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Dexter center uses science to save region’s fish; Facility has one of six Fish and Wildlife conservation genetic laboratories

Biologist Dave Hampton of the fish health unit works under a hood on samples that will be used to determine if viruses are present in fish. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Not too far from Lake Van in Dexter stand sophisticated genetics and molecular laboratories, unique in that they are used primarily to study fish.

Biologist William Knight, who leads the fish culture unit, stands near one of the tanks and in front of some of the 76 outdoor ponds at the Southwestern Native Aquatic Resources and Recovery Center in Dexter. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

The laboratories with about a million dollars worth of equipment and resources — including DNA sequencers and extractors, thermocyclers, biohoods, microscopes and tissue archives dating back 40 years — are part of a federal facility on 620 acres off of East Shawnee Road now known as the Southwestern Native Aquatic Resources and Recovery Center.

Its 16 employees, from scientists to support staff to maintenance crews, do a variety of projects, but the work primarily focuses on breeding, cultivating, inspecting and conducting research on fish, specifically those listed as threatened or endangered.

“They matter on an ecological perspective,” said Martha Keller, project leader for the fish health program. “They may not be something that will benefit them (people) necessarily. They can’t eat them and they may not like looking at them as they may seem boring. But, from an ecological perspective, they fill very particular niches and when they are not there, things can change pretty dramatically.”

The facility was built in 1932 as a hatchery, with Dexter proving a suitable location due to the federal government’s ownership of land and water rights, said Wade Wilson, deputy director. But the center turned its focus to threatened species in 1974 and became one of six Fish and Wildlife Service technology centers in 1991. It’s gone through several name changes over the years, taking on its current moniker in 2012.

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Currently the facility is holding, breeding and cultivating 14 threatened and endangered species, including the Rio Grande silvery minnow, the Colorado pikeminnow, the Pecos bluntnose shiner and the Razorback sucker, which can be found in New Mexico waters. At times, the center works with as many as 21 species. Somewhere between 1 million and 2 million fish are in its numerous indoor tanks and 76 outdoor ponds during a year.

A group of researchers also is leading or participating in about 30 different studies on fish as well as other aquatic species such as mussels and snails. Their investigations include determining whether a new invasive aquatic species exists in the region and analyzing DNA samples of water to determine which species live there and to derive some estimates of population sizes.

In addition, the fish health unit staff regularly inspects eight federal hatcheries in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona and routinely studies samples of fish and water from throughout the region to identify and combat bacteria, viruses and parasites.

Wilson said not many people he talks with are familiar with the center or the Fish and Wildlife Service. The facility isn’t a secret either.

About 300 people visit the center each year either during regular public tours or by arranging private tours. Students from the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University in Las Cruces and online degree programs also conduct research there, while a few area high school students do internships on site each year. Staff members also participate in community events and hold workshops at local schools, and hunters come to the facility’s wetlands in the fall during duck season.

One of the facility’s major goals is to release healthy populations of fish back into waters in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, Nevada and Texas, said Wilson. But its activities are far more wide-ranging than just that. Biologists tag species, do surveys, build databases, determine species’ relationships and reproduction cycles, and examine the rings on the fins to estimate age, all with an overarching mission of conserving native populations.

Wilson said the cultivation and research they do now helps determine the issues and the concerns that will need to be addressed in the future.

“We have to plan ahead,” he said, “decades ahead.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.