Some of the crew on deck.
By Ian Hartwell, NCCOS Oceanographer
This project was designed to provide baseline data on the ecological health and condition of the bottom dwelling communities in the Nushagak and Kvichak Bays in Alaska. Almost no information exists for this area despite the fact that the most important salmon spawning run in the world passes through these waters every year on the way to the watersheds of the Nushagak , Kvichak and other rivers, Lake Illiamna, and the chain of lakes in the Wood-Tikchik State Park. It is also an important feeding ground for marine mammals and tens of thousands of migrating seabirds. The landscape is magnificent, featuring everything from vast stretches of wetlands to smoldering volcanoes covered by glaciers. We started this effort last fall, but bad weather forced us to abort the field work until 2014. We’re hoping for better weather earlier in the summer. The plan was to start in Kvichak Bay at Naknek and work our way around to Dillingham at the head of Nushagak Bay to the west.
Researcher Tony Pait itemizing the samples.
6:00AM flights to Alaska are rough. We were in transit all day and finally arrived in King Salmon mid-afternoon local time, 13 hours after we left home. Since the sun doesn’t set until 11:00 at night, we still had plenty of time to get oriented. Most of our gear was in storage at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Becharof Wildlife Refuge headquarters in King Salmon, Alaska. The Refuge provided housing and a vehicle for the project, which was a tremendous help, and cost savings for the project. We will utilize the bunkhouse for as long as possible.
Researcher Dennis Apeti with the bottom grab used to take sediment samples.
On Friday, we unpacked all the gear and got it organized into things we need on the boat for sampling and things we need to keep at the Refuge until we leave for open water some days ahead. We’ll have to ship all the samples and gear out of Dillingham, so organizing now is important. We drove 20 miles to Naknek to locate the landmarks we’ll need to coordinate with the charter boat. We haven’t actually met with the boat crew yet, and they were out collecting salmon from the gill net boats for transfer to the processing plant. At the end of the peninsula, people were catching fish in gill nets set perpendicular to the beach and fished at low tide. Looks like backbreaking work in cold rough water. Twenty miles in the other direction (there’s only one road) is the boundary of Katmai National Park at the base of Naknek Lake, where we catch our first glimpse of the many local grizzly bears hunting salmon on the other side of the Naknek River. There are plenty of fresh bear tracks on our side of the river as well. The weather is deteriorating into rain and cold wind.
Dock showing the extreme tidal conditions.
By Saturday morning the weather had cleared and it was cool but calm. We met the boat at the fuel dock and got underway just at slack high tide. After unpacking the sampling gear and getting set up on the deck we started out to our first station. It took quite a while to locate a spot where we could find fine-grained sediments. The boat was also doing double duty as several fishermen arrived to offload their catch into the hold. By the afternoon, we needed to offload our samples and process them for storage and shipment. But, by now the tide had dropped over 25 feet. The boat could not get to the north side of the river without getting stuck. There was barely enough water to bring the skiff up to the wharfs. What had been the waterfront was now two stories above our heads! The only way in or out was going up and down steel ladders and hauling up the samples on ropes or in backpacks.
Every day required planning and timing to be able to come and go with the tide. Every day started an hour later and ended an hour later. As we worked our way further down Kvichak Bay, timing became more and more important. Eventually we had to wait out the low tide at the mouth of the river and didn’t get back to King Salmon till dark, which was midnight there. Running aground on uncharted sandbars was a recurring problem as the tidal currents reworked the bottom every 6 hours.
Sockeye salmon heading upstream to spawn.
By Wednesday the weather again became a factor. We had finished the upper Kvichak and were all packed up to head west and work our way around Etolin Point into Nushagak Bay. But at the mouth of Kvichak Bay the wind had come around from the west at 20 knots. Riding at anchor with the wind pushing us one way and the tide pushing another, we were in the trough all the time and the deck was rolling more than 30 degrees. With 4-5 foot seas, sampling became too dangerous with the 100 lb sampler swinging in all directions above the deck. So after only getting two samples that day we turned north and rode the tide back to Naknek where we sat for the next two days and waited for the wind to die down. We quickly realized that getting small craft weather advisory information twice daily should be an integral part of our planning. That did allow time to visit Katmai National Park and the famous Brooks Falls, where grizzly bears gather to feast on salmon and ignore the people gawking at them from shore.
