Wednesday December 1, 2021

Hakai Magazine

For years, Steven Cooke, a biologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, has been traveling to British Columbia to research Pacific salmon migrations. But on the west coast, salmon populations are in dire straits. Several of the populations Cooke studies, including those in the Fraser River, have crashed to the point that even taking a small number of fish for research would be more than they can afford to lose. “We’re at the point with some populations where we have to be hands off,” says Cooke. “We don’t want to study them to extinction.”

Through years of precipitous declines, Cooke has found it increasingly difficult to study the fish in their native habitat. Now, he’s been all but forced to shift his team’s focus thousands of kilometers east, to Ontario’s Great Lakes.

More and more frequently, says Cooke, salmon numbers have been so low that his research permits have been canceled by the federal government or shifted to other watersheds at the last minute. A sudden move can be just as difficult as a cancellation, since the research team does not have any experience, contacts with local Indigenous communities, or even hotel reservations in the new location. This is particularly disruptive for his students, who may only have one or two field seasons in which to collect the data needed for their projects.

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