New DNA technology used to find Yukon chinook salmon habitat

Scientists from the Yukon Research Centre are working with a Whitehorse environmental consulting firm to filter DNA from Yukon waterways. It's a new technique to map chinook salmon habitat use.

'It could be a game changer,' says Yukon Research Centre scientist about environment DNA technology

Researchers Kristina Beckmann, Denise Gordon, and Isobel Ness collected eDNA samples from Yukon waterways earlier this year. The samples will be analyzed over the winter. (Jared Hobbs)

Like a team of sleuths following a cold trail, Yukon researchers are collecting Chinook salmon DNA from local waterways using technology that could revolutionize the way aquatic species inventories are conducted. 

"It could be a game changer," said Kirstin Damude from the Yukon Research Centre about the technology. "We are expecting that it will decrease the cost of initial screenings to try to determine where sensitive species are, and in what habitat."

Scientists filtered environment DNA (eDNA) from water samples taken from streams in the Upper TeslinNisutlin, and Kusawa Lake drainages earlier this year. The idea is to determine which tributaries are now used by Chinook salmon, and which aren't. 

Environment DNA is any genetic material left in the water after fish migrate, such as skin cells, feces or mucus. The fish could be long gone by the time samples are taken — eDNA can still be collected from a waterway weeks later.

Researchers say that makes it a simple, non-invasive way to collect data on a variety of species. Anything that lives in or uses the water leaves behind some eDNA.

'What better place to start than Chinook salmon?' said Michael Muller of Hemmera, an environmental consulting company. (Hemmera)

"The [DNA] technology has been around for a few years now, but it's really just emerging from academia," said Michael Muller of Hemmera, a Whitehorse-based environmental consulting company partnered with the Yukon Research Centre on the project.

"We thought, what better place to start than Chinook salmon?" Muller asked.  

The scientists will spend the coming months analyzing the samples they've collected. They'll compare their results to previous salmon spawning studies to ensure the data is accurate.

If successful, the researchers predict eDNA technology could be used throughout the North to map species' habitat and guide decisions about development and land use.