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In the flash of a fin: my lightning fast very successful and awesome field season on Mistassini Lake in northern Quebec

by Ella Bowles

At the end of this field season I felt happy, focussed, that I learned a lot, that I had a great time, and that I was very satisfied with what we accomplished. Field season success, check! I work collaboratively with the Cree Nation of Mistissini on a number of projects to help with monitoring recreational and subsistence fisheries on Mistassini Lake, QC. Mistassini is unique on the Canadian landscape as a very large lake, 161 km tip-to-tip covering 2 335 km2, with its fisheries resources now completely managed by an indigenous people. The Cree Nation of Mistissini took control of the Albanel Mistassini and Waconichi Wildlife Reserve last year. This summer I was sampling northern pike (Esox Lucius).

Dave releasing a good-sized pike! Photo credit: Dylan Fraser

Pike have never been studied on the lake, and we are generating baseline life-history and genomic data in order to determine what the population structure and management units should be for the species.

Osprey camp on Mistassini Lake, where we were based. This is a fishing lodge operated by the Cree Nation of Mistissini. Photo credit: Dylan Fraser.

The challenge is that, as I mentioned, Mistasssini Lake is huge, and we needed a reasonable number of samples distributed relatively evenly across the lake. We were targeting 224 total samples, and due to various constraints, we had 10 days to do the sampling – yikes! Also, I had no real understanding of how to fish for pike, having only fished for them a few times. Fortunately, all of our work in Mistassini is collaborative with the Cree of Mistissini, the only community on the lake. Mistissini is one of nine Cree communities in Eeyou Istchee, and the Cree have resided there since time immemorial. For most days, we were a team of six people, including our guides, and set out in two boats.

Awesome field crew, left to right, top and then bottom: Ella, Emmett (guide), Dylan, Zach, Dave and Norman (guide)

We collected length, weight, a small tissue sample, and took a picture of the cloaca (in the hopes of being able to get sex) of each fish, and we lethally sampled a subset to get the cleithrum bone for aging. And… success. 216 sample in total, with a good distribution of body sizes.

Part of what made this trip so jam-packed though, and also rich, is that I had work to do for the other projects that are ongoing with the Cree, and to set up a collaboration to help collect more samples. On the day before we headed up the lake I had three meetings that had to happen on that day. First, I met with Nibiischii Corporation, the Cree organization that now manages the wildlife reserve around the lake. They were going to have local fishers collect more pike samples in one region of the lake for me, as well as from some surrounding lakes. Next, Dylan and I presented the results of my study on walleye to the chief and council, and lastly, we hosted a community meeting with the local Environment Administrator to plan for the next stages of management for the walleye on the lake. For this latter meeting we had done a lot of planning. All three meetings went well – not quite with the turnout that we had hoped for the community meeting, but it was a very good start. In addition to these meetings, over the course of the ten days that I was sampling I continued conducting interviews with elders to collect Traditional Ecological Knowledge on four key species in the lake. I had done the bulk of the interviews over the winter. In sum, this plethora of tasks made for a very busy 11 days, but the crew was amazing – each person helped in whatever way they could, andcould and were incredibly encouraging. Everyone got along, and I think enjoyed each others company, and importantly, even though everyone who was with me was there because they like fishing, they understood that we were fishing for the project, and so had to make decisions about where and when to fish to meet the goals of the work. What an awesome experience!

Ella hiking in Waterton National Park, AB.

Ella Bowles is a postdoc at Concordia, working with Dylan Fraser and the Cree Nation of Mistissini on community-based fisheries monitoring. She is interested in conservation, andconservation and has worked primarily with fish and in the north. Ella did her PhD (evolutionary genomics) with Sean Rogers at the University of Calgary, and her MSc (molecular ecology) with Andrew Trites and Trish Schulte at UBC. Find out more about her work and interests here.

Post date: March 04, 2019

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