Three months in the Fraser River Estuary

Published in Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s Notes from the Field blog

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The evening sun turns the still waters crimson against the backdrop of the purple mountains as we cruise gently back to harbour through Canoe Pass. Raincoast’s WildSalmon Biologist Misty MacDuffee lets out a triumphant laugh as she manages to capture the stunning colours on camera – it is a great way to finish a long day of sampling. A great blue heron creates a graceful silhouette as he looks for fish in the shallow marsh. Likely the same fish we have been looking for – juvenile salmon.

We have been out on the vast flats of the Fraser River estuary in the crab boat Bella Rose with experienced captains Steven Stark and Lindsey Wilson. Our team: Misty MacDuffee, Raincoast Biologist Dave Scott, UVic Post Doc Josie Iacarella and myself, UVic M.Sc. student Lia Chalifour, hauled a custom purse seine across the shallow sand flats and eelgrass meadows with the hope of documenting the arrival and use of these habitats by the juvenile salmon. On other days, we weave through the salt marshes where the river meets the flats at high tide, and pull a beach seine through the sheltered, milky waters. Fraser River salmon have a long way to travel, many predators to contend with, and a lot of habitat to choose from. This habitat has been vastly reduced from its historic levels, and we can’t help but wonder how much that has impacted the salmon runs that so many of us depend upon.

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Upwards of 70% of the Fraser floodplain has been locked away with dykes and jetties, making these vital habitats inaccessible to most fish. Urban development for Canada’s largest coastal city and surrounding centres, large scale farming, and industry uses have replaced much of the largest delta in BC. The many hectares of marsh and vast tidal flat remaining are but a shadow of what this mighty river once boasted. Draining roughly a quarter of British Columbia, it is little wonder that the Fraser River still produces the largest salmon run out of any river in the world. The next closest river in size is the Columbia to the south, which has been dammed and degraded far beyond what the Fraser has sustained. New restoration projects there are bringing hope to the future of salmon in the Salish Sea – something that we hope to encourage for the Fraser estuary as well.

Read another blog about our project by Raincoast Biologist Dave Scott here: Genetics results for chinook salmon are in!

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