Sharing our love of science during UA Fisheries Days

by Anne Beaudreau

University of Alaska students and faculty in the fisheries program kicked off spring with a science extravaganza for the public. Billed as UA Fisheries Days at Lena Point, the two-day event featured the 22nd Annual Student Research Symposium on Friday, April 6th, 2018, and a Fisheries Open House on Saturday, April 7th. The events were held at the Juneau Fisheries Center of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF).

Chris Sergeant (20)

Kids and adults loved the opportunity to climb aboard our 27-foot research vessel, the R/V Ishkeen. Photo by Chris Sergeant.

Opening our doors to the public

To find UAF’s Juneau Fisheries Center, you head “out the road” away from downtown Juneau. You drive along the wetlands, past the populated Mendenhall valley, and on towards Auke Bay, which is your last chance for coffee and snacks before you head out along the last 30 miles of the Juneau road system. Plenty of Juneauites head out the road for a hike on a nice day, but not many visit our building on their way there. After all, we’re not very easy to find – our building is tucked away on Lena Point, out of the public eye, about 5 miles past Auke Bay.

The Juneau Center has been co-located with NOAA’s Auke Bay Laboratories on Lena Point since 2008, but our Saturday event was the very first open house for the public. One of our goals for the open house was to increase awareness of the UAF fisheries program within the broader Juneau community. Many of the people attending our open house said they hadn’t known about us and were thrilled to discover the extent of the fisheries research and education taking place in Juneau.

“I’ve always, always, always wondered what was out here,” one visitor said with excitement, “and now I know!”

Most Juneau residents we’ve talked to are surprised to learn that UAF has a presence here. In fact, there are around 10 faculty and 40-60 graduate students, depending on the year, based out of the Juneau Center. The Juneau Center moved from the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) to UAF in 1987, when the School (now College) of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences was created1. To this day, we work closely with faculty and students at UAS, which is just down the road from our facility. UAS marine biology undergraduate students and faculty provided an incredible touch tank experience for the open house visitors.

1 https://www.uaf.edu/cfos/about-us/locations/juneau/

Sherry Tamone, a University of Alaska Southeast professor and joint faculty member at UAF, shows off the octopus to an eager crowd of visitors. The octopus was easily the star of the touch tanks! Photos by Gabrielle Hazelton (left) and Chris Sergeant (right).

Variety is the spice of life (and research)

The student research symposium on Friday featured talks by graduate students that highlighted the breadth of UA research on freshwater and marine ecosystems and its contributions to sustainable fisheries in Alaska. The student organizers in Juneau and Fairbanks provided a videoconference connection so that presenters and audience members could tune in from all parts of Alaska. The symposium drew around 70 attendees in Juneau and 20-30 in Fairbanks and other locations. It was sponsored by the Alaska Chapter of the American Fisheries Society, the St. Hubert Research Group, and the UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences (CFOS).

Anne Beaudreau (5)

The 22nd annual student research symposium drew a good crowd in Juneau. Photo by Anne Beaudreau.

A striking aspect of the symposium was the diversity of research being done by fisheries students, faculty, and their colleagues from the Arctic to Southeast Alaska and beyond. Projects range from kelp aquaculture to public perceptions of whale watching, predator effects on young salmon to monitoring of rapidly changing rivers and coastal habitats. A cross section of the research was highlighted in a Juneau Empire article that promoted the symposium.

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Several students won awards for their presentations. From left: April Rebert (1st place, Long Talk), Ali Schuler (3rd place, Long Talk), Justin Priest (Best Introduction), and Matt Callahan (1st place, Short Talk). Not pictured: Caitlin Forster (2nd place, Long Talk). Photo by Anne Beaudreau.

Something for everyone

Our open house on Saturday mirrored the diversity of research and interests that students showcased during the symposium. Nearly 500 visitors of all ages circulated to different activity stations that provided hands-on opportunities to explore the work we do in fisheries and ocean science. There was something for everyone, from toddlers to retirees.

In one of the labs, visitors learned about how we study the inner lives of fish, from determining their age using ear bones (otoliths) to uncovering clues about their nutrition from the contents of their stomachs. The How Old is That Fish? station wasn’t just about fish; our guests also learned about how researchers age crab and geoduck. (Hint: it’s all in the shell!) At the Diet Detectives station, kids got to do a bit of fish forensics by identifying “prey” (i.e., paper and pipe cleaner creatures) using dichotomous keys. Some of the kids loved the game so much that they identified every type of prey and, in one case, went through the whole process twice. Several parents were commercial fishermen who connected with the research, saying that they often look inside stomachs of fish to get clues about where, when, and how to target them.

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The photo booth was popular with kids and adults alike. Here, one of our guests showed off her catch of the day. Photo by Megan McPhee.

