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

Fire crews tend to a collision that is causing severe traffic delays on the William R. Bennett bridge headed east into Kelowna. (Aaron Hemens - Kelowna Capital News)
7 vehicle collision on WR Bennett Bridge under investigation

The collision backed up traffic on the William R. Bennett bridge for much of the morning

Interior Health nurses administer Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to seniors and care aids in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16. (Phil McLachlan/Kelowna Capital News)
69 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

The total number of cases in the region is now at 9,840 since the pandemic began

Kelowna General Hospital (File photo)
Interior Health hospitals not strained by rising COVID case counts

While provincial hospitalizations rise, health care systems in the B.C. Interior remain robust, say officials

Kelowna company celebrates milestone of producing 46 million masks in under a year.
46 million masks and counting: Kelowna company reaches 1 year milstone

In under a year, Breathe Manufacturing Ltd. in Kelowna has hit production of 46 million masks for front-line workers

Peachland’s vaccination clinic was cancelled because according to the system, no one booked appointments. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press)
System ‘glitch’ causes Peachland vaccination clinic cancellation

The clinic will be back in Peachland on April 22 instead

A woman wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as she walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. COVID-19 cases have been on a steady increase in the province of British Columbia over the past week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Top doctor warns B.C.’s daily cases could reach 3,000 as COVID hospitalizations surge

There are more than 400 people in hospital, with 125 of them in ICU

The plane blasted through an airport fence and down a hill, before stopping before a cement barrier on Highway 5A, right in front of a school bus. Photo submitted.
Student pilot crashes plane onto Highway 5A in Princeton

Aircraft hit pavement right in front of school bus

Vernon Fire Rescue Services responded to a truck fire on Dallas Road in Vernon April 15, 2021. (Brendan Shykora - Vernon Morning Star)
WATCH: Vernon firefighters quick to douse fully involved truck fire

The fire was near multiple structures and spreading along the ground upon crews’ arrival

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

The father of Aaliyah Rosa planted a tree and laid a plaque in her memory in 2018. (Langley Advance Times files)
Final witness will extend Langley child murder trial into May or June

Lengthy trial began last autumn with COVID and other factors forcing it to take longer than expected

The corner of 96th Avenue and Glover Road in Fort Langley now has traffic signals, and new “touchless” signal activation buttons. (Matthew Claxton/Langley Advance Times)
Busy Fort Langley intersection gets ‘touchless’ crosswalk signals

The new traffic light started operation in April

The organizer of a Kelowna protest against COVID-19 restrictions was fined by the RCMP for the third time Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. (File photo)
Kelowna RCMP investigating hit and run involving 11-year-old

Police said the boy suffered minor injuries

A crossing guard stops traffic as students wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 arrive at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. A number of schools in the Fraser Health region, including Woodward Hill, have reported cases of the B.1.7.7 COVID-19 variant first detected in the U.K. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID-infected students in Lower Mainland schools transmitting to 1 to 2 others: data

Eight to 13 per cent of COVID cases among students in the Lower Mainland were acquired in schools, B.C. says

Most Read