Olympia, WA, USA
For Immediate Release, October 20, 1999
Contact For More Information:
Irv Kornfield, Maine-New Hampshire Sea Grant Research Scientists, University
(O) 207-581-2548, 2539 E-Mail: irvk_at_umit.maine.edu
Lewis Flagg, Deputy Commissioner, Maine Department of Natural Resources,
(O) 207-624-6341, E-Mail: lewis.flagg_at_state.me.us
Ben Sherman, Sea Grant National Media Relations, (O) 202-662-7095,
SALMON GENETICS AT HEART OF ENDANGERED SPECIES LISTING DEBATE
Maine Sea Grant Project Seeks to Provide Scientific Answers Using DNA
ORONO, ME. Irv Kornfield, a Sea Grant research scientist and professor of
zoology at the University of Maine, knows he is on the hot-seat. NOAA's
National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are
proposing a plan to place eight river runs of North Atlantic salmon in Maine
on the Endangered Species List. The listing would supplant an existing
voluntary state of Maine conservation plan with federal regulations.
Whether that happens may depend, in part, on what Kornfield and his
scientific team find in a newly funded $100,000 NOAA Maine-New Hampshire Sea
Grant research project that will seek to answer the fundamental question,
"Are there truly any 'wild' salmon in Maine rivers?"
Kornfield will undertake a two-year study to help define the genetic
distinctiveness of salmon in the rivers of federal concern: the
Narragauagus, Pleasant, Machias, East Machias and Dennys in Washington
County; the Sheepscot and Ducktrap rivers in mid-coast region; and the Cover
Brook, a tributary of the Penobscot River, below Bangor.
What Kornfield will find is uncertain. "We don't have any idea of how it
will turn out - it could be either way. We certainly recognize that a great
deal will be resting on this study. The answer, in part, lies on how one
views the longtime program of using hatchery raised salmon to stock Maine's
rivers," says Kornfield.
According to Lewis Flagg, Deputy Commissioner of the Maine Department of
Natural Resources, stock enhancement has a long history in Maine. Flagg
says that, between 1871 and 1995, 96 million North Atlantic salmon of
hatchery origin have been placed in Maine rivers. He welcomes Kornfield's
study saying, "I think the project is an excellent one in that it will shed
light on a good deal of misinformation, and help eliminate some of the
uncertainties about the North Atlantic salmon that are part of this
Kornfield is a nationally-recognized expert in using DNA genetic markers to
determine how much genetic variation passes from one generation to the next
and the population sizes needed to maintain that diversity. Among his work
are studies to determine genetic differences between wild and farm-raised
salmon and where genetically pure salmon reside in Maine.
The problem, Kornfield explains, is that "the fish that formed the base of
hatchery brood stock for the rivers in question came from Maine's Penobscot
River. The genetic stock from those fish now has been distributed, through
the stocking program, throughout the regions' population of salmon. All
rivers now contain genetic material in their salmon that initially came from
one river, the Penobscot."
Maine officials recognized that problem in the early 1990s, and since 1992
have established a "river specific" stocking program, using only descendants
of fish taken from each river. Kornfield says that is a step in the right
direction, but points out that a local stock may not be truly "native" due
to earlier non-river specific stocking. His goal will be to create a family
tree of those salmon.
"Given that the original Penobscot River fish have not been genetically
studied in detail as a source population, it is difficult to evaluate
genetic information from around the state in an objective manner without
going back in time to trace the genetic lines," says Kornfield.
To do that Kornfield must first do a detailed genetic DNA analysis of the
Penobscot River salmon, something that has not been done. That genetic
characterization, of the Penobscot River salmon, will be then bench marked
in its genetic strands against a population of North Atlantic salmon in
Newfoundland which has not been subject to hatchery stocking and should be a
true "wild" stock.
One of the ways Kornfield establishes genetic benchmarks is through the use
of dried fish scales that may be archived by various agencies or available
from trophy mounted fish. To Kornfield, the scales are like dusty unread
books in an old library waiting for new readers to discover their contents.
Using DNA technology Kornfield can "read" the DNA sequences from the old
scales and compare them to sequences taken from recent generations. The
result indicates how much genetic variation passes from one generation to
Once those benchmarks have been established, Kornfield, using computer
modeling of stock reproduction, should be able to do a series of
simulations, based on random fishery samples, to see if he can produce the
patterns of genetic divergence that are now observed in each of the eight
"If we find that the same patterns emerge then we can demonstrate that the
smaller river salmon are in fact derivatives of the stocked fish from the
Penobscot," says Kornfield. "If the patterns do not match what we are now
seeing in genetic sampling, then we will indeed have distinct strains of
wild fish in these rivers."
The study will be conducted over a two-year period, but Kornfield hopes his
lab will have preliminary trend results by next summer.
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