At the Marine Mammal Extravaganza station, there were many marine mammal pelts, baleen, teeth, and skulls to touch. Kids played a sea otter foraging activity game to learn about how otters use their sense of touch to find the right food. They also got to test their humpback whale identification skills, matching photos taken of humpback whale flukes with a Fluke ID Catalog. The Microscope Discovery station not only gave visitors the opportunity to view teeny tiny Arctic cod otoliths and baby crabs under the microscope, but guests could also take a photo through the scope and create a customized button from the image!

Marine Mammal Station_photo by Chris Sergeant

Microscope Station_photo by Megan McPhee
Graduate students shared their knowledge of creatures great and small: Jenell Larsen presented some marine mammal skulls (top) and Zane Chapman provided a close-up view of baby crabs (bottom). Photos by Chris Sergeant (top) and Megan McPhee (bottom).

Meanwhile, on the second floor an intense computer game called So You Want to be a Salmon Manager? was underway in which participants were tasked with managing a salmon fishery in real time. Down the hall, at The Crazy Life of Kelp, the public learned about and saw every stage of the amazing life cycle of kelp, from live swimming spores to mature kelps. Master’s student Annie Thomson, who led the activity, said that a family who visited had one child who was thrilled by the kelp station and another who would not leave the salmon management game. “It was really cool to have so much diversity in activities,” Annie said. “There really was something for everyone!”

Megan McPhee (10)

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Young learners explore the tiniest life stages of kelp (top) and try their hand at salmon management (bottom). Photos by Megan McPhee (top) and Chris Sergeant (bottom).

We lucked out with a beautiful bluebird day, which enticed people to explore the outdoor Science Show-and-Tell station, where they got to test out and try on the tools of marine ecology. Visitors toured the R/V Ishkeen, our 27-foot research boat, and learned how to measure temperature and salinity off the side of the vessel. A few brave kids donned SCUBA masks and dunked their heads in a tank of cold water.

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One of the most popular activities was the touch tank station, where people had an opportunity to get up close and personal with some very brave marine invertebrates. My son James especially loved the “sticky anemone.” Photo by Chris Sergeant.

When our guests needed a break, they could enjoy a snack and watch a slideshow of our adventures in the field and lab. The younger crowd had lots of opportunities to get creative by coloring and creating their own humpback whale fluke patterns.

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Angie Steeves and Judith Rosellon Druker kept everyone refreshed with snacks aplenty. At one point, we nearly ran out of food and our administrative manager Gabrielle Hazelton made a heroic grocery store run to replenish provisions. Photo by Megan McPhee.

My job was arguably the most fun, because I stationed myself at the table in the front lobby and got a chance to welcome every guest and hand out bookmarks, pens, magnets, and other fun CFOS items. Some of the kids reported back to me about their favorite experiences: “The octopus!”, “The salmon management game – there were 8 million salmon and I’m on the leaderboard!”, “Microscopes – I had no idea that crabs started out looking like that!” One of the parents said to me as she pointed to her young son, “I’m probably more excited than he is!” Needless to say, I got to witness a lot of excitement from kids and adults alike and more crushed Goldfish crackers on the lobby floor than I thought was possible.

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Associate professor Anne Beaudreau (left) and Master’s student Ashley Bolwerk (right) took a lead role in coordinating the open house. Photo courtesy of CFE Lab.

Connecting through science

This was truly an “all hands on deck” effort—undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, staff, faculty, and volunteers worked together to make our inaugural open house a success. Every member of our Juneau CFOS community who was able to participate contributed their creativity, energy, time, and excitement to the day. But, as many of us experienced that day, outreach is not just about giving your time and energy; you get as much as you give, if not more.

Rhea Ehresmann, who is completing her Master’s degree while working at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, explained it best:

“My normal work duties involve lots of tense and stressful conversations with fishermen and the public as restrictions are being implemented for fisheries. I forgot how wonderful it is to interact with kids and people who have a genuine interest in our fishes, oceans, and science that we do. I’m pretty sure I left the open house feeling as inspired and filled with positive energy as many of those who attended. It was a great opportunity to share what we do, why we do it, and how we do it with the public.”

Thinking about all those happy kids, grateful parents, and an energized fisheries community, I agree wholeheartedly. We can’t wait to do it again in April 2020!

Chris Sergeant (22)

Rhea Ehresmann teaches the next generation of scientists how to identify what’s in a fish’s stomach. Photo by Chris Sergeant.

 

Thanks to the entire UA fisheries community for sharing their photos and experiences, which helped shape this story.

Critters

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

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Beach seining on Lopez Island. Photo by Chris Sergeant.

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.

Chinook salmon_photo courtesy of Nina Lundstrom

Performing gastric lavage (left) and taking a small fin clip (right) from a juvenile Chinook salmon. Photos courtesy of Nina Lundstrom.

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.

Seining on Waldron_photo by Nina Lundstrom

Setting up the beach seine on Waldron Island, a northern neighbor of Lopez Island in the San Juan Archipelago, Washington. Photo by Nina Lundstrom.

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.

Nina Lundstrom with sculpin_photo by Doug Duncan

Nina with one of the critters we love in Juneau, Alaska. Photo by Doug Duncan.

