Citizen Science and Avid Anglers

Citizen science – it is a phrase becoming more widely used, simply because more and more citizens are undertaking basic science related work these days. I believe there are two principle reasons for this, the first being that with the wonders of technology and home computers the average person is able to collect, record and then share data far more easily than at any time in the past. And the second reason is that although there are endless good causes worthy of research governments frequently don’t choose to direct the resources – $ – to enable this work.

In the BC marine recreational fishery citizen science is what underpins a program called Avid Anglers. This first started late in 2012 with a request from DFO for volunteers fishing in the winter to take tissue samples from chinook salmon caught within the Strait of Georgia (SoG). With the genetic map, as it were, of chinook populations in North America worked out the tissue samples are analyzed for their DNA to provide an updated understanding of chinook stocks using the strait in the non-summer period. Although there are numerous hatcheries in the Pacific northwest applying coded wire tags (CWT’s) the relative size and distribution of non-enhanced stocks was something of an unknown.

Me being me I signed up for this sampling program immediately and it has been fascinating to watch the growth in both the program, now called Avid Anglers, and the resulting information. Fairly quickly it became apparent that some volunteers were willing to collect samples on a year round basis and given the conservation concerns for some stock aggregates there was good reason to extend the program to start collecting tissue samples from wild coho. In particular, in 2014 when wild coho retention was more widely allowed in the SBC recreational fishery there was a real opportunity to collect a significant number of tissue samples from retained fish, and more about this later.

When possible the program involves the sampling of all chinook and/or coho salmon encountered, both retained and released. The latter fish are mostly but not always sub-legal chinooks or wild coho, given the predominant regulation in SBC fisheries on only being able to keep identifiable hatchery origin coho i.e. those without an adipose fin. The tissue sample is removed from the tail fin using what is essentially a paper hole punch, with the individual sample affixed to a special heavy paper (called a Whatman sheet) that can take 10 or 20 samples. There are sectioned boxes with the sample number on the sheet and places for the date of capture, the fisheries management area and whether the fish was adipose fin-clipped or not. A length measurement is also taken and participants in the program also enter this information in a logbook.

Doing this with dead fish is easy enough but it takes a little practice with live fish. Smaller chinook salmon aren’t too much of a challenge and they can be swung into the boat, measured, sampled and back in the water in well under a minute. Adult coho are somewhat trickier, both because of their size and because unlike chinooks the “wrist” in front of the tail of a coho is considerably harder to get a firm grasp of. I use a knotless soft mesh landing net and keep the fish enclosed in it while the tissue sample is being removed; this stops the fish from moving around while in the boat and scale loss appears to be minimal.

DFO staff estimate that Avid Angler participants now account for approximately 1% of the total recreational fishing effort in the SoG and the combination of the tissue sample data and logbook entries over the past four years has really helped build a more comprehensive picture of both the stock composition of salmon in the SoG at different times of the year and the success rate of participants. Or not as the case may be, for registering skunks is as important to know as when loading the boat. Already this data is having meaningful consequences for anglers; in the north SoG in particular chinook from east coast of Vancouver Island rivers dominate the catch, followed by Puget Sound and lower Fraser River stocks. As a result of this information the chinook program at the Puntledge River hatchery near Courtenay as been increased by 250,000 fish for release because of its contribution to the area sport fishery.

Although far fewer coho have been sampled over the past four years, as noted earlier because of the unusual ability to retain wild coho in 2014 advantage was taken of this opportunity. Apart from confirming the very low presence of Interior Fraser coho in inside waters, the contribution to the overall stock aggregate of coho originating from what are characterized as southern mainland rivers was far higher than anyone had imagined, at times accounting for half the catch. Unlike along the ECVI side of the strait there are very few coho enhancement projects on the mainland shore away from the Vancouver area so these fish are almost entirely of wild origin, a good news story indeed.

Recently the third annual Avid Anglers meeting was held in Nanaimo, with a number of interesting presentations form DFO staff exploring and explaining the information learned. I was particularly pleased to go because I had been unable to attend the previous meetings and amongst other things it was really nice to be able to meet other participants in the program from around the Strait of Georgia.

And as the Avid Anglers program continues researchers outside DFO have started to link up with it. There was a very interesting presentation on the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, a cross-border initiative run by the Pacific Salmon Foundation in BC and the Save the Kings program in the Puget Sound area in Washington. You might be interested to know that the harbour seal population in the SoG has stabilized at about 40,000 animals and that they are eating 5 times as many juvenile salmon than in the 1970’s or that the new estimate of pinniped (seal and sea lion) predation on chinook salmon is twice that of resident killer whales and six times greater than the recreational fishery catch.

To finish up, a researcher from the University of Victoria made a presentation about a program just started whereby participants retain the stomachs of chinook and coho to enable analysis of trends in feed types and abundances between seasons and years. This may be the only way to get information about key species such as sand lance (a.k.a. needlefish) for which no focused research by DFO exists.

Expect to hear more about the Avid Angler program as things progress, citizen science is alive and well on the southern BC coast!