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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

FAIRBANKS FIELD OFFICE: Using Citizen Scientists to Build Community Stewardship

Region 0, December 11, 2012
Families reported that the best parts of the project were getting outside each week and seeing children learn how to handle fish.
Families reported that the best parts of the project were getting outside each week and seeing children learn how to handle fish. - Photo Credit: n/a
Minnow traps were used to catch fish weekly throughout the summer.
Minnow traps were used to catch fish weekly throughout the summer. - Photo Credit: n/a
Viewing boxes made it possible to easily measure the fish, reduced fish handling and allowed us to see the fish close-up.
Viewing boxes made it possible to easily measure the fish, reduced fish handling and allowed us to see the fish close-up. - Photo Credit: n/a

The Chena River Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) return is one of the largest in the Alaska portion of the Yukon River. The lower river flows through downtown Fairbanks, the 2nd largest city in the state.

 

Surprisingly many residents of the area don’t realize that this river provides very important spawning and rearing habitat for Chinook salmon and resident species like Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus). In the summer of 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) teamed up with local residents and conducted a pilot outreach and education project to learn more about juvenile fish, especially Chinook salmon, in the Chena River. The project was so successful that in 2012, the USFWS partnered with the Tanana Valley Watershed Association (TVWA) to continue and expand the project to include more sites and volunteer samplers. For both years the objectives were to: 1) use outreach and education to increase the Fairbanks community’s awareness and appreciation for the Chena River Chinook salmon population; 2) use citizen scientists to collect relative abundance information about juvenile fish; and 3) promote stewardship of these important resources throughout the community.

The citizen scientists were recruited from a diverse mix of local families, homeschool groups, landowners, and University of Alaska and high school students. These groups used minnow traps to conduct weekly sampling. All captured fish were identified to species, tallied, and released. In 2011, 57 citizen scientists (37 youth and 20 adults) sampled an average of seven sites each week from 29 April to 6 October, for an estimated 278 hours spent setting and checking traps. In 2012, improved recruiting efforts increased the number of citizen scientists to 124 (77 youth and 47 adults). These citizen scientists sampled an average of 13 sites per week for an estimated 494 hours of effort from 15 May to 1 October 2012. In 2011, a total of 779 fish were caught. While 194 Chinook salmon (24% of total) were captured, the most frequently captured species was slimy sculpin (Cottus cognatus, 61% of total). We also caught burbot (Lota lota), lake chub (Couesius plumbeus), Alaska blackfish (Dallia pectoralis), lamprey (Lampetra sp.), longnose sucker (Catostomus catostomus), Arctic grayling, and round whitefish (Prosopium cylindraceum) (less than 5% each). In 2012, we caught almost twice as many fish for a total of 1,511 captures, but we did not capture Arctic grayling or round whitefish. Unlike 2011, the most frequently captured species was Chinook salmon (849, 56% of total) with slimy sculpin being second at 37% of the total. Burbot, lake chub, lamprey, Alaska blackfish, and longnose sucker were also captured (less than 5% each). The area near the Moose Creek Dam provided the highest catches of juvenile Chinook salmon during the project and accounted for 42% of the catch in 2011 and 92% in 2012.

Using citizen scientists as part of an outreach and education program was successful because this approach: 1) engaged the public and provided a weekly vehicle for discussions about Chinook salmon and healthy habitats; 2) educated youth and adults about proper fish identification and handling techniques; 3) provided information that may be used to guide future studies; and 4) connected the samplers with their local fishery resources, thereby inspiring stewardship values and a sense of ownership and pride. The success of this approach was further reinforced in a post-project evaluation, where sampling groups described their enjoyment of being outside each week and their satisfaction in seeing children learn how to handle fish. Another fulfilling aspect noted by the groups was participating in a project that added to the overall knowledge about Chinook salmon in the Chena River.

The Chena River is an important resource for local stakeholders and the fish and wildlife that depend on its habitat. Developing a sense of community stewardship for the river will encourage landowners and managers to make well-informed decisions about future land use and natural resource management. Citizen scientists can play an important role in developing this sense of stewardship.

Special appreciation is extended to all the citizen scientists who made this project a success. Appreciation is also extended to TVWA technicians, Susan Port and Irene Holak, for leading the sampling in 2012. Additional thanks go to the USFWS Fairbanks Field Office. Funding for this project was provided by the USFWS and by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Funds, administered by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fund (in 2011) and the USFWS and the U.S. Yukon River Salmon Research and Management Fund RM 32-12 (in 2012).The use of commercial products does not constitute endorsement or recommendation for use by the federal government. For more information please contact Jessica Armstrong (jessica_armstrong@fws.gov).

Contact Info: Jessica Armstrong, 907-455-1874, jessica_armstrong@fws.gov