Restored Salmon Population Shows Genetic Red Flags

By Matt Baume
|  Tuesday, Apr 12, 2011  |  Updated 3:20 PM PDT
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Restored Salmon Population Shows Genetic Red Flags

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SELKIRK, SCOTLAND - NOVEMBER 02: Salmon attempt to leap up the fish ladder in the river Etterick on November 2, 2010 in Selkirk, Scotland. The salmon are returning upstream from the sea where they have spent between two and four winters feeding with many covering huge distances to return to the fresh waters to spawn. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

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The good news is that the salmon population is on the rise in California. The bad news is that they all seem to be close family members.

Researchers have observed that a high proportion of the new fish are from hatcheries, according to the CC Times. That means that they're genetically similar, which could put them at heightened risk for diseases. In addition, it could leave them more vulnerable to small changes in the ecosystem.

That data was collected with a sophisticated machine that vacuums up fish and implants digital data in their heads. It takes less than two seconds for the device to grab a fish and stick a tiny machine-readable wire in its snout.

Scientists have known about the problem since 2008, when the first real data was made available. Eighty to 90 percent of the fish seem to be from domesticated stock. Anecdotal evidence from fishermen backs up those numbers, and suggests that it might be even closer to 100 percent.

So even through the population might be slightly up this year, there's still no guarantee that it might not plummet again.

As the fish population suffers, so too do the fishermen who depend on them for their livelihood. Many have given up their trade or have been unable to afford basic equipment and maintenance. At the moment, there are signs of hope -- but the genetic similarities are a sign that any hope may be short-lived.

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