Aquatic Vigil

The care and feeding of thousands of trout and salmon at OSU’s Salmon Disease Lab are the solemn responsibility of fish biologist Ruth Milston-Clements.
The care and feeding of thousands of trout and salmon at OSU’s Salmon Disease Lab are the solemn responsibility of fish biologist Ruth Milston-Clements. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

By Lee Anna Sherman

It was dinnertime at the Milston-Clements home. The hubbub of feeding a 6-month-old baby and a hungry toddler was at full clamor when a ringtone interrupted. Handing off the jar of creamed spinach to her husband, Ruth grabbed her cell phone.


“Ruth, we have a broken pipe.”

As manager of Oregon State’s Salmon Disease Lab, Ruth Milston-Clements is on-call 24/7. With a network of alarms protecting the facility’s 25,000 research fish from disasters both natural and human (power outages, floods, equipment malfunctions, vandalism), she’s accustomed to running out the door at odd times. It happens once a month, on average.

So this dinnertime call seemed fairly routine. A researcher had accidentally backed her truck into a water pipe supplying 30 fiberglass tanks full of fingerlings, the caller reported. Quickly, an onsite technician cranked down the valve to stop the flow. He then rigged a fix that should hold till morning. However, the margin of error between life and death is, for a fish, as thin as a fin. “Without water flow or oxygen, the fish will suffocate in about 20 minutes,” says Milston-Clements, a fish biologist who grew up in Lancaster, England. In her field, there’s no such thing as an excess of caution. So, after tucking her little girls into bed, she spent the next few hours at the lab helping to construct a temporary backup system in case the quick fix failed before morning. It was after midnight when she finally flopped into bed.

The 3 a.m. ringtone blaring from her nightstand jolted her upright. “My heart started beating really loud, and I was hyperventilating,” she recalls. The electronic message from the lab’s security company read: Zone 1, low water. “This is the worst! This is what I’ve been dreading! Thousands of fish could die!” she moaned to her husband as she threw on her sweats and rubber boots and headed out once again.

In fact, no fish died that night. The second alarm turned out to be a minor malfunction unrelated to the burst pipe. But the adrenaline rush highlights what’s at stake in a live-animal research facility.

Crabs Count, Too

Of the 600,000 animals used in Oregon State’s research and teaching programs, 80 percent are aquatic species. Most of these half-million water dwellers are housed in fiberglass tanks on and around the Corvallis campus or at a research hatchery in the Alsea River Basin. Some live in simulated streams or raceways. Still others are on display in touch tanks or seawater aquariums at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. They come in outrageous colors and preposterous designs: pouty, big-eyed rockfish in shimmery golds and coppers; pincushion-like sea urchins bristling with purple spines; a giant Pacific octopus, its suction-cupped arms undulating around a bulbous orange body. The charismatic Chinook salmon, the elusive black prickleback, the tendrilled basket star, the diminutive zebrafish — more than 400 species in total — all are members of Oregon State’s aquatic animal community.

The care and feeding of thousands of trout and salmon at OSU’s Salmon Disease Lab includes disinfecting brushes after each tank is scrubbed to avoid cross-contamination.
The care and feeding of thousands of trout and salmon at OSU’s Salmon Disease Lab includes disinfecting brushes after each tank is scrubbed to avoid cross-contamination.

The vertebrates among them are subject to the rigorous protocols of humane treatment laid out by the AAALAC (Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International) and overseen by OSU’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (see Terra, “The Ethic of Care,” Fall 2012; and “Caring for Cows,” Winter 2013). But the ethical distinction between the spined and the spineless has blurred in recent years. In the same way that the animal-care ethos for rodents and livestock has evolved, so have sensibilities for aquatic animals of all kinds. Just ask Tim Miller-Morgan. In his two-decade career, OSU’s aquatic veterinarian has witnessed an ethical sea change.

