). The goal of the Fish Cutting party is to process the samples that are collected annually during the Juvenile Salmon Sampling Program. To process a juvenile salmon a number of samples and measurements are needed.

Transect map of fish collection sites for annual juvenile salmon sampling program

Transects sampled for coho and yearling and subyearling Chinook salmon, 1998 –present. (provided by NOAA Fisheries)

To begin, a length and weight are often collected and then the fish is scanned on a metal detector to indicate presence of a coded wire tag, pit tag, or combination of both. Coded wire tags (CWT) provide information regarding the origin of the fish or which hatchery it was released from. These metal tags are smaller than a grain of rice and usually inserted into the snout of the fish. Pit tags, about the size of a grain of rice, provide information such as migration patterns, migration timing, and growth rates by comparing size/length between when the fish was initially tagged and when it was collected. These tags are usually inserted beneath the skin on the abdomen of juveniles. Pit tags use passive technology, utilizing scanning arrays that are placed in their migration corridor within dam fish ladders and on the bottoms of streams. When a fish with a pit tag swims across the array, the information is automatically uploaded to a global database. You can literally track a fish migrating downstream and returning through the database each time the tag is scanned, assuming the fish survives the perilous journey. Coded wire tags require removal of the tag to read which is lethal to the fish and does not provide information about migration patterns, rather just hatchery origin.

A table with multiple salmon ranging from 12 inches to 20 inches known as jumbo salmon

Jumbo Chinook salmon are salmon that do not follow the normal northward migration and rather reside off the coastal waters of their native streams. (photo by Wesley Noone)

Volunteers during the Fish Cutting party had the tasks of removing fish snouts for CWT and pit tags (if present) as well as any combination of the following: removal of the stomach, otolith (ear bone), intestines, and fin. Each specimen serves a purpose in the ongoing ecological monitoring of salmonids in the Pacific Northwest. Stomachs provide valuable information regarding what salmonids are eating out at sea and where certain foods are available. Plastics have also been observed in stomach contents which is a concern especially moving into the future. Otoliths are the tree rings of fish and provide information regarding how rapidly a fish is growing. Otoliths can also have a distinctive mark that is formed during the early stages of life during hatchery rearing by controlling water temperature fluctuations. These distinctive marks can be an alternative to CWTs and provide information about hatchery origin. Intestines can be used to further analyze diet intake although determining the prey source at this stage of digestion is far more difficult. A portion of a fin is also removed primarily for genetic sampling. Other data that is collected includes any observations of parasites and visceral fat which develops on the outside of the stomachs in hatchery origin fish due to the high protein content of their diet within the hatchery.

Sea grant intern Kong Vang dissecting a small juvenile salmon

Kong Vang dissects a juvenile salmon in search of a stomach (photo by Wesley Noone)

Performing this kind of sampling on an annual basis allows ecologists to monitor the health of different populations as well as the species as a whole. This was my first experience dissecting fish for biological sampling although I have gutted many fish in my free time to take home and eat. I would recommend the next Fish Cutting party to anyone interested in helping out with the monitoring effort but I do have some reservations for those not experienced with handling fish. My first reservation is to hold off on eating lunch until you get past the nausea that is induced by the smell of hundreds of fish being processed and digging through goopy brains to find otoliths. I would also recommend that you prepare yourself for having fish tissue flung at your face as well as handling a dead animal with feces extruding from its body. Some of these fish are hosts for parasites so if that freaks you out maybe fish cutting parties are not for you.
Overall I had a great three days in Newport meeting people from the NOAA Science Center, hanging out with fellow scholars, immersing myself with fish guts, and learning new skills. Thanks to the fellow Sea Grant Scholars who showed up to help and those scholars that helped make our experience at Hatfield enjoyable.

three volunteers working on dissecting fish

A happy crew of fish cutters work on their specimens. Top left: Will Fennie (OSU Graduate student) Front left: Kong Vang (NOAA Fisheries Summer Scholar) Right: Abby Ernest-Beck (EPA Summer Scholar) (photo by Wesley Noone)

A Bit About NOAA Fisheries by Wesley Noone

My experience at NOAA Fisheries has been extremely educational thus far and I continue to learn new insights about the work daily. NOAA Fisheries is a very large organization and could not accomplish the daunting work that is needed without its regional branch offices. We work within the West Coast Region which covers Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California. Within our office we have four divisions: The Office of Law Enforcement, Sustainable Fisheries Division, Protected Resources Division, and the Operations and Personnel Management. My position is nestled within the Sustainable Fisheries Division (SFD) which is largely responsible for the sustaining of salmon fisheries in the Colombia River. The SFD handles National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) permitting when NOAA Fisheries wants to take an action such as making a fisheries management change, funding a hatchery project, or allowing special harvest of threatened species.
I would argue that salmon are essential to most life on the west coast. They serve an important role in connecting the food webs between our oceans and land as well as cycling important nutrients into forests. Most salmonids are anadromous meaning that they live part of their life in fresh water and part of their life in salt water. A fish that spends the majority of the life history in salt water falls into NOAA Fisheries jurisdiction. Because many populations of salmonids are threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, NOAA Fisheries has an obligation to work to get those populations delisted. Using hatchery programs for decades has allowed fisheries (a term used to describe an area where fish harvest is happening) to continue without driving native populations to extinction.
My project has focused on how to incorporate literature on climate change into the analysis of NEPA documents. Most of us are well aware of the risks being faced by increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, and more severe weather that is a result of climate change. These risks will continue to cause problems into the future and organizations like NOAA Fisheries must consider this when making management decisions for protecting fisheries. I hope that through my work NOAA Fisheries will be better equipped with the tools needed to make sound decisions into the future.

Adapting to a changing environment

Like many of the animals we study, us Oregon Sea Grant Summer Scholars must adapt to our new environment.  I am fortunate to be a recipient of the 2018 Oregon Sea Grant Summer Scholar position with NOAA Fisheries.  Although working with NOAA Fisheries is a dream come true, this is not the work environment that I am used to. My experience working in fisheries includes wading through Eastern Oregon and Washington desert streams during the hot summer months while collecting population and habitat data. Common hazards during my prior field work included dehydration, rattlesnakes, thorny vegetation, slippery rocks, and getting shocked constantly while electrofishing. During my short time working in a federal office I have found the hazards to be extremely different.

To begin, my training started off learning about the hazard of data breaches and hacking. Recent hacking into large corporations and even during our last presidential election has led federal agencies to take a hard line approach to data security. Secondly, commuting may pose the hazard of getting your semi-formal clothes totally soaked by an unexpected thunderstorm. This will get you to think twice about grabbing your raincoat or umbrella on your way out the door. Lastly, given our current political environment there have been protests outside of our building in recent months seeing as we share floors with other federal agencies facing opposition from the public. This has led to tighter security and awareness of potential physical hazards to federal employees.

In summary working at a federal office has been quite the change for me coming from a field-based background. I have been learning a great deal about the organizational structure of NOAA Fisheries, diving into documents explaining the role of NOAA Fisheries under the National Environmental Policy Act, and meeting co-workers in different branches of the office. The people here at NOAA Fisheries are extremely passionate about the work they do and have been very welcoming to us interns. As there is much more to read about NEPA I will conclude my blog here.