Sampling technicians gather data for managing Bristol Bay salmon stock
Alex Ting and Casey Chandler stand over a large blue fish tote, dressed in bright orange Grundens and gloves with a row of big silver sockeye salmon in front of them, scales gleaming in the rare late evening sun.
"For each tote, we are expected to do 240 [fish]. So we have the scale cards, and they each will take 48 scales, 48 fish, and then we do five of these cards a day. Peter Pan once, OBI once. So like 480 fish," Ting explained.
It is Ting's third season as a salmon data technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Each tide, she and Chandler drive to Dillingham’s two seafood processing plants - OBI Seafoods typically in the morning, and Peter Pan Seafoods in the afternoon - to collect samples from those hundreds of fish.
Tonight, they’re at the Peter Pan Seafood plant. Standing near the loading dock lined with empty carts, the smell of fish is strong. Nearby, there’s a cluster of blue clapboard houses where kids are jumping on a trampoline. Ting gets to work on the fish piled deep in the blue plastic totes, lined along the wall of a storehouse.
“She stands on one end and I stand on the other. So basically, you'll see that there are samples that we have to take from each fish. We have to take a scale. And we have a measuring device that we use to take the measurement of fish," said Ting, describing her work as she goes. "And we call it the clicker because it works like a video game, you adjust to the size of the fish and you pull the trigger. It’s a caliper."
It is painstaking work, involving gathering precise scale samples. They measure the sex, species, weight, and fin cuttings from hundreds of salmon. And, like fishing, the job is dependent on the tidal extremes of the bay. Samplers are on call at all hours to be there when the totes are offloaded.
"So when we first arrive, we make an agreement on who's going to do which job because we're able to do both. And since I picked scales this morning, and Alex did the calipers, we're going to trade in the afternoon," said Chandler. The pair work as a team.
Ting and Chandler line the fish up in rows of eight. Chandler measures them with the caliper, which is a long, adjustable rod with a trigger on one end. Ting moves down the row, pulling scale samples from specific locations on the fish's’ sides and fixing them to a numbered sheet.
Salmon scales have rings - similar to tree rings - that show the age of the fish.
"And then back in the lab, they take a hole punch and they punch a hole in these pectoral fins that we’ve collected and measure them up to the scale samples we've collected, the size and length and sex of the fish that we determined and then see how old they are," Chandler added.
This data is called ASL, for Age, Sex, Length. And, according to Stacy Vega, fisheries research biologist for Fish and Game and lead of the sampling program, it is a crucial metric for fisheries management.
"It's pretty much the basis of how the state manages its stock. ASL is super important for creating our brood tables, making our forecasts, and setting our escapement goals. It is the base of what we do. And it's super important," said Vega from her office in King Salmon.
Brood tables are also known as run reconstructions. At the end of each season, Fish and Game biologists plot each run, which helps build future forecasts.
Vega explained that fin and scale samples like these can be used to answer questions like how many fish in the bay’s daily harvests are from where, when, and what river system. They show how old the fish are, how long they have spent in the ocean, and that can be tracked over generations of returning spawners and their progeny.
And sampling has been happening since the 1950s. Back at the Dillingham Fish and Game bunkhouse - a squat rancher which used to be the city jail - there are file cabinets of salmon scales on acetate cards going back decades.
"Our sampling hasn't changed too much since back then. It's the way we are able to forecast and set escapement goals. We've been doing this across Alaska since we've been a state and beyond," said Vega.
Back at the Peter Pan Seafoods processing plant, Ting and Chandler have moved on to the second tote. It is 8pm and the cannery is a little quieter. They sing along to music as they move fish from tote, to scale, to sampling surface.
"So they would expect us to collect enough samples and then they would use what they need. The most recent I heard is that they use about 30% of the data that we collected genetically and then they can do their calculation for whatever science that they're doing," said Ting of the Fish and Game data analysts.
The fin and scale samples they’re carefully collecting today, like every day, will be put into an envelope and flown to King Salmon to be analyzed. Across Bristol Bay, dozens of samplers are doing the same. The program has sample technicians across the Bay, including in Togiak and four more in King Salmon.
Vega stressed the importance of the work. "Folks in the communities and the processors have been very supportive and helpful. Because like I said, it doesn't just help us do our job, it definitely benefits everyone involved in the fishery, because the forecast matters."
Today, the sampled harvest was all sockeye with the exception of one chum. Earlier in the season, an important part of the job for Chandler and Ting was sampling setnet sites in Dillingham looking for chinook salmon, which have seen a sharp decline, and were designated a stock of concern for the first time last year.
And, this is the first year the program has returned in full swing on site since the Covid pandemic. Vega said for the last three years, under pandemic health regulations, processors closed campuses meaning techs had to sample hauls of salmon out at the boatyard.
According to Vega, there were some data inconsistencies during that period but now, sampling efforts are back on track. "COVID definitely had its challenges. Access to plants was minimal. And we couldn't sample from as many places as we usually can. So this is the first year that we’re back, like right on the dock. So we can just walk out and sample fish close to the dock right when it comes off the boat."
Tonight, sampling goes smoothly and Ting and Chandler are finished around 10pm. Back in the car, on the way home, they reflect on the season.
When asked how they feel at the end of a shift, Chandler replied: "Tired. But not as tired as fisher folk or the fish."
The pair will get some sleep and return tomorrow around 6 am, for the next tide and the next sample, from the estimated 8 million fish expected to run up the Nushagak this season.