Studying sockeye salmon

Each summer, aquatic and fishery sciences professor Daniel Schindler and his students travel to Bristol Bay, Alaska to observe one of the most valuable fisheries in the world.

Passion never rests

Through the College of the Environment, professor of aquatic and fishery sciences Daniel Schindler helps lead the Alaska Salmon Program (ASP) — a 70-year effort to monitor salmon and their ecosystems at a suite of field camps in southwestern Alaska. In advance of the 2016 Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run, Schindler gave an inside look at the impact of the program.

Two Alaska Salmon Program researchers cross a stream.

“With the students here, we end up being a small family. We learn from and motivate each other, and when you have more sets of eyes on the landscape, you discover more than you would if you were working as individuals. For all of us, it’s a personally rich experience. We take a lot away from it beyond just the science.” – Daniel Schindler

For the Schindlers, limnology runs in the family.


limˈnäləjē / [Field]


  1. the study of the biological, chemical, and physical features of lakes and other bodies of fresh water.

As a child, Daniel Schindler split his time between Winnipeg and the freshwaters of northwestern Ontario, at a field camp his father ran for the Canadian federal government. There, Schindler’s father studied acid rain and the eutrophication of lakes and rivers. And there, Schindler, unknowingly, began preparing for his life as professor of aquatic and fishery sciences and a lead investigator of one of the longest-running ecosystem research programs in the U.S.: the UW’s Alaska Salmon Program.

Even though he loved his nature-focused upbringing, Schindler never thought he’d follow in his father’s footsteps — he started his University of British Columbia experience on the pre-med track before switching gears — but, says Schindler, “I knew I liked being outside, and I knew I liked having adventures. Eventually, I realized I wanted to go into ecology.” So he did. “The first job I ever applied for out of graduate school was at the University of Washington,” he says. “And I got it.”

The gig was in the Department of Zoology, but the summer before he started, professor Ray Hilborn — a fellow leader of the Alaska Salmon Program — invited Schindler to Bristol Bay, Alaska “just to check it out,” he says. Twelve years ago, he followed his freshwater love and switched to the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. “It’s become a huge part of my life since.” Schindler, who holds the Harriet Bullitt Endowed Chair in Conservation, will mark 20 field seasons in Alaska this summer.

In Seattle, Schindler teaches undergraduate courses in freshwater sciences — one’s a freshman-level class for non-majors that exposes students to issues associated with water conservation; the other’s on limnology. But in the summers, he moves to a sleepy cabin on Lake Nerka — one of ASP’s more remote field camps, only accessible by an hours-long boat ride or float plane — and guides students through their research.

The big-picture goal at the core of ASP, says Schindler, is to understand how the watersheds — some of the most pristine in the world — work, so they can prioritize which parts should be protected and conserved. From there, Schindler and his colleagues are able to gain insights into how to manage and restore systems that have been overrun by people.

“There are a lot of subtle processes that are still occurring naturally in Alaska that have simply been eliminated from human-affected watersheds across the world,” says Schindler. “It’s studies of intact watersheds like these that give clear insights into which aspects of the system should be restored and prioritized for protection.”

And the watersheds are truly intact. The sole management, beyond not developing roads and hydro dams that interfere with the natural systems, is regulating how many sockeye salmon can be harvested each year.

Every day, UW professor Daniel Schindler and his students take a boat from their camp at Lake Nerka to the smaller streams to study sockeye salmon and the ecosystems where they spawn.

Every day, UW professor Daniel Schindler and his students take a boat from their camp at Lake Nerka to the smaller streams to study sockeye salmon and the ecosystems where they spawn.

In 2015, the sockeye salmon forecast was 54 million. The commercial fishery was allowed to harvest 41 million fish, leaving an escapement (the number of fish that continued upstream to spawn) of 13 million.

“The only management that occurred was in determining how many fish could be caught,” says Schindler. “Those fish made their way into supermarkets and restaurants throughout the world, and no one farmed those fish or spawned those fish in hatcheries and planted them out in the ocean. The fish were produced from these watersheds, without intervention from humans.”

Last year’s run wound up coming in at 58 million — the third-largest run on record, and millions more than forecast — and ultimately, 36 million were harvested. In dollars? That’s almost $100 million worth of sockeye salmon paid to fishermen, and additional countless jobs provided as the fish make their way through supply chains to consumers. “There’s a lot to take away from how these systems work,” says Schindler.

A close up underwater shot of sockeye salmon.ASP has one of the longest running continuous data sets on fish and the watersheds that produce those fish — more than 70 years, to be exact.

“When you have the opportunity to look back on years and years of observations of certain ecosystem components, you can draw inferences about how the systems are changing,” says Schindler. “You can’t get that if you’re studying the world in three- or five-year blocks of time. At the end of the day, it’s long-term scientific monitoring programs that have invaluable insights into how our planet is evolving.”

And that’s why it’s so important to support and protect programs like ASP, says Schindler. The insights into the natural processes of watersheds — and how to replicate and restore processes that have been devastated by urban development — not only helps protect ecosystems, but teaches the next generation of students to lead the charge.

“The greatest luxury of being at the University of Washington is the quality students we attract,” says Schindler. “Selfishly, being able to have a research group of undergrads, grads, and post-docs who are at the top of their game makes my scientific life that much more satisfying. Some of the most interesting ideas and biggest discoveries we’ve made are a direct result of our remarkable, fun, creative and motivated students.”

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