Growing With Salmon

Growing With Salmon

Photos and story courtesy Jacob Argueta, research technician at Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Reserve.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was told the significance of salmon from a young age. From grade school through college, in multiple disciplines, we were taught how salmon had provided for the indigenous people and sustained the landscape through their lifecycle for millennia. 

Over and over again, this idea of salmon being a cultural and biological keystone was presented to us in the past tense, with many people working to restore what had been lost. We learned about, and saw firsthand, that development and population growth had come at the cost of salmon habitat. Rivers and streams were controlled, dammed, culvertized, and disconnected. The remaining salmon populations were just a shadow of what they had historically been, even with large inputs from hatcheries. 

By the time I arrived in Alaska in 2017, I had become accustomed to the view that salmon were a species that couldn’t survive without people because of what we had done to their habitats. It is hard to describe the sight of a largely unimpacted salmon run battling upstream after so many years of the aforementioned mindset. The rivers team with life. What you thought were riffles or eddies are actually hundreds, thousands of fish driven by instinct to return to their natal streams. It is also not just the fish that gather, but the birds, mammals, insects, and people do as well. The whole ecosystem responds to the return of the salmon. 

The last few years at the Kachemak Bay Reserve has allowed me to work with an amazing and dedicated group of people who strive to better understand and protect these incredible fish and the landscape that supports them.

My teams’ work has largely focused on the freshwater portion of the coho salmon’s life cycle. I am continually blown away by the resilience and determination of these juvenile fish. They are now understood to spend multiple years in freshwater, utilizing every part of the watershed, from the estuaries to the smallest headwaters. Perhaps equally important is the role the landscape plays in maintaining productive salmon streams. In the Kenai Lowlands bordering the Reserve, the land is a tapestry of salmon support. Alders fix nitrogen into the soil, peatlands store large amounts of carbon and regulate water temperatures, and shallow groundwater acts as a transport mechanism bringing these critical elements to the salmon streams. 

I have been given a glimpse into what it must have been like only a hundred years ago in the Pacific Northwest. Like my mentor, Coowe Walker, says, ‘in Alaska we have been given an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others and not destroy an intact ecosystem. We know people and salmon can coexist, they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. We know better than ever the mechanisms and elements that make good salmon habitat.’ 

I hope that we can come together around this unifying species and become a shining example of coexistence and mutual sustainability.  

DC Comes to Kachemak Bay

DC Comes to Kachemak Bay

Amy Kirkland, Sea Grant Fellow to Senator Lisa Murkowski, got some firsthand experience with electrofishing & juvenile salmon on her recent visit to Kachemak Bay Reserve.

Senator Lisa Murkowski’s Sea Grant Fellow, Amy Kirkland, paid a visit to the Kachemak Bay Reserve last week. On hand to greet her were Reserve staff and members of the Kachemak Bay Community Council.

Together, the group took Amy on a tour of the KBNERR Harmful Species program, which monitors the bay for harmful invasives and toxic algae blooms that impact recreational shellfish harvesting and the Alaskan shellfish industry, valued at $12.8 billion annually.

They also visited a headwater stream where Reserve staff, along with members of the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, were able to showcase Reserve research and support work for juvenile salmon.

Amy jumped right in (literally) to help with some electrofishing, and got to see the baby salmon up close. She was pretty sure Senator Murkowski would have enjoyed the experience!

Kudos to Kachemak Bay staff and friends, who were able to express their gratitude for Senator Murkowski’s ongoing support of the NERRS and share how that support makes a difference for Alaska’s human and ecological communities. 

Thank you Amy, for making the very long trek, and thank you Senator Murkowski!

Amy inspects juvenile salmon alongside KBNERR manager Coowe Walker.

Hollings Scholar Sets the Curve at Kachemak Bay

Hollings Scholar Sets the Curve at Kachemak Bay

NOAA’s Hollings Scholarship Program sponsored Anna Lowein’s internship at Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Reserve, where she used her knowledge of hydrology to develop computer models, now used by the Reserve and their partners.

For Anna Lowein, the estuary at Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Reserve was unlike any classroom she’d been in before. Instead of sitting in a lecture hall at the University of Maryland, she was wading waist-deep through icy rivers. And instead of reading textbooks on hydrology, she developed a project that had a direct management impact on the Reserve.

