Researchers Study the Speedy Kuskokwim Smelt

by Ben Matheson on August 15, 2014

Smelt caught in Bethel, 2014.

Smelt caught in Bethel, 2014.

One of the sure signs that spring is turning to summer is the arrival of the smelts. The small fish swim up the river shortly after breakup, and just before the king salmon begin to run.

Scientists and residents know roughly where and when the smelt run up the Kuskokwim river to spawn, but there’s been very little research to date. A study this summer is distinguishing the Kuskokwim smelts from other populations.

Researcher Larry Moulton works for Owl Ridge Natural Resources Consultants. He and the team chased the fish up the river by helicopter and spotted a large school of smelt just above Kalskag one evening. When they returned the next morning, they were completely gone.

“Nobody was catching them, the birds all left, somebody reported they saw the birds flying down river, all indications were the spawning had occurred,” said Moulton.

Researchers collected samples of the sticky clumps of eggs from the gravel and sand at the bottom of the river. After spawning, the fast exit of the smelt contrasts with other studies.

“This is really new information, on the rainbow smelt, quite different from what we saw in different drainages,” said Moulton.

Around Togiak for example, smelt spent a couple weeks in the river before moving out. And the fish moved up fast up the Kuskokwim, at speeds near 40 miles per day.

The study was done as part of the Donlin Gold mine Environmental Impact Statement study. Understanding the Kuskokwim smelt was identified as a data gap in the multi-year study. The Kuskokwim river would see increased barge traffic if the mine were built.

The study will be sent to the EIS team and Moulton hopes to have it published in a fisheries journal. This summer’s spawning study is just one year of data. Moulton did not know if there are plans for future study.

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