Centennial Story 65: Orlay Johnson (PhD, 1988): Experience with SOF and SAFS

My experience with the UW and the future SAFS started in the 1970s when I was teaching at Lopez Island High School and helping with AquaSea, a net-pen operation on the island. On the weekends, I worked with one of the employees, Tom Scribner (MS, 1977), who was a kayaking buddy and had just graduated from UW’s College of Fisheries.

One weekend, this very well-dressed, stylish gentleman showed up and was talking to Tom. Turns out, he was a professor at the UW named Ernie Brannon, and he had been Tom’s major professor. I was surprised to see such a well-dressed guy working on the docks, but he was amazingly knowledgeable about salmon behavior, feeding, and health. In just the short time I talked with him, I felt I learned more than the previous few months had taught me. Plus, he didn’t mind getting his hands, or even his nice clothes, dirty when we pulled up several nets to check the health of the fish.

Orlay holding a coho salmon at the UW hatchery in 2008
Orlay with a coho the UW hatchery (circa 2008)

I had previously worked on salmon tenders and gill netters, and my image of fisheries biologists was limited to folks who counted dead fish or tried to produce more hatchery fish. Now, I had met someone who was knowledgeable about the nuances of fish ecology and life history. Maybe the UW fisheries wasn’t so bad after all.

That summer, besides working in Alaska, I took a class at the Friday Harbor Labs that was taught by a brand-new PhD from USC named Ted Pietsch (it was his first class at the UW). I also met Bruce Miller and was very impressed with his research on tumors in flatfish.

I returned to Seattle, got a job at the new Seattle Aquarium, and applied to UW graduate school at the re-named School of Fisheries (SOF). I wanted to do research with Bill Hershberger or Dennis Willows, but both already had many graduate students. Bill and two recent grad students at the UW (Fred Allendorf [MS, 1973] and Gary Thorgaard) all suggested I go across the Montlake Cut and talk to this UW affiliate professor who was a NOAA geneticist, Fred Utter. Fred was an amazing person—he may have worked in a tiny office almost under the SR 520 bridge, but his influence on me, and many other graduate students, was great.

To make a long story short—I met Fred, we talked genetics, and I was totally enamored with studying genetics in salmon and other aquatic species. Fred and I talked about music, allozymes, and polyploidy (an interest of mine since high school), and he mentioned that Gary Thorgaard, while doing a post-doc at UC Davis, had recently noticed that some returning salmon had been triploid (3N) instead of the normal or more common diploid (2N).

Once accepted into SOF, I obtained a Sea Grant fellowship and started my research on triploidy in Pacific salmon. We were determined to create sterile triploid Pacific salmonids for rearing in seawater net pens and land-locked mountain lakes that would perhaps become trophy-sized fish.

We tried using various methods to create triploids and settled on heated water to shock the salmon eggs and block migration of the chromosomes on the cell’s spindle fibers. It worked, and soon we created various types of triploid salmon. We reared them at the SOF hatchery and at NOAA’s Montlake lab, and eventually, with the help of Dr. Conrad Mahnken, transferred the fish to a Northwest Fisheries Science Center field station at Manchester and also released some at the Seattle Aquarium.

Orlay at the NOAA science camp (circa 2014)
Orlay at the NOAA science camp (circa 2014)

I was hired as a geneticist by NOAA after writing my dissertation on triploidy in Pacific salmon and earning my PhD under Bill, Fred, and Ernie. I continued my relationship with the UW, helping to teach classes at the School of Education, School of Fisheries, and later, SAFS.

I also became interested in the American Fisheries Society’s Student Subunit program—wherein fisheries students can join the Society and apply for fellowships for tuition and also for travel grants to attend local and national meetings. I am particularly proud that the WA-BC Chapter of AFS has created a fellowship honoring the late Professor Jeff Cederholm  (WDFW Biologist and Evergreen professor), which each year funds an undergraduate, a master’s, and a doctoral student.

For me, the experience of working with these students from SAFS has been a high point of my career and an inspiration for the future. These students are smart and dedicated fisheries scientists, and I feel honored to have worked with them.

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