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

Langley School District's board office. (Langley Advance Times files)
‘Sick Out’ aims to pressure schools over masks, class sizes

Parents from Langley and Surrey are worried about COVID safety in classrooms

An RCMP officer got more than bargained for when stopping a vehicle with a broken brake light. (Heather Colpitts/Langley Advance Times)
Langley RCMP puts the brakes on pair found with drugs, knife and cash

The passenger was wanted on a warrant, and the driver faces various changes.

The online poster for Joel Goddard, who left his Willoughby home Nov. 10, 2020, has been updated by his family and friends who received word that he’s been found.
Langley man missing since Nov. 10 found alive and safe

Family of the Willoughby area man had been searching for days and announced that he has been found

B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson leaves the stage after announcing he is stepping down as party leader, during a news conference in Burnaby, B.C., on Monday, October 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Painful Truth: Which party breaks up first?

Political parties under pressure can fracture, here and abroad

Small and local shops are vulnerable to the second wave of the coronavirus. (Langley Advance Times files)
Our View: Save jobs, shop local in Langley

The fight to preserve local businesses and employment is underway now

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

The baby boy born to Gillian and Dave McIntosh of Abbotsford was released from hospital on Wednesday (Nov. 25) while Gillian continues to fight for her life after being diagnosed with COVID-19.
Abbotsford mom with COVID-19 still fighting for life while newborn baby comes home

Son was delivered Nov. 10 while Gillian McIntosh was in an induced coma

B.C. Premier John Horgan, a Star Trek fan, can’t resist a Vulcan salute as he takes the oath of office for a second term in Victoria, Nov. 26, 2020. (B.C. government)
Horgan names 20-member cabinet with same pandemic team

New faces in education, finance, economic recovery

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

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

A new ‘soft reporting’ room is opening inside the Ann Davis Transition Society offices on Dec. 1, 2020 which is thought to be the first of its kind in B.C. (Ann Davis Transitional Society/ Facebook)
New ‘trauma-informed’ reporting room opening next week in Chilliwack

It’s a space for reporting domestic violence, sexual assault, or gender-based violence to police

The corporate headquarters of Pfizer Canada are seen in Montreal, Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. The chief medical adviser at Health Canada says Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine could be approved in Canada next month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Health Canada expects first COVID-19 vaccine to be approved next month

Canada has a purchase deal to buy at least 20 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine,

A UBC study recommends an multi-government investment of $381 million to protect 102 species at risk in the Fraser River estuary. (Photo supplied by Yuri Choufour)
102 Fraser River estuary species at risk of extinction, researchers warn

UBC team develops $381-million strategy to combat crisis, boost economy

FILE – A paramedic holds a test tube containing a blood sample during an antibody testing program at the Hollymore Ambulance Hub, in Birmingham, England, on Friday, June 5, 2020. (Simon Dawson/Pool via AP)
Want to know if you’ve had COVID-19? LifeLabs is offering an antibody test

Test costs $75 and is available in B.C. and Ontario

Most Read