The Sockeye Whisperer

Michael Price and his son, a toddler, sit in a mountainside pasture wearing toques.

Raincoast Conservation Foundation biologist Michael Price (pictured above with his son) is truly a local boy made good. A fourth generation Vancouver Islander, he was born and raised in Saanich, playing hockey and lacrosse with the Saanich Braves. Michael’s great grandfather founded Price’s Lock and Safe and his family continues to run the business. Being the rebel that he is, the family couldn’t get Michael out of the woods to work in the store. Michael went to Spectrum High School and graduated from the University of Victoria with a BSc in biology. He now lives in Smithers with his wife Clare and son Anian.

Currently, Michael is now back at UVic undertaking an MSc in biology, focusing on host-parasite dynamics, foraging ecology of salmonids, and how commercial industries such as fin-fish aquaculture may alter natural processes. Specifically, Michael’s research aims to identify and understand human stressors that threaten Fraser River sockeye salmon during their early marine migration through the Strait of Georgia.

The productivity of Fraser River sockeye has been declining since the mid-1990s to the point where they are near unable to replace themselves. Reduced productivity is believed to occur during the early marine phase. Michael’s study will improve this poorly understood early marine life-history phase in terms of migration timing, movements, sizes, stock proportions, and stock-specific attributes that will improve fisheries management for the conservation of sockeye.

2010 will be forever etched in the memories of most British Columbians as the year sockeye salmon returned to the Fraser River en masse; the largest return in a century. An estimated 34 million sockeye found their way home, and we wondered how sockeye were able to return in such abundance. In the fall of 2009 we were all wondering why sockeye destined for the Fraser had disappeared (a record-low 1.5 million returned), and a federal judicial inquiry was established to investigate. During both occasions, with Michael leading this research for us, Raincoast has been at the forefront of addressing these questions.

Raincoast’s salmon team is participating in the federal inquiry to improve the understanding of factors affecting sockeye populations. Our recently published article, with Michael as lead author, in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences describes wild juvenile salmon infected with sea lice in multiple regions of coastal BC, and our submitted manuscript to PLoS ONE is the first to illustrate the magnitude of sea lice infection on juvenile Fraser River sockeye after they migrate past farms in the Georgia Strait.

A version of this article was first published in the Seaside Times February 2011 Issue.

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Lauren wearing a blue toque and a burgundy shirt.