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History of the Columbia River Research Laboratory

The Columbia River Research Laboratory was established in 1978 to address fishery issues in the Columbia River basin. Currently, the CRRL conducts research on fish and aquatic issues throughout the Columbia River basin and across the western United States. The CRRL is located in Cook, Washington, in the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland, Oregon.

Following are excerpts from "Wedemeyer, G.A., 2013, Seventy-five years of science — The U.S. Geological Survey's Western Fisheries

Research Center: U.S. Geological Survey General Information Product 149, 44 p."

Chapter 4 - 1978 to 1994

WFRC History of the Lab FC
Western Fisheries Research Center (WFRC) History of the Laboratory Front Cover

Columbia River Field Station

Among the most significant new research efforts initiated by Center Director Fox was the establishment in 1978 of a field station on the Columbia River. Earlier that year, the FWS reorganized the National Reservoir Research Program (NRRP) and biologists William R. Nelson and Lance G. Beckman, then at the NRRP field station at Pierre, South Dakota, were reassigned to the NFRC and stationed at the FWS Fisheries Assistance Office in Vancouver, Washington.

Fox tasked Nelson and Beckman with developing a research program to provide information needed by resource managers on fish populations in the impoundments behind the 11 major dams on the Columbia River. Nelson and Beckman were quickly successful in obtaining Bureau of Reclamation funding to study the distribution and abundance of fish populations in Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind Grand Coulee dam. Dennis Rondorf was the first biologist hired followed by Gerry Gray Anthony Nigro, and Richard Harper.

Gray and Harper were stationed at Grand Coulee to begin the Lake Roosevelt research program under the supervision of Lance Beckman. Dennis Rondorf was stationed at the McNary National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) to conduct a related study on juvenile fall Chinook salmon in the reservoir behind McNary Dam.

In 1980, Congress enacted the Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act. In response, the major emphasis of the Columbia River Field Station (CRFS) shifted to providing natural resource managers and regulators with an improved understanding of how hydropower systems affect the growth and survival of anadromous salmonids in the various freshwater habitats they use for spawning, rearing, and migration in the Columbia and Snake River basins.

Although the research targeted hydropower related problems, the research also was designed to be applicable to fish passage and other issues in regulated rivers throughout the United States. Other environmental stress factors, such as fishing, agriculture, and hatchery practices also were studied to determine their effects on efforts to sustain native runs of salmon. This research began in 1981 with pioneering work by Dennis Rondorf on the bioenergetics of downstream migrant smolts and Gerry Gray on predator-prey relationships. Other early researchers on the predation project were Jean Beyer Rogers, Mike Faler, Hal Hansel, Doug Palmer, and Gary Sonnevil.

The CRFS research program grew rapidly and in 1982, the staff moved to the former FWS Western Fish Nutrition Laboratory at Cook, Washington, in the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland, Oregon. Soon after the move, the CRFS was renamed the Columbia River Research Laboratory (CRRL) and the research program continued to progress.

Boat moving fast on the water
Tracking/monitoring movement of juvenile salmonids implanted with radio transmitters as they migrate down the Columbia River to the ocean. (Credit: Lisa Gee, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.)

In 1984, Gerry Gray transferred from CRRL to the FWS Alaska Regional Office and Tom Poe was later hired from the FWS Great Lakes Fisheries Research Laboratory to succeed him. Poe and his research team (Mike Parsley, Matt Mesa, Craig Barfoot, Rip Shively, Steve Vigg, and Roger Tabor) continued CRRL’s now classic work on predator-prey relationships throughout the Columbia and lower Snake River basins with emphasis on the survival of salmon smolts. Today, the team’s research findings are considered the baseline for predator-prey studies throughout the country.

In 1985, John Beeman was hired to work with Jerry Novotny on a Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) funded study rearing juvenile fall Chinook salmon in net pens in backwaters of the Columbia River to increase the number of adults returning to the John Day Reservoir. This research progressed into physiological measurements of smoltification, stress, and disease. Beeman’s research team currently is using radio and acoustic telemetry to monitor fish movements and describe factors affecting in-river mortality and dam passage of juvenile salmonids in several rivers in Washington and Oregon as part of a series of studies to improve downstream passage success.

In 1987, Mike Parsley moved from the predator-prey project to the Columbia River white sturgeon project led by Lance Beckman. These pioneering biologists were the first to

  • Delineate the early life history of the Columbia River white sturgeon,
  • Find white sturgeon eggs in the reservoirs,
  • Capture age-0 white sturgeon in reservoirs,
  • Document predation on white sturgeon eggs by other fish, and
  • Publish a paper in which a geographic information system (GIS) was used to quantify habitat for fish.

In 1991, Stan Smith transferred to the CRRL to assist Director Bill Nelson with his work on facilities expansion and to begin his own research on hatchery rearing practices. Dennis Rondorf also started his Snake River fall Chinook project in 1991 and Alec G. Maule was hired to continue the smolt condition for travel-time analysis project that Rondorf had initiated in 1987. Maule expanded Rondorf’s pioneering work on smolt physiology and in 1996 began his own classic gas bubble disease research and monitoring project.

