Counting Chinook by Ben McBee
It’s early in the morning, but high over the Copper River the sun is already warming the sky and illuminating the jagged peaks of the Chugach Mountains. A slight breeze rustles the leaves of a birch grove and a yellow warbler adds to the gentle melody. Down by the shore, a harbor seal can be seen bobbing in the water, likely searching for its first meal of the day. Mosquito nets peel back and bunkhouse doors swing open. The hour has come for the residents of Baird Camp to go to work. Today, the morning shift falls on Michael Orr and Jimmy Paley, the camp lead. After a bite of toast and some breakfast tea, they sleepily make their way out of the main cabin and don their bright orange, waterproof uniforms. They’re going to need them when they get to the office. A commute on the Copper River is not one many people will ever experience. Isolation looms large in this place far from civilization. They are truly in the thick of the Alaskan wilderness. The only companionship Orr and Paley will experience over the course of three months is the occasional rafting group and their two other crewmembers, Max Best and Dan Smith. After gathering their equipment, Orr and Paley find the boats high and dry on the riverbank. Recent cold temperatures have slowed melting of the glaciers that feed the Copper, resulting in a water level drop of several inches, but some pushing and maneuvering proves enough to get one floating free. A few tugs on the starter cord gets the engine revved up and soon they are speeding downriver. As they get farther away from camp, Orr and Paley share a look. They know what’s waiting for them. The channel of the Copper River begins to narrow and sheer mountain faces seem to grow straight from the surface of the water. They have reached their destination: Baird Canyon. About a mile away, two large wooden contraptions can be seen, one on each side of the river. Paley squints his eyes to get a better look, only to confirm what he’d already guessed. The fish wheels have stopped turning. The Value of the Chinook The scope of the work the technicians carry out in Baird Canyon is huge. Year in, year out, like respiration, Chinook salmon return from the ocean bringing life to the beige-gray waters of the Copper River. As a keystone species, the fish are crucial to how the entire ecosystem functions. Chinook feed predatory animals like bears and eagles, while also replenishing vital nutrients in the water system when they spawn and die. For millennia, the Chinook salmon have also brought sustenance to the lands of the Eyak people in southern Alaska. Eyak culture focused on respecting the land and not taking more from it than was necessary. In the past, when deep freezing wasn’t an option, methods of preservation like smoking and salting allowed the natives to utilize the full nutritional potential of the salmon. These practices live on in the present. As a major food source and a cornerstone of modern tribal life, every single piece of the sacred fish is harvested with nothing going to waste. Unfortunately, threats to this critical resource are equal to the enormousness of its significance. It’s a fact. Alaska is becoming more developed, and much of the prime real estate lies along the Copper River watershed. With the influx of people, these waterways can be affected. Physical obstructions like bridges and dams, as well as chemical changes caused by pollutants, can upset the delicate balance of the river environment, putting salmon populations at risk. On a larger scale, the same is true for the entire planet. The global population has reached 7 billion and the world’s nations still rely heavily on fossil fuels for energy, a fact that has contributed to climate change. In 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that, “the combined land and ocean surface temperature was 1.24°F (0.69°C) above the 20th century average, making the year the warmest since records began in 1880.” People of the Copper River have faced environmental disaster before – the wide-reaching effects of the Exxon-Valdez spill in 1989 altered the economy and ways of life of many in the community. Cordova, a fishing town 30 miles west of the Copper River and the location of the Native Village of Eyak’s headquarters, could all but disappear if its principal resource were to die off. Prior to Exxon-Valdez, Cordova was a hub for both salmon and herring commercial fishing in the Prince William Sound. However, twenty-six years after the tragedy, one half of that industry is still in ruin. The Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council states, “The herring fishery in the Sound has been closed for 19 of the 25 years since the Spill,” and “no trend suggesting healthy recovery has occurred.” Now, the stakes for a healthy salmon run are even higher. According to Ecotrust, the Copper River fishery brings in an average of $20 million a year in direct revenue for commercial fishermen. The salmon caught in the Copper are world-renowned as some of the highest quality on the market: Chinook salmon fillets can sell anywhere from $25 to $40 a pound. “Cordova relies upon salmon,” says Matt Piche, the natural resources coordinator for the Native Village of Eyak, a federally recognized tribal government. “It is a salmon town. Good luck finding someone here that doesn’t identify or relate somehow to the fishing community. It’s extremely important to the economy.” Protecting A Resource With so much dependent on this supply, the Native Village of Eyak began a venture to monitor the Copper River Chinook salmon. They received funding from the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Federal Subsistence Management Program as well as the Alaska Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, which helps private landowners and native tribes like the Eyak , implement habitat management projects. One of the early questions the project faced was how to catch a large enough sample size to provide defensible data on the Chinook population. They found the answer in fish wheels, a technology used by Eyak people for many