Sunday, August 4, 2013

So Long, Salmon!

My salmon summer has come to an end and I am currently involved in my trek back home, from one end of the country to the polar opposite.  Our Monashka Creek project has ended as the Chinook have finished running, and the active season is slowing considering there’s not much that can be done in the field over winter.  Earlier in the week we completed our final weir check—which had recently been overflowing with the Pink salmon that are in the height of their run—and dismantled the metal contraption we had formed a summer love-hate relationship with.  It was bittersweet due to the many hours spent bonding with the weir and visiting it each and every day to see if any Kings had come home, yet our excitement about sleeping in for the first day all summer squandered any sorrow.  Thankfully our weir is one of the smaller projects and I was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly 4 people could remove sandbags and metal panels.

Included in our Kodiak wrap-up was of course the tourist checklist. I had been fishing for salmon in a river, but never tried the sea from boat. I had seen whales from the air and as distant shapes on the horizon from land, but never by boat.  We were hoping to see the classic Puffins so quintessentially Alaskan, but that required a boat.  Do you see a theme?  We needed to get out on the water! So we decided to suck it up and pay the big bucks for a charter.  Just as we were looking to book, we found someone with a friend-of-a-friend boat connection, and made plans for Thursday evening.  It just so happens that the glorious sunshine and warm weather so frighteningly uncommon to Kodiak ended that day, and by the time we were on the skiff, the grey clouds, wind and mist had swept in. Despite the immediate and perpetual chill I had, it was great! We went after halibut, those giant flat fish with 2 eyes on the one top side of their head, using enormous weighted lures and meaty squids for bait.  At the first fishy spot a porpoise surfaced around us a few times; on the way to the second spot, puffins flew in front of our boat and us two Floridians startled everyone with cries of delight at the adorable, but until now, elusive, bird; and en route to the third location, a whale!!! Oddly enough this spotting was much calmer than the puffins, but ten times as exciting.  The massive creature swam off in the distance, getting closer as it dove our way.  After a short while and a few dives, it was close enough to hear its breath as it surfaced and spouted.  The whale would take several breaths that exposed its head, then dive and be gone for several minutes, but not before flashing us its tail and nearly half of its body!  Although we did not catch any fish (not even a bite, really), I loved being on the water and was thoroughly happy with my sightseeing!

just to the right of Elizabeth's head is the whale's tale!

Further events involved packing up and moving out of our so famously known trailer.  As I said, I’m currently traveling home, and on my flight from Kodiak I was recognized by a fisherman; when I asked if he knew the trailer down at Monashka—that that was my home—he was perfectly familiar with it! We said farewell to our quaint residence, to the refrigerator-less, water-less, power-less trailer we called home all summer, and I couldn’t help but feel neutral about leaving it in my memories.

Just before leaving, I was able to catch one more exciting aquaculture event: Chinook hormone injections.  We’ve been collecting Kings at our Monashka weir all summer long and I was disappointed at leaving before the harvest of these fish I’ve come to know so well.  Although I am gone before that happens, I was able to partake in the preparation, whereby females are administered hormone pills to make their eggs ripe for harvest 10 days later.  A group comprised of interns, KRAA, and ADF&G, captured all 91 females in the holding tanks, used some sort of needle gun, and injected a pill into their dorsal to induce spawning.  August 10th is the concluding date of these Chinook’s lives; they have served their purpose well and will be utilized to make future generations of salmon to continue our stocking process.  I counted via clicker and Elizabeth helped flip the females into the adjacent tank after they had been netted and injected by the pros, everyone getting soaked along the way. It was an exciting end to my time here, and although the typical, miserable rainy Kodiak weather had rolled in to try and keep me captive on the island, I’m glad I was able to experience life on the Emerald Isle.

the raceway is full of Chinook after collecting them all summer

these are the hormones injected into the females, in pill form, that will induce ripening of the eggs

injecting a female King!

flipping fish all day is tough work!

