Willy Eldridge recently joined the Stroud™ Water Research Center to launch its Fish Molecular Ecology Department. He received his doctorate from the School of Aquatic & Fisheries Sciences at the University of Washington, and was formerly a lecturer at University of Washington at Tacoma and a fishery geneticist from the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
We sat down with Willy to discuss his new role, and to put into context what fish ecology really means to him and the Center. Following are excerpts from that interview.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A FISH MOLECULAR ECOLOGIST?
The answer to this has three parts. First of all, of course, we study fish. Fish are incredibly interesting. For one thing, there are lots of them; more than 25,000 species exist all over the world, which is far more than all the other vertebrate species combined. And fish are valuable in a variety of ways — from economics to research.
Secondly, we study the genetics of fish. We are concerned with preserving the diversity of fish and want to understand their ability to adapt to changing environments. As geneticists we take the long-term view
— ensuring that diverse fish populations are still around 100 or even 1000 years from now.
Finally, as ecologists, we study fish in their particular environments
— both the physical environment of the waters and watersheds in which they live and the social environment composed of the other organisms with which they interact.
WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO FOCUS YOUR RESEARCH ON FISH?
Fish have always fascinated me. There is enormous diversity, not only among different fish species, but even within the same species. Fish can have very different characteristics, depending on where and how they live.
They’re widespread; you find them all over the world.
For a variety of reasons, fish are model organisms for research in environmental biology and other areas. Model organisms are those that can be used learn about biological processes shared with other organisms. For example, Zebra fish are used as a model of early growth and development because they are mostly transparent when young so organs and other internal tissues can be observed directly without the need for dissection. Many scientists use fish as models to study genetic processes in their efforts to learn things about DNA and evolution.
Fish have enormous economic importance. They are a major source of food for much of the world’s human population. Originally, all fish came from the wild, but increasingly they are being produced on “fish farms.” In 2007, for example, aquaculture accounted for almost half the fish consumed by humans, and that number continues to rise – both because of the ever-growing global demand for protein and the continued depletion of wild stock. Right now, most of the salmon, shrimp, catfish and tilapia consumed are raised on farms. In addition, recreational fishing is a significant source of revenue for many countries. I believe that my research on fish can yield important information that will help guide best management practices both in aquaculture operations and in natural populations.
Finally, because fish are often at the top of the food chain in streams and rivers, they are a good “indicator” species for understanding the overall health of the freshwater ecosystem in which they live. So it’s important to pay attention to them.
WHAT’S THE FOCUS OF YOUR CURRENT RESEARCH?
One of the projects I’m working on right now is a study of how fish respond to changes in their environment.
We humans put a lot of pressure on our natural ecosystems, and consequently we put a good deal of stress on fish populations. My study is focused on sub-lethal responses to such stress. Even though fish may not always die in response to environmental changes, their bodies respond in ways that may not be immediately visible but are extremely important to their survival. And their survival is important to our survival.
In this study, we are looking at environmental changes that may affect their overall health, susceptibility to disease or predation—even their reproductive rates.
EXACTLY WHAT KIND OF ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGES MIGHT AFFECT FRESHWATER FISH POPULATIONS?
Changes can range from man-made to natural stressors, which means that all sorts of things could be factors that adversely impact freshwater fish populations.
While certainly not a comprehensive list, potential stressors might include: the building or removal of a dams, certain methods of fishing, contaminants in our streams and rivers, the introduction of non-native or farm-raised fish species. Changes to the land use and vegetation surrounding a stream or river, such as deforestation, can also have a negative effect on fish.
We are trying to understand how each of these things impacts specific fish populations so that we can make the kind of informed decisions that will preserve fish diversity and protect the ecosystem.
WHY DID YOU LEAVE THE UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON IN SEATTLE TO WORK FOR THE STROUD WATER RESEARCH CENTER?
The reputation of the Stroud Water Research Center among its scientific peers was a huge draw. It's exciting to be part of such a great team.
Being able to work under the same roof with an interdisciplinary group of scientists is a unique opportunity that will both make my research better and allow me to add a dimension that will enhance the work of my colleagues.
And because the Center does work all over the world, I can expand my research beyond fish native to temperate rivers and streams to tropical freshwater species as well.
For more information on Willy Eldridge and his research, go to:
To read coverage of Eldridge and the launching of the Fish Molecular
Ecology Department at Stroud Water Research Center, go to:
Candidates interested in joining the Fish Molecular Ecology Department are
encouraged to review the Research Technician job description and required qualifications at:
To learn more about the School of Aquatic & Fisheries Sciences at the University of Washington, go to:
To learn more about the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, go to: http://www.nwifc.org/enhance/genetics.asp
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