Three months in the Fraser River estuary

Notes from the Field - June 2016.

The evening sun turns the still waters crimson against the backdrop of the purple mountains as we cruise gently back to harbour through Canoe Pass. Raincoast’s Wild Salmon Biologist Misty MacDuffee lets out a triumphant laugh as she manages to capture the stunning colours on camera – it is a great way to finish a long day of sampling. A great blue heron creates a graceful silhouette as he looks for fish in the shallow marsh. Likely the same fish we have been looking for – juvenile salmon.

We have been out on the vast flats of the Fraser River estuary in the crab boat Bella Rose with experienced captains Steven Stark and Lindsey Wilson. Our team: Misty MacDuffee, Raincoast biologists Dave Scott and Andy Rosenberger, UVic Post Doc Josie Iacarella and myself, UVic M.Sc. student Lia Chalifour, hauled a custom purse seine across the shallow sand flats and eelgrass meadows with the hope of documenting the arrival and use of these habitats by the juvenile salmon. On other days, we weave through the salt marshes where the river meets the flats at high tide, and pull a beach seine through the sheltered, milky waters.

Fraser River salmon have a long way to travel, many predators to contend with, and a lot of habitat to choose from. This habitat has been vastly reduced from its historic levels, and we can’t help but wonder how much that has impacted the salmon runs that so many of us depend upon.

Upwards of 70 percent of the Fraser River floodplain has been locked away with dykes and jetties, making these vital habitats inaccessible to most fish. Urban development for Canada’s largest coastal city and surrounding centres, large scale farming, and industry uses have replaced much of the largest delta in BC. The many hectares of marsh and vast tidal flat remaining are but a shadow of what this mighty river once boasted.

Draining roughly a quarter of British Columbia, it is little wonder that the Fraser River still produces the largest salmon run out of any river in the world. The next closest river in size is the Columbia to the south, which has been dammed and degraded far beyond what the Fraser has sustained. New restoration projects there are bringing hope to the future of salmon in the Salish Sea – something that we hope to encourage for the Fraser estuary as well.

Please support this dynamic research and our efforts to ensure wild salmon return to the Fraser River.

For the coast,

Lia Chalifour, Dave Scott, Andy Rosenberger, and Misty MacDuffee
Raincoast/UVic Fraser River juvenile salmon study team

To view a time lapse video of a day in the life of a researcher on the Fraser River Estuary Juvenile Salmon project, visit the Fraser River project page on our site.

You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.