At the top of the Vancouver Island University hill is perhaps one of the most oft-mentioned departments on campus, but it’s still one of the lesser-visited by the general student population. From where the Fisheries and Aquaculture department is situated, there is a beautiful juxtaposition in the highest point on campus being the area where fisheries management is taught. The view of Georgia Strait from VIU is a reminder of what these students are learning to care for—and why VIU is the perfect place to study fisheries and aquaculture.

The department is run almost entirely by students, with the direction of their instructors. Faculty member and fisheries ecologist, Chris Foote says that the department wouldn’t be able to run the facility without all of the student effort. “One thing to realize about our facility is that all of our facilities are essentially maintained by our students. We have technicians who keep things all going, but we could not run what we have on our own,” he says.

VIU offers a two-year diploma program and a four year-degree program in Fisheries and Aquaculture. “What makes this program unique is that you start off in a diploma and it’s a lot of hands-on, so students who wouldn’t necessarily go to the university come here and they start university and then they get a little more confident and they recognize that actually, books are not as terrifying as they once thought and then they stay on to do their bachelor’s degree,” says professor Stephanie Duff, an expert in invertebrate ecology.

That full degree is now in jeopardy, a turn of events that has left many members of the department scratching their heads. “Nanaimo is so well placed for this,” Duff continues. “As an invertebrate zoologist for example, I can take the students down to the docks and they can go crab fishing there and do an experiment there—that can be a lab. We can go to the docks and pilings and see what is infesting on the docks and pilings. We can go to the streams and look at stream insects, and we can go to major tidal zones, for example Neck Point or Piper’s Lagoon, and see what the animals are there.” Students are then able to bring specimens back to the lab and look under the microscope. “They have a unique understanding and relationship with animals that you wouldn’t get anywhere else.”

One of Duff’s students passed me a young sunflower starfish, currently the size of my hand, which will grow to be the biggest starfish species in the world—and a voracious predator. “On this coast we have some of the biggest organisms,” Duff says. This creature, however, will keep campus as its home address. “Once they’re in here, that’s it. It’s just because of health practices. You can’t have organisms in a closed container and then put them back out in the field, so we try to limit as possible what animals come in here, and they can stay in here for a long period of time and they’re fine.” The care and appreciation that the students have for the well-being of these creatures is apparent. “What’s really neat about this is that no other institution is allowed to have a living system. Students learn how to keep track of the animals and keep them alive. It makes a big difference for when they get out in the field because they’ve actually dealt with the animals, it’s not just in their textbooks.”

Dr. Duane Barker is a fish health expert and parasitologist working with students in a lab. “Earlier this week in the fish health course, they learned to take blood samples from the fish,” he says. The students then look at them under microscopes on slides, identifying different types of cells, which they add a dye to in order to make them stand out. “The students get a feel for the red versus the white, and the white are important for immune responses.” They can get an idea of how healthy the fish is by how many white blood cells they see. If the fish is not healthy they can determine that through these samples, and see parasites and bacteria in the blood—and this is just during the first few weeks of school. As the semester progresses, students will also look at interior organs to determine how healthy the fish are. “The first part of the semester is learning techniques and practising techniques. The second part of the semester for this course they design their own little project so they can go out and sample fish from a pond or a stream, their choice.” It’s all about assessing how healthy the animals are.

In the field, fish population is assessed by students at the Chase River Hatchery, three kilometres south of the university, off of Nanaimo Lakes Road. There, students raise wild Coho salmon. They catch wild stock out of the river, bring them back to the hatchery where the fish mature and spawn, then the students raise the young, before releasing them as smolts. “We hold the fish there for about 14 months,” says instructor Dan Fox, “until they are big enough to be released.” The university has been operating the hatchery for 26 years. Fox says it’s important for the students to maintain interaction with the wild fish, not just what’s in the tanks on campus. They also do stream walks on Chase River. In early Oct. the students are familiarized with the river, then later in the month chum salmon start coming in and the students do salmon counts. They record what they see in various sections in the river to extrapolate and estimate the population. That part of the program lasts eight to nine weeks from the arrival of the first chum, to the last Coho. All of the information is then reported to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Mark Noyen is an engineer in charge of the aquaculture rearing of trout, another hands-on opportunity for the students. “They’ll learn about sampling, weighing, cleaning, the whole gamut,” Noyen says. “You’ll hear this over and over again, it’s husbandry, it’s how do you take care of the fish and the fish’s needs. The fish come first. It’s really what we do here is just take care of them and giving the students ownership of the project and control of it. I’m here to assist them and give them the information they need, obviously there’s a learning curve, but allow them to not make mistakes, but to learn from their experiences.” The students learn about growth modelling, the differentiation between different fish—Noyen showed me a tank that contains rainbow trout with a variation in colour: regular rainbow trout and golden rainbow trout. While there’s no noticeable taste difference between the variant fish, they have realized that there is an economic value to the golden variation, especially in the Asian market. Noyen adds that the golden rainbow trout “seem to be anecdotally a little more docile, but we have to do some more research on it. It brings back that experience, experience, experience and learning.”

