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Council Recommends Funding For Salmon Genetics Research Identifying Genes/Traits Aiding Survival
Posted on Friday, January 14, 2011 (PST)

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council recommended Wednesday that funding be continued for research aimed at identifying through genetics particular fish traits that might allow them to survive better in the wild.


The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s “Influence of Environment and Landscape on Salmonid Genetics” study would receive up to $1,736,257 (e.g., approximately $140,000 to $288,601 per year) in expense funds for fiscal years 2008 through 2017. The effort has been under way for two years and drawn $486,000 in funding for study design and pilot studies to further develop the project.


The research is intended to help “understand how salmon have adapted to their environment” by identifying gene “markers” that are correlated with specific traits, such as thermal tolerance and resistance to disease, Shawn Narum, CRITFC’s lead geneticist, told the Council Wednesday during its meeting in Missoula.


“The science is exciting,” Narum said, and could eventually be used in the management of natural and supplemented populations, as well as reintroduction programs.


Oregon Councilor Joan Dukes said she appreciates the science but said she was worried that “once you know what genes allow fish to better handle warmer temperatures, somebody’s going to want to develop the super fish.”


Narum said it is not the intent of the research to “modify” genes of wild protected fish.


“The tribes are very much against that sort of thing,” he said.


“There’s a fine line” between altering genetics and picking the best fish for hatcheries, Idaho Councilor Bill Booth said during a Tuesday Fish and Wildlife Committee discussion of the research.


Narum said knowing which genes match up with particular traits would be of benefit, particularly in the selection of broodstock for supplementation hatcheries.


The Council had withheld its official approval until the project proponents had provided additional information requested by Independent Scientific Review Panel members so they could determine if the proposal met scientific criteria.


The research proposal was among a set of so-called “accord” projects submitted to the Council on Nov. 4, 2008, by the Bonneville Power Administration. The Columbia Basin Fish Accords are agreements to fund fish and wildlife projects signed by BPA with CRITFC, three of its member tribes and other states and tribes. Bonneville, which markets power generated in the federal Columbia-Snake hydro system, funds fish and wildlife mitigation as a result of obligations described in treaties, the Northwest Power Act and the Endangered Species Act.


This past November a follow-up ISRP review indicated the proposal meets scientific criteria outlined in the NPCC’s Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program, which is funded by the BPA. The approval came with qualifications.


“The first qualification on this proposal is a caveat to Council, BPA and CRITFC that while it is likely possible to identify some of the genes that are important for adaptation of salmon and steelhead to the Columbia River environment, deliberately manipulating breeding populations to improve fitness as recovery actions proceed does not have established implementation protocols,” the ISRP report said. “The proposed work is justified as research, but the ISRP is unconvinced that it is currently useful for management application.”


“The second qualification is for the project proponents to consider the suggestions the ISRP offers below. The proponents can address these as appropriate in future reviews. The ISRP is not anticipating a response to address the comments and suggestions at this time.”


Staff recommended that the Council support the proposal.


“This concern regarding future management applications is one shared by Council staff, but the project sponsors, many salmon managers and the ISRP recognize the benefits of this project could be substantial,” according a memo prepared by Mark Fritsch, NPCC project implementation manager. Neither Council staff nor the project sponsor believes it is possible to fully understand the management applications of this research effort at this time. The main intent of this study is to better understand the genes that matter to fish in the field in order to make more informed recovery, conservation, and management decisions. Some primary areas for possible application include the following:”


-- Improved resolution of “evolutionarily significant units (salmon or steelhead stocks that are listed under the Endangered Species Act)” based on functional genes and adaptive potential of populations throughout the Columbia basin. “This information is expected to influence the designation of ESUs in the Columbia River Basin and could provide information that would be helpful to the recovery of listed species, including natural and supplemented populations,” the memo says.

-- Evaluating genomewide effects of hatchery domestication selection.

-- Selection of stocks that are most appropriate for recovery and reintroduction purposes.


The study is being carried out by CRITFC staff housed at the Hagerman (Idaho) Fish Culture Experiment Station’s genetics laboratory. Its objectives are to determine correlation of watershed characteristics such as elevation, barriers, migration distance and temperature to genetic structure of chinook salmon and steelhead populations, with the focus initially on steelhead, and to evaluate how environmental conditions influence the genetic expression of physiological traits (i.e., smoltification and thermal tolerance) that are related to recovery of steelhead populations.


“This information will facilitate understanding of adaptation of natural populations of salmonids to their environment,” according to a study narrative. “We expect this to benefit future management/recovery of natural and supplemented populations, along with reintroduction programs.”


As an example, smoltification – the physiological changes fish undergo to prepare them for migrations to the ocean – is an important trait to study since resident rainbow trout and anadromous steelhead life history types interbreed. So if gene markers can be identified that show a rainbow might have a propensity to become anadromous, ocean-going steelhead there is potential for that fish to contribute to the recovery of ESA listed steelhead stocks. All five Columbia basin steelhead stocks – the upper, middle and lower Columbia, upper Willamette and Snake River ESUs – are listed.


The study helps to answer four separate actions called for in NOAA Fisheries’ 2010 Federal Columbia Power System biological opinion. It says to preserve genetic resources do fish population status monitoring, monitor hatchery effectiveness and investigate hatchery critical uncertainties.


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