Anna’s 10-week internship and outdoor learning experience was sponsored by NOAA’s Hollings Scholarship Program. Her goal was to develop a set of discharge rating curves for the Anchor River. These digital models predict the river’s discharge into the estuary mouth.

“The Reserve had all of the data needed for a curve, but no one had had a chance to sit down with it and get the whole picture,” says Anna. “Developing the curves was one of the first instances of taking classroom learning and applying it to a real world problem. And of learning how to troubleshoot independently as I went! This project gave me more confidence as a woman in science, to produce a good result that helps people, and it confirmed my desire to do more of this work in grad school.”

Because river discharge corresponds with the spawning of Chinook salmon—one of the state’s most valuable fisheries—Anna’s models are already being used by the Reserve’s managing partners, including the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. A discharge curve allows agencies to predict peak salmon months more effectively and plan management decisions accordingly.

“The Anchor River discharge rating curves Anna produced will help us to better understand how water conditions influence Chinook salmon run timing,” says Mike Booz, Assistant Area Management Biologist at Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game. “This data is used to make timely management decisions in-season for both in-river and nearby marine sport fisheries.”

Nearby salmon stocks have experienced above and below average runs in recent years, requiring frequent fine tuning of management strategies, making the new discharge rating curves particularly valuable.

Anna Lowein collects data in a river at Kachemak Bay Reserve. Anna used several years of data to develop the discharge rating curves which allow the Reserve and partners to predict salmon spawning times.

NOAA’s Holling Scholarship Program has supported more than 130 students like Anna. Scholars receive tuition support and paid summer internships at facilities sponsored by NOAA and partners like Reserves each year.

“We are always happy to have interns like Anna,” says Kachemak Reserve Manager Coowe Walker. “It’s wonderful to see what they can do when programs like Hollings give them the opportunity. We particularly appreciate her focus on a new and important application of our monitoring data. There’s a lot of untapped value there just waiting for new scientists to discover it.

Anna’s work was recognized with an award for best student project/poster at the 2018 NERRS annual meeting. Moving forward, Anna will pursue her Master’s Degree in Natural Resources at the University of New Hampshire, where she will continue to study watershed sciences and hydrology.

Reserve Monitoring Saves Lives

Reserve Monitoring Saves Lives

Kachemak Bay Reserve Conservation Specialist Jacob Argueta holds up a razor clam measured during a recent survey. The Reserve is partnering with Alaska Department of Fish and Game Sport Fish to monitor clam toxin levels in Alaska’s Lower Cook Inlet. Photos courtesy Kachemak Bay Reserve.

In 2015, Alaska’s Kachemak Bay experienced its first harmful algal bloom (HAB) in 10 years. In response, the Kachemak Bay Reserve initiated an alert system that is saving the lives of shellfish consumers and helping local businesses respond to the challenge.

Consumers of HAB-affected shellfish can experience paralytic shellfish poisoning with symptoms that include tingling, lightheadedness, numbness, and even death. This threatens public health and the state’s economy. Many rural and indigenous Alaskans participate in the  subsistence shellfish harvest, which yields more than 36 million pounds of wild food annually. Overall, Alaskan shellfish generate an estimated $12.8 billion in economic output each year.

The 2015 bloom prompted the Kachemak Bay Reserve to bring community partners together to discuss how to improve local monitoring and protect public health. Today, the Reserve’s Community Monitoring Program keeps tabs on toxic phytoplankton levels at 31 sites in Kachemak Bay, Lower Cook Inlet, the greater Resurrection Bay area, and Prince William Sound.

 

The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team in Seldovia monitoring seabird die offs. From left: Stephen Payton and Michael Opheim (Seldovia Village Tribe), Brooke Faulkner (undergrad intern at Kachemak Bay Reserve), Kayla Schommer (Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom Network), Jan Yaeger (Seldovia Village Tribe), and Rosie Robinson and Steve Baird (Kachemak Bay Reserve). 

The Reserve publishes weekly monitoring reports for communities, the state’s shellfish-poisoning communication team, and recreational and subsistence shellfish consumers. During a harmful algal bloom in 2017—which saw the most toxic shellfish ever recorded in Kachemak Bay— the Reserve was able to issue an early warning for Homer Harbor. While there were six reported illnesses potentially connected to poisoned shellfish, experts suggest it may have been much worse without the warnings.

 “We were able to provide information on the safety of wild shellfish to harvesters, subsistence users, and commercial farmers that they would not have had,” observes Rose Robinson, a biologist with the Reserve. “Although oyster farmers have their shellfish regulated thoroughly by the Department of Environmental Conservation, they don’t receive information to warn them about potential threats like harmful algal blooms.”

