Chat with Environmental Scientist Nicole Kwan on the Delta’s Native Fish


DWR environmental scientist Nicole Kwan  with fish.

Photo of DWR Environmental Scientist Nicole Kwan.

Nicole Kwan is an environmental scientist with DWR’s Division of Environmental Services. Her work focuses on the aquatic ecology of the Delta, with emphasis on fish communities and food web productivity in the Yolo Bypass floodplain. Earlier this week, Nicole gave a live chat on native fish species as part of DWR’s “Water Wednesdays”. Check out her chat on our YouTube Channel.

Read on to learn more about Nicole’s work with native fish species in the Delta, her thoughts on salmon, and her advice for current students in her field.


What is your position with DWR and what are your typical day-to-day duties?

My position at DWR is an Environmental Scientist, though that is a very broad term, so I usually refer to myself as a fisheries ecologist. A typical week for me includes two-to-three days of sampling fish at our field sites and two-to-three days in the office analyzing data, writing reports, attending meetings, and scheduling crews for fieldwork.


Can you briefly introduce us to the Delta?

The Delta is located in Northern California, just east of the San Francisco Bay, and is the largest estuary on the West Coast of the United States. It is the meeting spot for the Sacramento River from the north and the San Joaquin River from the south. The Delta is comprised of a complex maze of rivers, islands, marshes, wetlands, and agricultural channels. It provides two-thirds of Californians with drinking water, as well as water for agriculture. Because of how complex it is, the Delta also hosts a diverse array of habitats that are important to fish and wildlife.


What is a surprising fact about fish in the Delta?

People generally think of flooding as a bad thing, with good reason. However, native fish like flooding! Flooding to a native fish means more habitat, more food, and more places to mate. Native fish adapted to these seasonally wet habitats and learned to take advantage of them to help them succeed.


What is your favorite part of your job?

There are a lot of things I enjoy about my job but the most fun I have is when we catch Chinook Salmon in one of our fish traps called a “fyke.” We operate this trap from October through July but we usually only catch salmon from September through December.


The trap is really large – about 10 feet in diameter. We use a strong cable connected to our truck to pull it out the water and tie off safety ropes. Then, one person goes into the trap through a special door.


Usually, when you’re in the trap you are standing in water up to your knees or thighs. Being inside the trap and trying to net a large adult salmon as it splashes around and runs into your legs is both challenging and exciting! It is also so incredible to see these fish as they migrate because they start to display beautiful mating colors and unique features, like a hooked snout in the males, called a kype.


What is DWR doing to protect fish in the Delta?

DWR works closely with other agencies and university partners on various projects focused on improving the Delta for fish. Some examples include creating new wetland habitats as part of an initiative called EcoRestore; conducting special “flow actions” to improve habitat conditions during critical times of the year; and conducting/investing in various long-term monitoring studies to keep track of the health of the ecosystem and fish populations.


What are some things that people can do to protect fish in the Delta?

There is no one perfect answer to this. Fish in the Delta need a lot of help as humans have dramatically changed the ecosystem they live in. I think the best thing people can do is learn more about their local fish [and wildlife, for that matter] and use that knowledge to help make educated decisions. One simple thing that people can do, to help not just fish but California as a whole, is to conserve water. The less water we use, the more that is available to balance the needs of the environment with other water users.


What is your favorite fish and why?

My favorite fish are salmon. They are particularly special to me as they seem to have always been a part of my life. Growing up in the Bay Area, I fished for them with my dad and sisters in the Pacific Ocean. Then, after college, I had a chance to study them up in an inland stream system in Oregon and a river in the California Central Valley.


In graduate school I studied how juvenile salmon grow in Suisun Marsh and now I get to learn more about how they use floodplains in the Delta. Also, during personal travels, I’ve seen them on their journey to spawn in Washington streams and rivers in Japan.


My experiences with salmon highlight their incredible life cycle – how they move between mountain streams and the ocean and have found a way to live in multiple places across the west coast of North America and the east coast of Asia/Russia. Their long migrations to and from the ocean are fascinating. I recommend everyone find a spot to watch migrating salmon jump over cascades and try not to love them too!


What did you study in college and how did your education prepare you for your work at DWR? What advice do you have for current students in your field?

As an undergraduate at the University of California, Davis, I majored in environmental science and management with an emphasis in watershed sciences. I was able to take classes focused on fish biology, environmental management, and wetland ecology.

In college, I took advantage of internship opportunities that exposed me to different fisheries projects and helped build my connections with fisheries professionals. I recommend that students interested in becoming a field scientist take advantage of any chance they get to meet professionals and get a taste of what the field they are interested in is like beyond the textbook – whether through an internship, a lab course, a campus club, or a volunteer opportunity.

This can help you figure out what you like and what you don’t like and build the kinds of connections that can help you find a job in the future. It will also help you figure out what kind of education you need.

In my personal journey, I felt it would help me reach my career goals sooner if I went to graduate school. I spent a couple of years after college working temporary, seasonal jobs and then went back to UC Davis to earn my Master of Science in Ecology, before transitioning into my current position with DWR.