This paper was written as part of the 2006 Alaska Oceans Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

Ecosystem Management of Sockeye Salmon in the Copper River Watershed: Cooperation between Community and Government


Megan Phillips
Daniel Proch
Alyssa Ginn
Gabriel Brown
Tiffany Helkenn
Danielle Sharer

Team Kenny Lake

Kenny Lake School
HC 60 Box 224
Copper Center, Alaska 99573

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Our Concerns
  3. Temperature
  4. Timing
  5. Solutions
  6. Partnerships
  7. Education
  8. Figures and Diagrams
  9. Work Cited


Nestled in the Wrangell St. Elias mountain range, there are several small communities that rely on the surrounding area for their way of life, included among these communities are Copper Center, Kenny Lake, and Chitina. While many political officials both in Alaska and other states wrestle with issues such as taxes and rising gas prices, a more essential issue may be overlooked, that being our connection to the natural world. No place is more aware of its connection to nature than Alaska. Mountain vistas, good fishing streams, and opportunities to view a moose or bear are endless, but if careful attention is not paid to management of these resources Alaska may soon find their uniqueness pass away.

Our communities consist of three villages. Just north of Valdez (81 miles) is Kenny Lake, largely an agricultural community; employment includes farming and service jobs through local, state and federal government occupations ( The median income in the area is around $28,000 ( While it would seem that the community does not have a close connection to the Copper River that passes by as it returns to its headwaters, a closer inspection suggests otherwise. The influence of the sockeye run in the Copper River watershed (Figure 1) is evident all along the Edgerton Highway. It is easy to notice fish wheels (Figure 2) waiting to be loaded into pick-ups, and venders selling tackle and other items for those taking the trip from Kenny Lake to Chitina.

Surrounding Kenny Lake on both sides are the more traditional native villages of Copper Center (19 miles north of Kenny Lake) and Chitina (19.5 miles southeast of Kenny Lake). ( Copper Center lies on the west bank of the Copper River, and has a population of 362 people. The native residents here depend on subsistence hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering, as well as earning wages by providing access to the salmon resource through fishing charters and guide services. Several RV parks and king salmon charter services operate from Copper Center and focus on the resource of salmon for their income (

However, in Chitina, the Copper River is far more important for personal subsistence use. Most of the 123 residents of Chitina with a large number being Ahtna native, are involved in the practice of subsistence year-round. Fish-wheels and dip-nets are a necessity that residents of Chitina rely on heavily.

The salmon run is and has always been important to everyone in each of these communities. It provides sustenance and income for residents, while also offering a chance to live a lifestyle that those in Anchorage and Fairbanks can only dream about. It is also in recognition of this importance that care must be taken to help insure that this resource is managed with the utmost care and consideration. The Pacific Northwest is a good example to all of us in Alaska of the dangers of not managing a resource for the future, and how quickly a resource can be lost. We certainly must take heed to their mistakes and manage our own salmon stock for continued sustainability.

Our Concerns

The two T's, temperature and timing can help explain the potential dangers that sockeye salmon (Figure 3) (Oncorhynchus nerka) face in their struggle to reproduce and remain an integral part of the ecosystem ( An ecosystem can be defined as a system formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their physical environment ( It is through the understanding of these interactions between organism and environment that potential pitfalls and problems can be recognized and understood. Within an ecosystem, there exist two types of factors, biotic, meaning living, and abiotic that meaning non-living ( One such abiotic factor that is of the utmost importance in Alaska is water temperature. Much of the life of salmon revolves around correct water temperature, so attention must be paid to this factor.

Timing is also an important issue that can often be misunderstood when it comes to salmon. The life of salmon and how they transverse through the cycle of renewal is all about timing. In the spring of every year, millions of sockeye salmon hatch in fresh, clear water streams. The newborn salmon go from being alevin to fry to smolt ( When they reach the smolt stage, the small salmon spend from a few months up to two years in their local streams of birth. When they are ready, the smolt swim down their streams which lead them into tributaries such as the Klutina River, Chitina River, and Chestalina River that all lead into the Copper River. The Copper River then flows into Prince William Sound (this process usually takes place in the months of April to August). The salmon spend from one to four years in the ocean as they are growing to their full adult size ( The Pacific Ocean is an excellent place for the salmon to grow because of its high oxygen levels due to the cold temperatures of the water. When the salmon are adults, they then begin the long journey of swimming back up the Copper River to their natal stream. It is during this phase or stage that salmon can be susceptible due to commercial fishing practices ( With over $600 million derived through commercial fishing alone, throughout the state of Alaska, it is not hard to see how money could affect the thinking of well meaning people ( With careful management however, each of these issues can be approached and dealt with accordingly to make sure all Alaskans have salmon for the present and into the future.


