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Skipper Science app introduces Nushagak king mapping project

Alex Hager/KDLG
Driftboats in the Nushagak District

The Skipper Science Program is in its third year in Bristol Bay and fishing crews are taking notice. User numbers are up on the app in the fishery and this season, the citizen science initiative could be more consequential than ever. The goal is to find out where exactly King salmon are running, with the Nushagak King mapping project.

The Skipper Science program is an app developed by the Aleut Community of Saint Paul Island as part of a suite of software and tools aimed at supporting the collection of indigenous, local and traditional knowledge and scientific information across Alaska.

"Our goal is to help bridge data gaps in western science, but also to help allow communities to take a very active role in research that might be going on in their area, and to also ensure that those projects are utilizing and empowering communities to be part of that data collection and understanding the local and personal context," said Hannah-Marie Garcia, the Indigenous Sentinels Network coordinator for the Skipper Science program and the Aleut tribal government.

The app aims to offer a platform for subsistence and fishing crews to self-report observations and details of their catch, which can then be used as qualitative or quantitative data to inform more effective resource management practices. Garcia said, so far, that’s been observations like weather, quality of fish, marine debris, even notes people provide in the comments like “ocean acidification more obvious” or “increase in fuel prices since last year.”

This season, the Skipper Science Program is introducing a new dimension of the app to help the Bristol Bay fishery: the Nushagak King Mapping Project.

"The majority of our efforts right now in Bristol Bay are focused on working with fishermen in the Nushagak region on the mapping project that will hopefully enable fishermen to collect data via the smartphone tool that we have to help address management challenges due to low king salmon returns in the region," Garcia said.

The decline of Nushagak king, or chinook, salmon has cast a long shadow over this fishing season, with the state designating it a stock of concern and introducing an action plan for conservation. That delayed the commercial fishing opener to allow more kings - and sockeye - to escape upriver. Garcia said gathering observations on kings in the Nushagak could make a big difference in the future of management decisions.

"We know a lot about when kings are arriving in the Nushagak via sonar and fish tickets, but we know a lot less about how they migrate through," she said. "So, our program is really looking spatially where they are in a district, understanding that we need to learn more about how they migrate."

Fishermen are encouraged to download the app and create an account before they hit the water or while in a pocket of cell reception. Once downloaded, it can be used all season without wi-fi or cell signal. Then when back in service, observations can be uploaded.

According to Garcia, observations will be private and confidential. They’re asking fishing crews to submit date, time of set, gear type, and the GPS location of where the net was set, haul information, and catch numbers by species. The data fields on catch numbers and composition may be the most important this year, especially the zeros.

The Nushagak king mapping project on the Skipper Science app was funded by the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, roughly $40,000 over three years according to the association's director, Andy Wink, as part of their efforts to better understand the Nushagak king run.

And, Garcia said the app is designed with busy fishers in mind. "The tool is designed to be very simplified for fishermen that are voluntarily collecting data on top of their normal fishing efforts and requirements of what they're doing on the boat."

Garcia believes this spatial data on where the kings are could help map the migratory corridors for king salmon and, season to season, provide information about conserving kings and avoiding forgone harvests of sockeye, something that would benefit the commercial fishery.

The goal would be to use a map of those king migration corridors and help the state’s conservation effort. Then, it might be possible to create other corridors for commercial fishing of sockeye.

That’s one of the ideas being explored right now by fisheries researcher, and former fisherman, Curry Cunningham with the University of Washington’s Fisheries Research Institute. He works at the intersection of math and salmon biology and built the mapping program in the Skipper Science app.

"It was really the perfect marriage of a group that really knew how to develop the tools to make it easy for the fleet to submit their data and their catch records," he said, "and me as someone who's interested and excited as a former Bristol Bay set and drift fisherman to create these products for the fleet."

Cunningham said those products could make a big difference to the fishing fleet by making maps so that king conservation efforts are more precise in the Nushagak, and possibly avoiding future delayed commercial fishing openers for commercial fishing of sockeye.

"I’d do that statistical analysis on the back end and bring back to the fleet things like maps of where the probability of encountering kings in the district is highest, or where the ratio of kings to sockeye is highest. By having those products in hand, we can start to think about whether or not conservation measures like migration corridors are feasible for the future," Cunningham explained.

Cunningham and Garcia agree one of the most important aspects is fishermen buy-in. One barrier for that buy-in seems to be fears among naturally suspicious fishermen that the data gathered on the app may be used against them. In other words, data in the hands of agencies like Alaska Department of Fish & Game or Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association could be used to impose stricter regulations on fishing.

"The answer there is that there's gonna be regulatory changes whether there's data or not. And if we have data, the regulators can make smarter choices," said Andy Wink, Executive Director of the BBRSDA. "We're not looking at this as something that would block these areas off later. The question we're trying to answer is: is it possible to catch sockeye without catching kings, or at least very many of them early in the season."

This was echoed by Tim Sands, westside management biologist for Fish and Game, who says the department is not involved in the project, but always interested in more observations from the Nushagak to inform management.

"We're not involved in any way. The idea is that they would collect this data and at some point, present it to us. If it shows that there was kind of a distinct corridor through the district that kings migrated through and that people could avoid, then that might be something actionable. It certainly doesn't hurt to try and collect that data and try and figure something out," he said.

There are also some incentives to the King mapping project.

"There are some 'thank you' incentives and prizes. We're offering to be raffled off at the end of the season. $1,000 gift certificate to either LFS or SeaMar. We're also offering trips to Brooks Camp for three people from King Salmon, a trip to UW’s research camp for people from Dillingham, and then of course, BBRSDA has stepped up to offer a lot of swag, hoodies and hats as well," said Garcia.

She believes that the greatest incentive though is sharing local and indigenous knowledge, and contributing to the future of the fishery.

"The incentive to stand up as a fleet and participate in being a part of the process of creating a brighter future for the Nush when it comes to fishing. The pillar of these programs both in Skipper Science and the Indigenous Sentinels Network is to ensure that communities are part of the data collection, that communities are driving the questions that need to be answered in order to make more informed decisions," said Garcia.

To learn more about the Nushagak King mapping project and a step by step guide for downloading and using the app, you can visit

Jack Darrell is a reporter for KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. He is working on the Bristol Bay Fisheries Report and is passionate about sustainable fisheries and local stories that connect communities and explore the intersections of class, culture, and the natural world.