Univ. of Washington's FRI finds Bristol Bay salmon smolt thriving in warming waters

Jun 9, 2017

Fisheries Research Institute is continuing its seven decades of research into Bristol Bay's salmon life cycles and ecosystems.

FRI Biologists set for smolt samples.
Credit KDLG

Professors and students from the University of Washington’s Fisheries Research Institute come to Bristol Bay each year to collect data and analyze the salmon run. This week the biologists have begun catching smolt samples from local waterways using a beach seine. KDLG's Nick Ciolino tagged along for this report.

It’s a cool, rainy morning on Aleknagik Lake where FRI houses its team of biologists studying the Bristol Bay salmon run. The skies are grey and you can see the fog settled on the slope of Bear Mountain across the lake.

“Today we’re going to go beach seining,” said Jackie Careter, a veteran FRI research scientist with the Alaskan salmon program.

FRI has been using beach seines to catch and analyze adolescent salmon, known as smolt, since 1962.

“The guys who started this research program understood that if you want to learn something about sockeye salmon, you need to know something about the habitats in which they live at all life stages, and you need to know what their competitors are and what they’re eating,” said Carter.

Prof. Daniel Schindler is one of the Univ. of Washington faculty running the Alaskan salmon program. He says sustained, long-term data collection can be used to learn how salmon react to changes in their environment.

“This year we’re seeing very low water levels and warm water temperatures early, and of course, one of the questions is whether this is an abnormal year or whether it’s part of a long term trend, and you can only get perspective on that question is if you have long term data,” said Schindler.

FRI research shows the warmer waters are definitely part of a trend over the last 30 or so years, but the salmon seem to be thriving.

“What most people don’t appreciate is that those warmer conditions have translated into better growth and survival conditions for salmon. So in fact, during the last 20 years we’re seeing more salmon produced out of these water sheds,” said Schindler.

Back on the beach, Jackie Carter and her team pull in the seine to see what they’ve caught.

Smolt sample from FRI beach seine.
Credit KDLG

“We’re right across from the Agulowak River, so we get a lot of variety. We have two-check sockeye smolt. What that means is they spent two summers rearing in the lake, and we know they’re two-checks because they’re really big. We’re also seeing one pink salmon—very small, very skinny—and two juvenile arctic char.”

Carter and her team drive their skiff from beach to beach makings sets, sealing the smolt in plastic bags and recording the water temperature. After a few hours of work, the smolt are brought to a lab where they are measured and weighed to record trends in growth. Biologists Jason Ching and Max Ramos take the measurements.

FRI’s Alaskan salmon program started in the late 1940s. Not only have they sustained a thorough log of long-term data, but they continue to provide in-season analysis as the run progresses. Professor Schindler says he will interpret the run this summer by recording where fish are caught in the districts, as well as observing test fishery data and escapement numbers.

“Parallel to that effort is work here in the watersheds looking at where the fish are spawning, how the individual tributaries build up fish on the spawning grounds, but also looking at—like I said—the environmental conditions and how the juvenile salmon are growing throughout the year,” said Schindler.

Schindler says more scientists are on their way up to Bristol Bay to help with FRI’s efforts—many of whom are grad-students coming to study the methodology of managing a fishery—operating this summer from camps at Iliamna Lake, The Wood River, The Chignik River and Aleknagik Lake.

Reach KDLG's fisheries reporter Nick Ciolino at fish@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281