Sonar fish counts on the Chignik River

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Myra Scholze steering ADFG’s skiff in Chignik, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Myra Scholze.

Field work is often seen as the glamorous part of science, where researchers get to experience the outdoors and be close to the subjects that they study. The sad reality is though that most scientists spend their time analyzing and processing data on computer screens at office desks. For Myra Scholze, a Fish and Wildlife Technician, for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG), this is no unfamiliar territory.

Scholze began working for the ADFG seven years ago in the sport fisheries division in Kodiak. Two years ago, she began doing research for ADFG near Chignik, Alaska on the Alaskan Peninsula. The community of Chignik is primarily a fishing village that relies on the commercial and subsistence fisheries there.

Scholze’s work with ADFG helps manage those fisheries to maintain their sustainability. Her work is to count the salmon that swim up river between May and September.

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Myra Scholze on the Chignik River. Photo courtesy of Myra Scholze.

“Counting the fish is what tells fish and game when to open and close commercial fisheries,” Scholze said. “For each day of the month, in June and July, there’s escapement goals you’re supposed to meet that indicate that you’re going to meet your total number of fish that’s needed to maintain a sustainable run. We count the fish up and meet those goals then the manager at Chignik decides when and what areas to open and for how long.”

Specifically, Scholze is funded through a grant that is comparing and trying to find the correlation between fish counts made on a weir or on a sonar. The two fish counting methods generate a massive amount of data that must be processed.

Weir measurements are made by forcing salmon through a bottleneck in the river, the weir itself, and recording video of the salmon as they pass by. Researchers then go back and count how many individual salmon pass the camera lens.

Sonar doesn’t record video in a traditional sense, but rather records how sound moves through water. Sonar data is collected on both banks of the river and then a researcher must sit and watch back each of the videos and count how many fish blips they see on screen.

“We have two sonars and every ten minutes they create a file that looks kind of like a fish finder on a boat. That’s what you’re counting,” said Scholze. “Every bank creates 144 files per day, we have a sonar on each bank of the river, so we are creating 288 files a day. Over a month you’re creating about 10,000 files and that’s why we have such a back log and why I count files.”

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Myra Scholze adjusts the sonar in Chignik. Photo courtesy of Myra Scholze.

The massive amount of data and the nearly real-time nature (the videos can be sped up slightly when only a few fish are moving by) of watching back the files and counting fish makes for long work hours. Scholze has spent months outside of Chignik in the Kodiak ADFG office, in addition to long evenings at the bunkhouse in Chignik, just counting back fish on videos, so finding a correlation between weir and sonar counts may take years to come. The preliminary conclusions about correlation can’t even be made yet.

“They’ve looked at it [the correlation], but we don’t have enough done from 2016 yet.” Scholze said.

The work may be grueling to some, but to Scholze she loves being able to collect the data that helps inform management decisions for Alaskan fisheries. She intends to continue working for ADFG in Chignik for as long as they have files for her to count. She’s currently in Dutch Harbor, Alaska working for ADFG as a Fish and Wildlife Technician for the crab fishery there. Myra will return to Kodiak in the spring to restart her sonar counts before heading back to the field in Chignik as a Fishery Biologist.

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Myra Scholze collecting samples in Alitak, Alaska for a job she held with ADFG before working for ADFG in Chignik, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Myra Scholze.

 

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Kenai Dipnetting

There are some things that only Alaskans will ever understand and one of those things is dipnetting. Every year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game opens up about a 2 week dipnetting season for reds on the Kenai River. Take a look around the office at work and there seems to be a sudden lack of people once ADFG announces the opening of the season. I’ve lived in Alaska for six years and this year was the first time I’ve gotten to experience dipnetting for myself.

Dipnetting was not at all what I expected to say the least. We drove down late Friday night despite the fact I had called in sick that day with a fever that hadn’t subsided.  We set up camp at the Beluga Lookout RV & Campground, which sits on the bluff of the north shore of the Kenai River, at around 11 p.m. Going to bed around 1 a.m. we got a few hours of sleep and quickly gathered up our stuff and drug it down the trail to the beach. Pulling on the waders I made my way into the water with the hundreds of other crazy Alaskans who were there long before the day of fishing opened at 6 a.m.

