Environmental DNA Sampling Technology Advances Salish Sea Salmon Conservation

Susan Anthony is the project manager and researcher for the Resilient Estuaries of the Salish Sea project with SeaChange Marine Conservation Society, and she has just completed a week of environmental DNA sampling in British Columbia’s Salish Sea estuaries using Ocean Diagnostics’ first-of-its-kind automated eDNA technology called Ascension 


To overcome the challenges of attaining the species data needed to expand marine conservation efforts, Anthony and her team used Ascension to collect six filtered eDNA samples and one control from the side of a small aluminum boat at each of the five sampling sites in the Greater Victoria Region. 


“Ascension took away a barrier for the skills needed for sampling. It is foolproof compared to other equipment. I was really excited. I can’t believe the data we’ll get,” Anthony shares. 


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The samples were sent to a Canadian genomics lab for identification, particularly of local salmon species, foraging fish and the invasive European green crab, and will provide Anthony’s team with strong evidence about essential habitats to help conserve, monitor populations and prevent species collapse. 


“The sampling process was not complicated. I didn’t have to spend hours filtering things through at a lab. I literally did my work in my home office. It was really straightforward.” 


Environmental DNA is an emerging and non-invasive method of sampling water in an area of interest and applying genomics sequencing to reveal information about species in that ecosystem, including endangered and invasive species. It provides the biodiversity data needed to establish marine conservation areas and monitor their effectiveness. 


“Biodiversity is stability,” illustrates Anthony. She continues, “It provides the ability to withstand changes in climate, long or short-term changes like heat domes, increased precipitation or drought. Ecosystems can be sustained with diversity.” 


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While other eDNA sampling procedures are time consuming and require equipment that can be difficult to source , Ascension’s in-situ filtration features eliminate the need for post-sample filtration while reducing sample contamination.  


“I can hop from bay to bay collecting samples, like we did, and at the end of the day preserve them to ship. This makes eDNA sampling more efficient, and you can cover more areas and free up more time for other conservation work,” Anthony explains. 


The Northeastern Pacific Ocean’s Salish Sea provides habitats and feeding grounds for salmon species essential to sustainable fishing, cultural preservation and food security. In these estuaries, salmon seek refuge in eelgrass before making their way out to the ocean, and they rely on certain food sources for the nutrients to make it into the wild. 


“Salmon - particularly in their use of estuaries and eelgrass ecosystems - are so cryptic. They love to hide. They’re so hard to see in person,” explains Anthony. “A lot of times to get a good snapshot of what's there, you need to do destructive sampling, and that goes against what we as a conservation group believe in and hold ourselves to.” 


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In the past, SeaChange has relied on diver identification and images which can be inaccurate, expensive and time consuming, especially for environmental NGOs. eDNA is a targeted approach that allows for sampling multiple times a year without needing a whole big team or destroying the environment.  


“There is a lot of post work done to sort through data sheets, and trying to identify things from a photo is inaccurate, especially for species that aren’t common. If you can go out and collect eDNA samples, it’s much more accessible. I can go to a place by myself with Ascension, and I don’t need equipment back at the lab.” 


Ascension collects filtered eDNA in freshwater or marine environments down to 400 meters from the side of a small vessel, making the process easier for researchers so they can collect even more data.  


“eDNA means a lot to environmental NGOs where our mandate is conservation. Now, we can unravel and solve some things we’ve always wanted to,” she concludes.    


Interested in using Ascension environmental DNA sampling technology to advance your biodiversity assessments and monitoring programs? Contact us to get started.