Darkened oval markings (parr marks) reach below the lateral line of a squirming salmon and we all knew what we were seeing; “It’s a Chinook!”
After a winter of working remotely and writing reports, I was thrilled to be back in the field monitoring salmon in the Fraser Estuary. This time last year I was finishing my undergraduate degree and starting as a Research Assistant for the Lower Fraser Salmon Conservation Program at Raincoast. A lot has changed, but sampling continues to be my favorite aspect of this work as it underscores the presence and resilience of Fraser River salmon.
Below shipping containers, construction, and log booms, salmon utilize any marsh, eelgrass, and sandflat habitat that remains. Harrison, South Thompson, and hatchery populations stop in this crucial rearing habitat for over a month before out-migrating to the perilous ocean.
This year is no exception: salmon have already arrived in abundance in the estuary. During our first sampling occasion of the season Chinook were captured and released in the estuary at an average length of 39 millimeters. About a month later individuals have grown, some in the 50-millimeter range. A few weeks into the season we caught a record-number of Chinook in one beach seine set at the Steveston Jetty. This jetty previously presented a barrier to access estuary habitat and sent salmon directly into the Strait. Raincoast’s addition of breaches as a part of the Fraser Estuary Connectivity Project makes it possible for Chinook to access this critical area, which we have already seen this year.
Having worked primarily in the Fraser estuary, I had spent little time sampling juvenile salmon in any upstream habitat. Because of this, I was intrigued by the opportunity to help sample with Bonnie Lo, a PhD candidate at SFU, who is currently assessing contaminants and their effect on juvenile Chinook in the Lower Fraser. Dave Scott, Research and Restoration Coordinator for Raincoast’s Lower Fraser Salmon Program, and Bonnie’s crew have previously collaborated and had a joint interest in assessing Harrison River salmon as a reference for Lower Fraser contaminant research.
On a Monday morning, and as communicated over Zoom, each crew member from Raincoast and Bonnie’s team caravanned in separate COVID-safe cars to meet about 100 kilometers east of Vancouver. As we drove further from the city, high-rise buildings turned into sprawling properties covered with livestock and crops.
We unloaded the beach seine along the riverbank and walked with the net’s wings in hand, the seine getting gradually more difficult to pull as we picked up debris. The clear water allowed us to see schools of fish trying to evade the net just before they were gently ushered into the seine where we would collect, measure, and release those that are not being taken by Bonnie for further liver analysis. Our first day at Harrison we caught 396 salmon and have continued seeing high numbers, including Chinook, coho, chum, and sockeye each sampling occasion since.
The two-hour drive home from Harrison allows me to reflect on the journey these populations must make to return to their spawning grounds. It is hard to imagine juvenile salmon, who are smaller than my pointer-finger, migrate the distance it takes my car two hours to make. They grow, continue far past the estuary through the Strait of Georgia, into the ocean, and then return to the area they first started up to five years after they left. Their life begins in clear water, relatively pollution-free, but they eventually find themselves in the estuary and rear where physical barriers and industrial activity are just another obstacle in the story of their complex lives.
Monitoring juvenile salmon, I am constantly reminded of both the fragility and resilience of this species. Most populations of Fraser Chinook are threatened or endangered, but somehow each year we can see populations during the start of their migration through such variable habitat.
For all these reasons, I am excited to continue studying salmon moving through this landscape and hope to continue aiding the conservation of this species this season and in the future.
Paige Roper is a Wild Salmon Research Assistant at Raincoast Conservation Foundation. She has a BSc in Natural Resources Conservation, Science and Management from UBC and hopes to continue monitoring and studying Pacific salmon in the Fraser.
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