Kuskokwim Youth as Future Fisheries Leaders

Janessa Esquible assists a student from Aniak with juvenile salmon identification on the Aniak and Salmon River Math and Science Expedition (MSE). photo by Dave Cannon

by Janessa Esquible and Dan Gillikin

A fundamental need for tribal organizations in rural Alaska is to build “capacity” to sustain a natural resources program that addresses the needs of stakeholders, engages stakeholders in resource management, and bridges gaps among western science and traditional and local knowledge.
Capacity building is much more than just having administrative policies in place, or the needed infrastructure; building capacity also means investing in people. Only through development of a skilled, motivated work force that believes in, and has a full comprehension of, their duties at task, in addition to community support and credibility with local stakeholders, can any local program reach sustainability.
While several levels of local engagement exist, we focus here on engaging youth in Kuskokwim River fisheries science.
The Partners for Fisheries Resource Monitoring Program began in 2003. The Partners Program (https://www.doi.gov/subsistence/frmp/partners) is a competitive grant directed at funding biologist/social scientist/educator positions in Alaska Native and rural organizations with the intent of increasing the ability of these organizations to participate in Federal subsistence management.
The program also supports opportunities for local, rural students to connect with subsistence resource monitoring and management through science camps and paid internships (U.S. Department of Interior).
Partners Biologist Janessa Esquible, representing Orutsararmiut Native Council (ONC) in Bethel, Alaska, and Partners Biologist Dan Gillikin, representing the Native Village of Napaimute (NVN) in Aniak, Alaska, lead their affiliated tribal fisheries programs. Both programs manage different Kuskokwim fisheries projects in coordination with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G).
Each program also places a large emphasis on youth involvement in fisheries science. In the summer of 2017, ONC initiated a Youth Representative Program in the hopes of recruiting two local high school students to gain exposure to Kuskokwim River salmon management.
This program was created in response to the near absence of youth at summer Kuskokwim River salmon management meetings, coupled with the need for increased local youth involvement in Kuskokwim fisheries projects.
Local youth who expressed interest in natural resource management, with a focus on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Region, applied for these positions. These positions are intended to expose youth to Kuskokwim River fisheries management through attendance of weekly Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group (KRSMWG) meetings and federal in-season management meetings.
The program also allowed these students to gain a variety of skills by spending time on Kuskokwim River fisheries projects led by ADF&G, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), ONC, and NVN.
Students selected to serve as summer youth representatives were Avery Hoffman (12th grade) and Elijah Lindley (11th grade). Both students attend Bethel Regional High School and were raised in Bethel. As summer youth representatives, they participated in several days of preseason training offered by ADF&G and USFWS to learn aspects of interview protocols, data needs, data uses, and procedures for collection of age-sex-length (ASL) data.
The program gave Elijah, “some new insight on the subsistence needs up and down the river,” “how people viewed restrictions,” and “how the data we collected was represented on tables.”
More specifically, harvest and effort data collected at the Bethel boat harbor and Bethel area fish camps were used by USFWS to develop inseason salmon harvest estimates. These data, along with other harvest and effort data collected in lower Kuskokwim River villages, informed management decisions for Chinook Salmon subsistence opportunities throughout the month of June.
During the surveys, respondents also provided concerns or comments that were relayed to managers at KRSMWG meetings. Elijah also had the opportunity to identify, weigh, measure length, and tag Chinook Salmon smolt at the Kwethluk River weir, operated by the USFWS Kenai Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office.
“By far, working at the weir was the most enjoyable part of working with ONC,” claims Elijah. While at the weir, Elijah developed a better understanding of the importance of weirs, how the data collected in a tributary allow biologists to estimate smolt abundance, spawning abundance, and how the relationship from smolt outmigration to adult returns defines ocean survival.
As a youth representative, Elijah became “more involved in the community” due to his time spent at fish camps interviewing fishing families and delivering fish to elders, the disabled, and widows within and around Bethel.
Avery Hoffman, the second ONC youth representative, initially thought fish camp surveys “would be a piece of cake,” until he realized some of the challenges in conducting surveys in the field. By the end of the season, Avery had “gained confidence” and was quite comfortable conducting harvest and effort surveys at fish camps, while also frequently encountering family members and friends in the process.
