Ecosystems 101: Hard lessons from the mighty salmon runs of Alaska’s 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

Wood-Tikchik State Park, Alaska

When Daniel Schindler was 6 months old, his parents took him on an adventure: They moved into a tent at a research camp in the Canadian backwoods, surrounded by dozens of lakes. His father, limnologist David Schindler, was measuring how those lakes were harmed by phosphate detergent runoff and acid rain; the work he did would help lead to the reduction of those pollutants across North America. The family spent four months at the camp every year, abandoning tents for cabins once they were built. Young Schindler did a lot of fishing and swimming, and around age 14 he got interested in the science.

Now, 44 years after that first adventure started, Schindler has become the kind of scientist who can pilot a 90-horsepower jetboat across a huge lake and into a shallow meandering river, goosing the throttle while standing up to read the riffles ahead of him, zooming from bank to bank, finding the least-risky course through barely submerged rocks and snags as the waves buck the boat into the air and a cold rain pelts him the whole way.

I saw Schindler enjoying this experience in August, when I visited his research camp here on Lake Nerka, in southwestern Alaska, in an area managed as Wood-Tikchik State Park and Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. The camp is a cluster of cabins far off the grid, reachable only by boat or floatplane. The landscape feels prehistoric – more than 6 million acres of wilderness with hundreds of streams and lakes. Lush peaks, never entirely snow-free, rise steeply from the shores. It's the kind of natural setting that encourages you to breathe in more deeply than usual.

Schindler makes his living as a professor of aquatic and fish sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, but he still embraces the rhythm of his childhood; this was the 17th summer he's spent researching this nearly pristine Alaska ecosystem. Reflecting on the path he's taken, he said, "I like being outdoors. I wanted an interesting life."

That commitment and eccentricity were shared by the outdoorsy grad students on Schindler's research team, as well by as his wife, Laura Payne, a bird biologist, and their pink-booted 9-year-old daughter, Luna, who's been their companion in this camp since she was an infant. Fellow UW professor Lorenz Hauser, an Austrian-born population geneticist, was on his 10th summer of research here, speaking English with an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent that even he finds amusing. And he'd brought along his girlfriend, Ronel Nel, a South African sea turtle biologist, who eagerly pitched in even though there are no sea turtles in this ecosystem.

Sockeye salmon are the keystone species here. The scientists study how salmon live, and how other creatures depend on them, including predators such as grizzly bears, which occur in densities 10 or 20 times higher than in Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, and seagulls, bald eagles, osprey, foxes and otters. They also study the insects and plants and water chemistry – all the factors that determine the ecosystem. "This isn't rocket science," Schindler likes to say. "It's a lot more complicated."

Until I met Schindler, I thought I was up to speed on salmon ecosystems from my decades of work as an environmental journalist in the Lower 48's version of wildness. There are six salmon species, and all of them are in trouble in the Lower 48. I've interviewed people involved in salmon recovery and visited hatcheries and dams. I'll never forget my first glimpse of sockeye back in the 1980s, when I watched a few big ones thrashing up an Idaho stream, completing their 900-mile migration from the ocean back to their spawning sites around Redfish Lake. I have since tracked the dwindling of that run, but like many conservation-minded folks, I still considered the Lower 48's millions of acres of habitat a good place for salmon to make a comeback.

Schindler had shaken up my thinking in February when he visited Montana State University, a few miles from my house, to show slides about his Alaska research. Watching his presentation, I began to see that the restoration efforts I'd reported on were kind of desperate, almost pathetic. The Lower 48 will never regain the kind of wildness that survives in Alaska. Joining his research team for several days, I experienced how Alaska is what the rest of the West used to be. And I was struck by the purity of the human endeavor itself, the scientific quest for knowledge that is such a contrast to the quest for money that dominates the civilized world.

Mauri Pelto
Mauri Pelto says:
Nov 27, 2013 06:18 AM
Exceptional details, it is quite true that long term field monitoring has until recently been the hardest research to keep funded. Thirty consecutive glacier field season in the North Cascades which feed less than pristine salmon streams, and the constant ongoing but not particularly successful salmon restoration programs, indicate how hard it is to artificially manage or restore a damaged system.
Cindy Dizard
Cindy Dizard says:
Dec 01, 2013 09:56 AM
Extremely interesting and very well written.
Kirk Hohenberger
Kirk Hohenberger says:
Dec 04, 2013 08:09 AM
The Bristol Bay eco-system needs to be protected.I do not believe state parks are protected from mineral development.The Pebble mine is still trying to be developed in this region.
William Petersen
William Petersen says:
Dec 12, 2013 01:38 PM
As a long time reader and admirer of your work here at HCN, I have to say that this particular piece was one of the best articles I've read this year. The detail and quality of the reporting come through in not just delivering the facts but also painting a mental picture of Alaska that (even if I haven't been there "yet") I know is worth protecting from development but more importantly that there is much that we still have to learn about the complexity and interconnectedness of the environments we inhabit, pass through, impact or simply observe.. Having experienced the bifurcated and coarsened backcountry of the Rocky Mountain region, there is a sense of loss that is felt but never truly experienced by many of us. Alaska and the upper Canadian Rockies are on my bucket list. This article just made the urgency of visiting these vestiges of wildness sooner rather than later that much more important to me.