by Nina Lundstrom
Editor’s Note: Nina Lundstrom has been working with us since July 2017 and was a core member of our beach seining team over the summer. She arrived in Alaska already a seasoned seiner, having learned the tools of the trade during her internship in the San Juan Islands, Washington, the summer after graduating with a degree in biology and ecology from Colorado College. In this post, Nina writes about her work with the Kwiaht Center for the Historical Ecology of the Salish Sea and the people and places she got to know. Incidentally, I (Anne) also worked with Kwiaht nearly a decade earlier and helped train volunteers in the delicate art of inducing fish to regurgitate their meals (for science!). I was proud to be there at the start of the wonderful citizen science monitoring program that continues today. Nina’s story perfectly captures the feeling of working in the islands.
“You have to see this picture I just took of the most gorgeous little earwig, sipping on some Yarro nectar!” My boss, Russel Barsh, had just come pounding down the trail towards me, brandishing his camera and looking nothing short of gleeful. This was undoubtedly the first time in my life anyone had ever used the words gorgeous and earwig sequentially. I stood up, brushing dirt off the knees of my pants, and took the camera, Russel still gazing lovingly at the photo. Through the course of the summer, I would get used to these reverential descriptions of some arguably repulsive creatures. It takes a special kind of person to see the beauty in something like a clam worm: a sickly pink annelid that moves like a cross between a snake and a centipede and can administer a nasty bite to the unsuspecting clam digger, but Russel had a gift for recognizing the nuances and charm in just about every living thing.
I was living and working on Lopez Island off the coast of Washington, and there was no difficulty in recognizing the nuances and charm of the place itself. The island was small, only 15 miles long and 8 miles wide. One main road ran from end to end, appropriately named Center Road. The island was covered in thick forests of douglas fir, some of which were over 500 years old, and each edge of the island looked out on Mount Baker, or the Olympic Mountains, or the Cascades, depending on where you stood. I was a research apprentice for Russel and his partner Madrona Murphy, the directors of a non-profit research organization, Kwiaht. I worked seven days a week, between six and twelve hours a day, split evenly between the field and the lab. My primary project involved fish genetics, but my daily tasks ranged from digging up square meters of frozen muck and determining the species and ages of the clams living in said muck, to monitoring the comings and goings of the bees on wild blackberries. Russel and Madrona had an unparalleled love for their jobs and for the natural world, and I never got the impression that the hours we spent collecting data felt like work to them.
The best days were the “seining days” on Waldron and Lopez islands. Russel, Madrona, several buckets of equipment, and I would load up into a 20 foot boat driven by the designated boatman of the day, my favorite of whom was Tom*. Tom was a middle-aged man who always wore Wrangler jeans tucked into his Wellingtons and cheerfully passed his time on the boat, fishing for lingcod while we worked. He loved to rant about the fishing industry and “the bureaucracy,” and he shared his freshly trapped Dungeness crabs with me. He would motor us to Waldron Island or the south side of Lopez, where we would set up the net, a contraption 120 feet long and six feet deep, with floats on the top and weights on the bottom. The boat would pull one end in an arc through the bay and back to shallow water. There, someone on each end would swim out and grab it and pull it in with the somewhat unwilling help of strangers who had unknowingly picked our research spot on the beach as their relaxation location. The minutes following the pull were nothing short of chaotic, as we held the net in the water and sifted through its occupants. I grew accustomed to blindly plunging my hand into the depths of the submerged net to grab a jellyfish, a crab, or a sculpin that could harm one of the smaller fish or, consequently, my fingers. These predators were casually tossed over our shoulders and swam happily away. Russel and Madrona both possessed an incredible ability to snatch swimming fish out of the water with their bare hands and identify them with a single glance. We counted and released gunnels, sticklebacks, perch, flounder, snake pricklebacks, pipefish, pink salmon and chum salmon, but temporarily kept the king salmon to extract their stomach contents.
*name changed for this story
It was easy to fall in love with king salmon, or Chinooks, as a species. The fish we studied were only about five days out of the river in which they were born, and they were charming and beautiful babies. Their glowing green backs sported cheetah-like black spots, and they swam less with their tails than with their tiny pectoral fins, alternating strokes. Most of them still had their par marks, perfectly spaced oval spots running down their sides, signifying their young age. We cheered for the fish whose stomach contents were full of smaller fish, and gently encouraged the ones who had only eaten an insect or two. I have never seen a pair of people so connected to and invested in fish vomit, but Russel and Madrona’s love for the Chinooks was infectious. Russel cooed to each individual fish, practically cuddling it as he plunged a blunt ended syringe down its throat to collect stomach contents. I was taught to perform “fish CPR” if any began to float, and someone was always closely watching the “recovery bucket” to ensure the well-being of the salmon. We didn’t have a single fatality all summer.
On one exhausting day, the first pull of the net yielded only smelt, a silvery fish that is a popular food source for island residents. A second net pull brought in herring, their rainbow scales flashing in the sunlight. A third pull seemed pointless and time-consuming on an already long day, but we did it anyway. Much to our surprise, thirty sizeable Chinooks were brought in, and we set up our “lavage station.” As we started our machine-like process of measurement, fin clip, scale collection, gut lavage, and recovery bucket, Russel whispered lovingly to one particularly large fish, “Oh, you are a little fatty aren’t you?” I did my best to disguise my laughter as a coughing fit.
My job was to sift through the stomach contents of each salmon and collect the sand lance, a small needle-nosed fish often eaten by juvenile Chinooks. I then extracted their DNA, amplified it with a set of primers (known gene sequences), and ran it through the genetic sequencer to try to formulate a population structure. It initially sounded like a straightforward process, and I dove in enthusiastically. Eight weeks of viciously whispered profanities followed. The monstrous machine had daily malfunctions, and as soon as things seemed to be running smoothly, some outside factor would throw the data off, forcing me to start over. Twice during the summer, all of the power in the school went out because of ongoing construction, and the whole machine crashed. All of the frozen polymers, buffers, and primers defrosted, became useless, and had to be reordered. While we waited for them to be shipped, I got the pleasant task of sorting through bags of poorly preserved dead fish, some of which had been partially decaying for three years. Oh, how I longed to work on the horrible machine in those days.
Near the end of my time on Lopez, Russel, Madrona, and I went out to the spit to check on some oysters that had been planted there the year before. We were knee deep in mud, cutting into the oyster bags to count the living and the dead. In the span of a year, the bags had become tiny ecosystems, kelp growing on the outsides and critters making their homes among the oyster colonies. Several crabs had crawled through the plastic mesh when they were small, made their homes, and grew too large to ever leave. They showed their appreciation for our rescue mission by vigorously pinching us as we returned them to the ocean. Russel opened one shell to find a spaghetti worm camping out in the enclosed space. Spaghetti worms are small and dark pink, with seemingly endless tentacle feelers that closely resemble angel hair pasta. They are the stuff of Fear Factor, the antithesis of charming. Russel beamed down at the worm. “You wonderful, smart spaghetti worm, how innovative of you to make your home in that shell,” he crooned. I turned back to my oysters, grinning.
Several hours later, hands caked in mud, and feet sunk fully and permanently into the mud, I found another shell housing a spaghetti worm. I released the worm into the water and watched it sink to the bottom and crawl away. “Good little spaghetti worm,” I whispered, in spite of myself.