Discovery Park

Grad Students Help Advance Fish Monitoring Project for Native Alaskan Villages

September 10, 2009

Two Purdue graduate students have developed sampling kits and educational materials for three Native Alaskan villages as part of an interdisciplinary partnership between Purdue faculty and the Alaska Native Youth Institute. Leila Nyberg (Civil Engineering/Ecological Sciences and Engineering) and Laurel Royer (Agronomy) became involved with the project in February 2008. Dr. Krista Nichols (Biological Sciences & Forestry and Natural Resources) and Dr. Marisol Sepulveda (Forestry and Natural Resources) have been working with Native Alaskans for 3 years, facilitated by Dr. Mike Smolen (Alaska Native Youth Institute) and Purdue University Center for the Environment.

They are studying the fish parasite Ichthyophonus, which is affecting the salmon populations on which the villagers depend for their subsistence. Ichthyophonus is not harmful to humans, so an infected fish is safe to eat. However, this parasite may affect the survival and reproduction of the fish, as well as the quality of the salmon that is caught and preserved for the whole year by the Native Alaskans. Since fish is a central component to the native diet, understanding how the parasite affects the abundance and health of the fish is important. 

The first phase of the students' involvement in the project has been supported by the Purdue University Office of Engagement Student Grant Program for Service Learning Projects. The students worked with the Center for the Environment on the grant and in planning the project. “This is a great project and effort by the students to reach out to these remote villages, providing them the necessary tools to get them directly involved in the research here at Purdue that can shed light on the salmon issue,” said Brent Ladd, Learning & Engagement Coordinator with the Center.

A few people in the villages of Hooper Bay and Unalakleet had already collected samples for this project, and many more have expressed interest in participating. The samples are sent to Dr. Nichols’ lab at Purdue, where a molecular diagnostic test is used to determine whether individual fish are infected with the parasite. However, introduction of a large-scale sampling effort into an already very busy fishing season had not been feasible so far. The remoteness of these villages makes it difficult for the faculty to travel to Alaska often enough to maintain the sampling program on their own. "This is where we (the students) came in. Dr. Nichols and Dr. Sepulveda have already built relationships with these villages, with the help of Dr. Smolen, and they’re the scientific experts on this project. Our role is to facilitate the work they’re doing, so that anyone in these villages, who wants to, can easily take samples as they’re catching or processing their fish for subsistence," said Laurel Royer.

The sampling handbook was printed on synthetic waterproof paper for durability. The students mailed copies of the handbook and sampling supply kits to Hooper Bay, Unalakleet, and Chevak. "We expect there will be a lot we can do to improve the next version of the handbooks once we’ve heard feedback from each of the native villages," said Leila Nyberg. "One of our next steps will be to apply for travel funds so that we can visit the people and better understand how we can help them."

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