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

A sign is seen this past summer outside Yunesit’in Government office west of Williams Lake reminding visitors and members to stay safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Rebecca Dyok photo)
Yunesit’in First Nation completes second round of vaccinations

A total of 26 people have since recovered from COVID-19 after having tested positive

A 100 Mile RCMP officer stands watch at the intersction of Highway 97 and Horse Lake Road. (Patrick Davies photo - 100 Mile Free Press)
Volunteers, police search Highway 97 for articles related to high-speed chase

Search will stretch from Canco Gas Station in Lac La Hache to 150 Mile House.

An aerial photograph captures snowmobile tracks in the Cameron Ridge area earlier this year, which is closed to snowmobilers. The closures are in place to protect sensitive caribou herds. (Conservation Officer Service photo)
Snowmobilers fined for operating in closed caribou habitat near Likely, B.C.

The investigation revealed they had spent several hours in the closure leaving extensive tracks

The RCMP arrest one of the suspects on Highway 97 courtesy of cell phone footage shot by a bystander. (April Thomas photo)
WATCH: Two suspects arrested after multi-jurisdictional chase

A half dozen police cars were seen heading north on Highway 97

Commercial tenants at the Williams Lake Regional Airport have been granted an additional six-month rent reprieve. (Angie Mindus file photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Continuing rent relief for Williams Lake Airport tenants considered

City council discussed the option during a committee of the whole meeting

Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Dr. Bonnie Henry pauses for a moment as she gives her daily media briefing regarding COVID-19 for British Columbia in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
7 additional deaths and 542 new COVID-19 cases in B.C.

Provincial health officials reported 18 new COVID-19 cases linked to variants of concern

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The City of Vancouver estimates there are 3,500 Canada geese in the city right now, and that number is growing. (Bruce Hogarth)
Help tame Vancouver’s Canada goose population by reporting nests: park officials

The city is asking residents to be on the lookout so staff can remove nests or addle eggs

Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson (Office of the Chief Justice)
Judge questions whether B.C.’s top doctor appreciated right to religious freedom

Lawyer for province says Dr. Henry has outlined the reasons for her orders publicly

A sample of guns seized at the Pacific Highway border crossing from the U.S. into B.C. in 2014. Guns smuggled from the U.S. are used in criminal activity, often associated with drug gangs. (Canada Border Service Agency)
B.C. moves to seize vehicles transporting illegal firearms

Bill bans sale of imitation or BB guns to young people

BC Housing minister David Eby is concerned that Penticton council’s decision to close a local homeless shelter will result in a “tent city” similar to this one in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / Black Press file)
‘Disappointed and baffled’ B.C. housing minister warns of tent city in Penticton

Penticton council’s decision to close a local homeless shelter could create tent city, says David Eby

A recently published study out of UBC has found a link between life satisfaction levels and overall health. (Pixabay)
Satisfied with life? It’s likely you’re healthier for it: UBC study

UBC psychologists have found those more satisfied with their life have a 26% reduced risk of dying

A vial of some of the first 500,000 of the two million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada has secured through a deal with the Serum Institute of India in partnership with Verity Pharma at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
Federal panel recommends 4-month gap between COVID vaccine doses due to limited supply

The recommendation applies to all COVID-19 vaccines currently approved in Canada

A vial of Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a family doctor office, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021 in Paris. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP -Christophe Ena
Trudeau ‘optimistic’ that timeline for rollout of COVID vaccines can be accelerated

Canada set to receive more than 6M COVID-19 vaccine dose than initially expected, by end of March

Most Read