Take the case of the ailing crustaceans, for example. Miller-Morgan was moonlighting at the Oregon Aquarium a few years back when he noticed that the spider crabs were lethargic and droopy-mouthed. In the old days, he says, a sick crab would have been euthanized. “The attitude was, ‘It’s only an invertebrate; let’s just get another one.’” But instead of discarding the crabs, he drew their blood and discovered a bacterial infection. He treated the animals with antibiotic injections and medicated feed. “Typically, this wasn’t something that was done,” says Miller-Morgan, who also serves as backup veterinarian for OSU Attending Veterinarian Helen Diggs. “But now we understand that we shouldn’t look at these animals as disposable. We brought them into captivity, and we have an obligation to keep them as long as we can, as close to their natural lifespan as possible — or even longer.”

It’s today’s students, he says, who are driving the new morality. In the aquatic-medicine classes he teaches at OSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, questions about animal welfare are top-of-mind among the Millennials, also known as Gen Y. “Eight or nine years ago, students started telling me, ‘We’d like to hear information on what we know about fish welfare, how we assess welfare, what do we know about pain?’ That was a new thing.”

He hears the same kinds of queries from students enrolled in the aquarium science program he helped develop at Oregon Coast Community College. It boils down to a centuries-old debate among philosophers, scientists, veterinarians, farmers, ranchers, aquarists, and pet owners: What is our obligation to captive animals?

For researcher David Noakes, the answer is crystal clear. “We have an inordinate responsibility,” says Noakes, who directs the Oregon Hatchery Research Center run jointly by Oregon State and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). “We need to go to extraordinary lengths.”

It’s the Water

Because of the extraordinary lengths taken by Noakes and his staff, international scientists flock to the research center on Fall Creek, a tributary of the Alsea River, which ripples prettily through a mixed woodland of fir, aspens and big-leaf maple. From faraway nations like Japan, China, Iceland and South Korea, they come to conduct studies on the secrets of salmon navigation, the impact of temperature on sexual maturity, the ability of steelhead to negotiate woody debris, and other hot topics in fish biology. “This is the only place on the planet that has everything in one location for salmonid research,” explains Joseph O’Neil, a senior ODFW technician who lives onsite at the hatchery. “It’s the No. 1 destination in the world.”

If O’Neil were to tell you that water is the most critical component for fish husbandry, you might be tempted to say “duh.” But “water” doesn’t come close to conveying the complexity of the systems that support research fish. When O’Neil says, “Fish need water,” he’s not talking about any old water. Whether it fills a 50-gallon fiberglass tank full of Coho smolts, a 40,000-gallon simulated stream stocked with brook trout, or racks of incubation trays, flushing a million salmon eggs at a rate of five gallons per minute, the water O’Neil is talking about is some of the world’s most pampered. Pumped mainly from Fall Creek, this water may be treated with UV sterilization, carbon filtration or aeration so it’s free of viruses and bacteria. O’Neil’s also talking about precise temperature regulation matched to each species’ native environment and each animal’s stage of life. Eight miles of underground pipe circulate up to 2,500 gallons of freshwater a minute and return it to Fall Creek.

Out here in the Siuslaw National Forest, where the nearest town is picturesque Alsea, population 1,153, things do indeed go wrong. The power fails when gale-force winds howl through the hills; the property floods when biblical rains push the creeks beyond their banks; outdoor tanks crack and pipes rupture when branches crash to the ground. The staff takes pride in being able to improvise a solution or jury-rig a repair for just about any piece of equipment, even amidst the wildest squall, wettest deluge or blackest night.

How to Ship a Fish

In Oregon State fish circles, they’re known as “The Two Carries.” The self-described “guard dogs” of OSU’s zebrafish lab, Cari Buchner and Carrie Barton make a solemn commitment each morning when they punch in their pass codes at the high-security building across the river from downtown Corvallis. Tens of thousands of lives hinge on the skill and vigilance of these fish-husbandry professionals.

