Fraser River Estuary
I am currently a master’s student in the Baum Lab at the University of Victoria, studying the interactions between juvenile salmon and their environment. My main interest is in coastal ecology; I find these nutrient-rich interfaces between land and water fascinating and full of ecological questions. As the most accessible parts of the marine environment, our coasts and the creatures that inhabit them are also incredibly vulnerable to human impacts. The Fraser River estuary is a unique delta and is part of a massive river system, draining roughly 1/4 of the province of BC! This estuary not only supports birds, fish and plant life, but also acts as a hub for industry and urban development. I am working with several groups of people to better understand how we can manage the nearshore habitats of the Fraser estuary to preserve the fish populations that live there.
Lindsay Wilson captains our survey vessel on a beautiful day in the Fraser River estuary
Sea lions hang out on any surface they can find, and are not picky about noise during their afternoon naps.
A group of cormorants take a break from fishing way out on the flats of the Fraser River estuary. Man-made jetties allow them to stay out where the fish are. The large freighter in the background will travel up dredged channels that are maintained to allow for navigation. Despite all these changes, the Fraser estuary continues to produce our largest salmon runs.
Testing out our new nets and methods on the Fraser River estuary during our first round of field sampling for my masters project with Raincoast Conservation Foundation
The Fraser estuary is an Important Bird Area, and there is constant activity.
Pacific herring are an important part of the marine food web. We caught a few schools of herring throughout the field season in the Fraser River estuary, sometimes in the eelgrass meadows and sometimes on the sand flats.
Lia samples water quality in the Fraser River estuary using a hand held Hanna Meter. This environmental data helps us to compare habitats throughout the seasons and years. We sampled from March to October in 2016, and March to July in 2017.
Sea lions fight for real estate on a man made jetty on the Fraser River estuary. Predators were omnipresent during the peak salmon emigration period in the estuary.
We captured adult and juvenile fish throughout the season, and are quantifying these patterns in the estuary. Bay pipefish preferred to hang out in the eelgrass meadows on Roberts Bank.
The Fraser River estuary is not used by fish alone. Here we have the busiest port in Canada where large cargo ships bring goods from Asia and elsewhere, and barges are loaded up with coal and other raw exports. Several of our eelgrass sites were near this large coal port, which appears much larger when you are close to it in a small vessel. Sea lions hang out on a buoy unphased by the large ships.
The Fraser estuary is an Important Bird Area, and there is constant activity. Here two juvenile eagles compete for a perch where they can watch fish swim by.
An eagle makes do with the Steveston Jetty lighthouse as a nesting site. This vantage point gives it a great opportunity to hunt for fish exiting the river.
We relied heavily on volunteers for our field work every day in the Fraser River estuary, and were lucky to have such great scientists with great attitudes!
We watched juvenile Chinook salmon transform from wispy little fry emigrants to large smolts as they migrated toward the Salish Sea. Some enter the estuary at around 3 cm long, and grow up in the brackish marsh. Others spend a year or so in freshwater and then rapidly pass through the estuary as larger fish ready to enter the ocean.
Josie Iacarella shows us how to sample epibenthic invertebrates and plankton for a collaborative regional comparison of eelgrass fish communities from the Fraser to the Skeena, BC. See our Global Change Biology publication to see how the Fraser stacked up.
Mist is sprayed over coal piles at Westridge terminal in the Fraser River estuary. Misting the piles helps to reduce wind scatter of the coal dust into the adjacent waters.
We retained a subsample of juvenile Chinook salmon to conduct otolith growth analyses. This data is helping us quantify the entry date, minimum residency period, and growth rates of these fish in the Fraser River estuary.
An unusual looking fish, snake pricklebacks look like snakes with fins. Caught on the sand flats of the Fraser River estuary.
Ducks fly in the marsh, while the towering buildings of Richmond line the sky in the background. Urban expansion in the floodplains of the Fraser continue to threaten and degrade the remaining estuarine habitat.
Herons, eagles, seagulls and cormorants were the usual suspects in the marshes of the Fraser River estuary. Juvenile salmon make a great snack as they emigrate from the river to the ocean.
