Atlantic Salmon Sampling in Greenland Continues

Here in Qaqortoq the sampling has been going well the past two weeks and I’ve collected data on over 200 Atlantic salmon from the local market. There have been a couple slower days with fewer than half a dozen salmon, but on the flip side I’ve had days with over 40 salmon! I’ve been able to build a nice rapport with many of the fishermen who now often bring their catch directly to me and the sampling equipment before putting their salmon out for sale. On Tuesday I mentioned to the market manager that I wanted to do something for the fishermen and would be bringing pastries for them on Thursday. I meant for it to be a surprise but on Thursday “my regular” fishermen showed up with 44 Atlantic salmon! Maybe it was a coincidence, but I think the pastries had something to do with it – especially since the market manger told me they were looking forward to eating “cake.”

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View of Qaqortoq from a nearby hillside. Photo credit: Graham Goulette, NEFSC/NOAA Fisheries.

Nearly every day a different cruise ship pulls into the harbor in the morning and an array of tourists from Western Europe, Australia, China, North America, etc. descend upon Qaqortoq to visit the local shops, cafes, and the market. I’ve had the opportunity to explain the West Greenland sampling program to many of them and they all appear very interested in the work being conducted. I explain the biological data I collect helps determine the health of the fish, the scale samples are used to age them, and a small tissue sample collected can be analyzed to identify the region of origin (i.e. the country and even region within a country that the salmon originated from).  I also do my best to explain the purpose of some of the other samples which I am collecting at the request of cooperating scientists from across North Atlantic (i.e., presence and counts of sea lice). Of course the tourists are surprised to see the array of critters for sale at the market in addition to the fish; seal, porpoise, whale and seagulls. Personally, I tried everything except the sea gull. Most wasn’t too bad, but I had to force a grin while chewing and swallowing the raw whale meat and skin.

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ASERT biologist Graham Goulette holds a large Atlantic salmon ready to be sampled. Photo credit: Audrey Dean, University of Waterloo.

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ASERT biologist Graham Goulette weighs an Atlantic salmon at the outdoor market in Qaqortoq. Photo credit: Audrey Dean.

There have been several days at the market without the market manager. On one such day I found myself trying to assist the fishermen with negotiating the sale of fish to a cruise ship. The ship’s personnel only spoke Dutch and English, and the fishermen speak either Greenlandic or Danish (or both), so there was a bit of confusion and all I could think to myself was “please don’t screw this up!” However, my familiarity with the prices of fish and which catch belonged to which fisherman helped the transaction go smoothly.

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A large Atlantic salmon brought to the market by a local fisherman. Photo credit: Graham Goulette, NEFSC/NOAA Fisheries.

Audrey Dean, a colleague and graduate student from the University of Waterloo in Canada, has arrived and will be taking over the sampling for this international effort. I’ve spent a couple days showing her how to sample the Atlantic salmon at the market and getting her acquainted with the fishermen. The data she collects, along with all the data from other biologists located in different Greenlandic communities, will be compiled, analyzed and reported to the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES)s’ Working Group on North Atlantic Salmon (WGNAS). The WGNAS will use these data as inputs to their international stock assessment efforts to assess the status of Atlantic salmon populations across the North Atlantic.

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University of Waterloo graduate student Audrey Dean collects a scale sample from an Atlantic salmon at the outdoor market in Qaqortoq. Photo credit: Graham Goulette, NEFSC/NOAA Fisheries.

I’m going to remember my time here in Qaqortoq well, but my photos can’t capture the real beauty of the village and landscape (and I took Photography I and II …over 20 years ago in high school). The experience has been great and I’m fortunate to have had such an awesome time here in Qaqortoq, but I’m ready to be home in a few days. The fishermen, and the entire community, have been very friendly and welcoming, but I’m excited to see my wife and kids! And our dog, Benny, too!

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Friendly looking Atlantic wolffish. Photo credit: Graham Goulette, NEFSC/NOAA Fisheries.

 

Restoring a stream — ear plugs required!

