Oct. 5, 2000 PULLMAN, Wash.-- Washington State University researchers are working to prevent the extinction of salmon in Columbia Basin rivers by making sure the genetic record remains intact.
As several teams of WSU scientists study the various areas most often implicated in salmon decline: habitat degradation, harvesting, hydropower dams, and hatcheries, one of the teams is attempting to preserve the genetic diversity of the fish by establishing a Northwest salmon sperm repository. The work is being done in collaboration with the Nez Perce tribe and the University of Idaho.
WSU biologist Gary Thorgaard calls the project an insurance policy "Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead are locally adapted to their environment. Local strains are those that will survive the best and reproduce the best," said Thorgaard. "If we lose some of these strains or the population drops so low that inbreeding becomes a problem, then we will need to have an insurance policy to rebuild the runs in the future when the environment improves."
Since the initial sperm collection in 1992, tribal biologists have recorded a drop in the number of salmon spawning nests, called redds, in regional streams. This year's increases in returning salmon are largely hatchery fish, giving an overly positive impression that things are improving, Thorgaard said.
Tribal fishery staff net fish in Snake River salmon spawning tributaries, milk the sperm, and have it flown by small charter planes to Washington State and the University of Idaho, located eight miles apart in the Palouse area of Washington and Idaho. Once at the universities, the sperm is frozen. For safety, specimens from each male are stored in four receptacles-two each at both universities.
"There is no quick fix in dealing with salmon recovery," said Thorgaard. "We believe that the samples we are collecting and storing insure against the permanent loss of critical genetic material, and could to be very important in future recovery and restoration efforts."
Team members include Thorgaard; Paul Wheeler, a WSU research technician; University of Idaho biologist Joe Cloud, Nez Perce Tribe members and fish biologists Paul Kucera and Robyn Armstrong. Their work is supported by the Nez Perce Tribe, the Bonnevillle Power Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
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