Carrie Barton, co-manager of the Sinnhuber lab, feeds Artemia nauplii, a juvenile form of brine fish, to zebrafish schooling in a stock tank. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)
Cari Buchner, co-manager of the Sinnhuber Aquatic Research Lab, tends the tanks. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

Barton and Buchner are co-managers of OSU’s Sinnhuber Aquatic Research Laboratory. The species they oversee — a type of minnow that has been dubbed the “new lab rat” for its growing popularity among biomedical researchers — multiplies fast, matures quickly, shares important disease processes with humans, and rapidly regenerates certain body parts and organs. Best of all, it’s transparent during development. Researchers can see what’s happening inside, literally.

For these reasons, zebrafish make great animal models for medical and environmental research.
“The water here is probably cleaner than most people drink at home,” Buchner attests. That level of purity applies even to water flowing into the staff restrooms, toilets included. If you are granted a visit to Sinnhuber, expect this email in your inbox: “Due to our biosecurity protocols we need to ask that you refrain from any contact with other aquatic species, labs, water sources — especially home aquariums, pet stores and outdoor fish habitats — for 24 hours prior to your visit.” Once you arrive, anticipate being asked to sanitize your hands and slip sterile booties over your shoes.

No one here is taking any chances of jeopardizing the lab’s highly specialized, technically sophisticated, razor-edged enterprise: raising fish that are free of the pathogen Pseudoloma neurophilia, rampant in the commercial aquarium trade and common in many research facilities. “Every fish in this room will be tested for that specific pathogen,” says Buchner. Newly arriving fish are raised, spawned and rigorously tested in a quarantine chamber before their offspring can join the general population.

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These uniquely healthy zebrafish are in demand not only at Oregon State but also at other labs. So a couple of years ago, Sinnhuber decided to sell them on its website at a nominal cost. But safely shipping live fish is as tricky as it sounds. The package has to be double-bagged, foam insulated, heat controlled and hand-delivered on the tarmac for transfer to the airplane. For months, Barton and Buchner worked with FedEx, testing various containers and running multiple mock shipments, climaxing with a battery of bumping, shaking, dropping, crushing and tumbling trials.

“The container has to be 100 percent secure,” Barton explains. “It has to hold up even when someone says, ‘Oops, that box fell off the forklift.’” (All this TLC comes at a price, ranging from $50 to $500 for U.S. shipments to $1,700 for international deliveries.)

Soon after becoming a Certified Research Fish Shipper, the lab passed a harrowing real-life test when a container of fish en route to Australia got held up in customs during the hottest part of the summer. Despite an extra five days of travel, the fish arrived in perfect health and were spawning within a fortnight.

Fish Food a la Carte

A “happy tank” is the gold standard in a fish lab. When Ruth Milston-Clements lifts the lid of a tank and sees the sleek, silvery smolts schooling round and round in vigorous uniformity, she can rest easy. But if the fish are “dancing” or “flashing” or “looking a bit itchy,” she immediately calls in the lab pathologist. The telltale signs of trouble recently showed up among some rainbow trout. A scale swipe revealed a parasite called Gyrodactalus. She treated the tank with a hydrogen peroxide solution and monitored the fishes’ behavior every 10 minutes for an hour. They revived. Happy tank.

Carrie Barton, co-manager of the Sinnhuber lab, feeds Artemia nauplii, a juvenile form of brine fish, to zebrafish schooling in a stock tank. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)
Carrie Barton, co-manager of the Sinnhuber lab, feeds Artemia nauplii, a juvenile form of brine fish, to zebrafish schooling in a stock tank. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

Fish like it when someone lifts the lid on their tank. That’s because it usually means mealtime. Over at Sinnhuber, the two Carries show off their brand-new commercial-grade kitchen where they concoct customized diets to researchers’ specs.

The proteins, carbs, oils, vitamins and minerals are tightly calibrated for optimal animal health. For many studies, researchers order special formulas. One of those researchers had a terrifying jolt a week before Christmas when he discovered his supply of custom fish food wasn’t going to last through his experiment. So while most people were baking gingerbread cookies and fig puddings, Barton was down at the lab whipping up an emergency ration of experimental fish food. “I went into my superhero mode,” Barton says with a satisfied grin. She saved the day — and the study.

“Basic care for aquatic animals is much more intricate than it is for most mammals,” she observes. “It’s really a science unto itself.”