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A Living Laboratory

Through the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, Sarah Schooler, ’15, spent six weeks in the Alaskan bush, collecting the same data in the field she’d been studying in the classroom: salmon and the hungry habits of grizzly bears.

“Male, brain, body.”

“Female, belly.”

Seven days a week, Sarah Schooler, ’15, suits up in chest-high waders, grabs her bear spray, hops a boat, and walks the length of Lake Aleknagik’s Hansen Creek, counting and categorizing every dead sockeye salmon she happens upon, calling out the sex followed by the parts of the body that were consumed.

Brain, body, belly, hump.

Some salmon are floating lifelessly downstream, carried away from the hordes pushing the opposite direction — upstream — to spawn. Others have washed ashore the gravel banks, while countless others have been littered across “bear kitchens” — flat spots among the tall grass where the sheer size (and constant presence) of a grizzly has matted down the earth.

“Male, bite.”

Another student quickly scribbles the data, while Schooler hooks what’s left of the salmon with a gaff and chucks it to the side of the stream, essentially wiping the carnage clean so she can collect a new set of data the next day. At random, Sarah tags the jaws of the dead to see if bears return to snack on the parts of the fish they passed on before — maybe they took a bite of the belly then left the rest — noting the GPS coordinates.

On an “easy” day, walking the mile-and-a-half-long stream takes maybe an hour and a half. On a heavy kill day? The process of working through hundreds of fish takes more like seven or eight hours.

And that’s life for a student, like Schooler, spending a summer collecting data in the greater Bristol Bay watershed through the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences’ Alaska Salmon Program — the world’s longest-running effort to monitor salmon and their ecosystems.

Learn more about Sarah Schooler’s project and see the results of her research at the University of Washington website.

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