The Avid Anglers program

“Citizen science” is a phrase increasingly heard in recent years and is generally understood to comprise of members of the public, often those with little or no formal training in the sciences, collecting data and providing it to those who do. To the extent I’m plugged into or read about initiatives that have little or nothing to do about fish I’d say its application is widespread – pick your field of interest in the natural world and volunteers are looking to become engaged.

Around the Strait of Georgia an excellent example of citizen science has been underway since the winter of 2010/11. At that time south coast DFO stock assessment staff asked a few anglers to collect basic bio-data to develop a better understanding of those chinook stocks using inner SBC waters during the non-summer period when there is less fishing activity. Criteria such as tissue samples for DNA analysis, length, weight and possibly scales from retained fish for age analysis, plus the presence or absence of an adipose fin to help assess the contribution of hatchery origin chinook in the overall encounter rate. As well this program is applied not only to retained fish but those of sub-legal size, if possible.

Like all good things this program has really taken off, becoming a project undertaken all year and now including coho, acquiring the name Avid Anglers. Recently DFO held the fifth annual meeting with participants to review the ongoing and steadily expanding stream of data. There are currently about three-dozen participants with the largest number coming from the southeast end of Vancouver Island. Further up the strait the participants are more spread out, with none as yet over on the Sunshine Coast, and I’m one of three from the Campbell River area.

In addition to collecting bio-data participants also keep a logbook of their fishing trips and analysis of the combined information is enabling DFO stock assessment staff to put together an increasingly comprehensive picture of the individual chinook and coho stocks using the strait. In 2017 Avid Anglers encountered (brought to the boat) 2,189 chinook and 270 coho and of the measured fish 62% were of legal size while the logbook data allows encounters to be categorized by both fishing management area and month. One important finding based on five years worth of data is being able to develop an estimate of the contribution of hatchery vs. non-hatchery origin fish to the fishery. Canadian origin hatchery chinook are not adipose fin-clipped unless they have a coded wire-tag, the majority of which do not, while in the US all hatchery origin chinook and coho are adipose fin-clipped, a program known as mass-marking. The logbook data shows that 26% of encountered chinook are adipose fin-clipped however the DNA analysis indicates that 42% of all chinook encountered in the strait are of hatchery origin. To no great surprise the Avid Angler program has shown that in general in the Strait of Georgia the mark rate increases the closer to the border an angler is fishing.

The bio-data for coho is harder to collect, not only because in general they are encountered less frequently than chinook, but also because wild coho are in most years not allowed to be retained. I’m not alone in finding that taking tissue samples quickly from wild coho that have to be released is much more of a challenge than doing the same with chinook – the “wrist” in front of the tail is harder to hold on to than with chinook and in general coho seem to squirm around more.

A newer initiative has become associated with the Avid Anglers program, one analyzing the stomach contents of chinook and coho. This is being lead by Will DuGuid, a PhD. student in the Fisheries Ecology and Marine Conservation Group, University of Victoria. Over time this project will demonstrate the importance of key prey species and enable detection of changes in the forage fish community and the broader Strait of Georgia ecosystem itself. This will be especially important for prey species that are not commercially important, which is to say most of them, and for which little or no focused research has been conducted. And it will have positive implications in understanding the dynamics of other animals such as birds that target the same prey species.

Anglers participating in this program are asked to keep the intact stomachs and intestines of retained salmon and place them in zip lock bags along with a form describing date and location of capture, depth at which the fish was caught and on what type of gear. As someone who has always been curious about what the fish I catch have been eating I have to resist the urge to open up the stomach and have a look! Will has arranged a number of drop stations around the Strait of Georgia who have volunteered freezer space, usually tackle stores and marinas, to which anglers can take their bags of treasures.

The stomach contents don’t have to be freshly eaten to be useful as undigested body parts like bones and scales can be analyzed via DNA for species ID. So far the most unusual find from one of my contributions is a northern smoothtongue found in a chinook stomach caught back in February. These fish are a deep water smelt, much more abundant that most anglers know about but infrequently encountered by salmon unless they rise up in the water column.

Hopefully more anglers and guides will become involved in both of these programs, the knowledge gained can only be positive for management of the recreational fishery and an increased understanding of the ecosystem it takes place in.