NOAA, YDFDA Partner in Chinook Salmon Study

A dramatic decline in Chinook salmon populations on Alaska’s Yukon River has created hardship for commercial and subsistence fisheries alike, sparking a partnership between federal and state agencies and local fishermen to find answers.

The partnership research, which began in 2014, involves NOAA Fisheries, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game and the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association (YDFDA). It is now part of NOAA’s new Citizen Science Strategy, released in January, in which community-based collaborations increase the cost effectiveness of projects address social needs and provide hands on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning. They also connect the public directly with NOAA science missions.

The combined efforts of NOAA Fisheries and YDFDA proved particularly valuable last year, when the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down NOAA’s ability to conduct any fieldwork, said NOAA fisheries biologist Katharine Miller. COVID-19 restrictions in place to keep small remote villages safe meant that sampling of the fishery could continue only with citizen scientists in the villages, many of them high school students or recent graduates, said YDFDA biologist Courtney Weiss.

“There is some evidence that much Chinook salmon mortality occurs during the freshwater and early marine period, Miller explained. “The more we learn about the factors affecting survival of juvenile Chinook salmon in the river, the closer we can get to understanding what is happening to the adult returns.”

Capturing juvenile salmon in the silty waters of the Yukon is challenging, given the huge sediment load carried by the river, which creates an ever-shifting mosaic of mid-channel islands and sandbars. Capturing a four-inch-long Chinook is all about knowing where to fish and how to get around the river without getting stuck on a sandbar or lost.

“The project is successful because local residents who live and work in this environment year-round are our partners,” said Bob Foy, director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “The venture also introduced these young people to the possibility of science careers and training in a field important to managing subsistence resources.”

One of these youths is Sharon Alstrom, who began working with the project in 2017. Alstrom is now an undergraduate at Rio Salado College in Arizona. During her studies toward a degree in biology, Alstrom is also working with Weiss at YDFDA on the Chinook salmon project.

“I love how this went from being just a job to a career,” she said.