 

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Just me, some friends, a pair of ear plugs, and a post-driver. Photo by NOAA Fisheries

Hello, my name is Sarah Fields and I am interning at NOAA Fisheries through the WaYS [Wabanaki Youth in Science] program. I’m going into my senior year and this is my third year working with NOAA Fisheries out of the Maine Field Station here in Orono, ME.

Recently I got to help work on a restoration project on the  Narraguagus River, one of the last rivers in the United States that supports wild Atlantic salmon. The site we were at was historically used for transporting logs, to help this process the stream was widened and straightened. This caused the ecosystem of the stream to be thrown off balance, affecting turbidity and the natural flow of the water.

To bring the stream back to its natural condition, structures to correct the water flow are placed within the stream. To do this we took down a white pine that would take about 50 years to naturally fall on its own. Taking down this tree helped create a better habitat for fish and an ecosystem closer to what it should be. Trees and debris had in the past been cleared of this waterway due to the logging transportation taking place, the felling of this tree was essential to returning the stream back to its original conditions.

My day at the Narraguagus River started by helping to excavate roots from the white pine.  We spent the majority of the day finding roots and digging them up so that they could be severed with a chainsaw. After all the major roots were cut through, cables tied to the tree gave the tension it needed to fall.

After this success,  we worked on making a triangular structure out of sticks in the middle of the stream to disperse the direction of the water flow to both sides of the structure.

Wooden posts were also placed around the perimeter of the triangular structure to make it more secure. As  you can see from the photo up top, a post-driver was used to do this along with the help of a large wooden tripod to help handle the weight. After finding some earplugs for myself, I got to try out the post-driver.

I really enjoyed the hands-on experience as my first time helping with a restoration project.  Although I am not certain on what it is I want to do, marine science is definitely an option for my future career.

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The finished product — helping water flow using natural debris.  Photo by NOAA Fisheries

2,000 miles from home… in Greenland

August 25, 2017

Over 2,000  miles (3,200 km) away from my home in Maine, I find myself in a foreign yet beautiful landscape and a very different culture working with Atlantic salmon. I’m in Qaqortoq, Greenland participating in an international sampling program organized under the auspice of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO) to collect valuable information on West Greenland’s harvest of Atlantic salmon. It took a bit to get here, and the final leg consisted of a two-hour ride through 6+ foot seas on what may have been a slightly undersized vessel for the conditions. One passenger was actually jostled from her seat to the floor when we came down one of the larger waves. The captain did well though, avoiding the larger icebergs and simply plowing through the smaller ones.

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Village of Qaqortoq as viewed from the local market. Photo by Graham Goulette, NOAA/NEFSC.

From August through October each year, Greenlandic fishermen harvest Atlantic salmon off their coast as part of an internal use only commercial fishery. To characterize the harvest and collect information needed for international stock assessment efforts conducted by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES), NASCO helps establish a sampling program which the NEFSC organizes. In addition to myself, there are representatives in other Greenlandic communities from Canada, England, Ireland, and Scotland who are sampling salmon to determine their biological characteristics, age, country of origin, and also for the presence of tags to gain information on salmon migration timing and presence.  We are also collecting a host of other data and samples to help collaborating researchers learn more about other aspects of the salmon marine life as well as better understand the threats they face at sea.

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Fjord and mountain views from Qaqortoq. Photo by Graham Goulette, NOAA/NEFSC.

Abundant prey in the Labrador Sea off the west coast of Greenland attracts Atlantic salmon from North America, Iceland, and Southern Europe. Here, the ~ 8 inch juvenile salmon smolts that left their home rivers over a year ago find the rich food sources they need to nourish their bodies and grow to 30+ inches before migrating back to their natal rivers to spawn. In light of poor returns from the marine environment in recent decades, researchers like me are trying to garner as much information as we can to assist in determining why there aren’t more salmon coming back.

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A catch of Atlantic Salmon from a local fisherman. Notice the Arctic Char (spotted caudal or tail fin) laid on top. Photo by Graham Goulette, NOAA/NEFSC.

