Canada's Greatest Fisheries Biologist: Inventor of the Ricker Curve for describing fish population dynamics
"Try and arrange that you’re doing something that you’re interested in. There’s quite a bit of routine in research work but I’ve never worked on a project that I wasn’t very interested in."
Standing on a thin ledge of rock, just below Hell’s Gate rapids on the Fraser River in British Columbia, William Ricker dips his net into the eddy at his feet. He brings up a big sockeye salmon for tagging. This one is fresh and strong, not like the tired ones who are having trouble with the rapids. Again and again the weak ones find their way into his net. From a pocket, Ricker pulls out two little red and white metal discs and a five-centimetre pin. He wipes his brow and waves to his partner, who is tagging fish a few metres away. The sun is hot. A steady, hot wind blows up the narrow canyon. There is no road down to where they are, only a steep trail.
Ricker is 30. It is the summer of 1938, the first time he has worked on the big river, and he’s enjoying himself. It’s also the first year of the Canadian Salmon Commission’s study of Fraser sockeye. At the time, nobody really knew how or why salmon returned after years in the sea to mate and lay eggs in the very same creek where they were born.
While his partner holds down the lively fish, Ricker uses a pair of pliers to attach the bright tag through its body, just below the dorsal fin. Then he throws the wild sockeye back into the water to fight its way up the gorge through the roaring rapids. The team of four men catches and tags up to 20 fish per hour, several thousand in all — enough to accomplish the goal of the study, which is to find what fraction of the fish go to each of a dozen or so spawning grounds to mate and lay eggs at different seasons. Spawning grounds are the shallow creek beds where female salmon lay eggs, which male salmon then fertilize. Other fisheries scientists in those regions are on the lookout for the salmon and are making estimates of the numbers on each spawning ground.
By examining tags and counting fish, Ricker and his team are able, for the first time, to get an accurate picture of the Fraser River sockeye’s migration pattern.
When he was 11 years old, William Ricker began studying his dad’s star charts. His father was the science teacher at North Bay Normal School in North Bay, which is on Lake Nipissing in Ontario. Eventually Ricker could name all the constellations and the brightest stars. All through high school, in the springtime he would get up most mornings at five o’clock. For three hours before breakfast he would ride his bike into the woods or along the shore of Lake Nipissing, looking for birds. While he was at university, he used to get summer jobs at the Ontario Fisheries Research Laboratory, mainly working on trout in the Great Lakes.
After a job studying salmon life history
and enhancement at Cultus Lake, British Columbia, he became a professor of zoology at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, where from 1939 to 1950 he taught about birds and fish. Then he went back to Canada to work as editor of publications for the Fisheries Research Board of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. In 1964 he moved to Nanaimo to become chief scientist of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada. From his retirement in 1973 until his death in 2001, he continued to work on a voluntary basis on the history of Fraser River salmon fisheries and on other projects.
During his life Ricker identified 90 new species of stoneflies, a major source of food for fish. He wrote a Russian/English dictionary of fisheries terms and was fluent in Russian. Toward the end of his life, he was working on a history book about early travel on the Fraser River canyon. He also had a keen interest in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and even wrote a Sherlock Holmes mystery that was published in a Canadian Holmes anthology. As a railway buff he had an encyclopedic knowledge of North American routes of the past. Ricker was an accomplished musician and played bass viol in the Nanaimo Symphony Orchestra. He was interested in folk music of many types and often sang old cowboy songs, serenading his family around the fire on camping trips.
Curiously, Ricker was not a good fisherman, though he loved to fish and spent countless hours trolling the waters around Nanaimo and up and down the coastline of Vancouver Island — rarely catching anything.