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Long-Term Records of Abundance and Effects of Large Scale Climate Change on Alaska Peninsula Sockeye Salmon

Investigators

Synopsis

The sustainability of Alaska’s fisheries, including the sockeye salmon fishery, is of utmost importance not only to the health of Alaska’s marine ecosystems but also to the vitality of Alaska’s coastal communities. Investigators will collect and analyze sediment cores from Sapsuk Lake, a sockeye spawning lake with traditionally large sockeye returns, to determine fluctuations in numbers of sockeye returning from the Bering Sea over the last few thousand years. This is of concern to stakeholders in the area, as historically the Sapsuk system had large runs but fish numbers have declined in recent years to the point of impacting subsistence and commercial use. The project will use sediments from Sapsuk Lake to detect relative numbers of sockeye returning to this spawning lake over the last 4000–5000 years, reconstruct changes in past productivity of the lake, and construct a model that could identify numbers of returning sockeye. Since historic data periods are too short to capture the large climatic changes the world—specifically the north—is now experiencing, long-term data sets such as this one will help determine the effects of warmer and colder climates on Bering Sea sockeye. This project will add to the knowledge of stakeholders and policymakers and may inform future management decisions and improve the chances of sustaining economic and sociocultural stability in Alaska coastal communities.

Overview

The issue

The sustainability of Alaska’s fisheries is important not only to the health of Alaska’s ocean ecosystems but also to the health of fishing communities, both of which are being rapidly affected by global climate change. Sockeye are key to subsistence and economic well-being of communities along the Bering Sea coast, so it is important for the sustainability of these communities to understand the processes that control these fish.

Why is this an Alaska Sea Grant project?

This project addresses two Sea Grant themes: impacts on and strategies for coastal ecosystems and/or communities adapting to change, and improvements to the economic and sociocultural sustainability of Alaska coastal communities. Collecting data on long-term fluctuations (in this case thousands of years) in sockeye returns will allow researchers to determine how sockeye populations responded to environmental changes in the past. The outcomes will help predict the impacts of environmental change on sockeye stocks and help the communities that rely on them build strategies to cope with changes.

How will researchers conduct their study?

Investigators will reconstruct long-term sockeye escapement history in Sapsuk Lake, western Alaska Peninsula, using stable isotope analysis of lake core sediments as an indicator of marine-derived nutrients (i.e., relative numbers of salmon carcasses decaying into surrounding sediments) and numerous markers of climate, ocean, and lake conditions. The past 4000–5000 years include several periods of climatic variability, and can provide valuable information on the relationship between climate change and sockeye salmon systems.

Research plan:

  1. Get a sedimentary sequence from Sapsuk Lake that shows the latter half of the Holocene (last 5000 years).
  2. Collect and analyze water and zooplankton from stations that ADFG sampled in the 1990s.
  3. Conserve half of sediment core for future research in cold storage at ISU.
  4. Reconstruct records of salmon abundance at decadal resolution using δ15N, radiocarbon dating of recovered core material, and an isotope-based model.
  5. Use biogenic opal, organic carbon, and δ13C to reconstruct past changes in terrestrial and aquatic carbon cycles and lake primary production.
  6. Compare the results to paleoclimatic and paleoceanographic data from the literature.
  7. Compare results to previously cored lakes in the Bristol Bay area.
  8. Compare salmon abundance trends and climatic history to other Bristol Bay and Alaska Peninsula paleoenvironmental records.
  9. Evaluate a lake-system 15N isotope-balance model against modern Sapsuk fisheries data and sediment analyses, and apply this model to estimates of the number of fish that are permitted to spawn (escapement) over the 5000 year record.
  10. Provide data to policy makers and stakeholders through informal meetings in villages, web-based data and reports, and formal conference settings and journal articles.

Research collaborators

Nelson Lagoon Tribal Council
ADFG
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Idaho State University
Nicholas Sagalkin, Regional Finfish Research Supervisor, ADFG
Katherine Reedy, Associate Professor, Idaho State University

At a glance

Project number: R/31-23

Project status: Active

Initiated: 02/01/2014

Expected completion: 04/30/2016

Objectives: The main objectives of this project are to: (1) better understand the effects of environmental change in the Bering Sea on Alaska Peninsula sockeye salmon stocks, by collecting and analyzing recent and ancient data to get a long-term perspective; and (2) collaborate with local communities and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to make results and conclusions easily available to stakeholders with interests in the Bering Sea sockeye fishery.

Focus area (theme): Healthy Coastal Ecosystems

Location: Fieldwork will take place in July 2014 at Sapsuk Lake, near the village of Nelson Lagoon on the Alaska Peninsula. Laboratory activities will take place in the Idaho State University Sediment Core Analysis Laboratory, the Water and Environmental Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the ADFG Kodiak Island Laboratory.