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A Vacation In Alaska, the 49th State

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Salmon returns are down in Metlakatla. These junior scientists are discovering possible reasons why.

was written by Elizabeth Jenkins, Alaska’s Energy Desk – Juneau , 2019-12-07 02:25:50

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The Metlakatla Boys & Girls Club was recognized in 2019 at an annual international GLOBE conference for the their scientific achievements. (Still from video by Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

Ocean temperatures were well above average for much of the state this year.

And fish biologists throughout Southeast Alaska are monitoring salmon streams carefully. There are questions about how warm water and abnormally dry conditions could affect salmon returns.

In Metlakatla, a group of young scientists are logging their own data to better understand the future they’re inheriting.

On the trail to Hemlock Creek, the Boys & Girls Club members were nervous about running into a black bear. The forest is thick with trees and brush.

But Sesilynn Schleusner, the club manager, knows how to put the kids at ease. She lets out a loud whistle.

There were no bear sightings on the rugged path to the stream. But a curious seal popped its head out of the water to examine the adults and three preteens standing on the shore.

Schleusner takes this group here about once a week during the school year to test the water. They’re part of GLOBE, a NASA program which has trained over 100 teachers and mentors in Alaska since 1996 to engage students in science questions.

The Boys & Girls Club in Metlakatla has collected water samples from two salmon streams since 2018. The kids collect data on water temperature, pH and dissolved oxygen levels — that’s what helps salmon breathe through gills. But when the water temperature warms, dissolved oxygen decreases. It can kill fish or make the streams less desirable for returning salmon.

Both streams the club monitors have seen low salmon returns for the fish that spawn during even years. And these kids want to know why.

Mia Winter, 11, said that’s something on her mind.

“Almost everyone here fishes, or almost everyone in someone’s family fishes that lives here,” Mia Winter said.

Mia Winter’s uncle, Dustin Winter, also wants to know more about the health of salmon streams.

“We need our salmon runs to be strong, so we can survive here in Metlakatla,” he said.

Dustin Winter is the director of Metlakatla’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the Annette Island Reserve’s fisheries. A few years ago, the department started tracking salmon streams in the area by measuring water levels and temperatures in creeks.

Winter thinks the recent drought that’s played out in Southeast Alaska is likely contributing to fish numbers, overall, being down. He said biologists need more long-term data to fully understand how the ecosystem is changing.

Still, he thinks it’s “definitely related” to the drought.

“We can see it specifically in that one system we’re talking about now,” Winter said. “Water levels are down to just a trickle. In one case, we’ve had water temperatures as high as 80 degrees.”

Normally, water levels are a flow — not a trickle. Optimal temperatures for salmon production are around 40 or 50 degrees. But with warmer conditions, there’s less dissolved oxygen. Salmon have a tougher chance at survival.

Mia Winter concentrates as she goes through the many steps to discern dissolved oxygen levels in the creek. (Still from video by Joey Mendolia/Alaska Public Media)

Back at Hemlock Creek, the kids at the Boys & Girls Club rushed to the van to start testing a vial of water for dissolved oxygen.

Mia Winter put on goggles and gloves to handle the chemicals she carefully added to the water. In total, there are about 13 steps she has to follow to get the data.

“It’s hard to do that, because you can’t mess it up at all or you’ll mess up the whole entire thing,” she said.

But Winter didn’t mess it up. She handled the experiment with the cool demeanor of a scientist.

The dissolved oxygen levels in the creek looked pretty good that day.

On the drive back to the club house, Sesilynn Schleusner said she’d like these kids to continue collecting the research throughout high school. Contributing to the NASA program in their young years could be just the beginning.

“I’m hoping that it really gets their foot in the door to get in with a good natural resources program and bring what they learned back home,” Schleusner said.

After all, it’s a home they’ll come back to as oceans continue to change.

This story was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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Going To Alaska

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Locally suggested places to see for every person heading to Alaska is

Denali National Park and Preserve. First intended to protect wildlife, the landscapes are nevertheless impressive. Denali contains 160 miles of the Alaska Range and commanding this sky line is North America’s highest peak; 20,320 foot Mount McKinley simply one of the most extraordinary views in Alaska, if not the world. However it’s not just the mountain that makes Denali National Park an extraordinary place. The park is also the place to find thirty seven species of mammals, including lynx, marmots and Dall sheep, to foxes and snowshoe hares, and 130 different bird species can be found noticed here, which includes the impressive golden eagle. The majority of visitors, however, want to see four animals in particular: moose, caribou, wolf and everybody’s popular: the grizzly, bear. Denali, unlike the majority of wilderness areas in the country, it’s not necessary to be a backpacker to experience this kind of wildlife, they can be seen right next to the famous Denali Park road. Not surprisingly then, visitors arrive here in droves; the park is a favorite destination, drawing 432,000 visitors annually. Over time the National Park Service (NPS) has evolved special visitor-management methods, such as shutting its only road to most vehicles. For that reason Denali National Park is still the wonderful wilderness it was two decades ago. The entrance has changed, however the park itself hasn’t, and any brown bear meandering on a tundra ridge still provide the identical quiet thrill as it did when the park first opened up in 1917. Though generations of Athabascans had wandered through what’s at present the park, the first permanent settlement was set up in 1905, when a gold miners’ rush established the town of Kantishna. A year later, naturalist and hunter Charles Sheldon was taken aback by the beauty of the land and horrified at the careless abandon of the miners and big-game hunters. Sheldon returned in 1907 and traveled the area along with guide Harry Karstens in an effort to put in place boundaries for a proposed national park. Sheldon was successful and the area was organized as Mount McKinley National Park in 1917 with Karstens serving as the park’s first superintendent. As a result of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the park was enlarged to more than 6 million acres and renamed Denali National Park and Preserve. Denali right now consists of an area somewhat bigger than the state of Massachusetts and is typically rated as one of Alaska’s top points of interest.

a visit to Denali National Park in Alaska

Seeing Denali National Park in Alaska