When Avery was surveying fish camps, he also worked to recruit subsistence users to participate in the Chinook Salmon ASL sampling program. This involved Avery, a trained ASL sampler, bringing sampling kits out to fish camps and teaching local harvesters in the collection of ASL data. When not in the field, Avery assisted with the ONC program to collect fish captured in ADF&G sampling programs and distribute those fish to Bethel area residents.
Avery noted that, “Bringing the fish to elders gave me so much joy, and them joy for having their first taste of salmon of the year.” Avery also participated in an intern exchange program with NVN where he spent some time with the Aniak Test Fishery crew, learning about key differences between the test fisheries operated at Aniak and at Bethel.
A highlight was learning to mend nets. During the exchange program, Avery also helped install the Salmon River weir. Ultimately, his planned one month experience at ONC extended to nearly three-months based on ONC project needs and Avery’s desire to continue working with us through the summer.
Both Avery and Elijah are continuing their education and are well on their way to undergraduate degrees and likely careers working in Kuskokwim resource aspects.
The NVN, in partnership with the Kuspuk School District (KSD), ADF&G, and USFWS, hosted its second annual internship opportunity on the George River for 11 students from the Kuskokwim Region.
The paid George River Science Internship (GRI) is modeled after the Aniak River Math and Science Expedition (MSE) conducted by the KSD to teach youth leadership and foster interests in the natural sciences. However, the GRI is directed at advanced students who have successfully completed the MSE and expressed specific interest in fisheries conservation and riverine ecology.
Our overarching goal for the internship is to build local capacity for conducting fisheries assessments, and to identify promising students for future employment opportunities at various fisheries monitoring projects throughout the Kuskokwim Region.
The ONC and NVN have collaborated for several years with the Alaska Native Science and Engineer Program (ANSEP), with support through the USFWS Fisheries Resource Monitoring Program, in efforts to recruit students from Western Alaska to work as summer interns in our fisheries programs.
For two consecutive summers, ONC has had the pleasure to work with Danielle Lowrey, from Bethel and currently an undergraduate at the University of Alaska Southeast. Danielle has a desire to continue her education in a fisheries graduate program after obtaining her B.S. Her long-term goal is to return to Bethel and work as a fisheries biologist.
In partnership with Bristol Bay Native Association (BBNA), Danielle also participated in an intern exchange program where she had the opportunity to assist University of Washington ecologist Daniel Schindler and his crew conducting stream surveys and juvenile salmon sampling in southwestern Alaska.
Through this exchange program, Danielle developed new skills by assisting with a variety of field biology projects and networking with fisheries scientists from within and outside of Alaska.
In 2017, ANSEP student Janelle Carl from the coastal village of Kipnuk, Alaska, worked for NVN in Aniak, a very different part of the Kuskokwim Region compared to her home village. Janelle assisted NVN with numerous fisheries projects: the Aniak Test Fishery, the Salmon River Weir, in-season harvest surveys, water quality monitoring, and the GRI.
The GRI was the most challenging, and the most rewarding. Janelle was responsible for instructing interns about benthic macro-invertebrate collection techniques, and identification and discussion on how species richness can be used as an index of water quality.
Janelle had no prior experience with macro-invertebrates and didn’t think the students would be interested in the subject. But she studied protocols, identification, and ecology to quickly become proficient on the “subject matter.” As she learned more, her interest, enthusiasm, and confidence grew, which spread to the interns, making the macro-invertebrate component of the internship one of the most favored by the students. Janelle hopes to return to UAA this winter to continue her studies in the biological sciences.
Janessa Esquible, ONC Partners Biologist, lives in Bethel, where she leads the Kuskokwim Salmon Inseason Harvest Monitoring project and co-directs the Lower Kuskokwim Chinook Salmon Age-Sex-Length Sampling Program and Kuskokwim Area Salmon Post Season Subsistence Harvest Surveys. She serves as a biologist on the Aniak and Salmon River MSE, facilitates youth natural science programs (e.g., ONC science and culture camp and the summer youth representative program) and works with local schools to apply Kuskokwim area fisheries data to science fair projects and other outreach activities.
Dan Gillikin is the Environmental Director for NVN. As the Indian General Assistance Program Coordinator, he facilitates outreach on environmental issues, landfill oversight, coordination of backhaul activities, and water quality monitoring. As a Partners Biologist, Dan leads outreach on fisheries management and conservation concerns while also providing oversight of Fisheries Resource Information Technicians, the Aniak Test Fishery, the Salmon River weir, the GRI, and inseason harvest monitoring.