So: two overstuffed suitcases and about 6 flights later, I say goodbye to Kodiak and the wonderful summer opportunity I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy. I can now confidently reenter the world as a student of aquaculture, due to the ultimate Alaskan salmon experience.  My horizons have certainly been broadened as I have a new perspective of the fishing world and our resources; a very important and relevant perspective that comes from the people who so depend on them. I can’t say where I’ll be in the future or what I’ll be working with next summer, but I do know my time with the Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association will only outstandingly accelerate me towards the path of sustainability.

P.S. I’ve finally made it to Florida after 3 days of attempted travel, and went from the furthest northwest island of Kodiak to the southernmost eastern island of Key West! 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Wildlife Wednesday

As we wrap up our final week in Kodiak and my final Wildlife Wednesday, I thought it only appropriate to finally acknowledge the real root of why we are here: King Salmon.

inside view of Kings in the weir

King Salmon, actually called Chinook salmon, are the massive fish that we have been working with at the weir all summer. They are stocked in only 3 rivers on the island, one of which we live at and where we collect the “parents” that will stock all the other locations. They are the largest species of Salmon and can weigh up to 50 pounds here on the island.  Every time we see another massive fish, we are certain that that one is the biggest we have seen yet. In truth though, full grown Chinook measure somewhere between 24 and 36 inches and put up quite the fight. As Florida girls we are not strangers to water, but when a King Salmon doesn’t want to be caught, splash is all you catch.

King salmon captured at the American River to be added to the broodstock

The exception to this rule, though, is Jacks.  Jacks are male King salmon that swim back into the rivers one or two years earlier than normal to spawn. They are significantly smaller than their full-grown friends but are still fully capable none-the-less (also delicious).

King salmon: jack is on the left, full grown adult on the right

We’ve caught over 100 of these salmon in total now and are finally calling an end to our fish collecting and our trailer adventures. Now its time that we head back to Florida, with many of their fishy cousins packed snuggly in our suitcases, and say goodbye to our Chinook Salmon, knowing that they will always be Kings in our hearts.

PS. Finally saw a bear :)

 Elizabeth Fata

Monday, July 29, 2013

Lifestyle of the Hunter - Gatherer

I realize working with salmon in Alaska, of all places, obliges me to go fishing.  I am a fisherwoman after all, catching the favorites of the tropics at home including snapper, grouper, and the ever-tasty hogfish.  However, fishing for the same fish that my employer is trying to collect in order to provide the brood stock that will produce more salmon in the future seems improper.  So you can imagine our excitement at the arrival of the Pink salmon run, an undesirable species for the spoiled Alaskans, yet one that is so copious the ocean seems alive as they jump out of the water and try to find the river mouth.  This was the opportunity we had been waiting for: a guaranteed catch of fish you can see, and salmon we don’t feel immoral taking.

Our first encounter with the Humpys (Pinks also go by this name due to the large hunchbank males form during spawning) was while exploring the final piece of the road system we had not traveled.  I’ve mentioned the other end of the single main road here, but that was always after making a right turn at the only stop sign.  Instead, we finally went left.  The road turns to gravel after a mile, and from there we continued for a good 15 minutes before reaching a magnificent point and teeny compilation of houses overlooking a serene ocean from a black rocky cliff.  Descend this cliff, and what do we find? Pinks jumping out of the sea every 5 seconds and swirling around each other as thick as soup! A fellow intern had brought his fishing pole, and caught one within the first 5 minutes.  He let me try out my new fishing license with his rod, and I caught one right away!  It was improperly hooked, however, snagged on the back, so we unhooked him on the beach and let him swim away.  It was only a warm up.

Chiniak Beach, fish on!

