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Research Aims to Track Headwater Fish Populations

Research from the University of Washington hopes to catalog populations of fish in the headwaters of Bristol Bay.  KDLG’s Chase Cavanaugh has more.

A researcher from the University of Washington is attempting to catalog the different populations of fish in the headwaters of Bristol Bay.  Dr. Mike Weidmer used computer models to predict the numbers and types of fish upriver.  His team, with funding and field assistance from The Nature Conservancy, is currently doing field testing to confirm the actual fish numbers match up with the model.  According to Christine Woll, a fisheries ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, this means flying out and manually inspecting the streams.

“We basically fly around in a helicopter and what we do is use a variety of techniques, but mostly something called backpack electrofishing, in which basically you temporarily stun a fish. You catch it,, and then it wakes up and you measure it, and you identify it, and then you put it back in the water. We do that all through Bristol Bay, flying around to hundreds of different sites.”

The study has been going on for about 10 years, and has encountered over 30 different types of fish up the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers.  The research is particularly important for tracking salmon populations, as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that only half of their streams have been officially catalogued.  Woll says what surprised her most in the study was the sheer distance these fish travel.

“I’m just constantly amazed how far salmon will get up in these drainages. We’ll be up in a tiny headwater stream hundreds of miles from the ocean and we’ll find juvenile salmon spending a few years there in those tiny streams, so it’s pretty cool.”

Ultimately, Woll hopes that Weidmer’s model and the accompanying research can be used not only for data, but also isolate areas for environmental conservation. 

“That is basically going to tell us a pretty good estimate about which streams you find which fishes and we’re hoping that that will serve as a conservation tool for people who are interested in protecting certain areas. A lot of these areas are really remote, so no one really knows what fish species are there. Now, with this model, people will be able to basically say, “Okay, this area of land, we think there’s probably this many miles of salmon stream, and we should go about various protection measures.”

Weidmer, Woll, and the rest of the research team are currently finishing up their field work near Iliamna, and will analyze the data they’ve gathered.  They hope to officially publish the model within a year.