DNA from Kitwanga River salmon may help researchers from Simon Fraser University and the Gitanyow Fisheries Authority better assess salmon populations in B.C. Black Press file photo.

DNA from Kitwanga River salmon may help researchers from Simon Fraser University and the Gitanyow Fisheries Authority better assess salmon populations in B.C. Black Press file photo.

Northern B.C. study using salmon DNA to count annual runs

A successful outcome could have future implications across Canadian fisheries

Northern B.C. salmon are the focus of a new study that may revolutionize how we count seasonal runs, and expand our understanding of populations in streams too remote to include in today’s surveys.

The study is a collaboration between Simon Fraser University and the Gitanyow Fisheries Authority (the technical arm of the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs near Terrace) with the goal of determining if salmonid environmental DNA (eDNA) found in river-water samples can establish the number of spawning fish as accurately as manual counts.

“I think we’ll be successful. We’re looking at five different species and I think we’ve got a really good chance at this,” said lead researcher, SFU biology professor Vicki Marlatt.

Environmental DNA refers to traces of DNA animals shed into their surroundings — a pink salmon, for example, will release billions of cells per day in its feces and dislodged scales. For this study, researchers will collect one-litre samples of river water on a daily basis then count the DNA occurrences of the targeted species. With the help of a statistician, what’s found in that sample can be extrapolated to account for the entire stream.

“There’s a fair bit of math behind it,” Marlatt said.

READ MORE: Emaciated grizzly found dead on central B.C. coast as low salmon count sparks concern

The challenges are to figure out exactly how many cells each salmon species sheds in one day, to avoid counting an individual fish more than once, and then calibrating the process to account for ever-changing river conditions. But if the math is right, the count will be equal to the conventional manual method, where salmon are tallied one by one as they pass through fences and gates spanning the river.

The benefit of eDNA sampling means a low-cost, non-invasive method of counting that doesn’t require constant human presence. It can also be expanded for wider commercial use across fisheries and aquaculture sectors.

“If we’re successful, this would allow us to collect more data on the number of salmon in hundreds of rivers that are not being counted in Canada,” Marlatt said. “Also, if this proves to be more effective and efficient, in terms of human time and cost, then certainly this is something we could consider replacing some of the fish fences with.”

But eDNA sampling would augment, not replace, the fence counts on the Kitwanga River.

Gitanyow Fisheries head biologist and senior technical advisor, Mark Cleveland, explained the fence off the mid-point of the Skeena River is the only one among few in the Northwest that counts all five species of salmon. It’s a state-of-the-art device with a high-definition camera to assist with manual counts that also enables staff to isolate about five per cent of the passing fish for important physical inspections for weight, sex and overall health.

“This is a unique facility … but it’s really labour intensive and expensive so you can’t have them everywhere,” Cleveland said.

“With this eDNA technology, 10 years down the road we might have it dialed in so we can go take water samples in different watersheds — if you take it at key times, you could do more surveys in more areas and it would result in better management.”

Accurate counts are critical for Fisheries and Oceans Canada to determine allowable harvests each year in the commercial, recreational and First Nations fisheries. The department will sometimes rely on fence counts when river conditions disrupt efforts at the Tyee Test Fishery in the lower Skeena.

READ MORE: Grants awarded to 12 northern B.C. salmon conservation projects

“It’s important to reach that balance where we’re escaping enough fish to the various places so we don’t over-exploit them to the point they don’t come back. These programs give us the spot check we need,” Cleveland said.

The eDNA study was scheduled for completion this year but high rains forced its postponement to 2021.

Marlatt is confident of the experiment’s success next year, citing one of very few related studies recently completed in Alaska.

“It really is a lot of work, and it was going so well,” Marlatt said. “We managed to get this up and running despite a pandemic and despite getting all the funds laid down and the team together … then the heavy rains came and the fence had to be opened otherwise the [river] would have taken it down. But we’re ready to go next year and I’m pretty optimistic, based on the study in Alaska. With some tight manual counts and tight water-flow data, I think we’ll make some big strides.”

The study is funded through Genome BC’s Sector Innovation Program.



quinn.bender@blackpress.ca

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Friends with Dorothy opens in Victoria.
LGBT2Q+ lounge Friends with Dorothy opens second location in Victoria

The Kelowna-based lounge plans to open in Victoria mid-December

Sig
Traffic delays expected on Monday from highway construction in Sooke

Single-lane alternating traffic between Otter Road and Caldwell Road

Ellen Connor says the decision to not allow sparring since they re-opened in June lost a few customers, but was worth keeping the safety of the rest of her team from a potential COVID outbreak. (Aaron Guillen/News Staff)
Strict ‘no sparring’ rule keeps boxers safe during pandemic

Sooke Boxing Club keeps pace with new health regulations

The realignment of Highway 14 between Connie and Glinz Lake roads in Sooke will take more than a year to complete. (File - Sooke News Mirror)
The realignment of Highway 14 between Connie and Glinz Lake roads in Sooke will take more than a year to complete. (Kevin Laird - Sooke News Mirror)
Patience requested from drivers as work begins on realignment of Highway 14 in Sooke

Construction between Connie and Glinz Lake roads expected to take 1½ years

West Shore RCMP arrested four suspects in connection with an armed robbery that occurred in View Royal Nov. 26. (Black Press Media file photo)
West Shore RCMP arrests four following armed robbery

A victim was assaulted and robbed in View Royal early Thursday morning

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry update the COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, Nov. 23, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. sets another COVID-19 record with 887 new cases

Another 13 deaths, ties the highest three days ago

Screenshot of Pastor James Butler giving a sermon at Free Grace Baptist Church in Chilliwack on Nov. 22, 2020. The church has decided to continue in-person services despite a public health order banning worship services that was issued on Nov. 19, 2020. (YouTube)
Two Fraser Valley churches continue in-person services despite public health orders

Pastors say faith groups are unfairly targeted and that charter rights protect their decisions

A big job: Former forests minister Doug Donaldson stands before a 500-year-old Douglas fir in Saanich to announce preservation of some of B.C.’s oldest trees, July 2019. (B.C. government)
B.C. returning to ‘stand-alone’ forests, rural development ministry

Horgan says Gordon Campbell’s super-ministry doesn’t work

Freighter anchored off Kin Beach in Chemainus. (Photo by Don Bodger)
MP to host expert panel for virtual town hall on freighter anchorages issue

Residents can participate through MacGregor’s website or Facebook page Dec. 3

Lake Cowichan’s Oliver Finlayson, second from left, and his family — including grandma Marnie Mattice, sister Avery, mom Amie Mattice and dad Blair Finlayson — were all smiles on Nov. 16 when their pool arrived, thanks to lots of fundraising and the generosity of the Cowichan Lake community. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Cowichan Lake community comes together to help family get vital pool

Oliver Finlayson, 9, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and hydrotherapy is a big help

Alexandre Bissonnette, who pleaded guilty to a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque, arrives at the courthouse in Quebec City on February 21, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mathieu Belanger - POOL
Court strikes down consecutive life sentences; mosque shooter has prison term cut

The decision was appealed by both the defence and the Crown

Gold medallists in the ice dance, free dance figure skating Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, of Canada, pose during their medals ceremony at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Charlie Riedel
Olympic champions Virtue, Moir and Tewksbury among 114 Order of Canada inductees

Moir and Virtue catapulted to national stardom with their gold-medal performances at the Winter Olympics in 2018

Most Read