Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Pathways Perspective Chapter 1: Tag, You’re It

Kyle Beard is presently a Pathways Intern with the Columbia River Fisheries Program Office.  Throughout the year he hopes to share some of his experiences in this series of blogs.

It was almost a month ago when I first walked through the door at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Columbia River Fisheries Program Office in Vancouver, WA. Despite the short time, it’s already been quite a journey. My first day here was also my first official day as a student at Washington State University – Vancouver, and I was a little anxious to get it all started.

I am a Junior working towards a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Environmental Science. When I received the call in August 2014 that I had been chosen for the Pathways Intern position, I couldn’t have been more excited. My whole reason for going back to school is to eventually work for an organization like the Service, and here I am. Now it’s time to make the most of it and learn as much as I can in the hopes of finding a position I am truly passionate about. My original thoughts were that I want to work in law enforcement, and maybe that will remain the case, but now is my chance to see the science behind the conservation.

A little about my background: I grew up and went to school in the South Puget Sound region, including Eatonville, Roy, and Tacoma. I have a huge family scattered from Bellingham to Vancouver so I know Western Washington very well. I graduated high school early so I could join the Marine Corps and see the world, which I did, but after 4 years I was ready to come back home. I got straight to making money as a bartender in downtown Seattle, and for a number of years that was a blast, but I couldn’t see myself doing that forever. I finally made the decision to move to Vancouver, in with my grandmother, so I could focus on school and get a degree.

Much of my time so far has been spent with the Program Office’s marking and detection crew consisting of 7 Fish Biologists and 4 Biological Technicians. Now I knew that salmon are tagged but I had never thought much about the details of how or why. In just this first month I am beginning to see the big picture. The tags identify the fish by date and origin which is used when tracking fish and determining how many have returned to spawn.

Within the first few days I was able to go out to one of the Service’s marking trailers and watch the Coded Wire Tags being placed into juvenile fish (more on the tags later). The fish, not much bigger than my finger are corralled from one raceway, taken to the trailer to be tagged, and then sent down a tube into another raceway.

The trailer itself was fascinating to watch. Marking salmon and steelhead is a high-tech operation involving computers and automation.  There were six people each at their own station working nonstop to tag each and every fish. If they missed one, a magnetic tag reader in the out tube could tell and it was sent right back to be tagged correctly. I’m not sure how many fish were tagged that day but it was a lot. 

I have also worked in the Office’s lab to retrieve the tags from the snouts of the spawned adults. The snouts are half frozen and we have to cut into them to find the tags which seem no bigger than a sliver. We know it’s in there somewhere but finding it is the trick. The easiest way to do this I’ve learned is to first look in the “target area” towards the tip of the snout in the soft tissue cavity. If it’s not there we just have to narrow it down by cutting the snout in half and using the magnetic reader to see which half it is in. We toss out the half it is not and continue halving it till we find the tag.  

After removing the tags, we then place them under a microscope to read the code which tells us exactly when and where the fish was raised. It amazes me that something so small could actually have numbers inscribed on it.

Another thing I’ve done in the lab was look at fish scales under a microscope. I had no idea they could be read just like tree rings to determine the age. All of this data is compiled and entered into a large database that helps fisheries scientists tell a story about the fish that are returning.

In September, I also had the opportunity to witness the hatchery spawning operation up at Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery, boy is that wild. There were more than a dozen people, all with different and specialized jobs, processing the fish. Hatchery staff first ‘crowd’ the fish from outside raceways toward the spawning area, anesthetize them, then use a hydraulic elevator to bring the fish into the spawning building. Another employee runs the fish through a machine called a ‘pescalator,’ which helps identify which salmon might have a Coded Wire Tag or a Passive Integrated Transponder tag in them.  

Kyle helping at the bio-sampling station
At a separate station, employees or volunteers: they help too, remove between 3,000-5,000eggs from each female. Another person fertilizes the eggs with milt from the males. The eggs then get passed off to a station to be stirred and rest for a minute—this is when fertilization happens--before being whisked away to the incubation building. Meanwhile, the fish are passed to the biologists at the bio-sampling station where the snouts with tags are removed, a couple scales are removed, and the fish are measured for length.  There are even fish health experts at their own station collecting kidney and tissue samples to check for viruses and diseases.

All of these experiences have given me a better picture in my mind of the salmon life cycle for hatchery-raised fish--as well as the role the Service plays in helping manage Northwest salmon and steelhead populations. They take millions of eggs and raise them until the fish reach their natural migration age at which point they are tagged and released. The fish go live their fishy lives and then return to the exact place they were born. All of the data the Service collects is important to help track fish movement, migration, interaction with wild runs, and help set the numbers available for harvest. The entire operation is very impressive, and I am excited because I know this is just a starting point.

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