The following night one of our fisherman friends that frequents Monashka Creek, otherwise known as home, invited us to a beach cookout at the Olds River.  We happily drove down the road on a clear sunny evening and were greeted with hotdogs over a fire.  The river was feelin’ fishy, and we quickly munched before casting into the water.  Before long, people to my left, to my right, and across the river were bringing up fish.  Soon enough my rod got heavy and tugged, and I had one! Without too strenuous of a fight, I pulled in a pink salmon, the first salmon I’ve ever caught! My excitement yielded a little bit of mayhem when I wasn’t sure what to do with the fish after I had him on the beach.  Usually, in Florida, we throw our catch in a cooler on ice and the deed is done.  My confusion about what to do with it was responded to with shouts ordering me to hit the fish with a rock. Excuse me? Yes, beat the fish with anything heavy lying on the ground nearby. When I commented that it seemed cruel, I was reminded that the alternative is to let it suffocate. In the end, I had a friend use a rock to give the fish its first blow, and if it gave a slight wiggle I’d use the rock once more.  Sad but effective.  By the time Elizabeth had caught her pink salmon, a satisfying fish after hours of misleading bites, I was emboldened enough to use a washed up tree branch to do the beating.  You might say barbaric, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.  And this girl wants to eat salmon!

Already satisfied with my fishing license purchase, I was pleased to casually fish at the creek by our trailer that had been abandoned by most fishermen due to the unwanted Pinks.  We had each caught a salmon so the barrier had been broken and the pressure was off.  Recently the high tides have been in the late hours, and on this particular night high tide was around 11pm.  We made a point to fish the incoming tide when salmon will be entering the river to swim upstream, and at the dim hour they prefer. Waders on and pole in hand, I walked along the bank’s path that was now submerged from the tide, casting along the way, trying to make the shiny metal at the end of my line look appealing.  And suddenly—fish on!  Another Humpy within the first 10 minutes, and this one I beat with a stick myself.

Pink or Humpy salmon up close: you can see the reason for its name

While Elizabeth was gone at remote field camp (and I was alone in a trailer in Alaska with a gun), I went berry picking.  After watching the little green buds grow all summer, and listening to tales of their tasty flavor plus jam-making possibilities, the salmonberries are finally ripe and I’m happy to have caught the season.  So I took a bowl and walked into the forest; and they’re everywhere! I crawled through prickly patches in my shorts, walked through flowing streams, and stood on trees to pick the perfect bite.  It’s like an addicting scavenger hunt: bushes of green with red dots everywhere you just can’t resist running up to pluck.  About an hour and 50 scratches later, I emerged with a bowl full of plump, ripe salmonberries, ready to be jellified!  I was amazed how simple the recipe is, literally berries and sugar.  The only annoyance is boiling the liquid for long enough that it becomes thick.  Hot boiling jelly tends to bubble, and when it bursts with a splash on your skin the pain is quite comparable to a bee sting…


We tried out the Buskin River for sockeye and pink salmon a few days later, with nothing to show but wet boots and a jellyfish sting on my eye -_-  However, we were happily surprised when we went to check the weir one day and found an extremely confused and out of place Sockeye.  These salmon are the tastiest yet do not run up Monashka creek so we don’t see many.  Sockeye should not be in this river, and it was suggested we kill him for bait; but why use a perfectly delicious fish for bait? So, he became our dinner :].  It’s summer in Alaska, the salmon are running strong and the berries are in season—get out and eat! 

the unlucky Sockeye that swam up the wrong river and into our trap

Friday, July 26, 2013

Casual Day Trip for the Least Casual of Interns

Yesterday we awoke with all intentions to be productive in the office.  After checking the weir and moving 2 fish we headed in, where there was talk of what time ‘the girls’ should leave.  Needless to say we were very confused about this unrevealed trip, but waited for clarification.  Around 12:30 in the afternoon we hopped on a floatplane and flew out to Kitoi Hatchery! 

