Fish Factor: New legislation would enhance salmon research

An Alaska Salmon Research Task Force Act was introduced in Congress last week by Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan that, if passed, aims to gain better understanding about causes of salmon declines, especially in the Northwest regions.

The task force of up to 19 people would conduct a comprehensive review of salmon science and management in Alaska. The bill also would establish a working group specifically focused on salmon returns in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim (AYK) region of Western and Interior Alaska.

The group would include members from NOAA, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the Pacific Salmon Commission, between two and five Alaska representatives including subsistence, and commercial or recreational users, five academic salmon experts and one state representative appointed by the governor.

Within one year, the group would publish a report identifying knowledge and research gaps and advance policies that might result in more salmon abundance and stability. 

The action follows a salmon roundtable discussion the Alaska Congressional delegation hosted two weeks ago with tribal leaders and state fishery managers and scientists.

Many agreed there is a need for better data — but most called for action.

“We don’t have time to sit on our hands and wait for these research projects to start and finish. Precautionary management needs to happen now. Adaptive management needs to happen now,” said Mary Peltola, director of the Kuskokwim Inter-tribal Fish Commission.

Managers need to look at salmon habitat in rivers and oceans in a more holistic way, Peltola said, pointing to policies that allow large ocean vessels to capture Chinook and chum salmon as bycatch while local river residents are not allowed any fish.

“We have got to find a way where we manage as a whole system and not these silly, man-made jurisdictional issues,” she added. “And the fact that the Department of Fish and Game says their hands are tied when it comes to salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea, because that’s under the purview of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council — having both agencies pointing at the other is unfair to all of the users.”

“Our existing management system, with the state’s authority to manage Alaska’s salmon harvest and the federal government managing federal fishery salmon harvest and much of the at-sea research, has created a clear gap in research and research prioritization that urgently needs to be addressed,” Sen. Sullivan said when announcing the task force.

Sen. Murkowski has dedicated a line and a questionnaire for public comments through Jan. 14.

Meanwhile, a group of Alaska tribes and groups representing Bering Strait communities has filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to eliminate Chinook salmon bycatch and cap the number of chums taken by trawl gear. Under current rules, the Pollock fleet in 2022 is allowed to take up to 45,000 Chinook salmon and an unlimited number of chum salmon while no salmon is available for local subsistence harvests.

“Our salmon runs and our communities are at the breaking point,” said Brooke Woods of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “We can’t risk the chance of high bycatch in these dire times. We need to do everything possible to save our Chinook and chum salmon runs, and we all need to do our part to restore our salmon runs, and eliminating bycatch is critical.”

Petitioners also include Nome-based Kawerak, Inc., the Association of Village Council Presidents, the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, the Bering Sea Elders Group, and the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Salmon sperm spawns plastic, LEDs

Salmon sperm is being used to make biodegradable plastic cups in China.

Researchers at Tianjin University created the item by extracting DNA from salmon sperm and dissolving it in water with molecules commonly found in adhesives. It produces a gel that can be made into various forms and freeze dried.

The DNA-based bio-plastic can be created from genetic material from any living things, the researchers said. Other applications for the substance include uses in electronics and packaging.

Salmon sperm also made headlines a few years ago for its ability to intensify LED lights that are used today in digital clocks to home lighting and electronics.

Dr. Andrew Steckl, one of the world’s leading experts in photonics at the University of Cincinnati, collaborated with U.S. Air Force scientists to make a first bio-LED device.

Steckl said the magic stems from the double helix shape of salmon DNA.

“The double helix has some interesting properties in regard to light emission which is not well known by the general public but is known by some practitioners,” he explained. “Because of the way it is shaped, you can insert light emitting molecules within it that operate more efficiently than in other host materials.”

The sperm comes from wild salmon from Japan, where it is widely harvested for its DNA, Steckl said. In the case of LEDs, it is refined into pure fibers and made into thin films of tightly controlled dimensions that produce light.

Steckl said the organic material is abundant and readily available for other uses.

“To me it is a powerful argument that we have one of the biggest and most competitive industries in America in agriculture and fishing and it produces a huge amount of biomaterials which can be used in many different ways,” he said, adding that they also reduce the need for heavy metals or other hazardous materials.

“This is not the sort of material that people have a lock on —  in other words, it’s not a mine somewhere in some country that produces a particular metal,” he said. “People in the semi-conductor and in flat panel display industries are quite concerned that certain specialty metals that are critical to device fabrication are going to begin to run out. And this is not 100 years from now, this is maybe less than 10 years from now.”

Fish grants

NOAA Fisheries/Alaska Region has launched a new webpage dedicated to sharing Alaska Aquaculture Grant Opportunities. The page will provide up-to-date information on funding opportunities for aquaculture stakeholders in many categories. Also included on the new webpage are writing resources to help improve grant applications.