OLYMPIA – A team of six fish biologists who spent more than a decade researching the interaction between hatchery salmon, native salmon and other species on the Yakima River today received the first annual Science Award from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
Agency Director Jeff Koenings said the findings of the Yakima Ecological Interactions Team, based in Ellensburg are already providing critical guidance to state fisheries managers working to ensure that hatchery operations do not conflict with native species, including those protected by the Endangered Species Act.
"Good science is the heart and soul of our agency," Koenings said. "Today's winners have given us the kind of in-depth scientific research that we and others throughout the world can use to make informed decisions about resource management."
Led by WDFW fish biologist Todd Pearsons, team members include biologist Kenneth Ham and scientific technicians Eric Bartrand, Anthony Fritts, Gabriel Temple and Phillip Smith, an employee of the Yakama Nation.
A separate award for Best Scientific Paper went to WDFW research scientist Matt Vander Haegen, whose article on relationship between shrinking shrublands and declining bird populations in eastern Washington appeared in the scientific journal Conservation Biology. Co-authors of the article were Fred Dobler and John Pierce, both veteran wildlife scientists for the agency.
Koenings said he created both science awards this year to give greater prominence to the role of science at the agency. Since his appointment as director last year, Koenings has realigned programs within the 1,600-person department and appointed chief scientists for fish, wildlife and habitat as part of an overall effort to achieve that goal.
Since 1991, the team has published more than two dozen reports and technical papers on their findings, pioneering a process for analyzing the environmental impacts of introducing hatchery-bred salmon into an ecosystem.
The research has shown, for example, that releasing hatchery-bred chinook salmon into the Yakima River has no discernable effect on rainbow trout populations, although the young hatchery fish are themselves snapped up in large numbers by non- native catfish and small-mouthed bass.
Winners of the two science awards were among a number of WDFW employees honored during the agency's quarterly awards ceremony. Koenings also presented the Director's Esprit de Corps Memorial Award to the family of Steve Phelps, a pioneering fish biologist who died of cancer late last after working for 15 years at the agency.
"Steve is an inspiration to us in death as he was in life," Koenings said. "His love of science, his sense of teamwork and his overwhelming commitment to fish restoration in Washington state are the things we stand for as an agency."