On my first day here I headed to the local market in the afternoon but it had already closed. There were a few people hanging around and I inquired about salmon. A lady who spoke a small amount of English pointed me towards a fisherman who in turn asked if “I liked to pay.” I explained I didn’t want to purchase any salmon, but that I wanted to sample them for the program. Well, he turned his back to me and walked away. However, over the next few days he was the first one to bring salmon into the market each day and allowed me to sample them (for free).

My typical day begins at the local market greeting fisherman as they come to shore with their morning’s catch (generally from gill net sets) and asking if I may sample their landings. Communication is a huge barrier, but with a few gestures and smiles the benevolent fishermen allow me to collect the information I need. Additionally, the market manager speaks English and has been an enormous benefit in assisting me with communicating with the fishermen. I only know how to say “thank you” in Greenlandic but a few more phrases would be of assistance. For example, one morning on the way to the local market I headed down a large stretch of narrow steps, probably the equivalent of 6 stories, and found myself  in the middle a group of 8 – 10 year old Greenlandic and Danish children who blocked my path. I said “excuse me” and one of them blurted out a phrase I took to mean as “huh?” The next few moments were pretty tense as the group of youths just stared at me. I could sense them sizing me up, but in the end they each stuck out a hand for me to shake and let me pass – close call!

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A nice landing of Atlantic Cod from a local fisherman. Photo by Graham Goulette, NOAA/NEFSC.

Often there is an array of species brought to market, ranging from the more abundant Atlantic cod, Atlantic salmon, Atlantic wolffish, redfish, and Arctic char. With the salmon the sampling can be fast and furious as I don’t want to squander a fisherman’s opportunity to sell his catch. Over the first two days of sampling I have seen and sampled 31 salmon. Three have had external tags. One tag indicated the fish came from Canada, while the other two had visual implant elastomer (VIE) tags.  There is a chance that maybe one of these fish actually came from the US and that I may have handled one of these fish a couple years earlier when they were only ~ 8 inches long and just heading out to sea.

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Barely visible, but to the upper left of the eye is a green visual implant elastomer tag. Photo by Graham Goulette, NOAA/NEFSC.

Sometimes at the end of the day I purchase something from the market to have for dinner. The other day I went to the grocery store to pick up a bottle of wine to pair with my meal. Much to my dismay there was a solid steel curtain enclosing the entire beer and wine section. I checked the time – 6:12 PM. The steel curtain drops at 6 PM sharp. Oh well, live and learn!

I will be here over the next two weeks so I hope to be able to collect much more information for the sampling program. Of course the weather may dictate how often the fishermen set or tend their gear, but I’m hoping the wind is fair and waters are calm.

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Curious snow bunting gawking in my direction. Photo by Graham Goulette, NOAA/NEFSC.

Graham Goulette
Atlantic Salmon Ecosystems Research Team (ASERT)
Maine Field Station, Orono`

Too hot? Too cold? Or just right?

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NOAA Fisheries biologist Graham Goulette retrieves and downloads a temperature logger from the Narraguagus River in Downeast Maine. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC

Hi – I’m Graham Goulette.  As a member of the Atlantic Salmon Ecosystem and Research Team out of the NOAA Fisheries Maine Field Station in Orono, I maintain a series of temperature loggers deployed in juvenile Atlantic salmon rearing habitat as part of a statewide effort in Maine to monitor stream temperature. Collecting stream temperature may seem mundane, but sometimes it’s little tasks like this that provide significant contributions to much larger projects further down the road.

Temperature is important for all livings things, especially fish. They are ectothermic — which means they rely on their environment to manage their body temperature.  Different species tolerate different temperatures, however, Atlantic salmon and other cold-water species require cooler temperatures in order to survive. We focus on the endangered population of Atlantic salmon found in the Gulf of Maine and the watersheds where they can live.

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Juvenile Atlantic salmon resting in a gravel patch on the bottom of a cold- water stream near a logger site. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC

We place temperature loggers in streams so we can monitor temperatures in these important habitats throughout the time juveniles are developing. The loggers are collecting data that form a record of temperatures over time, one that has multiple purposes.

