Salmon have survived through millennia in large part because of their great diversity, according to OSU fisheries geneticist Michael Banks. If genetic diversity is a survival tool, fisheries managers need to know how to use it. In Project CROOS (Collaborative Research on Oregon Ocean Salmon), fishermen and researchers work together to map the movement of salmon stocks by tracking their genetic diversity.
“We needed the ability to discriminate salmon stocks in real time on the open ocean to avoid weak stocks and target healthy stocks,” Banks said. So, he enlisted the help of fishermen to collect fin and scale samples from fish they caught in the ocean, and to send those samples back to his lab at COMES. There, Banks’ team dissolved the samples, extracted DNA, identified genetic markers, and compared them to a library of other genetic markers to pinpoint specific runs of fish. In a matter of days, they had identified the river of origin for 190 of the 200 fish the fishermen had sampled.
“Genetic sampling told us not just where one fish had come from, it told us where each of these came from,“ Banks said. “It was the beginning of uncovering the genes that trigger different life histories and different migration patterns in the ocean.”
Since 2005, Project CROOS has steadily refined its approach, using genetic information to reduce the unintended catch of weak salmon stocks and avoid widespread closures of salmon fisheries. Partnering with a variety of organizations and more than 150 Oregon fishermen, Banks and his colleagues have created genetic IDs of more than 20,000 individual fish. “If we can understand the genetics that guide these migrations, we can direct fishermen to healthy runs and avoid those that are in trouble,” Banks said.