As summer comes to the Kenai Peninsula, a group of scientists are trying to understand the deeper connections between its communities and its most iconic resource — salmon.
Last weekend, two researchers hauled rebar, post pounders and specialized sensing equipment across some 30 miles of muskeg, willow flats and alpine lakes in order to install equipment that will help show how climate change and rising water temperatures may impact habitat for juvenile Chinook (king) and coho (silver) salmon in the Kenai River Watershed.
Ben Meyer, a graduate student in aquatic ecology at University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and Erik Schoen, a postdoctoral fellow, are working with more than two dozen anthropologists, economists, biologists and systems analysts to provide the region with more tools to better predict environmental changes, and to better determine whether current public policies will allow the peninsula to adapt.
The larger project, titled “Alaska Adapting to Changing Environments,” is part of the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), a program funded by the National Science Foundation and the State of Alaska. Three test cases—one on the North Slope, another in Berners Bay near Juneau, and the Southcentral Test Case on the Kenai — have been established under the grant.
The Southcentral Test Case looks at changes to the complex social-ecological systems of the Kenai River Watershed. Scientists are studying everything from prehistoric soil samples to media transcriptions to traditional Kenaitze Dena’ina knowledge.
“We’re really trying to measure and make some predictions about how the physical landscape and climatic drivers are changing in the Kenai River Watershed, how these changes might affect salmon populations and how changes in salmon populations will work through the social and economic systems,” said Dan Rinella, lead investigator on the project and an aquatic ecologist at University of Alaska-Anchorage.
Meyer’s work within the project examines three tributaries — Beaver Creek, Russian River and Ptarmigan Creek — which reflect a spectrum of tributaries to the river system, ranging from lowland swamp to high mountain habitat. He will hike more than 350 miles this summer, gathering temperature measurements and data on juvenile salmon feeding behaviors.
“By studying [salmon] childhoods, in a sense, we can understand something about how likely the Kenai River Watershed is to be able to support viable salmon returns,” Meyer said.
He hopes his data will help predict salmon populations in the future. Evidence suggests the survival rates of salmon are determined in large part during the period of time they spend in freshwater before migrating to the ocean.
In river systems, there is an ideal temperature window that salmon like to be at. Meyer calls it the Goldilocks effect — not too cold and not too hot. For juvenile salmon, that’s about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Warmer water temperatures can impact salmon behavior and their ability to feed before they return to the ocean.
“A number of watersheds throughout the Cook Inlet region regularly exceed temperatures that the State of Alaska has determined as being above optimal for fish habitat,” Meyer said.
Much of the research Meyer has gathered shows the lower watershed is most susceptible to a changing climate and changing habitat.
Some of the changes to the watershed may not be altogether bad. While there is an upper lethal temperature for salmon, it isn’t often reached in the Kenai River Watershed. In some cases, warmer water means a longer summer feeding season and higher survival rates.
“It’s not going to wipe out salmon in the Kenai within our lifetime, but there’s going to be winners and losers,” Schone said. “Some species and some runs might take a big hit, and some might start to do better.”
Schoen hopes to build a more complete picture of the “adaptive capacity of the region” across the various fields of research. To that end, he is also looking at work by Kenai Peninsula College Anthropology Professor Alan Boraas, who is trying to understand past, present and future human-salmon relationships along the Kenai.
“If there is a single species that unites us, nonhuman-wise, it’s salmon,” Boraas said.
Boraas’ research looks back to what is known as the “Medieval Warm Period,” when a natural global warming trend may have influenced regional shifts from Riverine culture to Dena’ina culture.
According to Boraas, around 1,000 C.E., local residents invented underground cold storage pits as a way of preserving salmon through the winter. These pits shifted the emphasis from mid-summer sockeye runs to a harvest of fall-run coho salmon.
“We’re trying to figure out, to what extent did climate change have an influence on that very dramatic cultural change?” Boraas said. “Was it stimulated in some way by the changing runs of fish … or was it more simply an invention?”
While Boraas’ research also proves that both the early and late season sockeye runs in the Kenai River date back more than 3,000 years, he is most interested in determining the role that climate change played in the emergence of cold storage innovation. In other words, he hopes to understand the differences between those historical shifts and human-caused climate change today.
“Adaptability is a two-edged sword,” Boraas said. “If humans have values about the place they live, and in some cases love, and that place changes — do you do whatever you can to keep it from changing? Do you adapt to those changes even if those changes may result in a different environment than you wanted to live in? Or do you move?”
The statewide Alaska EPSCoR project is a 5-year, $20 million endeavor. The Southcentral Test Case has a budget of around $1 million per year, which includes funding for educational and community outreach.
Rinella hopes that future funding can help establish a Social-Ecological Systems Research Center within the University of Alaska system.
While the project’s funding ends in July 2017, the data catalogue, which includes geospatial data, temperature logs, stream flow data and water quality, will provide a lasting legacy for future researchers and policy makers to understand the changes in the social and natural environments.
“It’s an interesting question if our management structures and our policies are going to allow these fishermen and these communities to compensate when one thing is going down and another is going up,” Schoen said.
Plenty of work remains on the project, and the ultimate synthesis of the project still remains a little unclear.
“It’s really easy to collect a lot of data, and it’s a more challenging thing to try to understand it,” Meyer said.
Still, for the scientists slogging through alders and tourists this summer, it means a lot that their research will bring a more complete understanding to the complexities of their own backyard.