Students attending school at the Saturna Ecological Education Centre this year have joined a campaign to raise awareness around endangered fish species and are doing scientific field work that aids the knowledge bank about fishing threats at the same time.
The School District 64 program sees around a dozen students in grades 10 and 11 stay at the off-grid campus at Haggis Farm from Sunday night through Wednesday afternoon each week, for a full year of experiential place-based ecological learning. SEEC’s current cohort includes students from Vancouver, Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands. Working on a major theme of ecological citizenship for their year of studies, students have been monitoring and recording data collected in two federal Rockfish Conservation Areas.
Two cameras set up in the conservation zones this fall each take a photo every five minutes, producing 4,000 photos per week. Students are working in group to investigate every image to determine whether boats may be fishing in the protected zones. The data is being shared with partners at the Galiano Conservancy, who helped set up the project, the University of Victoria and the Saturna Island Marine Research and Education Society. These groups are hoping to make a difference in the survival of multiple rockfish species, which were over-fished over the last century and face special challenges due to evolutionary biology.
“Education is so important, and I think the only way we can bring it home and have success is making sure people are more aware and wanting to help out,” said Sarah Stelte, who served as the Galiano Conservancy’s rockfish marine technician for the 2020 season. “I think it’s really great [the SEEC students] are excited and involved.”
Fisheries and Oceans Canada states there are 38 rockfish species along the coast of B.C. The species are long-lived and slow to grow and reproduce, with some fish living up to 100 years and not reaching sexual maturity for several decades. As well, rockfish don’t stray far from home habitats. Both factors make them extra sensitive to fishing pressure.
Commercial and recreational fishing restrictions have been in place in 162 Rockfish Conservation Areas since 2007. Most fishing activities, including recreational halibut and salmon fishing, are prohibited in all RCAs.
“The reason people cannot fish in these zones is that if they accidentally catch a rockfish, their internal organs are severely damaged by the sudden change in pressure and if released they rarely can make it back down to the level they are comfortable at and die,” explained SEEC student Solace Purtill. “Sometimes the fish’s stomach is seen coming out of their mouths because of that change in pressure.”
Galiano Conservancy has been doing outreach around rockfish since 2015. Stelte said they have put up signs at marinas so it’s the first thing boaters see when anchoring. The organization also normally does lots of in-person activity, from interviewing fishers at the dock to attending community events armed with posters, pamphlets, T-shirts and puppets.
Data collected from eight cameras viewing the RCAs around Galiano suggest that outreach has helped, with a noticeable downward trend in boats illegally fishing in those areas over the previous few years. This year, however, saw an upward spike in fishing activity on all eight cameras. Stelte said COVID’s impact may be felt in the inability to do public outreach and perhaps a new interest in fishing from people looking for an isolated activity outdoors.
“This was a very bizarre summer and we do need to take those factors into account when analyzing the data,” Stelte said.
Stelte brought two of the conservancy’s cameras to Saturna this fall for the students to monitor as a pilot project that will help scientists analyze a broader picture. The waters off Saturna’s entire southern shoreline are covered by one RCA, and there is another in a stretch along the north-eastern tip encompassing the Bell Chain Islets.
Recreational fishing in those areas is limited to crab and prawn traps, invertebrate harvesting done by hand and smelt gill netting. But there is little information on site to remind recreational fishers. SEEC students noted there is one sign posted at Lyall Harbour, and that’s it.
Students studying the photos record a suspected fishing incident whenever a boat stays in the zone for three photo frames or more, or at least 15 minutes. They say some boats are obviously fishing because rods can be seen, but many are too far away to be sure.
“We’ve learned a lot about data collection and putting it into a research format,” said student Magnus McCallum. “In the future we can go back to what we collected in the past and see if [instances of fishing] went down, percentage wise.”
Clara Gioia observed many people are not actually fishing for rockfish, but the fish are still at risk of being caught accidentally because their closed swim bladder makes them highly susceptible to barutrauma. Gioia said the students want to prevent this, and added she finds the evolutionary history of the fish “super fascinating.”
Strong advice from students to the public, said Hansen Thingvold, is quite simply “don’t fish” in the conservation areas, but also to make sure to check DFO’s local regulations before heading out, which is easy to do online.
SEEC teacher Martin Anevich said he was attracted to the project because it offers an experiential component that add values to the environmental science his group is studying.
“Having the chance to go for a hike to a remote part of the island, while also doing the work of processing and analyzing data, affords students the chance to be a part of citizen science; to solve real world problems,” Anevich said. “What happens outside of the classroom, in the field, supports the development of academic skills.”
The SEEC class said they feel extra engaged with the project since it is making an impact in the real world, unlike the results recorded from a controlled lab experiment. And while it may not go so far to inspire anyone to focus on rockfish studies as a future career, Peter Goggs spoke for many when he said it increased his interest in marine science in general.
“I didn’t know that rockfish were a thing, first of all,” said Goggs’ classmate Purtill, who added a key lesson learned in the project: “The main cause of rockfish becoming endangered is ignorance — people not knowing about it. And I think that’s the root of many problems.”