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

One of the tractors, loaded on a truck bed to avoid impeding traffic, from the Oct. 17 rally in support of farmers in India. Another rally will be held on Dec. 5 from 9 to 10 a.m. (Brennan Phillips - Western News)
Rally in support of Indian farmers to drive through Penticton

‘Farmers’ lives are in danger right now’

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
81 new cases of COVID-19 detected in Interior Health Friday

One additional staff member at Kelowna long-term care home tests positive, no new deaths

This is how the two-way cycle lane would look like on Martin Street for the Lake-to-Lake route. (City of Penticton)
Penticton to involve residents in detailed planning for new bike route

The city is considered reducing the 200 block of Martin Street to one lane instead of removing parking

The Penticton Vees announced Friday, Dec. 4, 2020 that all players have staff have tested negative for COVID-19. The team has been in isolation since a player tested positive Nov. 28. (Cherie Morgan Photography)
Penticton Vees players and staff test negative for COVID-19

The team has been in isolation since a player tested positive last week

Painted Rock Estate Winery has had their “Red Icon” Merlot blend recognized as one of the country’s best wines. (Painted Rock Winery / Facebook)
Penticton winery’s Merlot blend recognized as Canada’s best

Decanter’s 2020 ‘Wine of the Year’ list includes only one Canadian wine, and its local

Pickleball game in Vancouver on Sunday, November 8, 2020. B.C.’s public health restrictions for COVID-19 have been extended to adult team sports, indoors and outside. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
711 more COVID-19 cases detected in B.C. Friday

‘Virus is not letting up and neither can we’

It was an opening day filled with blue skies, sun and COVID-19 protocols at Vernon’s SilverStar Mountain Resort Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)
VIDEO: Passholders enjoy sunny opening day at Silver Star Mountain

Resort staff say parking reservations, COVID-19 protocols went smoothly Friday, Dec. 4

Demonstrators, organized by the Public Fishery Alliance, outside the downtown Vancouver offices of Fisheries and Oceans Canada July 6 demand the marking of all hatchery chinook to allow for a sustainable public fishery while wild stocks recover. (Public Fishery Alliance Facebook photo)
Angry B.C. anglers see petition tabled in House of Commons

Salmon fishers demand better access to the healthy stocks in the public fishery

Farmers raise slogans during a protest on a highway at the Delhi-Haryana state border, India, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected the diplomatic scolding Canada’s envoy to India received on Friday for his recent comments in support of protesting Indian farmers. Tens of thousands of farmers have descended upon the borders of New Delhi to protest new farming laws that they say will open them to corporate exploitation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Manish Swarup
Trudeau brushes off India’s criticism for standing with farmers in anti-Modi protests

The High Commission of India in Ottawa had no comment when contacted Friday

Nurse Kath Olmstead prepares a shot as the world’s biggest study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., gets underway Monday, July 27, 2020, in Binghamton, N.Y. U.S. biotech firm Moderna says its vaccine is showing signs of producing lasting immunity to COVID-19, and that it will have as many as many as 125 million doses available by the end of March. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Hans Pennink
Canada orders more COVID vaccines, refines advice on first doses as cases reach 400K

Canada recorded its 300,000th case of COVID-19 on Nov. 16

Apartments are seen lit up in downtown Vancouver as people are encouraged to stay home during the global COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. British Columbia’s deputy provincial health officer says provincewide data show the most important area B.C. must tackle in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic is health inequity. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
Age, income among top factors affecting well-being during pandemic, B.C. survey shows

Among respondents earning $20,000 a year or less, more than 41 per cent reported concern about food insecurity

The Siberian elm is an invasive plant. In Manitou Park in Naramata, crews are working to remove these trees and plant native species instead (File photo)
Crews remove Siberian elms from Naramata park

Invasive plant identified as a problem in region

Victoria-based driving instructors are concerned for their own and the community’s safety with the continued number of residents from COVID hotspots in the Lower Mainland coming to the city to take their driving road tests. (Black Press Media file photo)
Students from COVID hotspots travel to Vancouver Island for driving tests

Union leader calls on government to institute stronger travel ban

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
Two arrested after attack at Vernon home

Police spotted around 43rd Avenue linked to Wednesday assault

Most Read