Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Today's Catch: Genetic Markers

July 2011

The 8th Annual Washington Troll Salmon Lunch at Lark in Seattle, sponsored by Washington’s Makah Tribe and the Washington Trollers Association, featured local hook and line-caught Marbled Chinook salmon, donated by the Cape Flattery Fishermen’s Co-op and prepared by James Beard Award-winning Chef John Sundstrom.

The annual event is organized to introduce local food writers and commercial fishermen, giving the former a chance to speak with the latter and sample some of the delicious salmon harvested by the trollers off the coast.

“Marbled” salmon describes Chinook salmon whose flesh is neither red nor white, but a combination of the two, “marbled” throughout the body. The distinctive fish occur only in the troll fisheries of Washington and southwest British Columbia, and the in-river gillnet fishery of the Fraser River. Scientists believe the marbled appearance results from a recessive genetic feature, which is tied somehow to the fish’s distinct life history.

The marbled fish, which may make up as much as 40 percent of this season’s catch, are externally indistinguishable from their cousins, providing a nice surprise once they’ve been filleted. The coloring fades away during cooking, but a well-prepared Marbled Chinook, such as the fare served at Lark, retains its delicious flavor, due to elevated Omega-3 fat levels.

The guest speaker at the Lark Lunch was Scott Blankenship, who leads the Molecular Genetics Team for the Washington Department of Fish and Wild Life ( Working with fishermen on the water, Scott and fellow researchers analyze scale and fin clip samples gathered by commercial fishermen from the salmon they catch. The genetic material in these samples tells the team which river or stream the salmon originated from, and where they are returning in an effort to spawn the next generation of wild salmon.

He recently delivered the luncheon address to a crowd of food writers and commercial fishermen at the 8th Annual Washington Troll Salmon Lunch at Lark in Seattle.

Marbled SalmonMarbled Chinook, foreground, shows its distinct coloring compared to the red Chinook behind it. Photo by Marcus Donner,

Blankenship was at the lunch to speak about Ocean Genetics Project, a collaborative research project between the Washington Trollers Association (WTA) and the Molecular Genetics Lab. Below are Blankenship’s comments on the project:

The Ocean Genetics Project is merging at-sea spatial information with genetic identification and satellite imagery. The collaboration is investigating the relationship between fish movement, environmental conditions, and fishing effort.

Why Do We Want This Information?
There is limited information about wild fish in the ocean, and specifically for Chinook salmon. The main units of information are coded-wire-tagged hatchery fish, in which a small wire has been placed in the snout. This process estimates catch rates, and uses tag groups as proxies for wild stocks. Yet, as weak stocks of salmon continue to limit fishing, and require care to get them on a positive population trajectory, better information is needed about wild fish in both fresh water and salt water.

Let me be clear here – there are a lot of Chinook salmon in the ocean, but the mixing of weak stocks and strong stocks is a vexing problem, and a general trend is continued downward pressure on harvest. We need innovation and different ways of doing business if we are going to maintain critical activities like commercial harvest in the era of listed populations. The Ocean Genetics Project is a means of getting higher resolution information about wild fish at sea and also can be used as a model for improving fishery information. This project is also a means to imagine a different future where managers have information streaming at them about environmental conditions, stock distributions and harvest of wild Chinook.

How Did We Get Here?
During the catastrophic collapse of the Oregon and California Chinook fisheries in 2005 and 2006, not surprisingly, there was new motivation to understand stock distribution patterns and avert these large-scale fishery closures. Now remember, Washington had an open fishery those years. The more refined location information is, the better off we are. Over the last few years, a remarkable collaboration has developed among commercial trollers in California, Oregon, and Washington, the research staff in those states, and fishery managers to protect stocks, sustain harvest and improve economic opportunities.

What Are We Doing?
As trollers go to sea, they run a GPS, and when they catch a fish they make a waypoint. The waypoint is written on a coin envelope in which a tiny fin clip is placed – a waypoint and fin clip for each fish. When the troller returns to port, the location data is downloaded and envelopes are mailed to the genetics lab. In the lab each fish is genotyped and its genotype is compared to a large reference database that contains hundreds of known collections. This process takes a few hours, and the comparison allows us to identify each troll-caught fish to its location of origin. The real beauty here is the linked waypoint, which allows the merger of many streams of information. We know when a fish was caught, where it was caught, its stock, along with overlaid satellite (sea surface temperature, productivity) and buoy (current, wind) information. When expanded out along the coast, you see when stocks show up, the effort it takes to catch them, and associated environmental data.

Collaborators in Oregon are experimenting with using this system for marketing. As each fish is bar-coded, enhanced information can be embedded in the packaging and available to the consumer. A kiosk with a scanner could let the buyer know the fisherman who provided the fish. There is also a website to punch in the barcodes. On the food safety or product quality front, the time from the date of capture to the point of consumption could be known. The WTA could use this information to ensure the best product is available, and to connect with their customers. A restaurant could use this to verify they are getting the fish they think, or enhance their offerings – for example: “Salmon tonight provided by (insert fisherman’s name and vessel name here).”

The point of the project is to explore the possibilities and see what resonates.

Chris Philips

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