A Summer of Discovery

by Willa Johnson

Biking through the Safeway parking lot in the pouring rain, my first week in Juneau, I heard someone yell at me from their truck window. I was outraged; someone was catcalling me. As the truck drove off, I looked down and saw my sodden mitten on the ground. The person who I thought was catcalling me was actually just kindly letting me know I had dropped my mitten. My time in Juneau was full of surprises like this. 

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to work in the Coastal Fisheries Ecology Lab as a research intern and NOAA Hollings Scholar. I’m from Seattle and currently a senior at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, majoring in biology with a minor in gender studies. After spending the previous summer in the dry 100+ degree Walla Walla heat, I was overjoyed to be living near the ocean in Juneau’s temperate climate.

I spent my days working with MS student Matt Callahan on a study of juvenile sablefish ecology. This meant that I spent a lot of time looking at stomach contents. One of the surprises of my summer was discovering how interesting sorting through fish vomit can be! Sablefish are generalists, meaning they consume a wide variety of prey, so there was always something new and interesting in their stomachs. We found salmon bones, herring, mysid shrimp, shiner perch, and numerous amphipods – small crustaceans that are a favorite food of many fish.

Days at the dissecting scope (left) and on the water (right) can be a mix of monotonous and amazing. Photos by Willa Johnson (left) and Anne Beaudreau (right).

Sablefish are voracious. One day, Matt and I spent the entire morning counting 439 amphipods in the stomach of a single sablefish. As I became better at identifying prey, the work was more exciting. Each time I picked otoliths (ear bones) out of heavily digested fish remains, I would think, “Yes! It is another Pacific herring!” We also used heavy duty blenders to homogenize fish and measure their energy content. This will help us understand what types of prey contribute most to sablefish growth. For my project, I analyzed the differences in diet composition between age-0 and age-1 sablefish. It was cool to experience all the different aspects of the research and to learn what it would be like to go to graduate school.

I also had the opportunity to join Matt, Anne Beaudreau (CFE Lab PI), and Katy Echave (NOAA scientist) in Sitka for a week of fieldwork. This was, by far, the highlight of my summer. Each morning we would wake up, put on many layers of rain gear, and drive our small boat out to Saint John Baptist Bay, a nursery habitat for juvenile sablefish. Except for fishing in small creeks when I was little, I was new to fishing. Sometimes I hooked multiple sablefish at once, sometimes we waited a long time for a bite. I spent many hours sitting on the corner of the boat contemplating what all the little sablefish were doing down there. I even tried talking to them to coax the sablefish into biting. I don’t think they heard me! But even on days when I caught only a few sablefish, there was some interesting bycatch, including a ratfish, a crab, and a quillback rockfish. We were also excited to see brown bears from the boat. Other highlights of the trip included many delicious dinners cooked by Rhea, a recent graduate from the CFE Lab, and picking big bowls of salmon berries on sunny days.

Jesse-Willa.jpg

Jesse and Willa went on many hikes to explore Juneau’s varied landscapes.

Thanks to the Hollings Scholarship, I had the opportunity to present my research results at the NOAA headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, at the end of the summer. While I was there I went to museums, ran into Elizabeth Warren in a vegan restaurant, and got to see the other Hollings Scholars from all around the U.S. present their fascinating projects. It was a wonderful science nerd convention. However, traveling to humid, metropolitan Silver Spring from Southeast Alaska made me realize that Juneau might be the place for me.

From Pride events to Audubon bird walks to lab potlucks, everyone in Juneau made me feel so welcome. When it wasn’t pouring rain I would bike into work past a rainbow of wildflowers on the side of the road. On the way home I could stop for a walk or a quick jump in the ocean. I spent most of my weekends hiking with friends, including current CFE Lab member, Jesse Gordon. Everywhere in Juneau, there are beautiful views of the mountains, the ocean, glaciers, or all three. Now I’m back at Whitman, halfway through my senior year, and I’m already thinking about how I can find my way back to Alaska.

Willa hiking 2

What a view! Willa is dreaming up ways to get back to Alaska. Photo by Hillary Behrman.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s