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Between a Rock and a Hard Place - My Most Exhilarating Day in the Field                 

Dec 02, 2016

By Michael Arbeider

I tasted the stormy sea as cold water crashed over our tiny boat's bow while we towed one end of a 50-foot net through the waves. Wade’s face was only cracked by his usual confident grin as he maneuvered our boat closer and closer to a partially submerged boulder. For two and half minutes of towing my anxiety was kept in check by Wade’s cool demeanor and skill. Our boat lurched and I could see smoke coming from our second boat, driven by Jim, motor roaring at maximum power to pull the opposite end of the net towards us. I crossed my fingers that he’d make it to us before the boulder did.


Wade and Jim are two of the many skilled Lax Kw’alaams Fisheries’ technicians with whom I am very lucky to work with. My collaboration with them is thanks to Charmaine, who is from the Skeena Fisheries Commission. Charmaine was on a THIRD boat with James (also from Lax Kw’alaams), our mother ship that was a 38-foot aluminum herring punt, which little be-known to us was crashing its way towards us in a state of worry!


OK! Back to the story.

We were almost on top of the boulder now, engines roaring with Jim’s boat drawing nearer. His expression showed a little more concern than Wade’s as he quickly passed off his end of the net to me and then unclipped his boat.


My hands ached and my knuckles bled as I wrenched the net into the rocking boat. My adrenaline rushed with the desire to finish as quickly as possible. Looking up briefly, I saw the bow of our third boat, the mother ship, captained by James. I’d say the detail that I could inspect it at, if I had so desired in that particular moment, was a little too close for comfort. Jim ducked as the mother ship loomed above his head, then James slammed the reverse, keeping his boat steady AND preventing us from being smushed between a rock and a hard place (the hard place being a 38-foot aluminum boat).

I came to the Skeena estuary to study its food web, with a focus on juvenile salmon. This particular net haul contained no fish (almost a relief because carefully extracting fish in a rocking boat near an underwater bolder was not something I wanted to do). I also sample for zooplankton, the staple food for millions of growing salmon on their journey to the ocean along with all the other fish that use the estuary year round like herring and smelt. As we motored back to the mother ship, I sensed my face had a weird combination of shock, happiness, and awe, but I had never felt more alive.


In collaboration with Lax Kw’alaams and the Skeena Fisheries Commission, we aim to achieve a greater ecological understanding of the estuary that supports so much life. This estuary gateway between the river and ocean supports everything from salmon to herring, eelgrass to bull kelp, and zooplankton to people.

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