Marine biologists

🕔Jun 02, 2010

“Even this,” says James Witzke, holding up his fishing rod, “is a method of scientific collection.” He grins behind his shaggy red beard and casts again into the cold lake. A loon floats leisurely on an unseen current across the dark water. Rising from the opposite shore are the steep slopes of a mountain range, alpine snowfields gleaming in the cold sun above the thick coastal rainforest. It’s a typical setting for a northern BC daytrip and a familiar backdrop to Witzke’s day-to-day routine as a marine biologist.

As we hike the shoreline, searching out a creek that feeds into the lake from a long narrow valley, Witzke’s keen eye picks out the evidence of animals all around—wolf scat with bear fur in it, the remnants of some industrious beaver’s half-chewed tree, prints in the soft, wet muskeg. Counting fish in scenery like this is suspiciously close to recreation, but biologists insist that it’s work.

When we eventually stumble onto the stream, he stands on a moss-covered log and points out the indicators of good habitat for fish. “When I’m looking at a stream,” he explains, “I’m looking for all kinds of things.” He shows me deep, slow moving pools perfect for the early days of small fry, slightly submerged gravel beds for spawning, tree cover protecting fish from predators, and more. All of these characteristics suggest this creek is a healthy habitat for the fish species that populate the lake. Not all creeks are.

Enter the biologists. On the North Coast, the marine variety is not uncommon. Northwest Community College offers an acclaimed program, Applied Coastal Ecology (ACE), which Witzke took in 2005/2006 to add to his BSc. Graduates of the program find themselves employable in various fishery projects and because Rupert and its outlying communities have such a strong connection to the marine ecosystems that surround them, biologists form a large part of the local scientific community.

“One thing I really like about working in the North,” says Witzke, “is the more intimate community of biologists who can have a casual meeting or get caught up on events at the coffee shop or even in the grocery store.” Discussing scientific data and upcoming fieldwork over onions and leeks might seem strange to some, but it beats sitting in a windowless room, poring over charts and PowerPoint presentations.

While chance encounters might make up some of the interactions among biologists, their work is anything but casual. Coastal biology is passionate and informed, and its role in protecting the delicate balance inherent in natural ecosystems is vital.

A driving passion
Witzke says he’s wanted to be a biologist since he was in grade six. “I feel passionate about nature and enjoy learning about how it works. I also feel that, as humans, we have a responsibility to understand how our actions affect the environment so that we can maintain a proper balance.” It’s that passion that is driving many of the people who live and work in the still-wild landscapes of the province.

Dr. Elmar Plate is a senior fisheries biologist at LGL Limited and was one of Witzke’s instructors in the ACE program. Later, they worked together on fisheries projects throughout the North Coast region. “To me, Elmar is like a mentor,” says Witzke, “I value his approach to and his passion for not only biology but also life in general.” Both biologists share a catching enthusiasm for all things aquatic and look at the landscape in terms of interconnected ecosystems.

Plate explains why he thinks BC biology is so important. “Interest and empathy develop from knowledge,” he muses. “The field of marine biology inspires lay people to first ask questions and, once a deeper understanding has been gained, to develop empathy. This empathy is often translated into the desire to protect and conserve marine ecosystems. In a nutshell,” he concludes, “marine biology triggers the cascade of events that will eventually lead to the social decision to protect a marine ecosystem.” The idea is that education engenders responsibility and, in a world where dramatic proclamations about our negative impacts on climate, landscapes, and oceans are frequent, a little knowledgeable responsibility could go a long way.

Interestingly, the optimistic view shared by both Witzke and Plate is that, in a biological sense, BC is still thriving despite all the human meddling. “The northern BC coast and the rivers that join it are a dreamland for a biologist,” says Plate. “It is sometimes hard to believe, but leave the path often travelled and northern BC will reveal its many small pools in streams or kelp beds in the ocean that have not yet been tampered with by the human desire to utilize resources. Trees and banks are allowed to be eroded away by the spring freshet and watercourses are allowed to change their path while salmon can migrate up unobstructed streams in unpolluted water.”

His passion and excitement are evident, even in emails. “What a privilege to witness such a pristine stage!” he exclaims. He cites the endurance of the sockeye salmon that travel vast distances up the Columbia River. The Columbia is one of the most heavily dammed rivers in North America; it’s almost unthinkable that any living thing can travel its length. And yet, the salmon do. “They run the gauntlet,” says Witzke incredulously. What is so incredible about their tenacious task, he explains, is that the fish do not eat while swimming upstream against the current to spawn. Sockeye are not large creatures with reserves of body weight to consume. Yet somehow they remain resilient against the ravages of concrete and interrupted water flow and spawn as far inland as the Okanagan, hundreds of kilometres from the Pacific.

Something great at stake
But while some fish populations may somehow endure despite the “gauntlet” of human interference, not all species are thriving, and our collective impact is being more closely scrutinized. Witzke is currently contracting for Ecosystems Consulting, a Vancouver company that prides itself on restricting its involvement to projects that focus on sustainable, renewable energy. The company’s goals reflect Witzke’s own passions about environmental responsibility. “In BC, water bodies are affected by industrial development and recreational angling,” he says. “Here, entire communities have something great at stake: their livelihood.”

We walk back along the muddy shoreline to our canoe and watch the loons as we pack up for the day. I can understand why Witzke and so many others do what they do: there’s the twofold benefit of being paid to visit these landscapes (and occasionally break out the fishing rod) as well as being given the chance to make a difference. “I love contributing, if only in a small way, to an understanding of nature that can be used to make appropriate decisions on how we impact the environment.”

Cultivating understanding of the northern landscape is how we save it. I dip a paddle into the water and close my eyes, breathing the perfect air and listening to the sounds of water moving around me; this is a landscape that needs to be preserved.