years. So, in 2001 a feasibility study opened and by 2003 the process started in earnest. Traditionally, the baskets on the fish wheel are constructed of wood and animal sinew, but the ones employed in Baird Canyon are made of aluminum and rope netting. Though their application can differ, the one thing that is invariable is the fish wheel’s ability to catch fish in high volumes. They are so effective, in fact, that they were outlawed on Oregon’s Columbia River to prevent further drops in already declining salmon runs. But today, the dedication of technicians like Orr and Paley is helping to put the wheels to work in a way that will hopefully prevent history from repeating. One of the most useful aspects of the fish wheels is their capacity to catch the king salmon in a manner that causes very little stress for the fish, while at the same time limiting the danger for the technicians. “We do everything we can to minimize stress for the fish and I think we do,” says Piche, who has worked on the fish wheels himself. “I think our trough system is phenomenal. Our live tanks are huge. Honestly I think it’s a nice little break for these fish migrating up river.” Truly, swimming through Baird Canyon would be no easy task. There, the current of the Copper River flows at an average rate of eight miles per hour, a fact that makes safety of the utmost concern while on the fish wheels. Compared to other methods though, like fishing weirs that often require the workers to get in the water, the fish wheels are the safest way for them to catch and handle the Chinook. Being able to actually touch the fish provides the foundation for the science the workers do on the fish wheels. Though other interruptions come up, like the fish wheels halting, their primary focus is tagging the salmon. Just the day before, Orr and Paley arrived at the fish wheels and found several Chinook salmon waiting for them in the live well. “Wow that’s a lot for this time of the year,” Orr remarks. He’s right, the Chinook run is winding down at the beginning of July, and it’s not uncommon for a shift to end without any of the fish being caught. But today, flapping fish tails can be heard along with the rhythmic splash of the fish wheel. Paley calmly examines the equipment for any damage as the river’s current turns the axle. The chaos of the Copper River is not easy on the machine. Large trees often float too close for comfort and the netting can tear. But today it’s smooth sailing. Paley gives the all clear just as a large flailing fish emerges from the surface, scooped up by the rotating arms. “We got another king!” Orr says excitedly. The Chinook hops several times and finally drops with a heavy kerplunk into the tank on the side. Paley grabs a net and begins to probe the cloudy waters. What he pulls out is big, wet, and packs a punch. The Chinook thrashes violently against Paley’s thighs as he carries it to the handling trough, a raised holding area with gently flowing water. Once in the holder, the fish relaxes and the men go to work. Their hands move with seasoned expertise, one holding the salmon steady, the other deftly maneuvering the tools. First they take measurements: body length and the tail fin. This fish is a monster, reaching nearly three feet long. With a push and a twist, they insert a small yellow, electronic ID tag just beneath the dorsal fin. “If this fish wanted to escape, I wouldn’t even try to stop it,” Paley says as he punches a whole through its gill cover, a measure taken to ensure the fish is counted, even if the tag falls out. “This doesn’t hurt it,” he’s quick to add. With the process complete, Orr drops the salmon back into the river. After it’s released, it will take on average about ten days for that fish to swim all the way up to Canyon Creek, a small tributary where four more technicians are stationed. There, two fish wheels are also used to catch the Chinook, but not all the salmon that are caught are tagged. So, by using an equation that compares the ratio of tagged Chinook to the total sample size caught at Canyon Creek, the Native Village of Eyak can extrapolate the in-river abundance, or simply put, the amount of Chinook salmon that passed between the camps. The key to the success of the operation, and the accuracy of its data, is partly due to the geography of the region. The 50-mile stretch of river between the lower camp in Baird Canyon and the upper camp at Canyon Creek, is located above the commercial salmon fisheries in the ocean, and below the subsistence and sport fisheries north of the town of Chitina. So, within this “sweet spot”, no fishing occurs and there are no Chinook spawning grounds, thus the population remains constant in those waters, making it perfect for a mark-recapture system. This technique is a common tool ecologists use to gain an accurate assessment of a species without counting every individual. It requires two instances of sampling, with enough time allowed between for the marked organisms to reassimilate with the overall population. The Number Figuring out the Chinook population is only part of the ultimate goal of the project. By subtracting the total harvest that occurs upriver of Canyon Creek, from the in-river abundance, the Native Village of Eyak scientists can determine the total drainage escapement, or how many Chinook salmon were successfully able to “escape” and reach the spawning grounds to reproduce. Although the drainage escapement can act as a barometer for the condition of the species and the potential for future return, Piche warns about drawing too many concrete conclusions. “There are so many factors that influence how that escapement number actually relates to how many fish you’re going to have returning and available. There are a lot of things in river that can happen to the egg that’s buried in the substrate and obviously what goes on in the ocean can have a huge effect on it. There is a large amount of error associated with taking the escapement goal and saying ok, seven years from now, six, five, four, three, years from now this many fish are going to return. It’s pretty complicated.”
