Fishing for a sample

Salmon research · you catch it, they check it

Posted: Friday, July 20, 2007

 

  Ramona Baker, at right, and Julianne Pettey, center, examine Kenai River king salmon caught by an angler in June. The two are spending their summer taking measurements and samples from king salmon for use in research by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Photo courtesy of Tim McKinley,

Ramona Baker, at right, and Julianne Pettey, center, examine Kenai River king salmon caught by an angler in June. The two are spending their summer taking measurements and samples from king salmon for use in research by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Photo courtesy of Tim McKinley,

Julianne Pettey kneels down in the stern of Ryan Rosenbaum's Big T guide boat. She stretches a tape measure across a gleaming king salmon, carefully measuring its length in millimeters from eyeball to fork of the tail.

"Eleven-fifteen," Pettey calls out to her partner, Ramona Baker, who scratches the number down on her clipboard. "A new season record!"

Pettey takes dog nail clippers and snips off three translucent scales, and uses tweezers to extract a tissue sample near the pelvic fin on the underside of the fish and slips it into a vial of ethanol.

"We're research grunts," Baker tells Bob Bagwell, an angler from Phoenix, Ariz. who reeled the fish in not two hours earlier.

"So, you guys are making bank," Bagwell says.

"That's a relative term," Baker tells him.

Baker and Pettey, home from college for the summer, are researchers for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a common sight to anglers on the Kenai River this season. On a cloudy Wednesday morning the women tugged their waders over their jeans, pulled on their boots and took to the Kenai River. Their mission: To track down anglers and retrieve genetic information on the king salmon they reeled in that morning.

"(There's) a lot of really great people," Baker said. "Really friendly all around."

Four days a week they motor between the Soldotna Bridge and the conjunction of the Moose and Kenai Rivers in search of kings. On the fifth day, they research fish in the area between Bing's Landing and Skilak Lake.

"We know most of the guides on the river," Baker said. "They flash us the number of fish (they caught) and we arrange to meet them when they pull out."

Baker, an environmental science major from Lewis and Clark University in Portland, Ore., grew up in Nikiski. Now in her fourth year working for Fish and Game, Baker became involved through her high school biology teacher.

"It's just a matter of applying," she said, adding that she had to write an essay before she became involved. "There are a lot of college kids who come back and do Fish and Game work for the summer."

Pettey, an electronics engineering major at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., grew up in Kenai. A graduate of Wing's Academy, Pettey started working with Fish and Game as a high school student monitoring the red salmon fish wheels.

"I get to be outside and I get to play with fish," Pettey said, adding that she is all set to work for Fish and Game next summer if the job is available. "I'd love to do it."

The scale and tissue samples Baker and Pettey take will be shipped to Anchorage for genetic analysis. Tim McKinley, sport fish biologist for Fish and Game, said the samples will give his department an idea of what part of the Kenai River drainage that particular salmon were going to spawn.

"We find out if they were headed toward the Funny River or the Killey River," McKinley said, giving a few examples. "It's just like trying to count fish with sonar. We want to see how many fish (sportfishermen) are taking out that are going to these different parts of the Kenai.

This project, called stock assessment, is designed to help Fish and Game officials keep track of the steadily declining numbers of early run king salmon on the Kenai River. Although this project is geared specifically toward kings, McKinley said researchers do the same for reds and silvers.

Fish and Game enlists the help of high school graduates and college students like Baker and Pettey to collect tissue samples and other raw data required for determining where fish are going. In addition to taking measurements and samples, Baker and Pettey record when and where the fish was caught, whose boat was used, whether the angler was guided or unguided and the fish's sex and color.

"Really we're looking for good high school graduates and college students," McKinley said. "Real handy folks that are interested in working for us during the summer."

After Pettey recorded the length of Bagwell's boat, she wrapped the tape measure around the fish's midsection and told him its girth.

"Twenty-nine inches around," she said.

Although they're not sure how yet, Pettey and Baker said they are sure this experience will help them later on in life. McKinley said the boat-driving and maintenance skills and the science they learned will definitely stay with them as they grow up.

"I've told them that when you're driving across the bridge with your grandkids, you can say I used to run that river," McKinley said. "They're going to have that for life."

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at jessica.cejnar@peninsulaclarion.com.



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