Posted: Monday, November 15, 2004

Sea birds touch down in Alaska's Interior

Least auklets, sea birds that normally live in the Bering Sea, have been spotted in two Interior villages.

"Right away I noticed it had webbed feet," said Michelle Amundson, who saw one of the small black-and-white birds sitting in the snow in the Koyukuk River village of Hughes, 200 miles northwest of Fairbanks. Another of the birds was seen in Birch Creek, a small village 100 miles northeast of Fairbanks.

The birds were found stranded in the villages on the same day three weeks ago following a storm that battered Western Alaska. It's the first record of a least auklet being reported inland in Alaska, according to Dan Gibson, ornithology collections manager at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

The birds died within 24 hours.

Hughes is about 200 miles inland and Birch Creek is about 500 miles from the coast. Experts speculate that the birds were blown inland by the storm, the worst to hit the Bering Sea coast in more than 30 years.

The storm, which produced winds upward of 100 mph in some villages, lasted three days and flooded several towns along the coast.

The storm hit the coast on Oct. 18 and lasted through the night of the 20th. Birds started popping up in villages along the coast on Oct. 21 and the two birds found in Hughes and Birch Creek were discovered on Oct. 22.

Silty water behind shrinking salmon fry

KENAI - Skilak Lake's increasingly silty water is to blame for the shrinking size of local sockeye salmon fry, according to researchers with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The average fry sampled this year at the Kenai Peninsula lake was less than half the size as the average over the past decade, said Fish and Game researcher Mark Willette, who has been part of a team studying salmon fry in the lake for nearly two decades.

The average size of fry sampled in Skilak Lake this year has been about six-tenths of a gram - the smallest on record for fish that should have weighed more than a gram. Fry are baby salmon that spend a year in the lake before heading out to sea as smolt.

When researchers looked at what might be causing the fry to be so small, the first thing they discovered was there isn't a lot for the fish to eat.

According to department research, the trend over the past 15 years has been for the fry to get smaller. During that same period, the amount of copepods - tiny crustaceans that are the primary food source for salmon fry - also has followed a similar trend.

And when researchers looked at why this might be, they found an ominous culprit: glacial silt.

Skilak Glacier sits at the head of Skilak Lake and provides the bulk of the water flowing into the Kenai River. Over the past few decades, the glacier has been undergoing a retreat that's seen it cut back by more than two miles, said Mark Laker, an ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The melting of the glacier is part of a general trend for all glaciers on the peninsula.

The retreat of Skilak Glacier actually has caused another small, silty lake to form at its base - a lake that appeared around the same time as the current warming trend.

What all this means for the future of salmon in the Kenai River is unclear. However, since the majority of the Kenai's sockeye run - millions of fish each year - are reared in Skilak Lake, the consequences of having smaller fry could be devastating.

Willette said the ability of juvenile fish to survive the winter depends on how much weight they can pack on during the summer. If the fry become too small, it could potentially decimate the run.

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