Three grants fund professor's study of 'elusive' fish

Amy WelshDr. Amy Welsh, an assistant professor of biological sciences at SUNY Oswego, is using genetic analysis to learn more about lake sturgeon in the Great Lakes region in three ongoing research projects funded at more than $200,000.

While not federally protected, lake sturgeon are estimated to exist today in wild populations at just 1 percent of their historic population level, Welsh said, and New York lists the fish as “threatened.” Findings from her studies will have implications for the future of lake sturgeon.

Welsh is the principal investigator on a $170,871 grant from the Great Lakes Fishery Trust, a $14,203 grant from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and a $10,000 grant from the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

The larger grant is for a two-year project involving 10 researchers from federal, state, provincial and tribal agencies as well as Welsh from SUNY Oswego and Dr. Kim Scribner from Michigan State University. They are attempting to learn more about the movement of lake sturgeon in the lakes, where they spend most of their time.

“Lake sturgeon are pretty elusive,” Welsh said. “There’s not much known about where they go when they’re not spawning” in rivers, she said. They do not begin spawning until they are 15 to 20 years old and then may spawn only every seven years.

Welsh’s doctoral research involved identifying various populations of lake sturgeon, 27 in all, associated with rivers where they spawn. The new project involves genetic analysis of sturgeon in Lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan to see how widely and where the fish from these known populations range.

“They’re bottom feeders and prefer shallow water, but we know they can move long distances, probably tracking food resources,” Welsh said.

For the studies, Welsh extracts DNA from samples that a colleague has collected. Each sample consists of a “fin clip,” a snippet of the dorsal fin (pictured) taken from a fish that was caught and released, Welsh explained.

For the Great Lakes Fishery Trust project, she will conduct the analysis of fish from Lakes Superior and Huron, and Scribner will analyze fish from Lake Michigan. Nearly $62,000 of the grant will support her work at Oswego.

In the second project, running from November to June, Welsh is studying lake sturgeon in the Namakan River in Ontario, where two or three hydroelectric power plants may be built.

Results of genetic analysis will help determine if such facilities would disturb the fish that spawn in the river any more than existing natural barriers—rapids—already do. The answer hinges on whether the fish are all from one population or from as many as five populations.

In the latest project, a pilot study that began last month, Welsh and a colleague in Wisconsin are investigating the disease resistance of wild lake sturgeon and hatchery-raised lake sturgeon from the Menominee River on the Wisconsin-Michigan border.

They are looking at a certain component of the immune defense system—the major histocompatibility complex—in the two populations. The higher the diversity of this component in a population, the greater is its resistance to disease. Inbreeding, which may occur in hatcheries, is likely to lower the diversity and therefore the long-term viability of the hatchery-produced fish.

“The results of our research project would provide information about the retention of genetic diversity in the hatchery setting that would strengthen the success and evolutionary potential of stocked lake sturgeon,” the researchers wrote in their grant proposal.

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CONTACT: Dr. Amy Welsh, 312-2774

(Posted: Feb 20, 2008)

Tags: research news: faculty projects