"Early on, the only diseases we worried about were those that affected the fish we were growing in our hatcheries," O'Bara said. "We never thought about diseases in wild populations. We figured most fish kills were caused by environmental problems."
That began to change when scientists trained in medical pathology started applying their expertise to fish.
"Now a lot of the people studying fish diseases are 'fish veterinarians.' They're giving us medications and techniques we can use to control disease in our hatcheries and, as a result, stock healthier fish," O'Bara said.
Some of the cutting-edge work seems almost like science fiction. O'Bara said biologists are now able to visit a body of water, take a few water samples, and determine which fish species are present by the DNA they find.
"It's called environmental DNA, or eDNA," he explained. "It's very good for detecting the presence of invasive species such as Asian carp. It's also good for helping us find rare species that are difficult to collect.
"I can foresee a day when, instead of going out with gill nets and electrofishing boats, we'll just go out and collect water samples to see what fish are there. We could use the same techniques for finding diseases, too."
O'Bara likened modern fisheries research to the work done by forensic pathologists on TV shows such as "CSI" and "Bones."
"What we do is not much different from that," he said. "We use many of the same techniques crime labs do."
Even with all the advances, O'Bara believes future generations of biologists will look back on today's techniques and laugh.
"Technology will push the way we do our business," he said. "I've had kids ask why we did things the way we did, putting cyanide in the water to sample fish. Well, it was the breaking edge of technology at the time. Twenty-five years later, we wonder what the heck we were thinking about."
O'Bara said the biologists of the future will need to be far better communicators than biologists of his generation were.
"Kids now are getting their information from smartphones, websites, blogs and the like," he said.
"I think biologists 25 years from now won't even have offices. They'll work off some gadget that's like a smartphone, only 100 times smarter. Information will fly back and forth from one biologist to the other. The beneficiaries will be the sportsmen, who will have better and healthier fisheries because of the work those biologists will be doing."
Reach John McCoy at johnmc...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.