UW News

August 21, 2012

66th field season underway in world’s longest-running effort to monitor salmon

News and Information

When the University of Washington launched its Alaska Salmon Program 66 years ago, researchers were tasked with determining why Alaska’s sockeye salmon catches had declined over two decades from 22 million fish per year to 10 million.

The work was undertaken at a time when the fundamental biology of salmon was poorly known and there were no long-term studies integrating salmon and their ecosystems in a holistic manner, Thomas P. Quinn, UW professor of aquatic and fishery sciences wrote in a history of the program and the five field camps UW established.

Research boat, scientists on Lake Iliamna, Alaska

University of Washington scientists head out across Lake Iliamna.J Ching/U of Washington

“Many basic techniques for counting salmon and understanding their life-history patterns were developed at these camps, and the data were used for the management of the salmon runs,” he wrote.

Today commercial fishing on sockeye salmon in Alaska is well-managed and the populations produced from the lakes and spawning grounds are near pre-fishing levels of abundance, UW scientists say.

The program encompasses not just fisheries management, but work on ecology and evolution as well. One of the program’s strengths is that from the beginning UW scientists and staff collected basic information about climate, hydrology, insects, plankton and other fish, something that distinguishes the data set from other salmon monitoring records. The program used an “ecosystem approach” long before the term became fashionable.

The techniques developed and insights gained about Alaska sockeye salmon have been applied to Pacific salmon all along the West coast. Because of the the contributions to conservation of fishery resources, the American Fisheries Society just awarded the program the Carl R. Sullivan Fishery Conservation Award, one of the society’s most prestigious awards according to William Fisher, society president.

Fisheries scientists at work, sampling and recording data in research notebook

Science in action: data carefully recorded as part of the work at the UW’s Alaska Salmon stations.U of Washington

“The Alaska Salmon Program at the University of Washington was selected for this award because this program is without question one of the most outstanding models anywhere of a working laboratory,” he said. “With its direct connections to local communities and the global community, the program provides amazing educational and scientific outreach.”

The award was presented Aug. 20 in St. Paul, Minn., at the society’s annual meeting.

Field work is conducted from five UW camps in the Wood, Kvichak and Chignik river watersheds in western Alaska. The program is funded by the National Science Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Alaska salmon processing industry.

This summer’s field work, led by Quinn and UW aquatic and fishery sciences professors Ray Hilborn and Daniel Schindler, involve half dozen fisheries staff, eight undergraduates and about 10 graduate students looking at such things as:

  • The role of the sockeye return in maintaining the resident fish such as
    rainbow trout,  char and grayling
  • The evolutionary  pressures of fish size given the tradeoff between sexual
    selection and bear predation
  • The process of local adaptation to different kinds of spawning habitat
  • Understanding how watershed complexity affects sustainability of fisheries
  • Reconstructing prehistorical salmon population dynamics based on traces in lake sediments
  • Understanding how climate variation affects salmon population dynamics
  • Using genetics to identify the river of origin of the fish and using that information to reconstruct the number of fish returning to each river.

The genetic work involves UW faculty members Lorenz Hauser, Jim Seeb and Lisa Seeb.

Sockeye salmon migrate up stream to spawn

Sockeye salmon migrate up an Alaskan stream to spawn.J Carter-Hansen/U of Washington