Trading Tanks for Raceways: Fisheries Veterinarian Finds Her Dream Job in the Pacific Northwest
By Brent Lawrence, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Columbia-Pacific Northwest Region in Portland, Oregon.
Dr. Christine Parker-Graham enjoys her dream job so much that her paycheck seems like an extra bonus.
As a veterinarian for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Fish and Aquatic Conservation program in the Pacific Northwest, she gets to work outdoors with salmon and steelhead in some picturesque locations.
Christine, originally from southern California and a graduate of the University of California-Davis, previously worked for the National Aquarium in Baltimore and joined the Service in 2019. She is based in Lacey, Washington, but travels across the Pacific Northwest to support our National Fish Hatcheries and Tribal hatcheries.
“I really enjoyed working at National Aquarium, and they had a great collection of animals,” Christine said. “But I’m not an East Coaster and I’m not an indoor person, so working inside all day at an aquarium in Baltimore wasn’t quite my jam. Being able to come back to the West Coast and work outside in these areas where I would spend my vacation time to explore the Olympic Peninsula and Cascade Mountains is pretty awesome … and I even get paid to do it.”
But Christine is pretty awesome, too. She recently became a diplomate of the American College of Zoological Medicine. Nobody in the FWS, and only one other person in the Department of Interior, has this specialty board certification which requires six years of veterinary practice within zoo or wildlife medicine, at least three first-author publications, and passing a rigorous two-day exam. “Thank goodness I passed it. It was rough,” said Christine.
Christine is already realizing the benefits from her additional training and board certification. In preparation for the exam, veterinarians are required to read a lot of related literature, textbooks and current journal publications. Those articles often stretch them outside of their usual area of focus.
“There’s a lot of fish cases that are off the well-tread path so thinking more broadly is useful, and I’ve already seen ways that it has helped,” Christine said. “There are so many things that I don’t think I would have thought of in terms of our fish health had I not studied diseases in so many other kinds of wild animals.”
Christine’s day-to-day job is providing fish health services to our National Fish Hatcheries and Abernathy Fish Tech Center. This includes routine visits for well-fish health checkups and making sure everything is going fine with many of the 51 million salmon and steelhead reared and released from our hatcheries every year.
If there are disease issues, then Christine determines the cause and decides if she needs to prescribe chemical treatments, antibiotics or medicated feed for the fish. During the spawning season, she performs fish inspections.
“We screen all of the fish we spawn for diseases they could potentially pass to their babies,” Christine said. “That allows us to make sure that we’re producing really healthy, robust fish from our hatcheries. Spawning season is wild. Seeing that many fish come back is really fun, particularly knowing I had a hand in it.”
Having Christine available and close by makes a huge difference for the three National Fish Hatcheries on the Olympic Peninsula — Makah, Quilcene and Quinault. The hatcheries have important Tribal Trust responsibilities for Chinook, chum and coho salmon, and steelhead.
“Having someone who knows our fish and our people, it makes a difference,” said Puget Sound/Olympic Peninsula hatchery complex manager Denise Hawkins. “Christine is so willing to jump in on anything. She has helped on interviews and selection committees for many positions within our complex. She’s not just our veterinarian, she’s part of our team and we’re lucky to have her.”
Christine’s impact is particularly clear at Makah National Fish Hatchery, which is just a few miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. There are coho salmon and steelhead at the hatchery year around, from spawning to release as smolts.
Makah NFH has limited water during the summer and the available water is often too warm for salmonids and, thus, a breeding ground for parasites and fish diseases.
“Christine has been instrumental in helping the staff there proactively prevent needing so many chemicals and antibiotics to keep our fish healthy,” Denise said. “Christine has been working with the staff to prevent disease. She has instructed the staff on how to look at the fish, access what the fish need, and how to collect samples, especially during COVID when she couldn’t travel. She works very closely with the hatchery managers and staff there to get the samples and information so we can move forward in a timely manner. Our mission at all of our hatcheries on the Olympic Peninsula is Tribal Trust, so it’s important for the Service to be able to produce healthy fish for the Tribes.”
Christine is a part of a larger Pacific Region Fish Heath Program, which protects the health of salmon at Service and many tribal fish hatcheries, and also works to detect and mitigate disease problems in fish populations living in the wild.
Katie Royer and Christine are the region’s two fish veterinarians. They work in partnership with four expert fish pathologists: David Thompson, Tim Bundy, Corie Samson and Laura Sprague; and administrative officer Vince Bocci. The program is managed by Andy Goodwin in the Portland regional office.
That Pacific Fish Health Program team works closely with staff from our 14 National Fish Hatcheries, and with many Tribal hatcheries, to provide optimal care for a resource that is vitally important to people and wildlife across the Pacific Northwest. Salmon are culturally significant to multiple Tribes, representing the symbol and lifeblood of many Tribes who call the Pacific Northwest home. Salmon also are a critical part of the economy through recreational and commercial fishing, and the Service’s hatchery programs play a role in addressing Columbia River Basin hydropower operations.
Salmon also are a critical part of the food web for aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem throughout the Pacific Northwest. They are a critical food resource for more than 100 other species of wildlife, including orcas, eagles, and bears.
“I’m excited for people to know that all the fish health staff look out for these fish,” Christine said. “There’s probably not a fish that goes through our system in our region that that doesn’t get checked out at some point by a veterinarian or fish health staff. It’s really cool to know that our fish are all going out really healthy and properly vetted.
“I think they are the best loved, most well cared for fish in the world.”