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Temperature data retrieved from the logger is uploaded to a laptop from a waterproof shuttle. The data are displayed to ensure proper collection and re-deployment of the logger before leaving the site. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC

For instance, in drought years like the summer of 2016, we can see how warm the water was in certain rearing areas for juvenile salmon, an indicator of whether conditions were good, or not so good, for juvenile salmon survival.  We know that at 22.5 oC, juvenile salmon stop growing.  If they are in 27.8 oC water for seven days, none survive. On the lower temperature end, at 3.8 oC they stop eating.  So stream temperature data from these rearing habitats are important for running growth rate models and can also provide an early glimpse into likely survival rates for juveniles in a given year.

Our temperature data are also contributed to a much broader stream temperature database. Data from federal and state agencies as well as universities and non-governmental organizations across the Northeastern U.S. from multiple collection efforts are shared, reducing duplication of effort.  This collaboration allows for a much larger geographical distribution of temperature collection than a single entity could tackle.

The entire database supports SHEDS — Spatial Hydro-Ecological Decision System – a data visualization and decision-support tool.  Among other things, SHEDS feeds a model that predicts daily mean water temperatures.  Forecasting stream temperatures is important for identifying where salmonids will find cool water refugia in the future. Have a look at the SHEDS public data viewer – search on NOAA as the agency and you’ll see what I have been up to this summer!

Salmon team and predators ready for Spring on the Penobscot

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This is the computer readout from our two frequency echosounders.  The water surface and bottom are thick red lines, the specks in between the lines are likely fish. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/NEST

Another beautiful spring day in Maine means that salmon biologists are busy in the field.  Since our last post, we’ve been waiting for the warmth of spring to arrive, bringing with it the sea-run fish migrations.  Last Friday we conducted one of our biweekly fish surveys of the Penobscot Estuary.  We used single frequency echosounders, also known as “fish finders”, to measure the amount of fish in the water column as we cruised through the estuary.  Generally this technique is called “hydroacoustics,”and uses sound waves to record what types of objects are in the water.  In our case we are using it to identify fish in the water.

For the past five years, we have made the same cruise along the Penobscot Estuary and are accumulating the data from echosounders which translate into the number of fish.  This allows us to describe patterns of fish abundance.  Many of these fish are sea-run species that make a migration inland during the spring.

Why is this important? Because one aspect of our research is understanding the dynamics of Atlantic salmon smolt survival as they migrate from rivers to the ocean.  Previous studies have shown that predators are a big factor. This survey is designed to figure out where predators such as large fish, cormorants, and seals congregate relative to their prey – namely, fish.  While the echosounders are counting fish, we observe the birds or mammals that we see, record their species, number, and behavior (feeding or resting).  Describing the overlapping distributions of predators and prey is the first step in understanding the complex ecological interactions that salmon are part of as they migrate to sea.

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A pair of loons looking for a meal in the freshwater portion of the Penobscot River estuary. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/NEST

 

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A harbor seal sits on a haul-out ledge. The Penobscot Estuary survey records the number and location of any marine mammals encountered to help in determining areas of potentially high predation for Atlantic salmon smolts as they migrate the estuary. Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/NEST

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Roosting double crested cormorants. These birds are exceptional fishers that eat migrating Atlantic salmon smolts in Maine Rivers.  Photo by NOAA/NEFSC/NEST

In this survey our nice day turn unsettled when Northwest winds instigated a small craft advisory for the area.  Luckily for us we were already north of the more exposed areas of the survey and could safely continue on our mission.  We saw a number of cormorants and seals but they were mostly at roosting and haul-out areas.

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Justin Stevens, contract NOAA Fisheries biologist, navigating the Penobscot Estuary during a fish survey using hydroacoustics. The weather looks nice but mid-survey a small craft advisory was issued for the general area and this is the face of a boat operator scowling at the news.

 

The number of fish counted with the echosounder was less than we have seen in previous years by this time, but water temperatures are still around 10°C (50°F) so we probably are not close to the peak of the fish migration.  My gut tells me that things will be changing soon given we have started to have some sunny days with temperatures in the 80s.  One thing that is guaranteed, things will be different next time we are out.

