Watershed Watch’s Avery Leake. Credit: Mike Leon

For the last three years, Watershed Watch has supported data collection for our collaborative project, Resilient Waters. Resilient Waters is working to reconnect salmon habitat in the lower Fraser that is currently disconnected by outdated flood infrastructure. Since 2021, we have collected data at nearly two dozen waterways from Chilliwack to Delta and have been steadily advancing fish-friendly infrastructure upgrades at waterways in the region.

Each season, we hire a technician to support the fieldwork leads from Pearson Ecological with data collection on fish, water and habitat. This year, we hired Avery Leake, a Watershed Watch supporter who had previously volunteered with Resilient Waters data collection in 2022. After two months in the field, our Communications Coordinator, Meghan, connected with Avery to find out how the fieldwork season is going so far. Here’s what he had to say.

Meghan: Avery, your first experiences with our Resilient Waters project were as a volunteer. How did you hear about the opportunity, and what did you think after supporting the fieldwork?

Avery: I first heard about Watershed Watch through social media and loved the work you were doing, so I wanted to get involved! I joined the volunteer Meetup page and volunteered with the Resilient Waters program a couple of times and supported with some restoration planting too. Both volunteer experiences were such fulfilling projects to be a part of, and I learned so much in those few days. People have said that flood infrastructure is “the biggest threat to salmon that no one has heard of” and I hadn’t heard of it until I got the chance to volunteer with Watershed Watch.

M: You’ve been working as Watershed Watch’s field technician for over two months now! How are things going in the field so far? 

A: Although it’s been a couple of months, it feels like only a few days have gone by! In that time, I have been fortunate to have learned so much about the many interconnected and intertwined waterways in the lower Fraser floodplain and the cultures connected to them. I’ve been especially fortunate for the opportunity to work with Indigenous youth and guardians of the different waterways we visit, who have extensive traditional knowledge and perspective that they’ve shared. It has also been quite interesting to see how each site changes, as we visit each one several times over the course of the fieldwork season. For example, water levels and temperatures shift (sometimes to concerning levels), vegetation grows, producing flowers and fruit, and we observe different species. It’s wonderful to watch and monitor these waterways changing with the seasons!

M: You have probably learned a lot about local fish species and what good parameters for water quality are. What are some things you didn’t expect to learn while in the field?    

A: Mike Leon and Sherry Miller of Pearson Ecological are both a wealth of knowledge and incredible mentors. They have been supporting the data collection for this project for the last several years, are familiar with the sites, and have been great at showing me the ropes. Mike is the resident bird nerd and Sherry is the plant specialist, and both are equally knowledgeable about fish and aquatic species. Both are also Katzie First Nation and have been amazing teachers, educating me on respecting and honouring the traditions and cultures of those whose land I am working on. 

Three-spine sticklebacks

There are some things though, like how not to fall in the peat bog holes, or how to count 600 sticklebacks while everyone is jokingly trying to distract me by calling out their phone numbers, that just can’t be taught! 

M: Your first week, we threw you right into things by sending you to Delta’s Tilbury Slough. I know from experience this is a hard site to collect data at! Between working with the tides, paddling through a lot of aquatic vegetation and having to portage over many beaver dams and fallen trees, there are plenty of challenges. The landscape around this waterway is probably the most modified of all our sites, being located in a highly industrial area. What did you find during data collection? 

Invasive fathead minnow

A: Tilbury Slough is home to mostly invasive species like the dojo loach, pumpkinseed, fathead minnow, and even goldfish. All these fish were found behind the pump station, where the water quality is quite poor and does not sustain native fish that would have historically used this habitat. Due to the outdated flood infrastructure, the water is warm and stagnant, and the dissolved oxygen levels in the water are low. From an abundance of dead plant matter, and high development in the area, it is a eutrophic environment, which in this case means too many nutrients, if you can believe it!

A northern pikeminnow, a native species.

What was awesome to see however, was that downstream of the pump station, in the section of the slough still connected to the Fraser River, there are tons of native fish like the prickly sculpin, peamouth chub, northern pikeminnow, and even some coho fry that we caught in a seine net! This site is a perfect example of what old and outdated flood control systems can do to waterways and, in turn, wild salmon and other native fish, and what the Resilient Waters program is all about. It was great news to hear that this pump station is slated for a fish-friendly upgrade that would help reconnect upper sections of Tilbury Slough with the Fraser.

M: What has been your favourite site to collect data at so far, and why?

A: Definitely Addington Point Marsh, in Coquitlam. Maybe it’s because it was the site we visited right after Tilbury Slough — it is more natural and less impacted by development, but it’s a great site to work at nonetheless. There are lots of native fish species, open paddling, and a beautiful and diverse area that makes for a great few days of data collection. It was my first time setting up the fyke net as well, which was quite cool – we caught over 20 coho fry! We were joined by volunteers and a guardian working with kʷikʷəƛ̓əm nation, so we had lots of help during our four days of work at that site!

M: Addington Point Marsh is quite a different site than Tilbury Slough! Can you speak a bit about that site and why we are collecting data there?

Addington Point Marsh. Credit: Mike Leon

A: Addington Point Marsh is an interesting site as habitat has already been reconnected in part, but there is lots of potential to improve it. The marsh was once land that had been diked for agriculture. In 1987, it was made into a Wildlife Management Area and in 2004, several dike breaches were performed by Ducks Unlimited and the province to create rearing habitat for salmon and other fish behind the dikes. Our data collection is building the case for additional dike breaches to improve access to this habitat in the lower Pitt River watershed. We’ve seen what the two dike breaches have already done for salmon that use this area; we catch lots of coho and Chinook fry, and even some adult chum spawners were spotted using it last fall.  From genetic information collected from juvenile salmon we trapped in 2021, we found that fish from Fraser River populations are travelling up the Pitt River to access these rearing habitats at Addington Point before continuing their journey out to sea. So, it’s important we find a way to create more access at this location.

M: What fish species is your favourite? Is there a species you haven’t seen yet that you are hoping to come across?

A prickly sculpin

A: I’ve really grown fond of the prickly sculpin, a native bottom dweller with mean-looking eyes, and beautiful spotted dark and light patterns along their bodies. In areas with low abundance of native species, they are often the only native fish in our traps. Of course, it’s always nice to see salmonids in our traps, and we have yet to catch a rainbow trout!

M: Bears, leeches or carnivorous water beetles: what is the thing you want to avoid most in the field?

A: After seeing what the carnivorous water beetle does to its prey, I would definitely stay away from the beetle.

A carnivorous water beetle

Using its venom, it tenderizes the flesh of its prey before consumption; it did a number on a few bullfrog tadpoles we had in one trap. Bears aren’t so bad if you practice safe distancing, and leeches take a bit of blood, but who wants to get tenderized by a beetle? Not me.

M: Yep, and they can fly! What are your plans for the fall after you wrap up your work with us?

A: When I’m finished my work with Watershed Watch in the fall, I am planning to go to school for the Fish, Wildlife, and Recreation Program at Selkirk College in the Kootenays, and get out fishing for salmon on the coastal rivers before I leave!

M: Sounds like an awesome program! Any last reflections you would like to share?

A: It has been an awesome experience so far working for Watershed Watch, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the summer, and supporting data collection that will hopefully help build the case for more infrastructure upgrades, like those planned for Tilbury Slough, that lead to positive change for wild salmon!

M: Thanks, Avery!

If you want to stay up to date on what Avery and the rest of the Resilient Waters team are finding in the field, be sure to follow us on Facebook or Instagram, and if you want to join us in the field to support this data collection, be sure to join our Watershed Watch meetup page to hear about upcoming opportunities!