An advanced genetic research project aims to protect fish populations

·4 min read

Natalya Assance was browsing a Facebook page for biology jobs when she found an offer for a summer position as an Indigenous field research assistant to monitor fish populations, no experience required.

Assance, from the Beausoleil First Nation in Ontario, had recently graduated from the Ecosystem Management Technician program at Fleming College. She applied right away.

“I was super excited for it,” Assance said. “And I got the job!”

She trained at Montreal’s Concordia University for before travelling to Mistissini with the rest of her team, her first time that far from home. Once in the community, Assance spent seven to eight hours a day on Lake Mistassini catching fish, taking measurements and collecting parts of the fins for genetic analysis – extracting the DNA to determine relationships between fish and where they spawned.

After returning to their base at Osprey Lodge each evening, her team would measure fish that guides had caught during the day.

“It was my first time fishing,” Assance noted with a laugh. “By the end I was getting better at casting; before, it wouldn’t go very far. It would take me a whole day to catch a fish.”

Assance found the community very welcoming; people were encouraged to see an Indigenous woman engaged in research. “They told me to come back, now I know it’s a cool little community I can come visit when I want to go fishing.”

The research is a collaborative project between Mistissini, Concordia University’s Fraser Lab, and the FISHES (Fostering Indigenous Small-scale fisheries for Health, Economy and food Security) project run by Genome Canada.

The project began in 2018 in several Indigenous communities across northern Canada.

Dylan Fraser, a biology professor who runs the Fraser Lab, said the goal is to “facilitate the development and monitoring and sustainable management of fisheries where Indigenous communities are present. It aims to promote a strong presence of Indigenous-led conservation and Indigenous-knowledge input in how fisheries are run and managed.”

It’s meant to help Indigenous communities manage conservation efforts and comes as the Cree begin managing Quebec’s largest wildlife reserve through Nibiischii. “It really is a critical step towards Indigenous-led conservation in the province, and recognizing Indigenous sovereignty over lands,” he explained.

The genetic information researchers gather helps understand how fish survive rising water temperatures, evolving food sources, and changing ice break-ups. It also tells them where various fish populations are spawning.

Since Lake Mistassini is so large, there are distinctions within fish species. For instance, pike from the north end of the lake may look quite different from those at the south. Fraser the study showed that a large percentage of speckled trout in Lake Mistassini come from the Papas River on the northern shore. That information helped the community ensure that forestry wasn’t harming spawning grounds.

The project benefits from local ecological knowledge of Cree fishers. Partners received online training during the pandemic to enable the launch of the research before returning to in-person field work. Fraser is optimistic it will aid local conservation of species diversity as it provides Mistissini with the data needed to set quotas and manage an important tourism and food fishery.

Mistissini Environment Administrator Pamela Macleod said the community has participated in other fish studies, but emphasized that this one is much bigger, involving several universities as well as Waswanipi.

The data is useful from a food-security perspective, said Macleod, and is crucial for managing commercial, recreational and Aboriginal fisheries.

“Our people rely on it for livelihood and culture,” she said. “Knowing the overall health status of these populations is one thing and being able to manage it and protect it is another.”

She emphasized that the importance of knowledge contributed by Elders, tallymen and other land users helped resolve an issue that emerged in 2015, when scientists observed declining sizes of walleye. The community initiated a six-year monitoring program, asking tallymen to observe spawning grounds and refrain from taking fish of certain sizes.

Aside from helping the population rebound, they discovered that harvesting pressure had induced a genetic response in some fish to become smaller as a survival response.

Now that the four-year program is nearly complete, Macleod is anticipating the final report to see how research observations measure up with local knowledge holders. “It will be curious to see how different land users and Elders and tallymen respond to that.”

Benjamin Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation