Overfishing: The Aleutian Solution

An Academy researcher joins a seafaring crew off the Alaskan Pacific Coast to give the waters their two-year checkup.

It's a sad day at the seashore when a seafood favorite goes extinct. Sad for restaurateurs, for all-you-can-eat fish fry connoisseurs, and, yes, even for the fishermen who are so oft blamed for that blank spot on the menu. At least in Alaska's Aleutian Islands governmental fisheries agencies have come up with a way to avoid this sad scenario: keep a watchful eye on commercially important waters and their delectable dwellers.

This is exactly why Academy invertebrate zoologist Bob Van Syoc paid a visit to the island waters of the Great Land this summer. Every two years since 1980, the National Marine Fisheries Service has sampled the Aleutian archipelago's waters to find out what fish and invertebrates are out there, where they are, and in what numbers. The data help keep tabs on populations and prevent over-harvesting.

Van Syoc spent the month of July, well, fishing alongside other scientists aboard the Sea Storm. While fish specialists documented groundfish catches, Van Syoc analyzed bycatch to document crabs, shrimp, snails, and other commercially important invertebrates, identified rare species, and collected those yet unknown to science for later identification.

While the team returned with several species new to science including barnacles, sea slugs, fishes, and corals, the trip also turned up a little gloomy news: populations of the ever popular Alaskan king crab are today a fraction of what they were 20 years ago. While the next step - to find out why - will take some time, one thing's for certain: the Aleutian solution will keep hungry humans-and hardy ocean inhabitants-happy for years to come.

Top Left - Bob Van Syoc sorting and identifying invertebrate samples for vouchering for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)
Top Right - One of the many snow-capped volcanic cones of the Aleutians.
Bottom - Two sun stars in the genus Solaster. These two color varients are vouchers for species determination in the lab.
Photos: Bob Van Syoc

Sorting the catch on the 'Sea Storm'.
Photo: Bob Van Syoc

Golden king crab (Lithodes aequispinus) is an important species in the commercial crab fishery in Alaska. All king crab populations have declined dramatically in the last few decades. The cause of the decline is not well understood.
Photo: Bob Van Syoc
“Sea Storm” at dock in Adak, the furthest west one can take a commercial flight in the Aleutian Island chain. A vast infrastructure, including a long airstrip, was left by the U.S. military after the base was decommisioned in the late 1990’s.
Photo: Bob Van Syoc