Return of the Sockeye
Nov 28, 2016
By Ciara Sharpe
It had been a quiet day so far working on the water. Coastal mountains covered in blankets of green spruce stood nearby, wisps of mist wove their way between trees. We spent the morning setting our nets in sites across the estuary, catching and counting small schools of fish from the large skiff that had become our second home. Over and over, for five minutes at a time, we waited, towing the large net against the ocean current. Some places we set our nets, they came up empty, other places we found a hundred or so small juvenile salmon, sculpin and smelt. A gentle rain and silent greyness absorbed the morning.
At mid-afternoon high tide, we set our nets on Flora Bank. At the five-minute mark, over the drone of the hydraulic winch, I yelled ‘times-up’! Our crew sprang into action guiding and coiling the net aboard fluidly. The once calm and murky estuary waters erupted with thousands upon thousands of small shimmering fish.
Salmon! Herring! Flipping, diving and jumping to try and escape the net. The large school of fish surged in the net, moving from one side to other, herring scales leaving trails of tiny rainbows glittering behind. We scramble on deck to fill all possible bins with water and begin feverishly identifying and counting fish. Organized chaos ensues as several of us yell out measurements to the data recorder over the racket of electronic music that is somehow playing at full volume. GoPros get passed around in the excitement to record this once-a-season boom of fish! These are the salmon we have been waiting for all season, juvenile salmon that have swam upwards of 500km downstream to reach the estuary. We tally the numbers to discover record numbers of all species of salmon. We release the salmon and watch them swim away quickly. It is unlikely that we will witness something like this again…well, until next year!
I am incredibly fortunate to be part of a collaborative research team aimed at understanding this important estuary phase of the salmon life cycle. Researchers from the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation, the Skeena Fisheries Commission and Simon Fraser University are discovering where juvenile salmon are coming from, what they are eating and which places these salmon are using in the estuary. My research is focused on why salmon use certain places and estuary habitat over others. I am interested to see if factors like temperature, exposure and marine vegetation can be used to explain these patterns.
I won’t forget these exciting days working in the Skeena estuary. Although the mass arrival of young salmon is spectacular to witness, it is the cohesiveness and hard work of every team member that will stay with me. I am so grateful for the Lax kw’alaams fisheries team who ensured two years of fun and successful days on the water!
Some of the team enjoying a rare moment of sunshine in stunning Prince Rupert.
Our purse seine boat and team pulling in the net to see what we caught!
Stunning juvenile Chinook salmon caught on Flora Bank.