Headwaters

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I’m back in Bella Bella, preparing for our first year operating a smolt trap in the Koeye. But on Monday, before heading to Koeye for the next four weeks, Howard Humchitt and I decided to spend the day trekking around a little stream at the head of a long, mountain lined inlet looking which we suspected might be home to a few steelhead.

Leaving just after dawn the wind was calm on our way out, and in the inlet flanked by smoothed granite mountains the water was mirror-like, rippled only slightly with the breath of a breeze during the dawn hours.

The inlet is a place of immense spiritual and ecological power. Home to Heiltsuk and their forbearers since the glaciers retreated many thousands of years ago, today it remains home to grizzlies, wolves, eagles and abundant salmon. In early fall the thick shouldered chums and small humpbacked pink salmon spawn here by the thousands. Later in the fall coho will return to spawn, placing their offspring in reaches where low gradients and abundant woody debris create perfect rearing habitat. These streams, with their steep, snow-capped drainages are among the coldest in this part of Heiltsuk territory, and while there are no accounts of steelhead in these waters we expected that mid-April should be as likely as anytime to find a silver oceanic steelhead on its spawning run.

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The river is small, cutting through a narrow floodplain in alternating bouts of modest gradient, and steeper plunge pools and canyons. In the fall the river runs rich with the abundance, and decay of chum and pink salmon senescing along the shore fills the air with its rich odor. Now close to 6 months after the last chum spawning things are quiet. Only the bones, scattered in places along the shore and piled in the bear’s kitchen, and the few small fry skittering nervously in the shallows tell the story of the fall bounty.

Hiking upriver, we walked across the grassy estuary, passing an ancient looking gnarled patch of crab apple draped in long trailing wisps of dusty green lichen of the genus Usnea, known to most by its common nameold man’s beard. Near the top of tide we encountered an obvious animal trail, deeply rutted by the repetitive foot falls of generations of grizzly bears. Howard stopped, and pointed out a set of fresh tracks indicating that at least one bear had emerged from his winter den.

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Along a low saddle of a terrace, we walked through mostly open, mossy understory where hand-loggers once fell ancient spruces for the war effort.  We made good time. Just before noon we dropped down to the river, strung our rods and took a short walk upstream, noting the likely pools and pockets. Howard fished a small pool carved against a large boulder, casting his spinning lure adeptly to the deep water against the face the rock. Upstream the river gathered its gradient, tumbling heavily across a boulderd rapid, which at higher flows had scoured the middle of the run leaving behind mysteriously deep slow water dotted with only the largest of the boulder bedload. Just around the corner the river collided with a low slung bluff of hard granite which deflected by the rock race caused it to make a hard right turn before straightening to carve a short, urn like pool.  The depth of the pool and the shade which lingered on its surface gave refuge to a possibility of a resting fish.

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Flipping the small piece of weighted pink rabbit fur and sink tip across the heavy chute andd mending the line allowing it to sink down into the deeper seam against the far side. Jolted from the calm of the river in the late morning by the sudden instantaneous tightening of the line as the fish rushed quickly downstream, peeling away with the musical clicking of the old reel. It rolled, erupting against the surface with a broad sweep of its tail. Then, in an instant it leaving nothing but the faint tension of water against the flyline and fly.

Disappointed by the loss of the fish but excited by the affirmative finding of a steelhead in the little stream near Headquarters,  Howard and I fished downriver for the next several hours, exploring again a series of likely spots without any more surprises from the river. With the afternoon waning we walked back down river through the estuary meadow and the sandy clam bed at the river mouth to Howard’s boat, which we found resting beautifully against the glassy late afternoon.

Now at Koeye, the little river will have to wait again until next year, when I can explore the upper portion of the river and its valley more thoroughly. Who knows what we might find?

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Sitting on Water is out

At long last our documentary Sitting on Water: A Season on the Koeye River is out. Big thanks to everyone who participated in the project from our amazing team at QQs Projects Society, Ilja Herb our incredibly talented film-maker, Andrew Naysmith our editor, and of course everyone who participated in making the weir happen. It’s a long list but it wouldn’t be right to fail to mention our technicians who worked every day to make the project a reality: Scott Lawson, Robert Duncan, Richard Wilson-Hall, and Jessel Housty. The project also wouldn’t have been possible without major in-kind support from the Hakai Institute including the multi-talented Grant Callegari, and his crack team from Hakai: Jamie Cowan, Pete Taylor, Parker Christensen and Scott Nyuli. Also, a big thanks is due to Kelly Brown, the Director of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Monitoring Department (HIRMD) for providing his time and his wisdom in a wide ranging interview on Heiltsuk resource stewardship.

