Can the Semá:th First Nation save the salmon using sonar?

Sonar, Indigenous knowledge, and community building are the cornerstones of a five-year project to count the salmon in the Vedder River and hopefully save the fishery

By Grace Kennedy | October 14, 2021 |4:24 am

Rain plunked down onto the swift-moving waters of the Vedder River, creating a mosaic of ripples above the salmon swimming upstream. There were more fish than you would expect in the river—more fish than you could see from the surface at any rate. Some idled in the current, swimming just enough to keep stationary in the water. Others used their powerful tails to fight their way upstream to their spawning grounds further east.

Above the water, the song of the river and the rain melded with the sound of a gas-powered generator. It was humming underneath the red tent where Richard Bussanich was sitting, watching a computer screen intently. A man in bright yellow jogging gear ran along the path towards him, slowing as he neared the tent.

“Can I ask, what are you guys doing here?” the man asked, curious.

Bussanich beckoned him closer. “You can take a look at the screen, you’re more than welcome to,” he said. On it, blue-grey images of salmon were lit up: a digital representation of the fish swimming in the Vedder in real time.

Bussanich, a fisheries biologist, is working with the Semá:th First Nation on something innovative, and possibly revolutionary: using sonar to make an accurate count of the salmon in the Vedder River, and put that information in Indigenous hands to ensure there is fish for generations to come.

Murray Ned, a Semá:th First Nation councillor, has been key in getting the project off the ground. Ned grew up fishing with his father on the Fraser River four decades ago, when Indigenous fishers could be on the river throughout the year, three days a week. Now, he said, “we’re really measuring our opportunity in hours, days versus a year of access.”

“It started out with a crisis,” Ned said. “This crisis has been going on with Pacific salmon for at least two decades, if not longer.

“We can no longer rely on the province, we can no longer rely on the federal government,” he continued. “We can’t rely on the DFO to ensure that there’s going to be fish for future generations. And so we’re just going to have to figure it out ourselves.”

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Conservation, guardianship, and harvest

Last year, the Semá:th First Nation launched a five-year plan to protect the salmon in its traditional territory, focusing particularly on the area around what used to be Sumas Lake.

The lake had been a central feature in the Semá:th landscape, and of major significance to the Semá:th people since before the first Roman aqueduct was built halfway around the world. It was a marshy wetland that ebbed with the Fraser River’s freshets, and was a key tributary for sturgeon and salmon. The Semá:th people built villages by its banks and summer homes on stilts over the water. They established communities next to the Sumas and Fraser rivers that fed it, ensuring access to the Stó:lō highway.

“That was our travel routes, that was our economy, that was our food security,” Ned explained. “So the lake was, of course, imperative to us in the past, and still is today.”

In 1920, engineers began a four-year project to drain Sumas Lake, and turn it into fertile land for white farmers. They diverted the Sumas River from the lake into the newly constructed Vedder Canal that led onwards into the Vedder River. It is now largely farmland, with sloughs and drainage channels cut through the low-lying prairie.

“What’s left of the lake we want to maintain, and that’s what we deem our right and title to,” Ned said. “We not only have a right, but an obligation to maintain what’s in the territory.”

That obligation centres around the salmon, an important resource for the Semá:th and other Stó:lō communities.

“If we can save the fish, we can save our people. We’re that closely connected,” Ned said. “I truly believe that when we are no longer able to fish, we’re no longer able to connect either to the tributary within our territory, the former lake, or the Fraser River, and be able to practice that fishery—our culture will die. That’s how significant fish are to our people.”

The salmon crisis

Underwater picture of many salmon swimming in the river during the spawning season.
Salmon stocks have been on the decline for at least 20 years, creating a crisis for fishers and fish alike. 📸 EB Adventure Photography/Shutterstock

There are five species of salmon that spawn in the Fraser Valley: coho, chinook, chum, pink, and sockeye. All spend their juvenile lives in freshwater tributaries of the Fraser River before heading to the ocean for their adult years. They all return home at varying times of the year to spawn, laying their eggs in gravel depressions in the waterways. Some head up to Cultus Lake, others spawn in the Harrison River, and still others head to smaller creeks like Atchelitz Creek in Chilliwack.