HABs remain a serious concern for Alaska, and as sea temperatures rise, more frequent blooms are expected. The Kachemak Bay Reserve continues to foster partnerships with communities and agencies that are essential to monitoring the problem. Reserve staff work with Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game Sport Fish to monitor toxin levels in razor clams in Lower Cook Inlet and with the Seldovia Village Tribe and others to monitor a beach for seabird die offs. As part of the Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom Network, Reserve staff also are building a statewide approach to HAB research, monitoring, outreach, and response.

 

Kachemak Bay Reserve’s Rosie Robinson and Holly Smith from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game record razor clam measurements. Collaborations have been key to monitoring and responding to harmful algal blooms in Alaska.

Thank You, Salmon!

Thank You, Salmon!

 Photos courtesy Kachemak Bay Reserve.

Happy New Year, everyone! Did you know that 2019 is the International Year of the Salmon?

In the communities around Alaska’s Kachemak Bay Reserve, it’s safe to say that every year is the year of salmon. Be it king, coho, or sockeye, salmon is integral to Alaska’s economy and culture, and salmon fishing is an common experience enjoyed by diverse people of all generations. Yet while many Alaskans have seen an adult salmon—in the net or on the plate—few have actually seen the juvenile salmon that begin their lives far from the ocean.

For the staff at our Kachemak Bay Reserve, the presence of these juvenile fish in the tiniest of headwater streams is a reminder that the surrounding watersheds are healthy enough to sustain Alaska’s fisheries. In their studies of juvenile Coho habitat, Reserve staff have demonstrated the strong connections between local watersheds and the ocean, and through collaboration with local stakeholders, they are working to maintain those connections.

Thank you, coho salmon! Your abundance in the watersheds around our Reserve inspires us to work harder to meet the challenges of 2019. And an early “Happy Twentieth Anniversary” to our Kachemak Bay Reserve! With hundreds of thousands of acres of freshwater streams, ocean waters, and pristine woods, Kachemak is the largest—and one of the loveliest—in our national System.

Have you had an encounter with salmon or another critter at one of our Reserves? We’d love to hear about it! Share your Reserve story.

 

Art Imitating Life (And Climate Change) In Alaska

Art Imitating Life (And Climate Change) In Alaska

Alaska Lt. Governor Byron Mallott and educator artist Kiki Abrahamson enjoy climate-inspired student art.

What do Alaska’s artists, scientists, and children all have in common? They are curious, creative, and living in one of the fastest changing climates in the United States. This powerful combination inspired our Kachemak Bay Reserve to collaborate with local elementary school educators, students, and artists for a three-week study of climate change, culminating with an art show and contest.

Using reserve monitoring data and other sources, the students investigated the science behind climate change, graphed data related to impacts, and worked with a local artist to illustrate what they discovered in silk paintings.

“We wanted to educate the community about local climate change by emphasizing positive adaptation and a resilient community vision,” says Syverine Bentz, coastal training program coordinator at the Kachemak Reserve. “We had held a series of adaptation workshops that identified the need to communicate about this issue to a broader spectrum of people; this was the perfect opportunity to do just that.”

The students’ work captures the sometimes abstract impacts of climate change in vivid, colorful detail. It has been enjoyed, not only in their community, but also by the Alaska State Legislature and Lt. Governor Byron Mallott, who hung the donated artwork of Homer student Beatrix Strobel in his office.

“Blooms of Alexandrium” by Beatrix Strobel. Harmful algal blooms that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning are on the rise due to warmer, more acidic oceans. From 2011 to 2016, Alexandrium in samples taken at the Kachemak Bay Reserve have gone up from about 11 to 21% in 2016.

“Ocean Acidification” by Cyrus Wood. Pteropods, coral reefs, and other creatures are dying as more carbon dioxide is absorbed into the oceans, making them more acidic, and reducing the ability of pteropods and corals to produce their skeletons.

“Salty Ocean” by Marina Co. Rising temperatures melt freshwater glaciers and cause increased flows of freshwater into the oceans and a decrease in salinity. Between 2001 and 2016, Kachemak Bay Reserve water quality data showed that the salinity in the water has decreased by 3.5 (psu) in Seldovia, Alaska.

ReservesKachemak Bay, Alaska