There are more questions than answers about the problems facing fisheries in Cook Inlet. And scientists working on those problems are chronically short on time and funding. But a new fisheries program at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage has students tackling some important research questions. And it isn’t just graduate students doing the work, undergrads are getting their feet wet doing real science too.
In a cave-like basement room on the APU campus Sarah Webster is grinding dried halibut tissue. Her high tech tool for the job? A mortar and pestle:
“I’m starting to get some really nice calluses on my hand. The first couple days were really painful.”
Webster is discovering the gritty realities of graduate student lab work at APU. She’s studying why pacific halibut are getting smaller. When she’s done grinding the tissue samples, she’ll send them off to a lab for high tech analysis that will tell her what the fish ate in the months before it died:
“Something has changed so halibut aren’t growing as quickly and because growth is related to how much nutrition and how much food you intake, it makes sense that would be what the mechanism is.”
A 15 year old halibut today is half the size it was 40 years ago. Webster’s halibut study is just one of more than a dozen fisheries research projects APU Professor Brad Harris is overseeing. He arrived at the university two years ago and has quickly turned the marine biology program into a research engine for fisheries in Alaska. It’s the only applied fisheries university program in Anchorage. Harris says it just makes sense:
“If we’re going to go out and do this work, we might as well work on something that matters and produce a product that’s useful.”
So Harris partners with federal and state biologists to find appropriate research projects. And he doesn’t leave all the fun stuff to his graduate students.
Undergraduates are helping with a Fish and Game razor clam study near Kenai. They gather halibut data in Homer in the summer. And this semester, he had them working to figure out why two scallop beds in Kamishak Bay have declined sharply in the last decade.
APU Junior Angela Wilkenson leads me into a storage room where 25 seafood freezer boxes are stacked, all full of scallop shells. That’s 12,000 shells the Homer Fish and Game office sent to APU for analysis.
The students are trying to determine if an invasive worm has gotten more prevalent in the scallop shells as the population has declined. They figured out a way to use a camera and computers to analyze how much of each shell was infected with the worm. It was tedious work. But Wilkenson says they got the answer.
“As the scallop population has seemed to decrease the worm prevalence has seemed to increase.”
Does that mean the worms are causing the population decline? That will take more study. But Homer based Fish and Game biologist Ken Goldman says the data is fantastic. The Department doesn’t have enough biologists to tackle all the research projects that would help them do a better job managing the fisheries.
“I’m just a geeky scientist, but that’s the stuff that gets me excited. To make sure we can pursue that goal of sustainable fisheries and to foster responsible management, it takes data. Without data all opinions are equal. So data is what we need to make the right decisions as we move forward.”
And Professor Harris says coming up with that data helps his students understand what a career as a fisheries biologist is all about. They quickly figure out that it’s either not for them, or it is. And if it is- Harris’ teaching philosophy gives them full rein to start digging in deep:
“As soon as undergrad students understand what they really want to do, their courses have a new context. They see that this is something they need to get somewhere, versus an impediment they have to get over to get a degree. Getting the degree ceases to be the goal. Being a proficient scientist that can really contribute starts to become what they focus on. And that’s exciting to them.”
Harris says he has had no trouble attracting interesting research questions for his students to take on. He quickly found himself dealing with the opposite problem, having to say no to worthy projects. But there is always next year, with a whole new group of students ready to learn.