It wasn’t long before I saw just how serious people were about catching their fish. Five minutes into being in the water some guy yelled at my friend and I for how we were somehow in his way even though we had been there before him. We watched some far braver souls float down the river in wet suits and dry suits with personal floatation devices, poles in hand, and flippers on their feet as they tried to net fish in the swifter waters further from shore and the masses. I watched far crazier people with just t-shirts, shorts, and tennis shoes brave the water for hours with no waders as if they were on a tropical vacation in Hawai’i.

Kenai Dipnetters patiently wait for the Kenai Reds. Each year Alaskan residents get the chance to go dip netting for salmon. Each head of household is allowed 25 fish and each additional family member is allowed 10. Photo by Kelly Ireland.
Kenai Dipnetters patiently wait for the Kenai Reds. Each year Alaskan residents get the chance to go dip netting for salmon. Each head of household is allowed 25 fish and each additional family member is allowed 10. Photo by Kelly Ireland.

We didn’t catch much that day, but neither did anyone else. The commercial fishermen were out that day and it seemed like the consensus on the beach was that it was all the commercial fishermen’s fault for our bad luck at catching. I ended up with three salmon in the cooler and had brought an additional salmon ashore early in the day, but being the beginner I was, I didn’t pull it far enough ashore before it flopped around and then swam away.  My friend blamed it on the fact I was too dumb to put the net over the salmon once it started to get away, but attempted to pick the slimy thing up with my hands.

We fished late into the evening and at about 7 p.m. me and my best friend called it a day and hauled all of the group’s stuff up the hill as the boys continued fishing. We had 15 salmon that first day and more gear than we could have ever needed in our cart and it was quite the task pulling it through the sand and then up the steep hill to the campground. We were probably lugging up the hill close to 100 pounds it felt like. Some random stranger helped us pull it through the sand, many others just gawked, and one pair of guys with a cart of their own passed us up while we ascended the hill. Jokingly I shouted at them they must not have caught as much fish.

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50 fish and 5 coolers later. Photo by Kelly Ireland.

Back at camp Lucy and I prepared the fire and then ate more S’mores than I’m comfortable admitting. We discussed whether Kraft, Nabisco and Hershey’s were in business together and came up with S’mores to sell more of their product as we wondered why the heck anyone in the world would want marshmallows other than for a S’more.

Soon the boys were back and they started filleting the salmon while we tended to the fire and set up everyone’s wet clothes around the fire to dry. At around 11:30 p.m. the rest of our group arrived from Anchorage. We all got to bed pretty late that night, but all agreed we were willing to get up early again the next day.

At 5:15 a.m. the next day when I was woken up I promptly regretted the decision I had made last night to get up early and requested that I sleep in instead still feeling quite sick. Falling back asleep I woke up at around 8:30 a.m. and then made my way to the beach after receiving a text from my best friend that I must bring more coolers down since they were slaying. Sure enough when I made it down there, they had already filled one cooler and were bringing in more. I quickly got in waders and made my way out into the water, but the run appeared to be over. I didn’t spend much time in the water that day and once I caught one fish I called it quits to let the boys fish for the rest of the day. Around 5 p.m. the reds started running again and Lucy and I became designated fish cleaners as the boys brought in fish after fish and we could hardly keep up. When it started to slow again around 7 p.m. we all called it quits for the day and drug our 2 coolers full of fish up the hill (Lucy and I had already lugged up one earlier that day). We prepared dinner and packed up and thus concluded our dipnetting trip that evening.