Most people would state that of all the places in the world Alaska would be the last place to fear loss of habitat and ecosystems, but science and biology would suggest otherwise. According to Wellman (pers. comm.) and other noted biologists, Alaskan ecosystems are not as vibrant as most people would like to believe. Due to our unique climatic conditions, Alaska's ecosystems are considered quite fragile ( In interior Alaska, the winter temperatures average slightly below 0°F (-18°C) and frequently dip to 20° below zero F (-29°C), and can even dive to as low as 60° below zero F (-51°C) ( This causes rivers and lakes to freeze over quickly and remain that way for most of the year. This in turn, prevents the sunlight from penetrating it, and without sunlight there is no photosynthesis (Figure 4). It is through photosynthesis and its connection to decomposition that much of the nutrients enter the water ( The driving force in the Copper River watershed is the salmon. Without these fish returning, it is unlikely that much of the wildlife living here would be so plentiful. The continuous return of salmon to spawn allows for nutrients to be replenished, and while also providing a food source for many of the creatures that dot the banks of the river. Bears, which eat 30 pounds of salmon per day, with a population in Alaska of 35,000-45,000, may seem to be the most prominent of these predators, but they are not the only consumer ( According to the Nature Conservancy, organisms such as Dolly Varden and even plants and animals benefit from the wealth of nutrients provided by the returning salmon ( It is almost impossible to count all the organisms that benefit as a result of the return of the salmon. As stated by Schwanke (pers. comm.), salmon carcasses are eaten by bears, dragged on shore to be looted by foxes and other carnivores, and even serve as food for insects. While in our present state, it is hard to image the loss of this resource, one only needs to look at the Pacific Northwest and the changes in our own habitats to understand the concerns of some scientists.

Movies such as "The Day After Tomorrow" frighten us with images depicting flooded coasts and, tidal waves, but the more important issue may be an increase in water temperature. In the past thirty years, this warming has heated the Arctic by nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit (, and since the mid-1950s, Alaska's glaciers have lost about 3,300 cubic kilometers of melted ice and snow, enough to submerge the entire state of Texas in 15 feet of water ( Due in part to this influx of freshwater and combined with warmer temperature, computer models predict that the Arctic Ocean's sea ice could completely disappear within 70 years ( One of the biggest concerns facing the health of the salmon stock is the potential for increasing temperatures in Alaskan rivers. While the large volume of water makes ocean temperatures remain relatively stable, river systems are much more susceptible to changes in water temperature ( In the Pacific Northwest, salmon populations have undergone severe losses due to such causes as global warming (Figure 5), loss of habitat, and changing land use ( It is estimated that wild populations of salmon have declined by 40% in their traditional habitats in the Pacific Northwest, and 91-98% of salmon have been lost in the Columbia River system, ( such a condition would be unthinkable in the Copper River.

The scenario facing the river systems of Alaska and especially the Copper River is the interdependence of the river systems and the salmon. In order for the rivers to be replenished with nutrients and a stable food source, the salmon must return. In order for the salmon to return, the waters must be cool enough to provide habitat and areas for reproduction. Increasing stream temperatures that could pose danger if not monitored so that management decisions can be made before spawning populations are threatened.


While it is true that much of what salmon do in the cycle of renewal requires no help or interference of man, the unintended interference from man can often be catastrophic. This can be understood by examining the last half of the salmon cycle. During the return of salmon to there native streams to spawn, a curious thing happens. According to Hart (pers. comm.), the order of return is linked to the place of birth. In the Copper River and other rivers, the first fish to return are usually the fish that have the farthest to travel. The Copper River has numerous tributaries including the Klutina River, Chitina River, and Chestalina River that are found as the river winds towards its place of origin, as these fish return. One such tributary is Tanada Creek in the Batzulenas area fishery. It was in this Creek that concerns were first made that the population of the fish returning to spawn had been declining (Hart pers. comm.). To examine this phenomenon, fish counters were assembled at Tanada Creek. Alaska Fish and Game uses two methods to collect fish counts, sonar and weir counters. Due to its remote location, weir counters were used at Tanada Creek. The weir site is about 16 km southeast of the town of Slana and 160 meters downstream from the Batzulnetas fish camp. A weir is a barrier set across a stream that blocks the passage of fish but allows water to pass. The weir panels are made of evenly spaced tubular pickets extending across the entire channel. A chute or live trap is placed at an opening in this barrier and forms a narrow passage through which the fish can migrate upstream. An observer stationed on the live box can identify and count the passing fish. Water temperature and depth are also recorded daily ( The fish counts were done from 1997 through 2004. The results suggested there was not a measurable decline, but native subsistence users at Tanada Creek suggested otherwise (

