Geomagnetic Imprinting and Homing in Salmon and Steelhead (2012-2014)

David Noakes
Oregon State University
Fisheries & Wildlife
104 Nash Hall
Corvallis, Oregon 97331-3803
Phone: 541-737-1953
Fax: 541-737-3590
On the Web
Oregon Hatchery Research Center

Co-PIs: Thomas Quinn, University of Washington; Carl Schreck, OSU; Shaun Clements, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife; Michael Banks, OSU Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station; Jennifer Nielsen, The Evergreen State College; Andy Dittman, NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center; Ken Lohmann, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; A. Peter Klimley, University of California at Davis; Samuel Chan, Oregon Sea Grant
Sea Grant award: $179,270

Salmon and steelhead are textbook examples of fish that return to spawn and complete their lives in the precise location where they began life. However, there are serious concerns about straying of hatchery salmon and steelhead in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. Federal, state, tribal and private hatcheries produce salmon and steelhead for a variety of purposes - restoration, mitigation, supplementation, conservation). They all want the fish they produce to return to the hatchery or release site. Hatchery fish that fail to do so are likely to wind up with wild fish, ecological and genetic consequences. Fisheries managers go to extraordinary lengths to minimize the straying of hatchery fish, and want to better understand whether anything about hatchery construction or operation causes fish to stray.

While seeking answers to those questions, Dr. Noakes’ team also studied the cues and mechanisms used in the ocean migration of salmon and steelhead. Chemical imprinting of young salmon is generally accepted as the mechanism used by returning adults to find the freshwater rivers and streams they come from. But exactly how the fish orient themselves during the long ocean phase of their life cycles, and how they navigate back to the appropriate freshwater area remains unknown. Magnetic cues have been suggested as a likely mechanism, but the research prior to this study had been inconclusive.

Lack of this kind of knowledge can limits our ability to predict the effects of such factors as climate change, coastal wave energy operations and environmental contaminants on the behavior and life history of these fish. By understanding the physical features of hatcheries, analyzing existing data about straying, and determining if salmon at any stage of development respond to geomagnetic cues, Dr. Noakes’ team is trying to help unlock this mystery.

Preliminary results, published in February 2014 in the journal Current Biology, suggest that young salmon do, in fact, use geomatic fields to orient themselves toward their home riviers.

Learn more: