Hard lessons from the mighty salmon runs of Bristol Bay

The world’s longest ongoing salmon research reveals the astounding complexity of wild ecosystems.

  • Alaska Salmon Wildlife Ecosystems Bristol Bay Daniel Schindler Pebble Mine Wood River

    Jonny Armstrong
  • Thousands of salmon converge at a the mouth of a tributary stream in Lake Beverley's Golden Horn, just above Lake Nerka, for the final ascent to their spawning sites.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • A fox captured on a wildlife cam in the Bristol Bay ecosystem..

    Jonny Armstrong
  • Scientist Daniel Schindler and his daughter, Luna, watch the "red wave" of sockeye salmon navigate up Sam Creek, home to one of the earliest-spawning populations in Alaska's Bristol Bay ecosystem.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • Researchers measure salmon specimens captured in the Bristol Bay ecosystem.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • The University of Washington research camp on Lake Nerka, a remote but ideal location amid the Wood River system's interconnected lakes and creeks.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • Daniel Schindler is in his 17th year in the field along the rivers and streams of Alaska's Bristol Bay ecosystem. Along Lynx Creek, for instance, he nets and assesses small "resident fish" that don't migrate but get much of their nutrition by gobbling salmon eggs.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • University of Washington graduate students Neala Kendall, front, and Rachel Hovel cut open the heads of spawned-out sockeye salmon to remove their otoliths, tiny calcified discs that reveal their age and how long they lived in the ocean.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • At their spawning sites, female sockeye salmon arrange gravel nests called "redds" and males battle to decide who gets to mate.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • A homemade wildlife cam captures a grizzly bear scavenging a salmon on Yako Creek at Lake Aleknagik. This salmon had been injured by a commercial fishing net deployed at the river's mouth but kept swimming until it died and washed up on the mid-creek gravel bar. The migrating salmon are tough – some suffer bear bites and wriggle free to live long enough to spawn.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • Researchers, including Daniel Schindler and his daughter, Luna, right, relax at camp after a day in the rivers and creeks of the Bristol Bay ecosystem, where roughing it includes, surprisingly, fresh mangos, front left.

    Jonny Armstrong
 

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And don't overlook the strays. A small percentage of the migrating salmon don't return to the place they were born. Instead, they appear in other spawning sites, breeding with other distinct populations or re-colonizing creeks whose runs have been wiped out.

Other ecosystems operate with similar fundamentals derived from complexity. Wyoming deer and elk, for instance, ride a "Green Wave," roaming to feed where grasses and other forage are best at certain times of year, according to Armstrong, who's now based at the University of Wyoming.

Sea turtles, Nel informed me, are born on South African beaches and then swim through the waters of at least nine nations, navigating through threats like fishing nets. The turtles feast on jellyfish, but selectively, just nipping off the tentacles, much the way bears and gulls high-grade the best parts of salmon. Then the turtles return to lay eggs on the beaches where they began, following subtle cues including magnetic fields and smells –– "almost the same blueprint" and "ecological infrastructure" as the salmon, Nel said.

Any change that reduces complexity can threaten an ecosystem. Fragment the land here, with new roads and fences and other obstacles, and the bears can't roam freely enough to hit the brief peak runs on each creek, river segment and lake. The same goes for the water. In our walk along Lynx Creek, Schindler told me, "If a road went along here, it would constrain the stream and turn it into a rain gutter." The complexity of many varying temperatures and velocities in this single natural creek would be reduced, resulting in fewer options for salmon, and likely fewer salmon for predators, fewer nutrients derived from decaying salmon, and so on.

"An industry might say there's little or no impact from degrading or eliminating just one small salmon run, a few hundred salmon at one spot," Schindler said, "but it even reduces the complexity of time." Meaning, in such a strongly seasonal environment, if you subtract a few days from the peak run in this creek, you leave predators noticeably less time to fatten up enough to get through the rest of the year. Repeat that on enough creeks, and the bear population here would be winnowed down to the remnants in the Lower 48.

On another creek, Armstrong discovered one of the small complexities that would be easy to erase without noticing. He placed PIT tags (metal pins that can be detected by antennae) in juvenile coho salmon that spend most of their time in the headwaters, which on that creek are warm due to meanders and beaver ponds. Turns out, the tiny coho dash down to the creek's lower reaches to gobble the eggs of sockeye spawning near cold groundwater springs. Then they dash back up to the headwaters, because they need warm water to digest their meal. If a culvert or any other manmade obstacle is installed on a creek like that, it would cut off that feeding pattern – potentially causing a reduction in coho salmon, with who knows what ripple effects.

