HOMER — If you think only the edible parts of halibut are valuable, think again.
Throughout the summer and into Alaska Pacific University’s current school year, Dr. Bradley Harris, assistant professor of marine biology, and students in Harris’ fisheries ecology class and in APU’s applied fisheries science laboratory put to good use what normally goes into dumpsters.
Lined up at Homer harbor cleaning tables, the students were dressed in rain gear to keep dry during Homer’s heavy summer rainfall. More importantly, the slickers, rain pants, boots, hats and gloves separated them from bits and pieces of halibut they sliced and diced from remains donated by local fishermen, charter operators and professional filleters. The students took samples of this organ and that, each sample examined, placed in solution, marked and stored for further study.
The fisheries ecology class is a one-month intensive, hands-on experience in which students conduct research “that advances fisheries science in Alaska,” said Harris, a graduate of Chapman School in Anchor Point and a 1993 graduate of Homer High School. The class includes nine graduate students and six junior- or senior-level undergraduates.
“The primary research project is an assessment of the prevalence and intensive of shell boring worms that parasize weathervane scallop shells in Kamishak Bay,” said Harris.
Since 1996, Alaska Department of Fish and Game scientists in Homer gathered nearly 9,000 shells of aging scallops. The students are using that shell archive to assess changes in parasite prevalence and intensity during the past 16 years.
They figured out how to backlight shells to reveal wormtubes and then photographed them and used image analysis software to quantify the infestation in each shell. The work is being done with Rich Gustafson and Dr. Ken Goldman with ADF&G in Homer.
“During the course, we also worked on three other on-going fisheries lab projects,” said Harris. “The first was assessing Pacific halibut size-at-age, parasite load and mushy flesh syndrome in Homer.”
Graduate students Sarah Webster and Caitlin Grenier led that research.
For the second project, students examined razor clams and sediment samples taken from clam beds at Ninilchik Point for aging and habitat assessment.
“This is part of a partnership with the ADF&G biologist Carol Kerkvliet and was led by undergraduate researchers Beck Harris and Sarah Woods,” said Harris.
Juvenile coho salmon from Fish Creek near Big Lake are the students’ third area of focus, specifically conducting a habitat study led by graduate student and U.S. Fish and Wildlife scientist Josh Ashline.
“One final thought is that the scallop and halibut studies both deal with disease. ... I’d like to be sure we focus things on improving our understanding of these species to better manage them and on training the next generation of engaged competent scientists, and not on the rather concerning apparent decline in the health of Cook Inlet fisheries,” said Harris. “Right now we don’t have anything definitive to say about that.”
The Applied Fisheries Science Laboratory at APU includes nine graduate and 16 undergraduate researchers supported by research grants from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, NASA Alaska Spacegrant, the At Sea Processors Association and partnerships with state, federal, academic and private groups. Students come from across the United States, but Harris and a new grad student, Josh Mumm, are from Homer.
Students’ focus in the lab is increased understanding of the ecology of fishery species.
“This includes studying species’ life history and the population-level process important for stock assessments; age and growth, mortality, recruitment and species-habitat relationships,” said Harris. “We also work on fishing gear performance, the interactions of fisheries regulations on fishing communities and on fishery by-catch conflicts.”
The long list of subjects being researched in the lab includes such diverse areas as seabed mapping, a systems analysis of U.S. fisheries law and policy, and the biological risk associated with ballast water discharge in Prince William Sound. The partnerships involved in and benefiting from the projects is equally diverse, from ADF&G to the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland.
Born and raised on the southern Kenai Peninsula, Harris’ background includes commercial fishing in Prince William Sound and the Upper Cook Inlet. He worked aboard ADF&G’s research vessel, the Pandalus, and captained an oil spill response vessel in the Beaufort Sea. He earned a bachelor of science in wildlife and fisheries science from Texas A&M University and has a master of science and a PhD in fisheries oceanography from the University of Massachusetts-Graduate School of Marine Science.