The amount of time spent in the classroom vs. outside is difficult to gauge from course to course, but Noyen estimates that his course is about a 60/40 split of theory to application.

The cooperative aspect of students in the program is incredibly important. In the trout project, like many of the projects, there is a blend of students including first-year diploma students, second-year diploma students, and students in the post-degree diploma program (students who have a degree elsewhere and come to VIU to complete the Fisheries and Aquaculture diploma in one year) and degree students working together. Noyen says that “we try to bring them all together. They have a diversity of backgrounds and they come out with the same experience.”

Duff says that after leaving the program, many students find work at Nanaimo’s Biological Station on Hammond Bay Rd., while others go into fisheries, and others have gone into graduate work all over the world. Some work with band councils as well. There are no shortage of opportunities for them because there are so few fisheries programs in the country.

The students like to determine what they learn for themselves, as well. The aquaponics program was started by students several years ago as their version of an experimental project they had seen done at other universities. Now second-year diploma student and aquaponics veteran, Chris Ross, supervises other students working on the project. They take their knowledge of fish and water quality and put it into a farm where the circulation of water reuses the energy that the fish usually waste. “They’re teaching us how to use water-quality parameters to re-circulate the water because the world’s coming upon a shortage of water. We all see that happening and this is an experimental idea,” says one student.

This project has been proven in other places and these students are learning the math behind it. You can only have so many plants for so many fish in the system, and have to find parameters for the system that both the plants and fish can deal with. The idea is that the waste from one helps the other, and the other way around. The current set-up consists of a 4×6 table of basil plants and a tank of tilapia—warm-water fish that grow well in high density. Fish are sampled every couple of weeks to make sure that there is an appropriate amount of biomass among the plants to filter their waste water, and the other way around. There is a settling pond between the two sections that separates waste from the water. Once the whole system is working properly it becomes self-regulating and the students don’t have to clean out waste from the settling pond between the tanks.

The system that the aquaponics students are running is almost entirely organic—except, right now, for the fish feed. This small system in a tiny greenhouse room off of one of the department buildings is an example of nature’s delicate balance at work—and a reminder that anything done to the environment, whether on this small-scale experimental environment, or on our environment at a large scale, has an effect, and how this sort of research on campus can be of great value for ensuring the sustainability of our natural resources.

As for the Fisheries and Aquaculture BSc, whether that will be sustained is yet to be seen. When asked how the cuts will affect the program, Noyen says “I think it’s going to be severe, in terms of our diploma students learning from our degree students. A number of our diploma students go into the degree program as well. If we lose our degree program a few of our students may not want to come here because they’re looking at completing the degree.” A lot of post-degree diploma students also take those upper level degree courses, and they wouldn’t be offered, so the department may lose some of those students as well. Noyen isn’t sure where those students would go—there aren’t any other programs at institutions close by. Where they will get the kind of experience that VIU’s degree program offers will be very difficult. “A program like this, there is a bit more of a cost because of what we have to take care of, but there’s also a benefit with a research centre—you have people coming in.”

Duff says “These students, [have] this really nicely integrated program, and this hands-on aspect and then they get a little bit more of a theoretical aspect afterwards and that’s what [the university] wants to get rid of.” Foote adds, “If you take out the BSc, you take out one of the integral things [to the program]. The idea that you’re removing the BSc and maintaining the other programs; it’s not true at all.”

These are just a few of the goings-on at the top of the hill—look in the next issue of the Nav. for more on the brand new Sturgeon research centre. Many of the department’s projects can also be seen in action on their YouTube channel.


Let's Make Things Official

Get a curated list of articles sent directly to your email once a week. It’s not delivery, its Delissio