These are not hypotheticals. Scientists, fishermen and conservationists are alarmed about a proposal to construct the Pebble Mine on a high divide between two nearby watersheds, the Kvichak River/Iliamna Lake complex and the Nushagak River (for more info on the Pebble Mine, check the sidebar and the infographic/map). The rock bodies contain copper, gold and molybdenum, and are very porous and high in sulfides, so any runoff would be extremely acidic. And if the Pebble Mine is developed, more than a dozen other proposed mines would follow, Schindler said, using the roads and infrastructure built for Pebble.

Schindler is not an alarmist. He thinks that environmentalists often exaggerate when they talk about "fragile" ecosystems being threatened. Ecosystems in general are "resilient," he told me, in that their organisms and plants and inter-relationships can adjust to insults, "as long as we don't pave them over." But he's concluded that large-scale mining like that proposed for Pebble is incompatible with healthy watersheds and the fisheries and wildlife they support.

That's why Schindler and a few other scientists traveled to Washington, D.C., in early May 2013, as the federal Environmental Protection Agency revised its assessment of the Pebble Mine's potential impacts on the watershed. He met with EPA and congressional staff, urging the agency to scrupulously analyze the impacts. The EPA is under intense political pressure from congressional Republicans who are skeptical about a great deal of its science and heavily influenced by industry lobbyists. "The mining industry began promoting the Pebble Mine by saying a few years ago there will be no impacts," Schindler told me. "Now they admit there will be impacts, but they say they can mitigate it with hatcheries and buffering the impacted streams with limestone, and opening up new streams. In some cases they are talking about knocking down beaver dams. In other cases it is really not clear what they are talking about – possibly diverting water from non-salmon streams or digging spawning channels. It is all extremely vague. They have a list of consultants a mile long lining up to tell them what they want to hear."

The mine's backers, of course, tout its many human benefits – jobs, economic multipliers, more civilization for highly rural communities. But in any "manipulated landscapes," Schindler said, "we make them simpler by getting rid of variation we don't want or think we don't need." And then, when the ecosystem is damaged, "restoration" efforts are very difficult or impossible, because the complexity has been so reduced. "We also need to think about this complexity," he added, "when we talk about 'restoration' in the Lower 48."

Restoration has become a buzzword in the Lower 48. We dig up toxic mine sediments from riverbanks and haul them away, re-engineer meanders and pools on channelized streams, yank out culverts, install screens on irrigation diversions to block fish from straying into farmfields. On the land, we pull down fences or make them "wildlife-friendly" by tuning the arrangement of wires. We replant native vegetation where it was wiped out, tune up forests and wetlands that were mismanaged, bring in a toupee of topsoil to cover mine tailings and grow plants on roads carved for industry. In Alaska, I learned that we don't even understand the full extent of what was lost, and we probably never will.

The scientists here will never complete their research, because there is always more to learn about how this ecosystem works. Hauser, for instance, through surveying two creeks and the lakeshore spawning site between them, day after day for 10 years, has discovered that a single male sockeye that spawned with two females in 2004 had about 34 offspring that returned in 2008-'09 – about 10 percent of the run. That's amazing, he said, because more than half the spawning sockeye have no offspring that make it back. He doesn't know why that particular male's spawning was so successful, but thinks more research might provide an answer.

Hauser also hopes to answer a question about the salmon's anti-bear strategies: "No one really knows why" the salmon generally gather at the mouths of creeks and then rush up all at once to their spawning sites, he said, but it's probably because, by running with a crowd, each one has a slightly better chance of surviving the gantlet of bears long enough to spawn. Some of the salmon even go back and forth, entering and leaving the creeks repeatedly at certain times of day, avoiding the bears' most active feeding times around sunrise and sunset. Hauser wonders whether this is "risk-sensitive breeding" – are these particular fish just better at dodging bears and thus more successful in having offspring?

Connectivity is one of the main questions. If salmon are wiped out in one creek, how long does it take for other salmon to re-colonize it? And where do they come from? The answer matters to more than salmon; already, climate change is causing many species to re-locate in response to the upheaval in conditions.

