Vancouver Sun: UBC salmon tracking studies find mortality hotspots, migration bottlenecks

Scientists are using high-tech to identify and locate the gauntlet of threats facing wild salmon, particularly in the fresh water environment.

Fewer than 10 per cent of juvenile salmon even make it out of the river to live their adult lives, according to research from Scott Hinch’s lab at UBC.

Young researchers there are combining tiny sophisticated tracking devices, underwater telemetry and health diagnostics to find the hotspots where Pacific salmon are dying and to learn why.

Bull trout, for instance, lie in wait for juvenile sockeye at “pinch points” where the fish crowd together to leave lakes for the river systems on their journey to the sea.

“We knew there was mortality in the fresh water environment, but we weren’t really aware of how intense it was in such a narrow window of their life history,” said Hinch.

They placed transmitters on both species to see a high-stakes “cat and mouse game” with the trout moving into place ahead of their prey just before they leave the lake, while the sockeye try to slip through under cover of darkness.

Hinch, a professor in UBC’s department of forest and conservation sciences, has earned the Mitacs Award for Exceptional Leadership-Professor for his pioneering work and for supervising dozens of Mitacs-funded internships for young scientists.

His Mitacs interns have published more than 20 research papers.

The lab employs a variety of transmitters — some small enough to place on a smolt under six inches — and mobile receivers to answer research questions specific to different parts of the life journey of the salmon.

“Sometimes we are focused near the spawning area, sometimes in the lower Fraser River,” he said.

The smallest transmitters can be attached to one-year-old juveniles just a few inches long and can provide location and mortality information for about 32 days, enough time for sockeye to swim from their lake nurseries to the northern tip of Vancouver Island.

“That technology was a game-changer because we can use them on smaller sockeye at an earlier age,” said Hinch.

In addition to tagging the fish with transmitters, the researchers take tissue samples to determine the health of the fish and identify genetic factors that may help some fish succeed where others fail.

Among the system’s notable real-world successes is a collaboration with B.C. Hydro, a First Nations firm St’át’imc Eco Resources and the Pacific Salmon Foundation to assess the impact of water releases by hydroelectric dams on migrating spawners.

B.C. Hydro was able to implement operational changes that allow an extra 10 to 15 per cent more fish through to their spawning grounds.

A second Mitacs award went to Vancouver-based Hydrogen in Motion (H2M) for its pioneering work in hydrogen storage and helping make hydrogen fuel cells a viable alternative to fossil fuel combustion in passenger vehicles.

With the help of researchers at SFU and UBC, H2M has created a nanomaterial that can store hydrogen like a sponge under very low pressure, which eliminates the need for high-pressure tanks.

“Researchers in the hydrogen world have been working to make this type of material for close to 30 years without success,” said H2M CEO Grace Quan.

The firm is now working to scale its technology for commercial use and plans to double its workforce to 18 employees next year. The company also runs paid summer internship programs for female high school students interested in science and technology.


Byline: Randy Shore