Tales from the Koeye: Smolt Season
August, 31, 2017
By Karl Seitz
Tik tak, tik tak. I awake to the all-too-familiar sound of raindrops tapping on the tarpaulin roof of the treehouse. Though my head is buried deep in my sleeping bag, the light chit-chatter of robins below on the forest floor confirms that morning has come. I poke my head out of the bag only to quickly retreat back into my nice warm cocoon. Too cold! I can’t hide for long though, there are tiny fish trapped in a box up river, eager to continue their journey to sea. I brace myself for the chill, slide out of my cot, and immediately put the kettle on for coffee; my team and I will want all the warm encouragement we can stomach to prepare for the long, wet day ahead. It is late-April in the Great Bear Rainforest, smolt season.
I light a fire in our little wood stove to take the edge off the morning chill before I rouse the rest of the crew from their slumber. By the time they roll out of bed the coffee is ready, and we drink it down whilst testing all our clothes to find the least wet items to wear for the day. Once the pot is empty and the least disagreeable clothing adorned, it’s time to wader up, grab the sampling gear, and head up river to the smolt trap.
Over the river and through the woods to the sampling station we go! Our boots slip and slide on the muddy, well-worn trail, as the rain, worming its way through the thick coniferous canopy, falls on our heads. The river is high, but we manage to sneak across the surging river at select spots and arrive at the trap site. We untie the lines, haul in our giant, spinning funnel known as a rotary screw trap, and throw open the hatch door to reveal our catch from the night before.
The trap box is teeming with hundreds of little fishes: sockeye and coho smolts flitter around in mid-water; pink, chum, and coho fry stick to the surface around the peripheries; sculpin suck themselves into the corners; and a Dolly Vardon or two wait patiently on the bottom. We scoop out the catch with our little dip nets, placing the sockeye, coho, and Dolly smolts in water-filled totes and release the fry and sculpins. With our totes full of salmon, we slosh through the water to our little rain shelter and begin the daily ritual of setting up the sampling station. Once set up, it’s time for the real fun to begin!
Measure, weigh, tag, repeat. Hundreds of little salmon smolts undergo the process each day, but the data gathered from these hundreds provide us with the means to understand what is going on with the many thousands more that pass by the trap uncaptured each day. Population size, structure, and health can all be determined from the information we collect. Additionally, tagged individuals that return as adults will help us to determine survival rates, residency time, and growth rates at sea. We use this information to track changes in the salmon populations from year to year, study how these changes might be related to climate variations, make predictions on the strength of future runs, and inform management decisions on how to maximize harvest while maintaining a healthy, sustainable population. While this is part of my graduate research, it is also part of a larger collaboration among Heiltsuk, Qqs Project Society, the Hakai Institute, and the Salmon Watersheds Lab at SFU.
With hands numbed by hours immersed in cold water we release the smolts downstream of the trap and plod back to camp with visions of sizzling bacon and piping hot coffee filling our brains. After a hearty brunch, we will head out into the estuary in an attempt to recapture tagged coho smolts and characterize their use of this dynamic environment. But that is another story for another day, for now it is time to reheat, refuel, and relax, if only for a moment.