Since the 1990s, salmon stocks have been declining, with fewer and fewer fish returning to their ancestral waterways to spawn. The numbers of sockeye, chinook, and coho—the “money fish” as Ned called them—have been so low as to put them on lists for threatened or endangered species. Numbers for pink and chum salmon are low too; although Fisheries and Oceans Canada says that they are not generally showing long-term declines, data quality on those species is low.

Scientists in the federal government and elsewhere have said that there is now an international Pacific salmon emergency. In BC, the 2019 and 2020 commercial salmon catches were the lowest in recorded history—just 7.5% of the average annual catches in the 1970s. The DFO’s preliminary estimates for the sockeye salmon run won’t be available until at least November, but data from the Pacific Salmon Commission estimates about 2.5 million sockeye made it past Mission: higher than both 2017 and 2009, but significantly less than 2013.

But that’s just it—it’s an estimate. And Ned thinks that’s a barrier to solving the salmon crisis.

“We want to give you accurate numbers at the end of the day that say this is how many actually escaped for spawning purposes,” Ned said. With those concrete numbers “we can be rest assured that that’s going to be fish for the future, because those fish were able to get back to the spawning beds and spawn.”

That’s what the sonar project, a key part of the Conservation, Guardianship, and Harvest Plan, is all about. Its goal is to fill a gap in stock assessment numbers for salmon on the Vedder River and find out exactly how many salmon are slipping past recreational and Indigenous fishers. It won’t be cheap: the First Nation has set aside $1 million dollars for the five year period. But the Semá:th First Nation hopes it will give them the information they need to manage their fishery.

Sonar in the water

Amanda Gawor (left) and Philipa Dutt (right) look at the computer underneath a red tent.
Amanda Gawor (left) and Philipa Dutt (right) spend some of their days at the river counting salmon as they show up on the ARIS system. 📸 Grace Kennedy

Back at the Vedder River, Bussanich is joined under the red tent by natural resources officer Amanada Gawor and governance and environmental policy officer Philipa Dutt. The two women sat at the computer screen, watching lines squiggle past the monitor. Dutt had her finger on a mechanical counter. Gawor selected one squiggle to see a fish show up on the right hand side of the screen.

“You can see that we’ve got one nice solid fish that made its way upstream,” Gawor said, pointing at the screen where the fish was swimming on the monitor on loop. The fish image was moving from left to right, meaning that in the river only a few feet away, it had swum from west to east past the sonar beam secured to the river bottom. Gawor clicked over to another squiggle.

“This nice block you can see, this represents fish milling behaviour,” she said, now pointing to the collection of fish hanging out on screen, bobbing in the current. “We don’t count that because we’re trying to look at some successful numbers of targets moving upstream to their spawning grounds. It would have to be more like what we saw in this image,” she clicked back to the previous fish image, “clearly moving from one end to the next, making his way upstream.

A silver tripod with orange parts sits in the Vedder River. It is a sonar system used by the Sumas First Nation.
The ARIS sonar, pictured here, sends out high-frequency pulses across the width of the river, returning images of salmon passing through. 📸 Grace Kennedy

“It’s a little tedious,” she added. That isn’t an understatement. The ARIS sonar—the same sonar developed by the US Navy—sends out high frequency sonar pulses that bounce off the surrounding environment and return to the camera as an image. The sonar image is fed to the computer positioned under the red tent, and the video is recorded in 15 minute clips. The objects detected by the sonar show up as lines, similar to what digital audio clips look like when they are being turned into a radio show. Clicking on those lines brings up the image of a fish doing what fish do best. The sonar records 24-hours a day, four days a week, for seven weeks this fall. (The sonar project already ran for several weeks this summer, and twice in 2020.) It is Gawor, Dutt, and Bussanich’s job to review the videos and count each fish that swims past the sonar.