The uniqueness of the Copper River plays a large role in the assessment of how closely the total drainage escapement number reflects reality. It also limits how much scientists can draw assumptions based on other Alaskan river systems. In terms of area, the Copper River watershed is the size of West Virginia. As much as 18 percent of that water comes from glacial runoff, which can fluctuate drastically with the local weather. This volatility can lead to flooding and low water levels, both of which can be harmful for salmon eggs. But, if there’s one thing salmon are good at, it’s surviving. They overcome countless obstacles as they fight to reproduce, a fact that is exemplified by the salmon in the Copper River, which undergo their struggle to the spawning grounds completely blind due to the glacial silt. Looking at the evolutionary history of salmon, the same sort of resiliency can be seen. Salmon have been around for millions of years and have endured periods of extreme climate, including several ice ages. In his book, King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon, author David R. Montgomery, who is also a professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington, discusses the theories of how salmon survived Earth’s repeated “cool downs” during the Pleistocene Epoch. He writes, “Conventional wisdom was that salmon in the Pacific Northwest rode out the ten or more glacial advances…in ice-free areas in the Columbia River Basin as well as rivers in Oregon and California. Salmon could also have survived glacial times in ice-free areas along the coast of Washington, Alaska, and perhaps even British Columbia.” While scientists still aren’t entirely sure of the answer for the salmon’s past, more unanswered questions loom in the future. With the impending threat of climate change, the condition of salmonid species hangs in the balance. The recent warming of Earth’s temperatures is historically unprecedented; the high concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is heating the world’s oceans, creating “dead zones” where fish cannot survive. River temperatures are also on the rise, effecting a double threat for anadromous species, or organisms that spend time in both fresh and salt water during their lifecycle. In July 2015, half of the returning sockeye salmon (more than 250,000) died in the Columbia River. According to Climate Central, “Alaska is an anomaly, with temperatures rising an average of 3 degrees in the last 60 years, twice as fast as the continental U.S.” and “from 2005 to 2010, Alaskan glacier losses made up one third of the world’s ice sheet losses.” This is bad news not only for the Copper River Chinook salmon, but any fish species that utilize the rivers of Alaska to reproduce. The initial increase in glacial melt could lead to more floods, washing out the gravel beds that are critical for salmon reproduction. Long term, diminishing inland glaciers would lower the Copper River’s volume by a drastic margin. It could even discourage salmon from returning to its waters. “We’re starting to see Chinook salmon in areas we’ve never seen them before,” Piche says. “As waters warm, they’re starting to migrate further north. Will it be the end of the Chinook salmon? I don’t know…maybe one day the Chinook and the Atlantic salmon will be occupying the same waters. Hopefully that’s a long, long, long time away from now.” What Lies Ahead Against all the unknowns, the Native Village of Eyak’s monitoring program is focusing on what it does know, which is this: To successfully preserve the Copper River Chinook salmon, a sustainable escapement goal is set each year at 24,000 fish by the Alaskan government. Basically, the sustainable escapement goal is a benchmark that says, if 24,000 fish make it upriver to spawn, the Chinook population will be maintained. The level is based off the drainage escapement data, so if the Chinook salmon population were to dwindle in the coming years, it could lead to an adjustment. But as of now, with the available information, the goal remains at 24,000. The monitoring program is in its fifteenth year, but there is still so much to learn. Within that time, the sustainable escapement goal has been missed only three times, but of those three instances, two have come in the past five years. “It’s hard to ignore the fact that we’re not meeting the escapement goal on a more regular basis now versus when we first started the project,” says Piche. “Ideally we would have twenty to thirty years of data. We don’t though. It’s really tough to draw conclusions about an entire population based off fifteen years of data. I would love to have another fifteen on top of that. But, the more data we provide, the more opportunity managers will have to adjust that escapement goal and find that perfect number for the Copper River Chinook salmon.” One thing that should help improve the