Arctic Science Journeys
STORY: The weather is perfect for fishing as Alisa Abookire and the crew of the research vessel Munson Boat watch their small trawl net sink into the blue-green waters of Alaska's Kachemak Bay.
Abookire: "Line going over! It was pretty much lined up that time. Okay, we'll put 300 out." Lead weights pull the net to the ocean floor 300 feet below.
Monster halibut and feisty salmon have made this bay famous among fishermen the world over. But the trophies these fishers seek would fit in the palm of your hand. Flounder and halibut the size of an omelet pan and sole as big as a quarter. While such fish are tiny now, they are the future of the state's billion-dollar-a-year commercial fishing industry.
Alisa Abookire is a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She says that until now, no one studied the bay's juvenile-age fish.
Abookire: "There's a lot of knowledge about adults, but we don't know much about juveniles. And if we can get a handle on what their habitat is, and their abundance, and then if you could monitor that and see a change, that would directly benefit management I think."
Abookire's studies center around Kachemak Bay, a popular summertime tourist attraction in the southcentral part of the state. The bay is essentially an appendage of the nearby and much larger Cook Inlet. But the bay is also unique--its shallow waters are thought to be a nursery for young salmon, halibut, crab, and a dozen other fish. To find out just how the bay sustains and protects young fish, Abookire will lower a small dredge to see whether the bottom offshore is mud or sand--or some combination of the two. Later she'll take the ocean's temperature and note its salinity at various depths. Finally, the trawl net that's been dragging the ocean floor will be hauled to the surface.
Hidden in the twisted blades of green kelp is a slice of the bay's abundant marine life. Sculpins, shrimp, and other species wiggle about. Tanner crabs claw their way out of the jumble, while a large hermit crab crams itself into an undersized seashell. The skipper's sons, Jonathan Geagel, age 12, and Mikey, age 9, are playing hooky from school to help identify the catch.
A sorting fish exchange goes on between scientists and kids: "Pretty small catch huh? Flathead. Big sea star. Are those halibut? These, most of these are rock sole, but we might find a halibut in here."
Abookire's study of Kachemak Bay began last summer. From that work, she learned when flatfish like sole and flounder spawn and when newborns transform from fingernail-size larvae. During the transformation, both eyes migrate to the top side of the fish's head, and the fish settles to the sea floor, where it will spend the rest of its life.
Abookire: "I mean we don't even know time of spawning or time of settlement. Like when we came out in May, we didn't catch any age-zero rock sole or flathead sole, and that was something new, that nobody had known, we didn't know in the past when they settle out, and we were able to find out by the fact that we didn't catch any in May because they hadn't settled out yet in May. That's significant right there for management."
Abookire's findings will be combined with similar research occurring in other fish nurseries elsewhere in the state. Ultimately, the discoveries scientists make will ensure the long-term health of fish stocks that supply the U.S. with more than half of its seafood.
Reporting from Alaska's Kachemak Bay, this is Debra Damron for Arctic Science Journeys.
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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