Of course, it’s not all about clicking a counter. “It’s quite cute, sometimes we see some really big fat ones that we cheer for,” Dutt said, laughing a little. But the women also head out twice a day to conduct “creel surveys”—a qualitative study of the number and type of fish anglers have caught downstream of the sonar beam.

More than just sonar

Fishers standing on the gravel bank of the Vedder River in the rain.
Fishers downstream of the Semá:th sonar project are busy seeing what sonar can’t: the type of fish passing through the river. 📸 Grace Kennedy

Out on the water, usually in hip waders, there are representatives from every type of fishing background. There are the purists, the authentic fishers who are there to understand the animal and the river. There are the meat fishers, who want to snag a salmon or two for the grill back home. There are the Indigenous fishers, taking to the river as they have done since time immemorial. There are the young and the old, the new and the experienced.

They see what the sonar cannot. For all of the sonar’s high tech capabilities, it can’t tell what kind of salmon are passing through the river. For that, the team relies on the expertise of fishers, both recreational and Indigenous, who are out on the water.

“We’ve had, so far, really great interactions with a lot of the fishers, they’re really curious as to what we’re doing,” Gawor said. Dutt agreed.

“They kind of know us,” she said. “So they provide us with more detailed information every time we go, because they know we are just there to talk and get to know more about the fish. It’s more building connections with the community as well.”

Those connections have resulted in tangible success in an activity that is often fraught with generational tension between recreational and Indigenous anglers.

“The fishers bought into it,” Bussanich said. “They were casting and we were saying ‘The salmon are 10 metres out, coming towards you.’ And they became believers awfully fast. It wasn’t a faith thing. Seeing was believing. And we were able to correlate fishing catches to fish going by.”

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Going to the government table

The salmon counts collected from the Semá:th sonar project won’t just be kept by the First Nation. It will also be shared with the province and DFO. Preliminary data from this summer was shared with the federal government, and Gawor said they were “quite surprised.”

The sonar team had set up in the Vedder River in July, wanting to be out on the water early to count the early salmon runs. Indigenous knowledge said the fish could be coming as early as June. The DFO weren’t sure. After the results this year, they may head back on the water even earlier next year.

“It’s refreshing for myself, knowing that we are being led by that traditional Indigenous knowledge,” Gawor said. “Then we can come and support that with Western science. But we are really being led, which is great.”

Ned pointed to that as an important part of the project as well: bringing Indigenous people and their knowledge to government-level on discussions around fish management. In the past, he said, Indigenous people had been consulted about decisions, much like nonprofits or recreational anglers, but not included at the decision-making level.

“First Nations have defined themselves at a government-to-government scale, so we’ll be one of those at the table,” Ned said. “And that’s where the discussions and decision making should be happening.

“But that doesn’t necessarily eliminate the stakeholders, commercial and recreational, or the NGOs,” he continued. When Indigenous people were taken out of the fisheries management discussion due to the Indian Act, the anglers and nonprofit organizations took their place as vocal supporters of the salmon.

“So the NGOs have done a lot of good work in our territories. But it’s time for First Nations to take responsibility now. To partner, or take it on completely.”

The future of salmon

A red tent on the bank of the Vedder River. In the water, a tripod sonar system.
The Semá:th team continues counting salmon, keeping the generator running for the computer and tracking fish with sonar. 📸 Grace Kennedy

The Current visited the Semá:th sonar site in late September, with five weeks of counting left to do. When it’s over, the team will pack up the ARIS sonar for the final time. This year’s count will be over.

With any luck, Gawor, Dutt, and Bussanich will have figured out how many salmon have made their way upstream to spawning channels east of the Vedder Bridge. It will be a conservative estimate. But it will provide a baseline for the salmon we have now, and a hope for the salmon to come.

“This river is the most heavily fished river in all of BC,” Bussanich said. “This river is living, so are the fishers. And the Sumas and the other nations and the agencies that are going to find a way to get along, you know, that’s a good song. It’s a good song.”

In the river, in the path of the Semá:th sonar, a salmon lept from the water. It landed back with a splash, continuing its journey in the pulsing water as its ancestors have for generations.

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Grace Kennedy

Reporter at Fraser Valley Current

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