The potential cause of this suspected decline may be traced back to the methods used in commercial fishing. As one of the largest producers of income in Alaska the commercial fishing industry eagerly awaits the return of the salmon to the Copper River. When examining the economic impact the harvesting of these fish have for the state, in the year 1999 Alaska accounted for fifty-five percent of the United States seafood catch with 5.6 billion pounds of fish and shellfish harvested in Alaskan waters, and the market value of these fish was $1.2 billion. (, it is hard to fault the commercial fish industry for trying to cash in on this resource, but care should be taken in making sure the salmon stock is not depleted in an effort to maximize profits. The first returning fish can easily be over harvested. In response to such conditions, Alaska Fish and Wildlife have changed some of the ways the commercial industry can harvest this resource (Fairbanks Daily-News Miner). Due to a low turnout of the first arriving fish this past season in the tributaries of the Copper River, commercial fisheries have been restricted in how they can harvest salmon, especially the fish that arrive first (Fairbanks Daily-News Miner).

While such an issue is not an easy one to manage considering the monies and issues involved, consideration must be given to careful management for sustainability.


While some solutions may be out of the reach of a student in the Copper River School District, we can provide some local ones. No one from Kenny Lake may ever attend a conference on global warming sponsored by the United Nations, and we certainly will not develop an alternative fuel in time to slow the release of greenhouse gases, but perhaps a more meaningful local change can be initiated. This consists of a grassroots movement where ideas are not merely talked about, but put into action. This would include the enactment of student partnerships with local agencies in education of our younger population.


As stated by the Ecotrust, collaboration is vital to help insure the continued health of the Copper River watershed ( In an effort to accomplish this task, following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, monies were poured into the region to help protect the Copper River and its species. While such revenue would be welcomed now, such a capital investment may not be needed. Instead partnerships can be formed between local agencies such as Alaska Department of Fish & Game, National Park Service, and other agencies that serve the Copper River and its population. The monitoring of water temperatures and other conditions are vital in making sure the salmon have a viable habitat. Although there is limited money to support such an endeavor within Alaska Fish and Game, middle school and high school students certainly could take the reins for such a program. With training through local fish biologists, students with interested in the field of biology and fish management could undertake a monitoring program to collect data that would otherwise be unavailable. At our school in Kenny Lake, students currently raise salmon and release then into lakes near McCarthy. The next logical step is monitoring of the habitat and viability of these fish. Students from our school reside throughout the landscape of our region and stations for collecting data would not be to establish and maintain. It is hoped that such a partnership could be developed and fostered. Through this program both community and salmon would win.


As another part of our program, high school students would teach elementary students about the importance of the salmon to our locality including the subsistence component. For thousands of years, subsistence has been a way of life to Alaska Natives, and has recently become a way of living for non-Alaska natives as well. In Alaska, 44 million pounds of wild foods are taken by rural residents each year. That's 375 pounds per person per year. Fish compromise 60 percent of subsistence foods taken annually. According to the state, ninety-five percent of rural households consume subsistence-caught fish ( Many of the students in Kenny Lake are native and the importance of this practice cannot be overlooked. As mentioned above, monitoring of water quality is vital, but access to such localities is not always available. Instead lessons could be done within the school. One of the biggest successes of the past few years in Alaska is the Alaska Waterfowl calendar. The first calendar was produced in 1985 as part of a larger conservation, education and management effort aimed at reversing declines in four species of geese nesting in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta: Emperor Goose, Brant, White-fronted Goose and Cackling Canada Goose. The calendar has proven an effective tool to educate young and old about waterfowl that need special attention ( This idea could certainly be used to excite the children and adults of the Copper River to learn more about the salmon and other organisms that inhabit the Copper River watershed. Such a contest could go a long way to help develop a new appreciation of our salmon population.

Figures and Diagrams

Copper River Watershed

Figure 1. Copper River watershed.

Figure 2. Fish wheel. (image coming soon)

Figure 3.Sockeye salmon. (image coming soon)

Figure 4.Photosynthesis. (image coming soon)

Figure 5.Global warming. (image coming soon)

Works Cited