Guillermo Giannico’s career has twisted and turned like a Northwest river. Growing up in Argentina, fluent in English, French, Italian and Spanish, Giannico had an encyclopedic education before heading to Canada to study wolves. Events took a turn, steering Giannico’s graduate research toward tracking pine martens in Canadian forests. He returned to Argentina to pursue a doctoral degree, but events altered his plans, and he eventually made his way back to Canada, this time to study salmon.
“I found that I was as interested in lake plankton as I was in wolves,” Giannico laughs.
Riding the rapids of career change, Giannico has been carried along by his broad interests and interdisciplinary training. His work led him to Oregon State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife in 2001. Besides teaching and working with OSU Extension, Giannico has several research projects exploring the secrets of northwestern fishes.
Collaborating with OSU fisheries scientists Hiram Li and Scott Heppell, Giannico is studying the distribution and habitat preferences of the endangered Lahontan cutthroat trout, a Great Basin native now squeezed into ever-smaller pockets of remaining habitat. Historically isolated in small separate groups, Lahontan cutthroat populations stayed strong as long as isolated groups of fish were occasionally connected by floodwaters. But now, with floods a rarity, managers fear the trout could become inbred and weak. “Just a small exchange of individuals is enough to give a population a good chance to escape extinction,” says Giannico. “But we don’t know how much genetic exchange is enough.”
In McDermit Creek, on the Oregon-Nevada border, Giannico and graduate student George Boxall inject young Lahontan trout with tiny P.I.T. tags, radio receivers the size of a grain of rice, then walk the 70-kilometer length of the creek with scanners to detect the movement of tagged fish. “Even in winter, we can find them under the ice,” says Giannico. “Over time, the fish tell us what is good habitat and what is not. And the way they tell us is if they survive and how much they grow.”
Giannico, Li and Heppell are trying to take some of the legwork out of trout management. Working with steelhead/redband trout in the South Fork of the John Day River, Giannico’s team uses a small plane to take temperature-sensitive aerial images of the water, then correlates the flight data with on-the-ground measurements taken by a very dedicated team of grad students: Ian Tattam, Francisco Madriñan and Joseph Feldhaus. Their work will help managers identify trout habitat quality in other ecosystems via remote sensing.
With OSU stream ecologist Judith Li, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service district biologist Katheryn Boyer and student Randy Colvin, Giannico studies small waterways that dot Willamette Valley farmland. Drainage channels, ditches, remnants of wetlands, “these are the memories that the Willamette Valley still has of its old floodplain before we channeled it into a single mainstem,” says Giannico. These little waterways offer a refuge to native species in the heart of Oregon’s most productive farmland. Giannico’s team has identified 10 native fishes still using the waterways, including redside shiners, sticklebacks, speckled dace and an occasional juvenile trout and chinook salmon. Now, the OSU team is working with valley farmers and a USDA team headed by Jeff Steiner to conserve this native biodiversity.
“The farmers are certainly doing something right, because the fish are still there!” says Giannico. “It’s not a matter of fish versus farmers, or fish versus foresters. For me, the fish are one part of the ecosystem that we live in and make our living from, and they are telling us a story about the past, present and future of that ecosystem.”
Giannico’s latest turn has been the birth of his daughter, Sofia.
“Ensuring the health of our aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems is not a matter of choice any more, it is a matter of survival for humankind,” he says. “This has become even clearer to me since the arrival of my child.”