The weir project wouldn’t have been possible without major financial support from Tides Canada, The Vancouver Foundation, the Pacific Salmon Foundation’s Community Salmon Program, and the McLean Foundation. And of course the making of the film was made possible by all of our generous supporters who donated during our Indiegogo crowd funding campaign, which allowed us to fund the costs of editing, music and post production for the film.

We hope to continue running the Koeye River weir this year and for many years to come, and getting the word out about the project through the documentary will be an essential part of keeping the project funded and energized.

here’s a link for the website: http://sittingonwater.ca/

Thinking about shifting baselines and fisheries

herring fishing

 

Historic Herring Fishery – Photo Vancouver Sun

People have short memories, and it turns out so do our fisheries management institutions. With each passing generation people grow accustomed to lower and lower abundance of commercially and culturally important fish, resulting in what Daniel Pauly calls shifting baseline syndrome. From Atlantic Cod, to salmon, steelhead and Pacific Herring, modern management approaches have often been hindered by a failure to grasp the former abundance and spatial distribution of these once abundant species. A paper out recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by a group of researchers based at Simon Fraser University highlights this issue, using archeological evidence from First Nations middens the Salish Sea to Southeast Alaska to track the distribution and abundance of Pacific Herring  through time. They conclude that Herring populations were once more widely distributed, more abundant, and more stable. In recent years Herring populations in the region have exhibited dramatic fluctuations and remain depressed in many areas. This is particularly relevant given a DFO proposal to open Herring fisheries on the Central Coast this year, something which the Heiltsuk are opposing.

Similar considerations exist for anadromous salmonids, and efforts to reconstruct historic abundance using cannery records reveal that modern escapement targets are drastically below historic levels of abundance. I’m particularly interested in the potential for fisheries to induce changes in population spatial strcuture. If external forcings such as climate change or over fishing have altered spatial structure (ie the distribution of fish in available habitat) it could seriously hinder recovery. In the case of salmon I can’t help but wonder how much ongoing anthropogenic climate change is already influencing survival in the ocean. Given the amount of variability in the marine survival data and the relative scarcity of information on marine survival, these changes may already be underway without our knowing.

check out their paper:

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/02/13/1316072111.full.pdf+html

Spring is Coming

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One month into my PhD program at SFU,  so much has already happened. We are rapidly gearing up for our 2014 field season, fundraising to support the weir project, putting the finishing touches on Sitting on Water , and trying to wrap up some loose ends on a couple of projects. I’m just back from a three day visit to Bella Bella for Qqs’ annual strategic meeting, and it was great to see everyone again, and put plans in place for the upcoming year. All in all life is good, but it feels a little bit like I might blink and it will be April already. This year we will be running our smolt enumeration program in the Koeye River for the first time ever, allowing us to estimate the number of sockeye, coho and steelhead smolts that the Koeye produces. By linking information on smolt abundance and adult returns we will be able to estimate marine survival for sockeye in the Koeye, a critical data gap for sockeye on the Central Coast.

Five more days to support Sitting on Water

With five more days left in our Indiegogo campaign, we are only $665 away from our original fundraising goal. We are tremendously grateful for all the support we have received thus far, and optimistic that we can make it to our final goal. Please spread the work, and if you’ve been meaning to support the project and haven’t had a chance, now is the time!

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/sitting-on-water-a-season-on-the-koeye-river

River Meeting

Nothing better than a river meeting with your PhD supervisor. Getting out on the water was a great chance to talk about ideas, get a little break from the office and swim a few flies. Jon is a great friend and mentor who I have known since we played ultimate frisbee when I was an undergrad at the University of Washington and he was a PhD student in the school of fisheries. I’m really looking forward to joining the Moore Lab in January. We’ll have to do this more often…

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Looking for a Few More Supporters for Sitting on Water

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With 13 days remaining we’re down to the homestretch on our crowd funding campaign and we’ve raised $3500. That means we’re just $1500 shy of our total goal, and you could be one of the lucky people to push us over the top. As I’ve written before, Sitting on Water is a short documentary film about Heiltsuk First Nation’s salmon stewardship, specifically, the Koeye River weir project. The Koeye is a stunningly beautiful place, home to major runs of sockeye, coho, chum, pink and steelhead, and this past summer was our first season ever running a weir in the watershed. You can help us tell the story of the weir’s inaugural season, and the Heiltuk’s growing voice as managers of salmon within their traditional territory.

There’s some great rewards for our supporters, including steelhead flies tied by yours truly (thoroughly soaked in mojo of course), beautiful prints of the Koeye and the Central Coast, and even a week long trip to Bella Bella and the Koeye river watershed in the summer of 2014 if someone is willing to dig deep to support the project.

Check out our Indiegogo page to support us!!!

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/sitting-on-water-a-season-on-the-koeye-river