Skip to main content
School of fish swimming through dark creek

Oregon’s “blue economy” bolstered by longstanding partnership for fish health

By Katharine de Baun

Fish Health Graduate Research Fellowship

A longstanding and fruitful collaboration that benefits fish health and sustainable economic growth in Oregon was recently reinforced by a five-year, $404,000 renewal of the Fish Health Graduate Research Fellowship in Microbiology at Oregon State University by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).

Since 2005, through its annual fellowship, the ODFW has supported a microbiology graduate student working on a topic relevant to fish health, providing salary, tuition and funds to support research and travel. Since this fellowship was established, eight students have received support for two to four years. Three ODFW Fellows have landed positions in the area of fish health: Jayde Ferguson with Alaska Department of Fish and Game; Matthew Stinson with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission; and Michelle Jakaitis with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. These graduates are now setting policies to ensure a healthy resource well into the future.

The ODFW has been an important partner for the Department of Microbiology and OSU since the 1960s, reflecting the strong agricultural mission of the department. The partnership is embodied in ODFW’s Fish Health Unit, which is located on the OSU campus and employs five microbiologists who conduct disease diagnostics for 30 state-run hatcheries, which annually raise and release more than 50 million juvenile fish into the wild, including salmon, steelhead and several species of trout.

The educational impact of the ODFW-Microbiology partnership extends beyond the generous fellowship. The Fish Health Unit offers undergraduate and graduate student valuable research experiences, provides cell cultures and bacterial isolates for lab courses and research, presents guest lectures and sometimes employs OSU microbiology graduates.

Oregon’s “blue economy,” which includes commercial and sport fishing, is another direct beneficiary of the partnership. The Fish Health Unit plays a crucial role in proactively reducing and treating fish diseases and pathogens. As pathogens are more readily transmitted in higher densities, the research is particularly critical to state-run hatcheries, which help to mitigate the effect of humans on fish populations from dams, overfishing, habitat loss and, increasingly, climate change, as warmer oceans introduce greater pathogen risks for native populations.

Nicole Kirchoff working with samples in lab

Nicole Kirchoff, a Ph.D. student in Tom Sharpton’s Lab

Currently, two graduate students are sharing the ODFW Fish Health Graduate Research Fellowship and conducting some of their research in the John L. Fryer Aquatic Animal Health Lab. Kalyn Hubbard, an OSU alumna in zoology and a current master’s student in Jerri Bartholomew's Lab, is collaborating with the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs of Oregon Reservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and ODFW to discover the role of parasites in juvenile and pre-spawn mortalities of Spring Chinook salmon.

Nicole Kirchoff, a Ph.D. student in Tom Sharpton’s Lab, is working on a new research tact which could be groundbreaking, examining how gut bacteria contribute to the ecological fitness of fishes and how human-induced changes, such as higher temperatures, antibiotics, and hatchery rearing environments affect these contributions. Depending on her results, Kirchoff’s research could suggest changes in diet and fish management and rearing to reduce stress on their gut microbiome as well as yield new bacterial tools to monitor fish populations and predict declines.

“Without ODFW’s expertise and the support of the fellowship,” reflects Kirchoff, “I would not have been able to continue my research. And if I ever have salmonid-related questions, they are right across the hall. They’ve also gathered samples on my behalf, and I look forward to their perspective in interpreting my results.”

“In the future, I plan to continue studying the microbial communities of wild or managed animals, and I will use my experience building and maintaining the strong relationship with ODFW as a model for future collaborations.”