 

The NOAA Fisheries Northeast Salmon Team

Penobscot River, Maine

 

 

 

 

Another fish migration season starts on the Penobscot River

When I tell someone I work for NOAA, they ask what the weather is going to be.  When I clarify I work with Fisheries, they assume I work with groundfish.  But when I explain I work with sea-run fish that need both the ocean and rivers to complete their life-cycle, for example the endangered Atlantic Salmon, they are often hearing a story for the first time.  This post will be one in a series this spring to help inform folks about what sea-run fish are and why NOAA fisheries studies them.

For me, spring means the melting of snow and break-up of ice in rivers allowing sea-run fish to begin their migration inland to spawn.  Monitoring these migrations is a large part of the work done at NOAA’s Maine Field Station and something I have done for the past 16 seasons as a fisheries biologist in Maine.  Today (April 28) was the first day of our estuary fish survey, which encompasses the sea-run fish migration period that runs from April to November.  Our study goal is to measure the timing and abundance of the 12 sea-run fish species within the Penobscot River Estuary, a system with a long history of abundant runs of salmon, shad, smelt, river herring but currently struggling to maintain the small fraction that remain today.  We use two types of gear, acoustics that I will talk about in later posts, and a mid-water trawl which is the feature today.

At the start of the day, we were greeted by a familiar face as we walk onto the docks. Josh, a local lobsterman from Isleboro, is contracted with NOAA Fisheries and provides use of his boat and estuary expertise to assist us in conducting our research. Also joining us was a fellow researcher, Eric Brunsdon, with the Atlantic Salmon Federation located out of Saint Andrews, Canada. He was interested in learning about our data collection methods with hopes to bring this knowledge back to Canada to conduct similar studies. To us, collecting quality data are fundamental, but the people we work with, and the ability to share our techniques with other researchers, are just as important.

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Justin Stevens (left), contract NOAA Fisheries biologist, discusses sampling and gear methods with Eric Brunsdon (right), biologist with the Atlantic Salmon Federation. Photo by Sarah Bailey, NOAA Fisheries.

Our objective as we start the day was to verify the sonar survey conducted the previous day, which revealed few fish in the estuary – typical for early spring when the water is cold and migrations are just beginning.  We planned on conducting 8 tows within our study area but are always at the mercy of the tide and river conditions.  Here in the Penobscot River Estuary, the combination of a 15 feet tidal range and a river draining two-thirds of the state results in water velocities that vary minute by minute and determine what sampling we can complete.  Our first few tows provided little excitement with only a couple juvenile Atlantic and Blueback Herring, typical when water temperatures are around 6°C (43°F) .

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A typical catch for the Penobscot Estuary during early spring: few fish including blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis), nearly translucent Atlantic Herring (Clupea harengus), and the ctenophore or ‘Sea Gooseberry’ (Pleurobrachia pileus). Photo credit: Sarah Bailey, NOAA Fisheries.

The day was not without a hiccup, when a tow came up with flounder and a tear in the net. This indicates the strong currents sunk our net to the bottom.  After a quick net repair and moving locations, we were able to get the remaining tows in for the day.  The most exciting haul of the day was a catch of Rainbow smelt and Atlantic tomcod in the midst of their spawning run.  Rainbow smelt are a sea-run species that were once a favorite for New England anglers from Connecticut to Maine but have experienced declines in abundance with the only strong runs left today in Eastern Maine including here in the Penobscot.  Although today was relatively quiet capturing hundreds of fish, in a few short weeks we hope to see these numbers increase to thousands per tow as the sea-run migration unfolds.

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We measure adult rainbow smelt before releasing them to continue their spawning cycle. Any local angler would be happy to have a pail of these for a fish fry dinner tonight!! Photo credit: Sarah Bailey, NOAA Fisheries.

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The closest thing to a groundfish we handle here at NOAA Fisheries’ Maine Field Station is the sea-run Atlantic tomcod (Microgadus tomcod).  It is a miniature relative of the iconic Atlantic cod, also called a “frost fish” as they can be seen spawning in the still icy brooks along the estuaries of the Northeast U.S. and Canada. Photo credit: Sarah Bailey, NOAA Fisheries.

More to come as the season progresses….

Justin Stevens
Fisheries Biologist
NOAA/Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC)
Maine Field Station
Orono, Maine