Kitoi is the second largest hatchery in North America, and currently undergoing renovations that will make it the largest.  Here, various salmon species are incubated, hatched, reared, released, then return several years later as adults to be harvested.  We were fortunate enough to be there during the egg-take for Chum salmon, which are beautifully striped with deep reddish purple during spawning.  The harvest will go on all summer long, with hundreds of millions of fish to process, and when the Chum are finished the Pink salmon will begin coming up the river. 

can you see the hundreds of fish crowded up the river!? This must be what they mean when they say there's so many 'you could walk across them'

These returning fish were released at Kitoi hatchery 1-3 years ago, depending on the species, and have largely been caught by commercial fishermen while making their way back to the river they came from.  The ones piling on top of each other in the trickle of a river below the fish ladder managed to get past the fisherman barrier and are now at their final destination: Kitoi hatchery to be harvested for eggs and milt that will make more salmon for the future.  They congregate towards a heavy flow of water, and at Kitoi, that would be the fish ladder.  This is how we encourage the salmon to swim up the wide, curving ladder, and into long raceway tanks to be held before being electrocuted and harvested.  It’s a real process, and an efficient one, that requires a team effort of each person skillfully and quickly doing their part.  I was fascinated watching the ease of the production, whereby the shocked, immobile (sometimes still seizing) fish come sliding down the table, are sorted by gender, and then harvested accordingly.  The males endure a much less intrusive method and are simply squeezed, but the females are sliced open by the belly so their eggs can be scooped out.  Once the desired goods are collected, the fish are slid down the pathway and funnel into a large tube that runs around the cliff side of the hatchery and lands on a barge that, at the end of the day, will take the bodies out to deeper water for disposal.

sorting the males and females after they've been shocked

left: squeezing the males; right: slicing the females
harvested Chum sliding down the chute

As for the eggs, this is only the beginning. The valuable components from both sexes of salmon funnel into large buckets, constantly rotated out, and, once full, are taken indoors to one of the rearing buildings where they are rinsed with fresh water to activate fertilization, bathed in iodine as a sterilizer, and set to soak for an hour.  The fertilized eggs will then be incubated indoors for several months before hatching, and growing in a immense vertical tank that facilitates a large increase in size over a short period.

mixing of the eggs and milt

incubating boxes

After watching the process for quite some time, we explored more of the grounds and spotted some bears!  One young furry creature was a bit skiddish and bounded up the rock wall when we ran over in excitement to observe.  He later came back to catch numerous salmon and feast on the Chum frenzy that were so easily catchable as they piled in the hundreds in only a few inches of water.  Our previous tour of the hatchery informed us that we were safe on the other side of the fish ladder whose ‘ropes’ were actually electric fences.

young bear enjoying the plentiful salmon

Considering we won’t be staying in Kodiak long enough to participate in the egg-take of the King salmon we’ve been collecting all summer, we were thrilled to see the climax of the season in action.  Add bear sightings to that and our Alaskan aquaculture experience is complete!  This unexpected day trip was a wonderful bonus to our internship, and one of the highlights of our summer.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Salmon Whispering

Earlier in this adventure I explained the transfer process whereby we take the fish in the trap up to larger holding tanks via fish tubes.  However, I don't think I mentioned how they get into those tubes.  Well here's the process! This last group of salmon we transferred were all so large that instead of putting a hand over their nose and eyes, I had to bear hug them! Takes a little bit of muscle to wrangle these enormous Chinook, and some faith that they won't wiggle out of your hands once mid-air. But I'd say my first time went pretty well :]

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Wildlife Wednesday

Today after a lazy morning and the realization that our stay is almost over, we decided to take our wildlife viewing experiences into our own hands. We had recently received a tip about a great whale watching spot and decided to check it out. To our utter surprise and delight, whales are exactly what we found! After walking to a beautiful outcrop of land and watching a disappointingly still ocean for a while, Heather spotted our first whale splash! That turned out to be just the beginning as we sat for the next hour and watched spout, tail, and fin repeatedly break the surface. And after just a bit of pleading on our part, we finally saw a breach, bouncing with delight as we watched an Alaskan whale fly out of the water and come smacking back down to earth. Although we watched from land, it was an amazing experience none-the-less. I now feel as though a whale shaped hole in my heart has finally been filled. We left the spot with a dead camera, smiles on our faces, and only a little bit jealous of the fishermen on the water. Fingers crossed, this weekend that will be us!