The Fraser River produces the majority of British Columbia’s salmon runs, and is a hub for vessels of all kinds. Exiting the river through Ladner, we passed scores of large fishing vessels and processing plants, waiting for their season to come alive.
Andrew Lotto from the Hinch Lab at UBC and Dave Scott from Raincoast smile as we head to our sites. We were lucky to have sunny skies all through March during our El Nino sampling season in 2016
A staghorn sculpin caught in the Fraser River estuary reveals his namesake.
Lia smiles as the purse seine is set in the Fraser River estuary. We were lucky to have sunny skies all through March during our El Nino sampling season in 2016
Steven Stark is the captain of our research vessel and a council member of the Tsawwassen First Nation. He helped us become acquainted with the Fraser River estuary and gave us important fisherman’s knowledge that shaped our sampling methods for the project.
The Fraser River estuary is an important bird area, and we witnessed this in full swing. Sand pipers and other shoaling birds create beautiful patterns as they swoop through the estuary searching for bugs and biofilm. Eagles, cormorants and herons man their posts as they wait for fish snacks to pass by.
There are many signs of our human footprint in the Fraser River estuary. We saw streams of coal dust several times during our field seasons, particularly during warm summer afternoons that brought higher winds. The dust creates a slick on the surface and the oily sheen reveals its high hydrocarbon content. Urban development in Delta can be seen in the background.
A beautiful developing longfin smelt shows its irridescent colours. Caught on the sand flats of the Fraser River estuary.
Special visitors from the deep – plainfin midshipman migrate up from the depths to spawn in shallow rocky habitats. We caught several near the BC Ferry Terminal – where man made rocky habitat sits next to eelgrass meadows. During mating season, midshipmen will sing – creating loud reverberating noises as they wait for love beneath rocks in shallow habitat.
When I started as a Research Assistant with the Baum Lab, my first task was to help get an eelgrass team up an running. I accompanied M.Sc. student Aaron Eger to Prince Rupert to meet with local groups and scope out the eelgrass meadows of the Skeena River estuary for his future research. While we were there, we conducted some research for the Zostera Experimental Network (ZEN).
We, along with Dr. Josie Iacarella, became the “Baum Lab Eelgrass Team”, and while my main focus is now on salmon, I have continued to engage in eelgrass field work and collaborations wherever I can! This includes Josie’s Eelgrass Fishes Network, which includes several research groups up and down BC’s coast. Together we collected data in 2016 on fish community and eelgrass meadow health from the Fraser to the Skeena and many places in between – see our publication in Global Change Biology.
Eelgrass collected from Prince Rupert for the Baum Lab and the Zostera Experimental Network
Measuring collected blades of eelgrass from Prince Rupert, BC for the Zostera Experimental Network
View through our cabin window at the Cassiar Cannery in Prince Rupert, BC. Taken while on a field expedition for the Baum Lab and the Zostera Experimental Network
Sampling an eelgrass meadow in Prince Rupert, British Columbia on behalf of the Baum Lab and the Zostera Experimental Network
Baum Lab team members Geoff, Lia and Jessie sample fish communities and eelgrass characteristics in Tsawwassen, BC
Looking down on Prince Rupert from Mount Hays, the coastal mountain ridge behind the town. Several large cargo ships fill the narrow channel that connects the small town to the Pacific Ocean.
Dried sediment samples from the Blue Carbon project. These samples contributed to research for the Zostera Experimental Network and Baum Lab comparing the global carbon storage capacity of Zostera marina eelgrass meadows
Aaron Eger holds up a hard-won sediment core from the eelgrass meadow in Grassy Bay. We came up with creative ways to collect samples in the steep bays of Prince Rupert in the fall – one of which was trading in waders for drysuits. This sample contributed to research for the Zostera Experimental Network and Baum Lab
Bog ecosystems are an incredibly important part of the Great Bear Rainforest, and help to store the massive volumes of precipitation that fall in the Prince Rupert area annually. Here we traverse a bog on the way into our eelgrass field site at Grassy Bay
Chatting with a local captain as he gives us a tour of the Skeena estuary near Prince Rupert from a fisherman’s perspective. Building relationships with locals is an important step when planning to conduct research in a new area.
