Researchers team up for freshwater fish focus

Paul Mayne//Western NewsWestern Biology professor Bryan Neff is one of 10 principal investigators in the newly formed GEN-FISH (Genomic Network for Fish Identification, Stress and Health) team, made up of 23 researchers from 13 academic institutions.

Biology professor Bryan Neff will be – ahem – fishing for answers with his latest project exploring the health of Canada’s 200-plus freshwater fish species in the face of increasing (mostly human-made) challenges.

“Think about all the lakes we have. We have over a million lakes in Canada,” said Neff, one of the principal investigators with the newly formed GEN-FISH (Genomic Network for Fish Identification, Stress and Health) team, made up of 23 researchers from 13 academic institutions.

“What fish are there? How are they doing? Are we sustainably fishing the fish in that lake? Most of the answers for this is, ‘We have no idea.’”

Towards this effort, GEN-FISH recently received $9.1 million in funding from Genome Canada and Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, with additional financial support from provinces, universities and other partners.

“Fish in water are invisible to most people. We know they’re there – but we don’t really,” Neff said. “Traditionally, the way we figure it out is we put traps or big net in the water, but think about how time consuming that is. What about the fish down at the bottom? It’s an enormous effort to monitor what’s in there.”

GEN-FISH researchers will rely heavily on environmental DNA – or eDNA – a technology that allows scientists to sample from the soil, snow, air and water rather than directly from an individual organism. The researchers will develop new ways to identify species and monitor the challenges the fish face based on gene expression.

That data will be shared via web-based resources and software to help various stakeholders – from governments to First Nations – monitor and react to threats.

Neff said the focus will be finding better ways to determine the location and abundance of Canada’s freshwater fish species, of which 25 per cent are currently considered ‘at risk.’

“It’s about the fish and the question of presence/absence. So what fish are there – in the case of a potential invasive species, that’s important to know,” said Neff, a noted authority on the behaviour, genetics and ecology of fishes.

Freshwater fish are the lifeblood of many rural, northern and Indigenous communities, and are central to the social and cultural lives of millions of Canadians. Yet, freshwater fish stocks continue to be under threat in what is being called ‘the invisible collapse.’

“This grant wants to take it to the next level – not just that there is a species in this lake, but how many are there in abundance,” Neff continued. “When you think of management, you need to know if there are 1,000 or if they’re down to two. You want to make sure they’re not plummeting.”

Neff and his students will estimate changes in population abundance for key freshwater fish, a huge benefit for fisheries management and conservation programs in planning future needs.

“We’ll try to tackle abundance – and that’s not easy. We want to know not just presence and absence, but how many. Changes in abundance are critical,” he said. “That data might give us an early warning that, for example, while there are 8,000 of a specific fish, they’re stressed and unhealthy. We’ll then need to find out why they’re stressed.”

The initial GEN-FISH survey will look at 500 lakes across Canada – the largest aquatic eDNA survey ever performed. That fact strengthens Canada’s position as a world leader in eDNA research and freshwater fish science and technologies, Neff said.

As part of the project, the GEN-FISH team will be working with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Ministry of Natural Resources, as well as a number of First Nations groups, informing their decisions on projects as wide ranging as dam removal, hydro power centre placement, fishery closures, among countless others.

“By using the data we generate, it will allow these groups to move forward with better decision-making for the end users,” Neff said. “There are huge consequences to their decisions, so having good information leads to good decisions.”