Fish matter! Not only because people depend on fish for jobs, but because plants and trees and marine animals depend on nutrients from fish to live. Fish feed on the insects that populate our lakes and streams, playing a critical role in maintaining insect populations. Fish store nutrients in their tissues; when they die and decompose, those nutrients get transported to trees and plants and to aquatic animals. Few people realize what a vital role fish play within the ecosystems of our stream nutrient cycles.
Over many years, however, streams in our region have been degraded by extensive logging, pollution, overfishing and urbanization. These alterations have led to a decline in fish populations and water quality. We are already seeing the effects that decreasing fish populations are having on our orca whale populations.
However, all is not lost. Hatcheries have sprung up all over Washington State. Unlike farmed fish, hatcheries release their fish into rivers and lakes where they mix with wild salmon. Through their work, hatcheries supply us with fish to eat, replace endangered species, provide opportunities for research on fish disease, and help restore degraded habitats. Fish from hatcheries today make up approximately 85 percent of the fish we eat including salmon.
Grays Harbor College Fish Lab
In 2015 students, staff and community volunteers spent many hours revitalizing the abandoned John M. Smith Aquaculture Center (also known as the Fish Lab) at Grays Harbor College. Biologist Dr. Amanda Gunn, who is a major driver behind the Fish Lab revitalization, saw her very first salmon the summer before the lab started:
“I tried to play [the salmon] off, but on the inside it was the largest fish I had ever seen outside an aquarium and it had teeth! I’m pretty sure the guys at the Lake Aberdeen Hatchery could see right through me, but they were amazing. They answered all my questions and showed tremendous support, especially that first year. We could not have built the Fish Lab without them.”
The Fish Lab at GHC is now a thriving hatchery. In addition to raising fish, the goals of the Fish Lab are to provide education to students and community members, complete stream monitoring, and provide resource management. The 5,000 coho, 10,000 chum and 1,000 trout it’s raising are slated for release into Lake Sylvia for a children’s fishing derby.
The Fish Lab has a gravity-fed water supply from Lake Swanson in Aberdeen. Students and community volunteers monitor this water system by analyzing the water chemistry and temperature, removing invasive species, and cleaning garbage from the lake and stream system. By removing pollutants and maintaining the water system, Fish Labbers insure the health of the fish stock as well as strengthening the surrounding environment. Fish Labbers have planted trees along culverts throughout the community, helping to reduce sedimentation and provide cover, hiding places, and shade for fish runs.
The GHC Fish Lab plays an important academic role as well, providing first-hand research opportunities for students in Grays Harbor. Dr. Gunn shared the story of one student:
“Another instructor brought a 16-year-old girl to the lab. She was shy and nervous, but wanted to try some extracurricular science stuff. She wasn’t much into fish, though. I put together a project for her that dealt with a bioinformatics approach to epitope development, based on creating vaccines for salmon. That was about three years ago. Today she’s a sophomore at Harvard University where she has continued to be involved in research.”
How can you connect with the GHC Fish Lab?
The GHC Fish Lab welcomes volunteers of all ages. Meeting days are Mondays and Wednesdays at 3 pm, and Saturdays at 8 am whenever the college is in session. If fish really aren’t your thing, the staff at the lab will find something that interests you. The youngest volunteer at the lab is 2 years old—proving we can get involved at any age.
A couple of upcoming events offer a great way to find out more about the Fish Lab. On April 13, volunteers will be planting around Lake Swano on the Grays Harbor College campus. On April 20, volunteers will meet at Fry Creek to clean garbage along the stream, helping to improve the Chehalis River water basin. The best way to get more information or to stay connected to Fish Lab events is through the Facebook page: www.facebook.com/Washingtoncoho, or by emailing the Fish Lab at Fishlab@ghc.edu.
Rachel Updgrove is currently working at the Fish Lab as the Hatchery Technician. She earned a B.S. degree from Western Washington University.