Boating around to nearby eelgrass meadows during our exploration of the Skeena River estuary for Aaron Eger’s masters research
The Skeena River estuary is a hotly debated area, where several large scale development proposals submitted for the area and a struggling local economy clash with strong local values on environmental integrity and the importance of healthy salmon returns.
The sun sets on the restored cabins at the Cassiar Cannery, near Prince Rupert BC. Lia and Aaron rented a cabin at Cassiar for an excellent vantage point to do field work and meet with locals interested in eelgrass research
Watching salmon attempt to leap up man-made falls near Prince Rupert. Fish ladders have been built near most of the small dams, allowing them to skirt past the falls to reach spawning habitat
A full moon watches over Cassiar channel in the Skeena River estuary. Will we hear the wolves tonight?
Wading into Grassy Bay near Prince Rupert, BC to assess the size and health of an eelgrass meadow
Rockfish Conservation Project
I worked with the Galiano Conservancy Association to conduct a baseline study of rockfish abundance and diversity inside and outside of protective Rockfish Conservation Areas around Galiano Island. We found more rockfish outside of the RCAs than within them, which launched a series of research projects in partnership with the University of Victoria. Read more about the project here. Want to get involved in rockfish conservation initiatives around the Salish Sea? Join our Facebook group!
Lia Chalifour, Peter Luckham and Andy Lamb smile after a great dive off of Retreat Island, a small but species-rich island off of Galiano Island in the Salish Sea
White Meconella Project
While working with the Galiano Conservancy Association I helped with ongoing restoration work on Mt. Sutil, which hosts a rare pocket of intact Garry Oak ecosystem. We initiated an attempt to re-introduce the extirpated flower, Meconella oregana, which has never been successfully cultivated. The following year, we found a single flower clinging to the cliffs at our site. Restoration efforts continue every year – read more here!
Ken Millard, former Director of the Galiano Conservancy Association, climbs the steep slopes of Mt. Sutil in a thick mist
Dried specimen of Meconella oregana, an endangered small white flower species, brought to the Galiano Conservancy Association so the seeds could be collected and planted on Mt. Sutil
The summer crew take a break with a view after some hard work removing Scotch Broom from the Garry Oak meadows on Mt. Sutil, Galiano Island with the Galiano Conservancy Association
Grizzly Bear Project
I had the opportunity to work with Kyle Artelle and Raincoast Conservation Foundation in Bella Bella as a research assistant. We worked with Heiltsuk community members and collected bear hair throughout Heiltsuk territory to monitor grizzly bear populations in the region. Working in such a special place with incredible people created a lasting impression on me, and I continue to support conservation initiatives in the area whenever I can.
Rice root grows in a protected lakeside meadow in an alpine clearing of the Great Bear Rainforest. Working with Raincoast scientist Kyle Artelle I had the opportunity to meet and learn from several local Heiltsuk people about traditional food and medicine in the region.
A big male grizzly bear munches on sedge grass in a special estuary near Klemtu, BC. This springtime snack is an important part of their diet, and provides a special window of time for easy bear viewing in rare estuaries in the Great Bear Rainforest. Taken while working for Raincoast Conservation Foundation and UVic PhD student Kyle Artelle
A protected cove allows for a rare site – a large eelgrass meadow – near the edge of the Great Bear Rainforest archipelago. This protected habitat is like a secret garden, rich in invertebrates, epiphytic algae and all the small fish and other creatures that come to munch on those. For a larger fish, bird or wolf, this is a great place to forage.
Steep coastal mountains plunge into the Pacific ocean in the Great Bear Rainforest. Here, steep cliffs are the most common shoreline view – making pocket coves and estuaries ever more important for coastal habitat. Steep cliffs bring rapid release of water and sediments into the ocean during precipitation events, whereas shallow slopes allow sediment accumulation and new habitats such as sedge meadows, clam gardens and eelgrass beds. I find this dynamic range of coastal connectivity very interesting.
On the side:
When I am not too busy with my master’s research, I enjoy working with the following incredible research/conservation groups whenever I can. Check them out!