specificity of the escapement goal is advancing technology. As of now, the Chinook salmon are tracked on a system wide level, meaning all of the fish marked within the Copper River watershed are counted the same. In actuality, there are multiple genetically-different stocks of Chinook salmon within the Copper River that spawn in different glacial tributaries. So, in the future, receivers that can recognize electronic ID tags could be placed in each tributary in order to count the tagged fish as they swim by, providing additional data on distribution at a stock specific level. “This isn’t something that’s going to happen in a year, this is like a ten-year plan.” Piche says. “Again we’re kind of waiting for the technology, but that’s where we’re headed.” Another exciting avenue that could eventually reduce the work force and funding required to count the salmon is sonar. Currently at Miles Lake, about 30 miles from the mouth of the Copper, sonar pings are sent out into the water providing a picture of how many salmon are on their way upriver. As of now, the fundamental limit of the technology, at least for the Native Village of Eyak’s monitoring program, is its inability to distinguish between a sockeye salmon and a Chinook. “If you have a return of 3 million sockeye and a return of 40 thousand Chinook, the sonar technology at this time is a good tool for estimating sockeye, because of the population sizes,” Piche says. “Someday, hopefully the technology will advance so much that at Miles Lake, you can sit there and look at the image on the screen and say ‘that’s a Chinook and that’s a sockeye’.” Even if the sonar improvement could be made, it would still take years to test its effectiveness versus the fish wheels. So for now, with so much at stake, people like Orr and Paley are out in the field. That is why when the wheel stops turning, like today, they kick it into overdrive. The current of the river is now sloshing over the immobilized arms of the fish wheel, creating a large wake downriver. Orr hops on the radio and makes a quick call back to Baird Camp for reinforcements – this is going to be a four man job. Paley navigates the boat to the shoreline, where Orr hops out and ties it to a nearby tree. Though the fish wheels do most the work catching the fish, it still takes a lot of manual labor to keep them in business. The lower water level has run the wheel into the river bottom, so the spar logs that help secure the fish wheel to the beach will have to be moved farther out. That requires moving rocks, big rocks. Several minutes pass before the low hum of an engine can be heard in the distance. The speck becomes larger and larger until two tired faces come into view. Smith jumps off the bow onto the sand, quickly securing the watercraft to the tree. “The cavalry has arrived!” Best jokes as he shuts off the motor. The crew gets to work, putting on gloves to better grip the slippery, wet boulders. They begin moving the rockpile off of each spar log, hauling them to the new anchor location very carefully. A broken leg would go untreated until the Coast Guard came, and even then it would be a long flight to Anchorage. Paley and Smith are knee-deep in the Copper now, making final rock placements while Orr and Best tighten some straps for extra security. “That should do it,” says Orr with one final tug. With a jolt, the fish wheel starts spinning again. Paley pulls out a rugged, yellow PDA, the device the technicians use to record all the data they gather. He checks the time and notes the duration of the standstill, a factor that will go into the catch efficiency rating. This can’t be overlooked because at the end of the season, the efficiency rating will be used to help calculate a standard error margin in the statistics produced by the project. It’s late morning by now, and Orr and Paley are anxious to get back to counting the Chinook. It’s up to passionate people like the crew at Baird Camp, who devote months of their lives away from family and friends, to help ensure the return of the Copper River Chinook salmon will never end. The health of an entire biome, the livelihoods of thousands of people, and ultimately, the existence of Copper River salmon on dinner plates across the world are intertwined with the Native Village of Eyak Chinook monitoring program. “Honestly if tomorrow the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service office of subsistence management was in a funding crisis and we didn’t have any money next year, the state would have no way to maintain that sustainable escapement goal for the Chinook salmon,” says Piche. “They would have no idea if it was met if we weren’t out there doing this fish wheel project. Right now, we are the sole source of obtaining that number.”
Writers and Photographers, Nic Walcott (above) and Ben McBee (beneath) spent 15 days upriver at the Baird Camp working on this story.