Fishing for Life

Patrick Luke

Every spring, the Umatilla people of northeastern Oregon join other Columbia River tribes in celebrating the return of the salmon. Growing up on the reservation in the foothills of the Blue Mountains east of Pendleton, Patrick Luke learned to appreciate the bond between fish and people. When he wasn’t helping to tend the family’s horses, he was fishing with his dad for salmon and steelhead on the Columbia and the Umatilla rivers.

After graduating from Weston McEwen High School in Athena, Oregon, he left home at age 17 to join the U.S. Marines, serving in Beirut, Lebanon. Discharge in hand, Luke headed to Alaska where he worked on crabbers, longliners and salmon boats out of Sitka, Dutch Harbor and Kodiak, going as far as the Bering Sea.

Now, Luke is casting his future in a new direction. He wants to help repair the fraying link between fish and people by becoming a fisheries biologist (or “a fish doctor,” according to his 8-year-old son Cody). Fish and the aquatic communities they depend on, Luke believes, are “important to all of us, Native or not.”

Working on the slippery decks of commercial fishing boats did little to prepare Luke for academic pursuits. The transition to university life was difficult, he says, but he had help from friends and mentors in OSU’s Native Americans in Marine and Space Science (NAMSS) program and at the university’s cultural centers, particularly the Native American Longhouse. And then there is his work ethic: “I look at school like a full-time job,” he says.

In addition to his coursework, the senior in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife has walked the streambeds of northeast Oregon. His quarry: invasive New Zealand mudsnails that can degrade ecosystem integrity, consuming algae that fuel the aquatic food web on which salmon and other fish depend.

Last summer, during a National Science Foundation-sponsored Research for Undergraduates program at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, he worked with mentors Tony d’Andrea (College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences), Ted DeWitt (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and Brett Dumbauld (U.S. Department of Agriculture) to study ghost shrimp in Yaquina Bay.

Ghost shrimp are native to Pacific Coast estuaries from Baja to British Columbia and of particular interest to oyster farmers whose operations can be disturbed by the shrimp’s tunnel building activities. The research is aimed at understanding the patterns of ghost shrimp distribution and when and under what conditions they spawn and molt through their five life stages.

Inspired by the memory of his dad’s respect for education, Luke has succeeded in ways that still seem to surprise him. He received a first runner-up award from the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society in 2006 for his poster on the mudsnail. And he capped off his Yaquina Bay experience by receiving top honors for his poster in a class on coastal ecology and resource management.

For his senior project, Luke is focusing on western American shad, a prolific non-native species in the Northwest. He has been collecting samples for genetic studies of shad strains from several river systems and comparing them to shad populations in the eastern U.S.

Ultimately, Luke’s journey is personal. “I know what a lot of people value. I’m passionate about my research and what I try to do. What I do affects the fish, and the fish affect the people.”