Meet Auston Chhor, Raincoast’s new Wild Salmon Governance and Policy Analyst

Auston has joined our team to advance ecosystem-based governance structures and policies to support salmon recovery and habitat conservation in the Lower Fraser River.

Auston Chhor has joined our growing Wild Salmon Program team as a Governance and Policy Analyst. He will focus on addressing the myriad of threats facing salmon habitats in the Lower Fraser River by progressing governance frameworks, policies, funding structures, and field research initiatives. Auston has a BSc in Biology from Queen’s University and a Masters of Science at Carleton University under Dr. Steven Cooke, where he studied how catch-and-release impacts the behaviour of fish. He also is a freelance writer for The Tyee, Canada’s National Observer, and Science World.

We posed some questions to Auston to help you get to know him and give you a look at what he will be working on in the next few months.

Can you please share a bit about your background and how you got into this field?

I grew up in a suburb of Toronto, my neighbourhood tucked between a mall and a Costco. I’d love to say that I spent my childhood catching frogs and hopping across tide pools, but I was a pretty sheltered kid, preferring to spend my days seeing how fast I could finish Pokemon Sapphire. My interest in the outdoors was first sparked in 2017 by a two-week field course at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS), a place that I would later work at and call home. It was at QUBS where I first noticed how excited I was to be in nature, and how I could apply my analytical brain to address real-world conservation questions. Later that year I worked as a Nature Interpreter at the High Park Nature Centre, where I would learn to appreciate the minutiae of the local flora and fauna and developed a passion for sharing it with others. 

In 2018 I spent a summer at QUBS leading a study on riparian habitat for my undergraduate thesis, then spent the next two summers there working on my MSc. The beautiful places, fast pace, and constant problem solving that accompanied field work hooked me right away. Upon graduation I moved out to BC to make the outdoors a permanent part of my life. 

Young Auston Chhor sitting at a mini table on a very old laptop.

Can you go more in depth about your masters research? 

My work focused on figuring out how fish behave after they are released. Catch-and-release is practiced around the world as a conservation-minded approach to angling but the welfare of fish once they are released can vary greatly due to what we call “angling factors”. This can include: how long the fish is fought, what gear the angler is using, and how long the fish is exposed to air. For my research, I devised a method to non-invasively attach a data logger to our study animals, allowing us to monitor swimming speed, depth, water temperature, and acceleration after the fish was let go. The attachment method used velcro and looked a lot like a fitness watch, so we called it the “fishbit”. 

In a world where catch-and-release continues to be promoted in response to dwindling sportfish stocks, our research hoped to support a push for better handling and treatment of angled fish.

Fish with a band around it.

Can you share your thoughts on the importance of conducting applied science that can be shaped into policy? 

Having spent time both in academia and industry I’ve come to realize that ultimately, research is at its most powerful when it’s used to shape public opinion and guide decision making. The planet is facing a slew of complex, ongoing threats which require immediate action. The ever-evolving nature of issues like climate change makes applied research invaluable for continuously improving our understanding of the issues and finding new ways to address them.

I also think that communicating the results of research to the general public is of the same importance as the research itself. A well-informed, engaged public is one that is better equipped to push for change in governments who might be swayed by other competing interests. Raincoast’s Education Program, podcast appearances, and numerous op-eds make me excited to work at an organization that values both applied research and public engagement.

What are you most looking forward to in your work with Raincoast? 

I’m looking forward to spending more time working with salmon, which until recently were a mythical animal to me as someone who grew up in Ontario. There are so many passionate people and organizations working to protect wild salmon and I’m excited to get to know them all. 

I’m also hoping to sneak my way onto any whale, wolf, or forest projects! Raincoast is the first organization I’ve worked for that isn’t just focused on fish, and I’m excited to learn from the wealth of knowledge that the rest of the team has. 

We know you have experience as a science communicator and that you have written about eco-anxiety. What’s your relationship now with it?

As I’m sure many people working in the environmental sector can relate, I used to have a pretty cynical view on the prospects of environmental progress in my generation. I remember watching An Inconvenient Truth in the fourth grade and thinking by the time I started working that the adults would have it all figured out already. The slow realization that this was not the case left me with a dark outlook of my purpose when I finally became a biologist.

Recently I’ve begun to realize that the “save the world” rhetoric we were taught in grade school may have been a bit too ambitious. As an individual, trying to make an impact on issues as big as climate change, habitat loss, and food security can feel daunting and downright impossible. “Thinking big” like this had me unsure of where to start, and without hope that anything could be accomplished.

What I found is more beneficial is thinking local. Creating a sphere of influence in your friends, family, or community, using whatever skills you have to offer. For example, not everyone wants to be a climate scientist, but I’d guarantee that everyone can contribute something to address climate change that they are both good at and enjoy doing. Thinking like this has helped me find hope in the small wins, and has introduced to me a network of like-minded people within my community that are passionate about doing right by the environment.       

What’s the best television series ever made, and why is it Avatar: the Last Airbender? Which episode is your favourite? 

ATLA (as true fans of the show call it) has just stuck with me, throughout my entire life. I have many fond memories of my university roommate and I bailing on Friday night plans to stay in and watch it, pizzas in hand. There’s just something comforting about it, and I think that anyone, regardless of age, can relate to the themes that are carried throughout.

As for my favourite episode, it’s got to be Zuko Alone. Or Sokka’s Master. Both involve big turning points in each character’s arc and they’re just so good

We are so excited to share our annual report – Tracking Raincoast Into 2023 – with you! Tracking gives you highlights from the year, our science, flagship projects, as well as a peek at what’s in store for the coming year.

Dive into Tracking and learn more about our work safeguarding coastal carnivores in the Southern Great Bear Rainforest tenure. We are currently raising funds to stop commercial trophy hunting in more than a quarter of the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia. Now is a good time to sign up and stay connected to our community of researchers and change-makers.