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A living

Through the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, Sarah Schooler, ’15, spent six weeks in the Alaskan bush, collecting the same data in the field she’d been studying in the classroom: salmon and the hungry habits of grizzly bears.


“Male, brain, body.”

“Female, belly.”

Seven days a week, Sarah Schooler, ’15, suits up in chest-high waders, grabs her bear spray, hops a boat, and walks the length of Lake Aleknagik’s Hansen Creek, counting and categorizing every dead sockeye salmon she happens upon, calling out the sex followed by the parts of the body that were consumed.

Brain, body, belly, hump.

Some salmon are floating lifelessly downstream, carried away from the hordes pushing the opposite direction — upstream — to spawn. Others have washed ashore the gravel banks, while countless others have been littered across “bear kitchens” — flat spots among the tall grass where the sheer size (and constant presence) of a grizzly has matted down the earth.

“From the fieldwork experience to participating in this long-term research project, everything about this program is unique — and unique to the University of Washington.”

– Sarah Schooler, ’15

“Male, bite.”

Another student quickly scribbles the data, while Schooler hooks what’s left of the salmon with a gaff and chucks it to the side of the stream, essentially wiping the carnage clean so she can collect a new set of data the next day. At random, Sarah tags the jaws of the dead to see if bears return to snack on the parts of the fish they passed on before — maybe they took a bite of the belly then left the rest — noting the GPS coordinates.

Sarah Schooler enters data on the bunkhouse porch at Lake Aleknagik after a long day of fieldwork.

Sarah Schooler and UW staff and students throw out a fishing net in Lake Aleknagik.

The main lodge at Lake Aleknagik, which sits just feet from the water.

An aerial view of southwest Alaska's Wood River lakes system, where the UW has a suite of field stations.

A grizzly bear sow and her cub set up shop in a "bear kitchen" and fish for sockeye salmon.

A mature sockeye salmon is measured and tagged before swimming upstream to spawn.

Sarah Schooler walks up one of Lake Aleknagik's many streams, counting and tagging sockeye salmon.

Professor Aaron Wirsing holds a female sockeye salmon in Lake Aleknagik.

On an “easy” day, walking the mile-and-a-half-long stream takes maybe an hour and a half. On a heavy kill day? The process of working through hundreds of fish takes more like seven or eight hours.

And that’s life for a student, like Schooler, spending a summer collecting data in the greater Bristol Bay watershed through the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences’ Alaska Salmon Program — the world’s longest-running effort to monitor salmon and their ecosystems.

Spend a day

in Sarah Schooler's (waterproof) shoes as she shares her student experience studying salmon and bear interactions.

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Sarah Schooler stands at the mouth of Lake Aleknagik’s Eagle Creek

Schooler came to the UW from Madison, Wisconsin, and as a freshman, declared majors in both environmental science and resource management (ESRM) and environmental studies at the UW College of the Environment. Her student experience included an internship at Seattle City Light, a quarter studying at Friday Harbor Laboratories, and backpacking workshops through Ecuador and Costa Rica.

But it wasn’t until she took a course with Aquatic and Fishery Sciences Professor Tom Quinn that she realized she wanted a future in fisheries, specifically. He proposed Schooler participate in a senior capstone project with Professor Aaron Wirsing, known for his work with some of the biggest and most feared carnivores on the planet: Alaskan grizzly bears. She began working on the project from Seattle, analyzing the data to determine how the bear’s appetite and the condition of the salmon affect what parts of the salmon the bear chooses to eat — if any.

She never thought she’d have a chance to actually collect the data she was analyzing until Quinn received a gift from the Education Legacy Fund for a field technician and asked her if she’d be interested in coming up to Alaska for the summer. “When I thought of my ideal summer scenario, it was to go to Alaska. It was a dream come true for me,” she says.

“The community the professors and the people here have built is close and very supportive, kind of with the attitude of

'We’re all in this together'"

– Sarah Schooler, ’15


UW faculty and students hike through the tundra to collect bear hair samples

It continued to be a dream come true for Schooler, who, among spending long hours in the field, spends every waking (and sleeping — the crew stays in summer camp–style cabins, bunks and all) moment with undergraduates, post-docs, and faculty alike — from the first sip of coffee shared in the morning to the last midnight sliver of sun setting on yet another full day.

“The community the professors and the people here have built is close and very supportive, kind of with the attitude of ‘We’re all in this together,’” says Schooler, who hopes to one day attend graduate school at the UW to continue studying bear and salmon interactions. “Having some of the top researchers in the field here teaching about salmon is pretty incredible. And then to get the fieldwork experience, participate in this long-term research project, and live up here? Everything about this is unique, and unique to the University of Washington.”

"Students come up here with their own eyes and own perspectives, and by bringing in students, faculty, and collaborators from other universities and agencies, we can do more together than I could ever do myself. That’s part of what keeps me excited — bringing new people here and seeing what they can do with the things I’ve been looking at all these years.

- Tom Quinn Professor, Aquatic and Fishery Sciences

Bristol Bay

Sockeye population average vs 2015
Pie chart showing the average salmon population 11.6 million escapement



Pie chart showing the 2015 salmon population 14 million escapement



This year, the Alaska Salmon Program forecasted a sockeye salmon run of 49 million (the largest forecast in 20 years and more than 50 percent greater than the long-term average 32 million) with an escapement — that is, the number of salmon that must reach spawning grounds in order to maintain a healthy population — at 14 million, leaving 35 million to be commercially harvested.

Data courtesy of BBRSDA

Global Impact

Total salmon caught in 2015
BRISTOL BAY: 38.5%, RUSSIA: 25.6%, JAPAN: .8%, CANADA: 1.8%, LOWER 48: .4%, OTHER ALASKA: 32.6%




Bristol Bay, Alaska is home to the largest, healthiest and most valuable salmon fisheries — but it hasn’t always been that way. When commercial fishing of salmon began more than a century ago, management came down to one loosely enforced rule: don’t overfish. Restrictions on fishing gear and location were placed, then Congress passed an act that required 50 percent of the returning salmon made it to spawning grounds. But there was no science to back it up, and when the population started to diminish by millions, the industry turned to the University of Washington for answers: Why has there been such a dramatic decline in population? What can we do management-wise to restore the salmon runs to their original level?

That was in 1946. Fast-forward 70 years later, and the UW has a suite of summer camp–like facilities in southwest Alaska dedicated entirely to looking at factors — evolutionary, ecological and industry-related — influencing sockeye salmon production that are led by the pioneers in the field: Tom Quinn, Ray Hilborn and Daniel Schindler, all fisheries professors in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.