How a chance meeting led to community-based fish research in the Peel

A chance encounter at Ernest and Alice Vittrekwa's fish camp three years ago has developed into a friendship and a research project into whitefish in the area.

'Next, we're going to become biologists,' jokes Alice Vittrekwa

You never know who you'll meet when you paddle down the Peel River.

Just ask Emma Hodgson. The fisheries biologist at Simon Fraser University was cruising along three years ago when she met Ernest and Alice Vittrekwa at their fish camp near Fort McPherson, N.W.T. It was a chance meeting that developed into a friendship and eventually a research project about fish in the area.

"It really was Alice and Ernest's generosity," Hodgson said, "that made me excited about coming back and starting a community-based research project."

Emma Hodgson and Rayna Vittrekwa get ready to take the measurements of a freshly caught whitefish. (Rachel Hovel)

Hodgson and fellow researcher, Rachel Hovel, want to know where the whitefish are in the river at different points in their lives.

"We are taking a bunch of different measurements on the fish that Alice and Ernest, for example, catch in their nets.

"At first when they asked to test whitefish I thought, what did I get myself into?" chuckles Alice Vittrekwa.

"But once there were about five ladies there that came, they were going to show us how to test the fish and it wasn't as hard as I thought it would be."

Length, weight, ear bones

The goal is to measure 10 fish a day, twice a week for 10 weeks. Alice and her husband were asked to measure the length and weight of the fish they catch in their nets.

Ernest Vittrekwa holds a whitefish he caught in he net. (Emma Hodgson)
They also take a piece of the fin and the two ear bones, which can reveal how old a fish is and also where the fish goes in the river during its life.

"When you find the two ear bones it's really exciting," Alice Vittrekwa said.

"When you cut the head exactly where you are supposed to do it, when you open the head the two ear bones are sitting right there, I'm saying wee-hoo!

"Next, we're going to become biologists," she said.

Two other harvesters along the Peel are also taking part in this whitefish research project, which is funded by the N.W.T.'s cumulative impacts monitoring program.

'An interest in knowing'

Hodgson says one of the big reasons the Vittrekwas wanted to take part is so they can simply learn more about the fish their families have relied on for generations.

Cassandra Francis, Ernest and Alice Vittrekwa gutting a fish and recording its measurements. (Rachel Hovel)

"When we've been talking to folks there's an interest in knowing some of the basic biology," Hodgson said.

"How old are the fish that they are catching and where do the fish go? Perhaps we can also learn about where the fish spawn in the river and eventually we'd like to get an idea of how many fish are out there."

Hodgson says she'll be back in Fort McPherson this winter to share the results from the whitefish research project.

She also hopes to expand the program to Tsiigehtchic next year.