UW Today

This is an archived article.

September 20, 1999

Pristine Alaskan waterways and streams teeming with sockeye

News and Information

Half a dozen University of Washington undergraduates recently completed a six-week course in Alaska that took place in cabins reachable only by boat or floatplane and in streams filled with thousands of bright-red sockeye salmon fighting to spawn. The undergraduates, five from Washington and one from Oregon, worked alongside UW faculty and graduate students and helped build on a 50-year record of salmon research.

The students worked at the two main UW salmon research stations that provide Alaska fisheries managers and industry with data about size of salmon populations and provides scientists in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere with information about basic salmon biology.

Alaska is the only place left in the United States where scientists can study salmon in watersheds without dams, houses, logging or other human development, according to Ray Hilborn, fisheries professor. Hilborn, Tom Quinn, fisheries professor, and Dan Schindler, assistant professor of zoology, organized and taught the new course.

The students were part of the first undergraduate class ever offered by the UW School of Fisheries in Alaska. The School of Fisheries received an important boost from the UW’s “Tools for Transformation” fund – a special pool of money set aside by the university to help units serve students in new ways. The school is striving to include more undergraduates in its research activities and what works for the Alaska program will be applied elsewhere in the school, Hilborn says.

The undergraduates this summer worked in Illiamna Lake, the largest lake in Alaska, and at a series of streams near Aleknagik, where salmon maneuver through trickles of water only two inches deep in places. They learned about river and lake ecosystems, the field techniques used to estimate salmon populations and how many fish to harvest, and about the life cycles and behavior of salmon.

Quinn, for example, had the students counting, measuring and tagging fish along Hansen Creek as part of his ongoing research about how stream conditions, bears and other factors affect fish size, behavior and spawning success.

Enthused by the work, the students were willing to survey four additional streams and the majority then chose salmon behavior as the subject of their independent projects. Their projects ranged from comparing the mating behavior in streams versus beaches, to an experiment to see if fish would return to their redds (places where eggs are laid) if they were removed to other parts of the stream, to looking for genetic variation among fish in different spawning habitats.

Next year the School of Fisheries plans to increase the class to 10 to 12 students, broaden the spectrum of research projects and invite additional scientists to work with the students.