Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Juvenile steelhead waiting to be sampled.
Hi there! My name is Christina and I just completed a two week volunteer externship at the Idaho Fish Health Center and Dworshak Hatchery Complex. I wanted to share some of my experiences here on the blog and encourage anyone who’s interested in fish health to volunteer at this remarkable facility!
 I came to beautiful northern Idaho from Colorado where I’m a third year veterinary student. I’d heard that fish health was fascinating and that great opportunities were becoming available for veterinarians. So I decided I wanted to learn more, to get my feet wet so to speak, in the field of fish health.  And learn I did! Under the tutelage of the wonderful veterinarian and the brilliant biologists at the Idaho Fish Health Center, I’ve experienced the most fun and interesting externship of my vet student career so far. Here are some highlights:
Fish health monitoring:

The virology lab at the Idaho Fish Health Center.
During my two weeks at the hatchery complex I was fortunate enough to participate in a lot of fish health monitoring. This is done to keep hatchery fish disease free, not only at Dworshak but also at tribal and affiliate hatcheries. In fact, I got to travel a lot, riding along with a fish health specialist to hatcheries in Idaho and Washington to sample steelhead, Chinook, and coho. Once we caught enough fish we would take scrapings of skin and gill samples and look at them under the microscope for parasites and bacteria.  We’d remove a piece of the kidney, spleen or gill to test for bacteria and viruses like Bacterial Kidney Disease and Infectious Hematopoetic Necrosis Virus. Testing is done back at the lab under controlled conditions.

Juvenile Chinook salmon being sampled for bacterial and virologic testing.

Trichodina, a common fish parasite,
taken from a skin scraping as viewed
under the microscope.

The first take of steelhead was spawned on Jan. 4th (see earlier entry) and I was lucky enough to be there. It’s exciting to witness the bustle, the splashing of three foot long fish as they’re brought up into the spawning area, the clinking of machinery, and the constant circulation of buckets filled with tens of thousands of colorful eggs that will become the new generation of this unique and valuable population of steelhead trout.

But keeping fish healthy can’t be done in laboratories with just microscopes and scalpel blades! Part of my time at Dworshak was spent learning a bit about hatchery management, how the fish are kept, raised and even tracked as adults. I had a blast! One day I spent the morning separating dead from live eggs at the Nez Perce tribal hatchery. Another day I swept vats containing tiny Chinook fry at the Clearwater state hatchery. Back at Dworshak staff taught me how to pick daily mortalities out of the ponds and look for abnormal behaviors that might indicate illness. For a (very fast) change of pace I got to assist a mobile tagging crew inject PIT tags into Chinook salmon. Every day there was something completely different for me to do!

One of many ponds at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery
containing tens of thousands of steelehad trout.
 Lastly I wanted to thank the staff at the Dworshak hatchery complex; especially Guppy, Laura, Corie, Liz, and Chelsea at the Idaho Fish Health Center, Rick and John at the hatchery, the staff at the Nez Perce tribal hatchery, and the weekend crew at the Clearwater state hatchery for sharing some of their extensive knowledge about fish health and management with me. Because of them I’m seriously considering a career in fish health, something I knew next to nothing about before I came to the hatchery. Imagine a job where no two days are the same and you get to work both inside and outside. Best of all you’re charged with the protection and care of some of the Earth’s oldest species with an incredible life history and rich cultural significance. If you’re still not convinced, come visit the hatchery and see for yourself!

Kooskia National Fish Hatchery is part of Dworshak Fisheries Complex
 and produces spring Chinook salmon and Coho.

When I first arrived at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. What I discovered was that fish health really is fascinating. Though I’ve learned a lot about fish through my experience, there’s still so much to learn, challenges to face, and discoveries to be made in this exciting field. 

*photos courtesy of the Idaho Fish Health Center/USFWS

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