The Count: Monitoring the Pulse of a Park’s Lifeblood

The Count: Monitoring the Pulse of a Park’s Lifeblood


NARRATOR: This is the Newhalen River in Southwest Alaska. Each July the Newhalen is a stop through on a massive migration. A migration that brings hundreds of
thousands of sockeye salmon from the Pacific Ocean, up the Kvichak River
through Iliamna Lake, the largest lake in Alaska, and into the inland waters of the Newhalen River drainage home to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. It is a
migration that over its course delivers critical nutrients to life at all levels
of the food chain in and around the park, helping ensure the future of the Bristol
Bay sockeye salmon fishery. This journey is a return for the sockeye. Born in the
gravel of creeks, streams, and lakes throughout the Newhalen River drainage,
sockeye salmon leave these freshwater environments after a year or two, to migrate hundreds of miles to the Pacific Ocean. Near the very end of their lives they
make this return trip, returning to the very same creeks, streams and lakes where they were born, to spawn and then die back where their lives began. In a land where soils are nutrient
poor, winters are cold and the growing season is short, sockeye or, red salmon,
are the ecological, cultural and economic lifeblood of the region. The annual
migration brings between 200 thousand and three million fish to Lake Clark and its
adjoining waters. Sockeye salmon are a food source for other fish, wildlife, and for people, having sustained the residents of the Lake Clark
region as a primary subsistence food since prehistory. One of the primary
reasons for the establishment of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve was “to
protect the watershed necessary for the perpetuation of the red salmon fishery
in Bristol Bay.” DAN YOUNG: We’re mandated by Congress to protect sockeye salmon and sockeye salmon habitat. It’s in the enabling legislation for why the park was created. And also one of the other things under
ANILCA and the park’s creation was allowing for subsistence use. Sockeye salmon are the primary subsistence resource used by locals
comprising up to 70% of the local subsistence diet. NARRATOR: Given this mandate and the critical role sockeye salmon play in the region, Lake Clark National Park has monitored the
annual run since 2000. Using towers erected on the riverbank at mile 22
fisheries scientists count sockeye migrating up the Newhalen River. DAN YOUNG: Sockeye salmon as
they migrate up the river, they seek the path of least resistance and so they
migrate along the shoreline and then they tend to go where the current’s
slower, and then they also migrate near the bottom, where the current is slower. Where river mile 22 is, it’s in the upper river, it’s above all kinda obstacles to
migration, that could delay migration, and then also it is just a perfect migration
corridor and fish just cruise right through. JAMES KRAMER: Our camp is located on the right bank, and that’s the right as you’re facing downstream. So we have a tower on that side, and a tower on the left bank. We can walk to the tower on the right bank climb up and we observe the
salmon swimming upstream and we count the number coming up every 10 minutes. Then we go back to the dock and boat across to the other side of the river and
walk to the tower over there, climb up and observe the salmon swimming upstream on the left bank. And we just repeat that for the entire day. DAN YOUNG: We are collecting data in a method that has been used in the area since the fifties and it’s consistent from year to
year and so it’s relative to itself. And so we have the same methodologies, same procedures, and we can kind of compare from year to year and look at how
changes in abundance are occurring and also
changes in run-time. And since we’re doing it in such kind of a
systematic way, we can look at those trends objectively. NARRATOR: This systematic approach to counting is only part of the story. Through sampling, radio tracking and
genetic analysis park scientists have also learned about the sockeye salmon
community in the Newhalen River drainage, and the diversity within it. DAN YOUNG: I’d say we’ve learned like, who we are using genetics. They’re different than any other fish, sockeye salmon, in the
world. And we can pick that out in the ocean. You can pick out a fish and you can
say “These fish are coming from the Lake Clark drainage”. So we kinda know who we are, and how that relates to other populations throughout the world. And
then we’ve learned when they migrate back and how they migrate back.
Where and when they spawn. We’ve learned what we are. So like, how big? How old? You know, what are the dominant life history strategies that are being used
by fish in this drainage? NARRATOR: By building on previous efforts and collecting the same
kinds of information over time, park scientists are able to track long-term population
trends, as well as trends in life history characteristics. DAN YOUNG: One of the places we’ve
looked at is the Tazimina river where the University of Washington started
monitoring in, I think, 1963. And so we have a data set
from 1963 to present. It’s discontinuous but I think we have over 40 years of data.
And what we’ve seen is a shift in residence time in fresh water, from generally
fish spending two years in fresh water to one year in fresh water, in
recent years. And that’s likely caused by kind of a changing climate. A warmer
environment, increased growing potential and reaching
that kind of threshold size at a younger age. Narrator: While this work has provided a great deal of insight into the sockeye salmon community in and around Lake Clark, it also helps serve the subsistence communities that depend on these resources. DAN YOUNG: We are collecting real-time data and we actually provide that data over the
radio to local subsistence users. It goes back to why we’re doing it. And that is to
make sure that we have a healthy population, that we’re protecting a healthy
population that can sustain itself over time, and ultimately also to provide for subsistence use of that resource. It’s also more about like, the
relationships with people. You know we’re part of the community and they teach us as much as we teach them. And they’re very warm and welcoming. You know, I like to see this as kind of a partnership in better managing our resources and into the
future.