—Elizabeth Fata

Tail Fluke


Monday, July 15, 2013

Going Remote

The island of Kodiak may be the second largest in the country, yet its populated and developed places are slim.  Much of the island is actually a wildlife refuge, where bears thrive and salmon clog rivers.  Because of this, the many projects KRAA has going on across the island are often remote, without access to the outside world or the luxuries so common in America.  While I may be living in a camper beside a river and wedged between mountains at the end of the road—there is a road! And town is only a 20-minute drive, by car, I might add.  Many interns that stop over in town have been in the field for months, without a shower, without running water, or without a refrigerator.  Even so, all I could gather from people’s comments was an undecided confusion about whether or not life in a remote site was enjoyable…

Well last week I was able to decide for myself!  The multiple projects across Kodiak are seasonal: catching salmon swimming upstream, tagging smolt going downstream, establishing nets to prevent passage, etc. are all possible only in the summer when the salmon are running.  So now that the summer is winding down, the projects are ending and so the break down begins.  This is where I came in; to help the field camp Waterfall break down camp and close up for the season.  Waterfall is a gorgeous site on the island of Afognak, completely undisturbed, with bears crawling everywhere, eagles flying overhead all day long, and good ol’ fresh air.  As the name implies, there is also a magnificent waterfall right behind the cabin, one that’s too high for salmon to jump over and now has a specially designed ladder for the Pinks to travel through. That has been there since the 80’s, though, when the camp was first established, and the Pinks are a somewhat undesirable species for the spoiled Alaskans who stockpile salmon in their freezers. 

Sockeye making the leap of faith
looking down a fish ladder

The project KRAA has at Waterfall works with sockeye and commercial fishermen.  KRAA has been stocking the location with sockeye for several years now, and manages their return by stringing an indescribably enormous net that could engulf an airplane across the cove to prevent the fish from swimming upriver, enabling fishermen to catch them.  The two people stationed out here all season lived in the cutest cabin beside a waterfall while maintaining the net and organizing the commercial fishermen.  Not a bad setup at all.  However, at the end of the season the net has to come down, be cleaned, and stored for next year, which is where my assistance came in handy. Four of us worked for 4 days to close everything up, and did it all in perfect time.


A view of the net during high tide, low tide, and from the plane (left to right)

 I was certainly skeptical before my trip, getting excited but controlling it because I knew there was hard work to be done.  Namely, sandbags.  The colossal net blocking the river’s outflow into the cove was suspended by two trees on either side of the banks, which were high up on rocky cliffs, and was weighted down at the bottom by a thick lead line.  To prevent this bottom from swimming around during tidal flows, hundreds upon hundreds of sandbags were placed over the line, sandbags that had to be removed from the water during low tide before we began dismantling the net.  Needless to say I am now extremely buff after wading through currents and walking through sand with bulky bags the weight of large children!


Each accomplishment of hard labor was hugely satisfying, and every meal I had was the best ever.  On this trip I discovered the wonderful world of nutella and peanut butter! All I can say is YUM.  A lot of our work revolved around the tides because they are so extreme up here.  At high tide the net is engulfed in water and the sand you stood on at low tide, carrying sandbag after sandbag, is now ten feet under.  So we would work quickly when the tide was out, power washing the net to clean it from seaweed gunk and lowering it from the tree-suspended cable, then lay it on a sunny bank to dry while the tide came back in.  After such an intense day a shower would have done me good, yet at field camp there is no running water and no shower.  Instead, there is a hot steam room contraption called a baña, a homemade shelter that has a wood stove surrounded by hot rocks you pour water on to create steam.  I had heard of this imitate shower from some interns that came to town, but couldn’t picture it or understand the concept of cleaning yourself without running water.  Now that the opportunity presented itself—and since I was covered in low tide—I had to try it! I learned how to split wood for the first time, helped start the fire, kept it roaring, and placed buckets full of water in the hot wooden room to create the steam.  When the stream water in the buckets warms up, there are ladles and cups you can use to pour it over your dirty self. After reliving Florida’s stifling humid heat for a good 20 minutes, I emerged with the same sedated relaxation that comes after a hot tub. It was magical.

