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'This Is The Worst Year That We've Recorded At McLees:' Biologists Wrap Up Salmon Count At Wislow

Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska

This summer, Unalaska collected information on the sockeye salmon run for McLees Lake at Cape Wislow. The data is used to gauge the strength of the run and to establish regulations for subsistence fishing. 

After 17 years of monitoring the salmon run there, in 2018 and 2019 the Alaska Department of Fish and Game wasunable to secure funding for the weir.

For the first time in two years, biologists spent nearly two months out at Wislow sampling and counting fish at the McLees Lake weir, located about 20 miles from Unalaska, in Reese Bay.

On a typical sampling day, Kanesia McGlashan Price and Mariza Tovar, both fish and wildlife technicians with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, open the weir gate for an hour or two in order to catch as many fish as they can. Then, they'll close the gate and Tovar will hop into the trap where she'll wrestle one sockeye at a time — measuring them, documenting whether they're male or female, and even plucking a few scales so that biologists later in the year can read them to establish how old the fish are and calculate how much time they spent in freshwater and in saltwater.

Credit Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska

Tovar is well-versed in the processes of collecting data. This is her second year doing the count at Wislow, and seventh year in total, having worked other seasons in Kodiak and on the Alaska Peninsula. 

But for McGlashan Price, this is her first year at the McLees Lake weir. She said she feels grateful to be spending two months counting fish, because she knows how much this run means to the community of Unalaska and the Unangan people.  

"I think it's really important to monitor the numbers each year, so we can keep track and see that this year our numbers are way lower than they were 10 years ago or even five years ago," said McGlashan Price. "The fact that we can keep track of the runs coming through can maybe shed some light on other topics such as climate change." 

The weir at Wislow has been in place since 2001, when local residents and ADF&G became concerned that lack of reliable escapement estimates for salmon into McLees Lake could jeopardize the health of the run, as well as future opportunities for subsistence fishing. 

But for the last two years, Fish and Game was unable to secure funding to operate the weir. Therefore, there's no data on the strength of the sockeye runs for the past two seasons or data on the health of their habitat.

Credit Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska

"For the past couple of years due to funding cuts, the fish weir hasn't been up and running," said Shayla Shaishnikoff, camp coordinator with the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska. "And that's a pretty important service for our community, especially for our subsistence fishers who rely on red salmon for food. So we partnered with Fish and Game this year to not only provide funding but manpower to get that up and running again."

The Qawalangin Tribe and ADF&G worked together to apply for federal funding this year. Shaishnikoff, along with two interns, and Kaye Gumera, special projects assistant with the tribe, helped repair and rebuild the shelter and outhouse at the McLees Lake camp, which were in disrepair after the counters' two-year absence.

For the past couple of years, Shaishnikoff said Unalaskans have noticed what seems like lower fish runs, but there was no data to support it. She said it's affecting subsistence fishermen and the Unangan people who have depended on healthy salmon runs for generations. 

"In Unalaska, and in the Aleutian region overall, we've been relying on salmon as a means of food for thousands of years," she said. "So this is something that's very important to us, not only as a means of food, but it's also something that connects us to the land, to our ancestors, and to our culture. It's so much more than just eating. So this is something we hope will be around for a very long time." 

This year, the data collected from the McLees lake weir seems to back up Shaishnikoff's and other locals' claims that runs have been slow. 

The sockeye run at Wislow was well below average this year, with only 5,037 reds passing through the weir between early June and late July, according to Tyler Lawson, an ADF&G fisheries biologist for the South Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands. That's well below the minimum escapement goal of 10,000 fish. 

Credit Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska

"The bad news is, this is the worst year that we've recorded at McLees," Lawson said. "The next worst year would be about 8,600 sockeye back in 2008."

But Lawson said the numbers are not catastrophic, and there's no need to panic. While it's a bad year, he said McLees seems to be a system where there are pretty significant booms and busts. The record year for McLees was in 2003, with over 100,000 sockeye passing through. But a few years later, there were only 8,600, and then 10,000 or so for the next few years. But then numbers spiked to 33,000 and 36,000 — well above the minimum escapement goal. 

"We had that bad year, but that was followed by several better years. So I would say, there's definitely some reasons to be optimistic," Lawson said. 

And this year, he said there are still several thousand sockeye at McLees, which will be able to spawn and maybe even do better in the future because salmon are what he calls "density dependent." So even though it's a bad run this year, those sockeye which are able to spawn and reproduce will have all the prime breeding sites in the lake. And when their young are born next spring, those young will have less competition for food, which means they should be able to grow bigger and faster.   

Moreover, on the last day of the count in late July,there were 202 sockeye recorded passing through the weir — or about 4 percent of the total run this year, indicating the pace was picking up, said Lawson. There were also more fish in the river and more fish jumping off the beach, he added. 

"It seems that this was a late run, and we still have quite a few more sockeye coming in," he said. "Even though the number this year is bad, I think there's at least 1,000 more coming in. There could even be 2,000 to 3,000 more sockeye that are still out there. And for whatever reasons — maybe things like climate and weather — the sockeye were late and we should have some more coming back."

In addition to the McLees weir count, Unalaskan Andy Dietrick, owner of Aleutian Aerial LLC, will also operate an aerial drone survey of escapement at Wislow. Lawson said the drone count will lead to better data because it's going to allow the pairing of more precise information from the weir counts — which have a long history of producing reliable data — with the newer, unproven, and less expensive drone estimates. 

Shayla Shaishnikoff and Kaye Gumera with the Qawalangin Tribe contributed reporting. 

Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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