By Joseph Robertia
This time of year, anglers generally take to the water with the hope of bringing in the bag limit of three sockeye salmon per day. Joe Nichols sets his expectations a little higher. For him, a good day’s catch could be between 10,000 and 100,000 sockeye.
“It’s kind of a thrill to see how many there will be,” he said.
Nichols, working as a seasonal intern, has been monitoring a smolt live trap at the confluence of the Kasilof River and Crooked Creek. As young fish make their way from Tustumena Lake and its drainages down to the salt water of Cook Inlet, they are collected, counted and released. It’s part an annual enumeration study that started in 1980, conducted by the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association.
“You never know what the count will be until you get to the trap,” Nichols said. “So one of my favorite parts is scooping them out and counting them down.”
Nichols, who hails from the East Coast, heard about the internship while attending Mansfield University in Pennsylvania.
“My major is fisheries biology and I had a tutor who participated in this a few years ago. He told me about it and how much he liked it,” he said. “I know I want to work with fish, but I’m not sure in what way, so I thought this internship would be a good way to get an idea of what I want to do.”
Twice a day — 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. — Nichols ventures out to the trap in a small boat, raises the device from the riverbed and using a small dipnet, counts the swirling cloud of finger-length silver streaks contained within the live box.
“It’s real hands-on,” he said. “I really like being out in the field working with fish rather than just sitting in a lab somewhere. I’ve learned a lot about salmon and their life cycle.” After Nichols records his catch, he releases all but a handful of the smolt. A few are held for more detailed analysis back at his field camp in Crooked Creek State Park. Nichols brings back one of every 150 sockeye smolt counted in the trap.
He anesthetizes these sample fish, records their length and weight and takes scale samples to later determine their age. After sampling the sedative is reversed, and once the fish are completely recovered and swimming strong, they are released back to the fast-flowing water of the Kasilof.
“It can be tedious work,” Nichols said. “Some days it’s hard to zero the triple-beam (scale) in the wind, and sometimes the scales will clump together when I’m trying to arrange them on the slide. But I understand the need for this information. It’s part of how they’ll determine the health of these fish.”
Once a week Nichols is assisted by project technician Ron Carlson to conduct a mark-recapture study. At least 1,000 smolt are collected and transported to
shore, 100 per 5-gallon bucket. There they are put in a large oxygen tank in the bed of a pickup truck, temporarily dyed red and transported upriver to a release site just above the Sterling Highway bridge.
“The reason we do this is to determine the trap’s efficiency,” Carlson said. “It’s not bank-to-bank like on some of the small creeks. We’re only fishing a small segment of the river, so we need to know what percentage of the fish the trap is catching.”
The dyed fish that are recaptured stand out compared to their silver counterparts being caught for the first time.
“You can easily distinguish them,” Nichols said. “They’re a golden orange color, but they look fluorescent compared to the others. It fades over time, but you can still pick them out days later.”
The percentage of smolt caught can change from year to year, depending on where the trap is placed in the channel of the river. This season the trap efficiency has been running a little low, at around 2 percent, which means that while Nichols is seeing thousands in the live box, there are many more smolt swimming by the trap.
“If you’ve caught 10,000 and know that’s only 2 percent, you know there’s a big number going out, well over a million,” Carlson said.
Gary Fandrei, executive director of the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, said the information from counting and sampling sockeye is put to good use by agencies, such as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“An accurate estimate of the sockeye smolt migration allows managers to make a better estimate of future adult returns,” he said. “An estimate of the smolt migration also allows managers to assess salmon production from Tustumena Lake and its drainages.”
This information produces a trickle-down effect, Fandrei added. The more fisheries managers know about a future return, the better they can make decisions that will affect everyone who seeks these salmon, from commercial fishermen who rely on them for income, to sport- and personal-use fishermen who rely on them for fun or food, to the bears and other wild creatures that rely on them for survival.
Like the smolt he’s counting, Nichols’ time on the river is almost done, but he said he is happy to have taken part in the project.
“It’s been really sweet,” he said. “I definitely want to do another internship next year. Hopefully somewhere completely different, so I can compare the differences in fisheries to see what suits me best.”
Still, he said there are a few things he won’t miss about this internship when it comes to an end this week.
“Waking up for the 7 a.m. trap check has been hard,” he said. “I never take morning classes at school, and rarely get up before noon normally, so when this is over and I’m back home, I intend to sleep all day.”