Friday night we stayed on the boat and left with the tide at 4:00 AM. The weather was calm, and bottom sampling and trawling went smoothly. We finished the lower Kvichak and started working our way into the Nushagak. The bottom was rocky, and progress was slow at first. But, since the sun doesn’t go down until late, we worked until 9:00 at night. We picked up most of the sites we needed but sieving the samples was time consuming because the sediment was so sandy. Saturday night I slept on the galley bench. The middle bunk up under the bow was so cramped it was like trying to sleep in a coffin. There wasn’t even room to roll over.
Taking a quick nap between sampling stations.
Sunday morning was calm and sunny. We finished the lower stratum on our first station! A good sign. The rest of the day was spent compositing samples, sieving coarse sand and trawling. The trawls were a little frustrating because all we caught were smelt and a few big flounder, and thousands of little brown shrimp, plus the occasional cod and sculpin. The smelt and flounders were what we were after, to send to the chemistry and the histology labs. But last year we caught little flounder. So to be able to compare last years’ catch with this year, and to look at body burdens between old vs young fish we need to find little ones as well. Perhaps the juveniles stay out of open waters. We finally caught some that were a little smaller and they had to do because, once again, we were ruled by the tide and needed to make our way to Dillingham by high tide so the boat could get into the harbor and dock before the piers went dry as the tide fell. Our University collaborators gave us a lift to town, where we had a quick sandwich for dinner and then set off to the campus to sort the samples and divide them into frozen, cooled or preserved lots. Another long evening, but we had collected everything we had set out to do.
Brown bear catching salmon.
Monday was spent unloading the boat and packing up to leave. Packing gear. Packing samples. Packing belongings. Packing more gear. Everything had to be packed and flown out of Dillingham. Some shipments were going to the NOAA lab at Oxford, some to our office at Silver Spring, some to the freezers at our collaborators at the Alaska Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in Anchorage, some to the taxonomy lab in Seattle. The next day we delivered a huge volume of boxes and coolers to the little air freight desk. It took two trips in a Suburban to get it all there. Once again the Fish and Wildlife Service had helped us out with the loan of a vehicle from the Togiak Wildlife Refuge. All they wanted in return was a public seminar on the project. We had arranged this previously so I had a presentation prepared. One of the slides showed the differences in the distribution of DDT and PCBs around coastal areas from the NS&T Bioeffects data base. I was flabbergasted when a high school student asked what DDT was. I guess it’s a good sign that one of our mistakes is so far behind us that school kids don’t even know what it is but sadly, I fear, so too is Rachel Carson. That evening we
The harrowing descent to the boat during low tide.
followed the samples to Anchorage. The last day was spent doing, what else, packing samples. The DEC had put our samples and ice packs in freezers and refrigerators so we could repack them for the overnight shipment to the labs. Overnight transport to the lower 48 isn’t possible from Dillingham. So, some were packed frozen, others refrigerated, others preserved. Taking proper care of the samples and getting them to where they need to go can be as complicated and require as much planning as collecting them in the first place, but we didn’t have to worry much about the high tide.
For more information contact Ian Hartwell (Ian.Hartwell@noaa.gov)
Dr. Ian Hartwell, guest blogger, on deck.
Dr. Ian Hartwell is a Marine Biologist with a Ph.D. from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He is currently Chief Scientist for NS&T Bioassessment Projects to manage monitoring and assessment programs in estuarine and coastal systems at various locations around the US, including response and damage assessment projects for the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Experienced in operation and management of field and laboratory research programs on ecological fate and effects of pure compounds, mixtures, effluents, spills and runoff using acute and sublethal toxicity, physiological, behavioral, and chemical assessments.