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SFU researchers partner on interdisciplinary salmon conservation project

August 03, 2023

Reversing a 40-year decline in Pacific salmon populations requires a collaborative approach that combines traditional Indigenous knowledge with archaeology and genomics.

A new project, funded by Genome BC, involves a team of researchers from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, Simon Fraser University’s Department of Archaeology and the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries.

Researchers will analyze the bones of Pacific salmon dating back 3,000 years to understand historical changes in the salmon population levels, which were managed by the Coast Salish peoples since time immemorial.

“Recovering and analyzing DNA from small archaeological fish bones can now provide important information about fish species ID and sex ID, thanks to the advancement of ancient DNA techniques,” says SFU archaeology professor Dongya Yang, who is co-leading the project. “The new genomic approach based on the next generation of sequencing technology will prove to be even more powerful and insightful and it will also allow us to examine the population changes over time.”

Yang says the team will employ the latest DNA techniques to maximize the recovery of genomic information from ancient salmon bones. “We will also develop a community-engaged plan to work closely with our Tsleil-Waututh community partners to integrate DNA data fully and effectively with traditional ecological knowledge of the Tsleil-Waututh people.”

Preliminary analysis has shown an abundance of male Chum salmon in ancient shell middens, which suggests male salmon were selectively harvested to preserve female Chum salmon to maintain future stocks.

The research team seeks to answer outstanding questions such as why the Tsleil-Waututh people began to use this conservation strategy. Did they begin using this selective harvesting strategy due to an increasing human population or decreasing salmon numbers? The team will also attempt to better understand how climate change has impacted the relationship between the Tsleil-Waututh people and the salmon, an essential food source, over thousands of years.

Tsleil-Waututh knowledge of their ancestors’ practices or interpretations of their ancestors’ responses to changes in salmon behaviour or abundance are not generally accessible to researchers, says project co-lead Jesse Morin, an adjunct professor of archaeology at SFU and at the UBC Institute for the Oceans, who has been researching the topic for more than a decade.

“By maintaining a continuous dialogue in the research process with Tsleil-Waututh knowledge holders and staff, we can interweave our genetic and temporal results with this knowledge to better explain and interpret our conclusions.”  

The team also includes Camilla Speller, an expert in ancient genomic research and associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at UBC. In addition, postdoc, graduate, and undergraduate students will be invited to participate in the research as well. The project title is Reconstructing Indigenous Salmon Fisheries and Management Strategies in Burrard Inlet, Metro Vancouver, through the Genomic Analysis of Archaeological Salmon Bones. 

The results of this project and their research can be used to guide conservation actions to protect Pacific salmon stocks for future generations.