entrance to the baña

Now, our hard work was absolutely rewarded with perfect sunny weather and innumerable wildlife sightings.  Before this trip I had never seen a bear, and I was losing faith that they existed. But after the first day at Waterfall, which was only half a day, I saw 8!  I saw bears splashing in the river, I saw bears moseying along the bank, I saw them in the cabin’s front yard field, I saw a bear swimming in the pool of a waterfall, I even saw one catch a fish, and finally, I saw a mother with cubs :]. They were absolutely everywhere: one watched me brush my teeth at the river the first night, and one stumbled upon us at its favorite fishing hole under the falls where we were doing the same thing.  It got to the point where I’d tell the boys, “I’m going to look for bears,” and a sow with 2 cubs walked through the river!  While of course they have the potential to be dangerous and we always carried a gun, most bears are hilariously goofy creatures that don’t know their own size.  Every bear I saw had a personality, from the overprotective mom to the playful one contemplating a log in the river. And that’s only bears. 

There was a resident fox that hung out around the cabin who had been named smoky, and if we had stayed longer he would easily become a pet.  Eagles filled the sky, plunging from one tree to another and soaring through the forest gap created by the river.  We saw many juvenile eagles, noticeable by their brown and white mottled feathers, which were often playing around in twos. While working down by the net, I saw an eagle get irritated by the selfish seagulls, finally swooping down to snag their catch.  I also saw one fly overhead with a fish in his talons!  Out where the river meets the sea, in the cove where we had the net, is where the tide hugely fluctuates.  When the tide fully rises and the smolt are swimming around the cove, seals are able to swim in for a snack.  The juvenile salmon haphazardly jump out of the water, no one knows why, popcorn style.  So even us landlubbers can tell they are plentiful in the newly filled cove, and the seals would come in each evening for the tide, working in a pair to round up the fish then take a bite.  My list of encounters goes on, but I am so thrilled to have had the quintessential Alaskan wilderness experience. 


picking off seaweed during high tide....smolt are jumping and seals are feasting in the water behind

My experience was made complete by our form of transport…a float plane!  These old tin toys are from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and have not been made since.  If you have any aversion to flying, I would suggest against this flight, but luckily I do not, and welcomed such a unique journey.  Because the field sites of KRAA are so remote, this is often the only way to get there because they can land on water, which is everywhere in Kodiak.  While flying over land and sea, you’re just high enough to have a view of the mountains on the mainland Alaskan peninsula, but close enough to spy sea otters bobbing on the surface.  We flew over bright blue ocean with shadows of kelp sea monsters, and between mountainous rocks being thrust into the sky as these mountains continue to grow.  

Beaver float plane...our ride

I had heard stories of people seeing whales while flying to field camp, which of course made me excitedly alert and always on the lookout.  Not a single splash on the way over, but on the flight back—the one where I won a rock-paper-scissors game to get the front seat—the pilot said he had seen some.  Sure enough a white splash in the middle of endless blue caught my eye, and WHALES!  I couldn’t believe it!  The pilot told us they were Fin whales, and I believe there was a calf in the pod that kept surfacing for air.  From here it only gets better.  As we flew over another piece of jutting land and began crossing the watery pass between Afognak island and mainland Kodiak island, Humpback whales were breaching!  This splash was obvious as an enormous mammal broke the smooth sea surface, flying into the air and falling with a slosh display.  My screams of excitement could be heard through our headphones, and the pilot told his base he was circling around some whales real quick before we landed.  He circled their beautiful dancing leaps, and we got to see one lay on its side and smack its fin on the surface after breaching.  I couldn’t have been happier, and smiled the whole way home.