"We have a really lame ability to predict the future," especially how ecosystems will evolve with climate change, Schindler said. "But what we can do is spread the risk around," by maintaining the complexity and diversity as "an investment strategy." There's already evidence that colonizing and re-colonizing can happen very quickly if the ecosystem is still complex and diverse. "Let's keep our options open for animals and species we value."

In his "continuous game" of attempting to keep all this research going, Schindler sat at the kitchen table in the main cabin one morning, sipping coffee made with lake water, surrounded by shelves of high-energy food brought in by boat – M&Ms, peanut butter, blocks of cheese – and fired up his computer. He was writing the annual progress report to the National Science Foundation, which provides roughly 50 percent of the program's current budget. The team needs at least a half-million dollars per year just for the core activities, not including their university salaries. "We lose sleep over funding this program," Schindler said.

Salmon canneries initially funded the research, hoping to determine how to maintain healthy runs, but since cheaper farmed salmon has flooded the market, their business has declined; they now provide just 10 to 15 percent of the program's budget. The rest is raised in bits and pieces from many sources, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and commercial fishermen who want to help ensure stable runs. The largest support in recent years has come from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, based in Palo Alto, Calif. – Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, is an avid fisherman – but the foundation is shifting away from supporting basic research.

"Our program's strength is long-term data, and that's the hardest thing to get funding for," Schindler said. The University of Washington itself doesn't provide much funding for this program; even though universities build their reputations on research, they usually just house it and skim off a percentage of the grants for overhead. "The longevity of the program depends on the energy and passions of a couple of faculty," Schindler said, citing Tom Quinn and Ray Hilborn, another veteran in UW's School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. "It's not the institutions."

Schindler himself puts in the most time at the camp, staying into autumn after the others leave, sometimes walking the creeks alone with a shotgun because the bears get frantic before hibernation. He and Armstrong even came here last winter, driving snowmobiles across the frozen lake to sample the chemistry of snow that would end up in streams in the summer. Tim Cline, one of the grad students, told me that Schindler can count salmon simply by walking up creeks to see what's there; at a glance, he can estimate hundreds accurately and even do the gender breakdown.

In many respects, Schindler is carrying on his father's legacy. David Schindler was in constant hot water in Canada due to his outspoken advocacy for the science on acid rain and phosphate detergents. More recently, he's been raising hell about the oil sands mining in Alberta. Says Daniel, "He's influential because he's not scared of anyone."

About 10 years ago, on the bank of Washington's Snohomish River, surrounded by roads and farms and cities, I met a guy who put on a snorkeling mask and swam with the remnants of the salmon run there – just for the love of it. I put it on my bucket list: Someday, somewhere, before I die, swim with salmon.

One afternoon here, on Sam Creek, I got my chance. First, Armstrong donned his snorkeling gear and a dry suit and slipped into the cold, clear water to take close-up photos of the vivid red sockeye in a pool where the creek meets Lake Nerka. Hundreds of salmon hovered side-by-side, facing upstream, getting ready to make their run, and they tolerated Armstrong slowly easing into their formation.

Then we walked up the creek through a litter of salmon carcasses, past fresh bear and gull prints in the sand, finding smaller pools where more sockeye hovered. I wrestled into the rubber suit, adjusted the facemask, and lay down in a pool. Almost instantly, it seemed, I was surrounded by the big reds.

As they undulated to keep themselves in formation, some brushed against me with their bodies, and some swiped their tails against exposed portions of my face. A few even wriggled under me, one by one forcing their way between my chest and the sandy bottom.

Shifting slightly upstream, I turned to look at them head-on. Dozens faced me, just a few inches away, their jagged teeth exposed through gaping, elongated jaws – another physical change that occurs as they spawn, as if they're reverting to a completely primitive form that matches the landscape. Their gills flexed water in and out, extracting oxygen, and their eyes, eerie golden circles, gazed at me implacably, as if nothing else mattered except their instinct to spawn. I reached out, touched one, and then another, and another.

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Ray Ring, writer of this story, is an HCN senior editor based in Bozeman, Montana.

Jonny Armstrong, the photographer, was born and raised in Ashland, Oregon, and just finished his University of Washington doctorate, working with Daniel Schindler. He's now a 2013 Smith Postdoctoral Research Fellow based at the University of Wyoming, working to evaluate the effects of resource development on wide-ranging consumers in Alaska watersheds.

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.