Have you heard about the salmon scientific experiment underway in Oregon? Hakai magazine reports that field researchers may have found a way to persuade hatchery fish to swim upstream back to their hatchery home the way wild young salmon do.
Now, as a cheechako to Alaska, I’ve been informed that the presence of hatchery fish in our fair state is a controversial, touchy fishy subject, so I’ll throw in a disclosure. When fishing for trout previously on vacations in Alaska and the mountain and Pacific states, I head mostly for catch-and-release wild waters, but you can bet your adipose fin I’ve caught and missed my share of hatchery fish, too.
I’ve learned that on one side of the controversy are good folks who blame hatchery fish for declining salmon runs and, on the other side, equally good folks who say there’s no scientific evidence that the presence of hatcheries is linked to depleted salmon stocks.
So fear not, I’d rather slide down a barbed wire fence with a coyote in each fist into a pool of quicksand than take sides on the hatchery controversy. Nope, this column is just a rift on a recent news story that’s getting my smart-alecky take on things. Besides, the last time I stuck my foot in my mouth, loyal readers even bad-mouthed my taste in the Church’s shoes I stuck in there.
So, after that preamble, here goes:
First off, you have to marvel that there is such a complex, amazing creature as a salmon. Most incredible to me is that young wild salmon pick up certain comforting scents that may guide their journeys back home to spawn, according to one theory concerning this species.
“Olfaction” is the term describing the way mammals, insects and fish detect scents in their various receptor cells (often found in non-mammals in places like the skin in salmon). A biologist would tell you that young wild salmon naturally detect dissolved free amino acids in their birth streams.
However, tiny hatchery salmon released willy-nilly in streams likely haven’t time to imprint. That can be a problem in adults because they often sail past their hatchery home to swim elsewhere in adopted waters.
Seven years ago, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife commissioned the Oregon Hatchery Center (OHC) on the Elk River to come up with an irresistible scent to lure fingerling hatchery salmon back home after adult spawning. This certainly is quite the challenge. You can’t exactly train salmon the way you train homing pigeons.
Salmon researcher Maryam Kamran tried out various stinky scents at feeding time for fingerlings. Later, she introduced a scent minus the food pellets, and if the salmon reacted with a feeding frenzy as they had formerly with the scent and food, she’d quite possibly have uncovered a winning aroma for imprinting.
For confirmation, Kamran united with well-known NOAA biologist Andy Dittman who tested her chosen aromas scientifically to be sure the salmon picked up the scent.
That’s when OHC Director Seth White spawned (so to speak) a brainstorm. White and Dittman thought that the residual trub left after beer brewing might cause baby salmon to imprint.
Well, that’s hardly news. We Fairbanks folks know that beer pairs wonderfully with baked salmon.
But I digress. Beer trub is a concoction of residual malt, yeast and coagulated proteins. White figured the glutamate in brewer’s yeast might appeal to the salmon’s sense of smell.
You ask what is glutamate? Well, it’s a substance that Wikipedia calls “the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter in the vertebrate nervous system.”
Well, that’s nothing new. We All-America married males know plenty about the positive outcomes to be had by appealing to our significant other’s “abundant excitatory neurotransmitter” with posies, chocolates, and Carlo Rossi Red Table Wine.
However, smelly beer trub that works on salmon probably won’t work on your mates, fellas. If you come home at midnight with your shirt smelling like you took a bath in a tank of HooDoo, not even a Celine Dion oldie can save your hide.
“You’ve been drinking like a fish,” my wife Gosia would say, accompanied by a hard stamp on my foot.
“How did you know?” I’d answer, thinking she must have read about the salmon experiment with trub.
“My olfactory system has evolved over generations,” she’d likely say, handing me a blanket. “Go sleep in the garage tonight,”
“But we don’t have a garage, dear.”
“Go find one.”
Already, some of the first males soaked as fry with beery animo acids did find their way back to the home hatchery on the Elk River.
I hereby designate that group as “The Trubbies.”
If the experiment ultimately does work, our genius Seth White likely has his Nobel Prize acceptance speech already written. Hakai magazine reports White has chosen a name for his salmon-luring beer: Olfaction Pale Ale.
My overactive imagination imagines that the beer-happy Trubbies sang “Show me the way to go home” as they helped one another stumble upstream for the hatchery and a reward of food pellets.
What about the Oregon hatchery fish that failed to imprint? I imagine them gyrating like Mick Jagger and singing “I Can’t Get No Olfaction” on their lost way to new Airbnb condo accommodations.