Dipnetting was definitely an experience of a lifetime getting soaked to the bone standing in the water, being sunburnt to a crisp, not showering for 3 days, and getting covered in fish slime and guts. After this first trip I definitely will be more prepared for next time, but now knowing what it’s like here’s the advice I have for other first timers:

  1. You’ll know when you have a salmon in your net. If you aren’t sure, you probably don’t have a fish, don’t waste your energy dragging your net to shore and risk losing your spot.
  2. Protect yourself against the sun. Wear sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat. If you’re like the rest of the crazies out there you’re going to be in the sun almost all day and believe me you will need these things to keep from looking as red as the salmon meat.
  3. Invest in neoprene gloves. Most people were wearing cheap plastic rubber gloves and complained of them leaking, I had neoprene gloves on and while my hands were always wet they were always warm. If you don’t want to spend the money on neoprene gloves wear at least something on your hands. The metal pole of the net gets pretty cold in the water.
  4. Dress in layers. You’ll probably be cold in the morning or when the wind picks up, but it can also be pretty hot during the height of the day when the sun is out.
  5. There are free hot dogs and hot chocolate on the north shore. A church mission group is out there every year handing out hot dogs and hot chocolate. Be sure to say thanks.
  6. Bring ready to eat food. You aren’t going to have time to go back to camp and cook up a gourmet meal so unless you have a designated cook, bring down granola bars and other ready to eat foods.
  7. Don’t go in as deep as your waders are high. Waves do happen at the mouth of the Kenai and boy did I regret going out to almost the top of my waders and then immediately getting soaked when the waves came in.
  8. Make sure your waders don’t leak before you get to the Kenai. Repair and seal any holes. There’s nothing worse than being wet in something that was supposed to keep you dry.
  9. Read up on fishing regulations. Information on dipnetting in the Kenai is available here.
  10. Bring only what you need to the beach. We had a lot of extra stuff the first day that we didn’t use at all and then had to lug up the hill at the end of the day. On the second day we only brought the essentials and that was much nicer.
  11. Don’t forget to drink water. I felt pretty dehydrated during the trip because I wasn’t willing to leave my fishing spot to go grab a drink of water. For other die hards you might want to invest in a camelback that you can wear with you while you’re fishing so you never have to leave the water. Now I just got to find a solution to having to using the bathroom…
  12. Behead, clip and gut fish on the beach. ADFG requires that all fish caught while dipnetting must have the corners of the tail fin clipped before the fish is put out of sight (i.e. into your cooler). With each fish you catch you should clip the fins and the gills (to kill the fish faster and bleed it out, make sure to cut all the way to the white part of the gills). It helps tremendously for later if you behead and gut the fish then too (you’ll be too tired to want to do it at the end of the day). Since we had more people in the group than we had waders or nets we always had 1 or 2 people ashore to do this pre-filet cleaning which allowed people to have their nets in the water for longer.

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    ADFG requires you clip the tail fins of salmon caught while dipnetting as shown.
  13. There’s no such thing as too much cooler space. We filled five coolers on our trip, with just 50 fish. If each of us had limited out we would have needed more cooler space than we had.
  14. Be considerate of those around you. Don’t be loud, disrespectful or take up more space than you need, and be sure to clean up your space when your leave. Everyone is just trying to fill their freezers and not have to spend a bunch of money on food. Stagger nets if you have to when people get close. Just remember every Alaskan resident has just as much a claim to having their net in the water as you do and the fish are swimming sporadically anyways so chances are someone having their net in front of you isn’t going to decrease your chances of catching fish.
  15. Must have items for dipnetting:
  • fishing license
  • dipnetting permit card
  • dipnet
  • waders
  • sunscreen
  • hat
  • sunglasses
  • gloves
  • fish bonker (a rock will do if you forget)
  • filet knife
  • filet knife sharpener
  • scissors or gardening shears (for clipping gills and fins)
  • five gallon bucket or two (for bleeding out fish after you cut their gills and for cleaning them off)
  • coolers
  • ice
  • ready to eat food
  • water
  • a set of dry clothes and shoes to put on when you take off your waders

If you have any other suggestions or questions about dipnetting on the Kenai (I’m by no means an expert, it was only my first time after all) feel free to comment.