The little ROVs that could

by Veronica Padula

I felt like a little kid on Christmas when I opened the white box that said OpenROV. Inside that box was a kit that, when assembled, would become a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). ROVs are little robots that can be driven remotely to explore and capture images of the mysterious underwater world. For those who can’t SCUBA dive but want to see more of what lies beneath the surface, ROVs open the door to that world by capturing photos and video of things that live under the sea.

Plus, there were extra special surprises in the box: a red knit beanie with the OpenROV logo embroidered onto it, which made me feel like we were stepping into a scene from The Life Aquatic, and stickers! The stickers were my favorite part.

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ROVs have been used by marine scientists for decades but are now becoming more accessible to the public for exploring the depths of the ocean. Photo credit: http://www.openrov.com

We had actually received two OpenROV kits, and I was tasked with transporting the kits from Anchorage to St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea. They were a generous gift from the manager of the Trident Seafoods plant, Bill Briggs. The new instruments are meant for students to use to collect data as part of citizen science projects. I gave Bill one of the red beanies, which I think looks great on him, but I can’t wait to show him the video and photos that come from driving the ROVs around St. Paul harbor, the salt lagoon, and other unexplored territory.

ROV pieces_photo by Veronica Padula

So many pieces!

Our plan was to host an ROV Builder Club, where people from the St. Paul community could come together one night a week over the course of the summer to construct these ROVs. I was supposed to lead the ROV construction and sincerely wish I could say I have lots of experience with building things like ROVs, but sadly I do not. Luckily, Mr. Mac, Walt, and Jacob came to the rescue, contributing their knowledge and expertise to the ROV construction. Kids joined us too, including Zoe, Kadyn, Til, and Brynn.

ROV inventory_photo by Veronica Padula

Jacob and Zoe work together to make sure we have all the parts we need.

It was wonderful to have folks of all ages joining our builder group, and the kids learned a great deal from the adults in our group, including patience. While kids wanted to just jump in and glue all the pieces together, I wanted to go through the entire kit and match every piece of construction material to the pictures in the manual so we were absolutely certain we had everything. You see, while living on St. Paul Island is amazing, sometimes it takes packages a while to reach us. So, if we had to order any parts for our kit, we definitely had to do it at the beginning of the process, because otherwise we would be stalled in our construction.

Team effort_photo by Veronica Padula

This was a team effort!

I had fun watching the kids match the ROV casing’s acrylic shapes to the pictures in the manual. It definitely tested my spatial awareness and likely tested theirs as well. They worked together to identify all the pieces of the kit. Gluing the acrylic pieces together was not an easy task, because we had to make sure the puzzle pieces fit together perfectly. The seals need to be water tight so that seawater doesn’t leak into the ROV and destroy the electronic bits and pieces that make it function. Luckily we had several people on our team who meticulously glued the parts together, so fingers crossed that the seals are water tight!

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Kadyn and Walt glue wires down and make sure everything is water tight.

While we have the ROVs mostly built, we are troubleshooting some technical hiccups with the batteries. Thankfully we have a dedicated team of builders that will fix these glitches so they are ready for their maiden voyages. I can’t wait to see the excitement on all the kids’ faces when we drop the little robots in the water for the first time and watch them sink away from us, disappearing into the depths of the ocean. Operating the ROV is a job for video-game aficionados, because we are using a video game controller as the remote driving apparatus for the robot. I just hope that our first mission does not involve donning dry suits to free a stuck ROV underwater. That water is cold!

Almost complete_photo by Veronica Padula

They are almost ready for their maiden voyages!

While I’m still no master ROV builder, I am so grateful for the community members that came together to mentor the students, and champion the ROV construction. Their work and dedication means the ROVs will come to life soon. The best part of the process is yet to come, when the kids can partake in ROV voyages and discover the underwater world that surrounds their home. This amazing technology will bring that world closer to them. Who knows, maybe they will discover new species of invertebrates or fish never seen before in the St. Paul ecosystem (or find someone’s glasses that fell off while paddle boarding). I can’t wait to share that joy and wonder with them. Even if the waters are murky, the kids will be able to experience something extremely special using these ROVs—the excitement of exploration. And the best part is that we can have countless ROV explorations over the years. Imagine all the amazing images we can capture, and the stories we can tell over many years through those images.

Captain Kadyn_photo by Veronica Padula

Kadyn will captain one of our ROVs.

We hope to test the ROVs in October. Zoe will captain one of our ROVs, and Kadyn will captain the other. We haven’t named our ROVs yet, but are open to suggestions. Stay tuned for pictures from their maiden voyage. Can’t wait to see what these little robots will find!

To see an example of some underwater ROV video, check out this vintage highlights reel that Anne put together in 2004 from an ROV survey in the San Juan Islands, Washington: www.vimeo.com/236496491

For more about Veronica’s graduate research, read her article on the impacts of plastics in the marine environment: https://krakenandfriends.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/guest-blog-the-plastics-problem/

All photos in this post were taken by Veronica Padula unless otherwise noted.