An influx of information

Lauren Mitchell, Raincoast's intern on the Wild Salmon Team, shares her insights on off-season salmon research.

Having graduated from highschool in June of 2020, I’d always imagined I’d be writing and researching this winter. I just didn’t anticipate it would be in this COVID context.

Since December, I’ve been working on a literature review for Raincoast’s Lower Fraser Salmon Conservation Program. The intention is to better understand how best to go about calculating the number of salmon the Lower Fraser River and estuary are able to support; also called the carrying capacity. When I began, it was with a lay person’s understanding of salmon. Having grown up in Vancouver, I thought I might know a touch more than the average member of the public. But as it turns out, I had barely scratched the surface.

For the past few months, I’ve found myself inundated with information. Hours upon hours were spent sifting through papers spanning the last half century, searching different combinations of keywords in databases and shuffling through stacks of my notes. Strangely enough, my favorite method of procrastination used to be finding an interesting topic, like how orcas sleep (Answer: unihemispheric sleep) and falling down an internet rabbit hole on it for hours. Well, these past three months I’ve found myself down the deepest rabbit hole yet; tenfold. 

The literature review outlines the importance of such a calculation for salmon, provides various paradigms from other systems, addresses various biotic and abiotic induced hardships, as well as those caused by anthropogenic drivers.  Tweet This!

In the subsequent months, I fell deeply into a world more complex and rich than I could ever have imagined. My research took me in a nonlinear path I not only hadn’t anticipated, but towards topics I had no idea existed. I read papers on bizarre coho die offs just south of the border, of which scientists grappled to explain. I spent weeks consuming knowledge about major climatic shifts in the Strait of Georgia occurring before, and even during my lifetime.

I finally understood what my parents meant when defending the lack of air conditioning in our house; “it didn’t used to get hot in Vancouver,” they’d always say. I learned, more in depth, about the richness salmon provide to an ecosystem. About how anadromous Pacific salmon put on 99% of their weight in the ocean. And how upon their return home, they provide an annual pulse of nutrients to the fluvial ecosystems so starved of them. I marvelled at the data showing Sitka spruce trees which grow adjacent to a salmon stream can grow 50 cm in diameter in just 86 years, and those not in proximity to said streams take 307 years to grow the same amount. 

Lauren’s notes. Photo by Lauren Mitchell.

After two and a half months of initial research, and about a month of writing, I produced a document ten pages longer than anything I’d ever written in highschool. The literature review outlines the importance of such a calculation for salmon, provides various paradigms from other systems, addresses various biotic and abiotic induced hardships, as well as those caused by anthropogenic drivers. And, I hope, provides a fairly comprehensive overview of the complexities of a salmon’s life and the factors prospectively affecting their carrying capacity. 

Perhaps my undertaking of this literature review was masterfully planned, as because of it, I have a significantly better understanding of what I’ll be doing at the onset of field season this March. Not only do I better understand the implications and importance of the data we will be collecting, but I now understand the environment and organisms better. Regardless of whether my assignment stemmed from necessity, or forward thinking, I now grasp the concept of the halocline, know about resource segregation amongst species, am aware of common prey items in different estuarine habitats, and understand the big picture of where individual stocks may be headed as they leave our nets and the estuary. 

Overall, I think the immense learning curve I’ve undergone in the past months will not end with the final draft of my paper, but be supplemented on a continual basis with the hands-on work now resuming in the estuary. It certainly wasn’t the winter I was expecting, but in many ways, it was better. 

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.