Enhanced fish breeding research gets provincial backing

A UWindsor biologist’s efforts to augment the restocking of millions of Chinook salmon in Lake Ontario have received funding from the provincial government for the next five years.

Trevor Pitcher, an associate professor in Biological Sciences, received a five-year $150,000 Early Researcher Award from the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation to develop new breeding programs that more closely mimic what happens in the wild, with the goal of improving the quality and number of salmon produced.

“Basically, I’m trying to infuse Mother Nature back in to the breeding process,” said Dr. Pitcher. “We’re trying to follow basic evolutionary and ecological principles.”

Each year millions of Chinook salmon are raised in hatcheries and stocked in the Great Lakes to support a $550 million a year fisheries and tourism industry. However, the methods currently used by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to hatch new fry are somewhat arbitrary, according to Pitcher.

“They randomly mix salmon eggs with sperm and then release the fry,” he explained. “But salmon go through a much more complex selective breeding process. In the wild, females don’t pick their mates randomly. They pick them carefully for the highest genetic quality. They use certain visual and olfactory cues to pick their mates and they produce higher quality offspring when they do this.”

Pitcher studies the selective breeding process that salmon use in the wild and will try to replicate it in the new hatchery he recently opened on the banks of the Detroit River in LaSalle. He’ll also work with Dan Heath, a geneticist and the new director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, to identify the genetic traits of the highest quality salmon. The ultimate goal is to create superior fish with greater chances of survival once they’ve been released.

“Fishing is a huge part of the economy, so this is a very big deal,” Pitcher said, adding that the information they learn will also be applied to breeding such other varieties of fish as lake sturgeon, which is currently listed as an endangered species.

The Early Researcher Award program helps promising Ontario researchers build their teams of undergraduates, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, research assistants, associates, and technicians. The goal of the program is to improve Ontario’s ability to attract and retain the best and brightest research talent.