During Director Bill Nelson’s era (1978–94), CRRL fisheries science in the Columbia River Basin steadily expanded to address the information needs of the Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration, and other client agencies willing to support well- regarded USGS science. In 1988 for example, Nelson hired James H. Peterson to mathematically model predation as a factor limiting smolt survival in the Columbia River Basin. Peterson’s innovative research lead to bioenergetics and individual-based models of predation in a “normalized” Columbia River. Peterson was also a key driver in establishing the stream ecology research program, which since has become a mainstay of the laboratory. After Nelson retired in 1994, Jim Peterson was appointed Acting Director. After Beckman retired in 1994, Parsley became project leader and later the WFRC's geospatial technology coordinator for the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey. His “Digital Atlas of John Day Reservoir,” has become a classic reference work.

Chapter 5 - 1995 to 2003

Columbia River Research Laboratory

In 1995, James G. Seelye, then Chief of the Hammond Bay Field Station of the FWS Great Lakes Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was appointed Director of the Columbia River Research Laboratory (CRRL). In 1999, Seelye hired Jim Hutton, WFRCs first geographer, to run CRRL’s GIS/Geospatial Section full-time.

In 2000, Alec Maule began his research to determine how natural physiological processes interact with climate driven changes in the aquatic environment to affect the survival of individuals and thus, populations. In 2002, Maule began his classic work on the physiological effects of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) on Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus) with Norway’s Kårvik Research Station and support from the National Science Foundation. Arctic char in high northern latitudes migrate to the ocean in the spring to feed and grow. This results in accumulation of PCBs in their visceral fat. During the winter, the char reside in freshwater lakes where they do not feed, but mobilize lipids from adipose tissue for energy. This process results in the distribution of toxic PCBs to the brain, spleen, and heart that decrease the overall physiological health of these populations.

Image: Columbia River Contaminants and Habitat Study
USGS scientists strategize near the Rooster Rock boat launch en route to Skamania Landing to collect fish for the Columbia River Contaminants and Habitat Study. People pictured from the left: Glen Holmberg, Leticia Torres, Conrad Frost, Elena Nilsen.

In 2003, as the Western Fisheries Research Center neared its seventh decade, Director Frank Shipley transferred to the USGS Western Regional Office as Deputy Regional Biologist overseeing all six western regional science centers. During Shipley’s 8 years as Director, the WFRC produced more than 600 peer-reviewed scientific publications together with hundreds more contract research reports, many of which formed the basis for administrative action by natural resource managers. The unprecedented growth in contract work related to the ESA listing of several Columbia River salmon runs and the increasing demands for biological research on other riverine species such as white sturgeon and Pacific lampreys had resulted in a total WFRC staff numbering nearly 200 employees, including students and contractors.

Overall, the Shipley years at WFRC were marked by high productivity and spirited cooperation between the Center, the fisheries research community worldwide, academia, the aquaculture industry, and state governmental agencies with similar legislative responsibilities.

Chapter 6 - 2003 to 2010

Columbia River Research Laboratory

In 2003, CRRL Director Jim Seelye retired and was succeeded by James H. Peterson. Peterson served as Director until his premature death in 2007 at the age of 53. Alec Maule and then Dennis Rondorf stepped into the void as acting Directors until a permanent replacement for Peterson could be found. Since 2008, the CRRL has been under the leadership of Stephen M. Waste. With years of practical experience in the commercial fishing industry, a doctoral dissertation on the role of science in natural resource decision making, and additional years of administrative experience at the Bonneville Power Administration and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, Waste has proved a valuable addition to the WFRC Research Management Team.

Under the leadership of Waste, his predecessors, and lead scientists such as Noah Adams, John Beeman, Patrick Connolly, Theresa Liedke, Alec Maule, Matt Mesa, Michael Parsley, Russell Perry, and Dennis Rondorf, the CRRL has become WFRC’s largest field station. Contract research is conducted for, and in collaboration with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration, Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public Utility Districts, Tribes, and several state agencies. As of this writing (2012), CRRL work includes fish biology, large river ecology, environmental physiology, fish behavior, invasive species, and mathematical modeling research projects throughout the Columbia River basin in five Western United States. Research Geographer James Hatten provides GIS predictive modeling and remote sensing capability. The CRRL also has become a national leader in the research, development, and use of biotelemetry and hydroacoustics such as Doppler water velocity profiling technologies. With a year-round staff of about 70 biologists and administrative support personnel with another 70 staff members hired during the field season, the CRRL is one of the largest employers in Skamania County, Washington, and one of the largest USGS research units in the Western United States.

Note: Since the writing of the history John Beeman, Patrick Connolly, Alec Maule, Matt Mesa, Michael Parsley, and Dennis Rondorf have retired.


A photo of The Columbia River
Multiple basalt flows create this stair-step landscape along the Washington side of the Columbia River.