On a rainy, dreary afternoon, Daniel Smith floated — head down — on Buskin Lake. The former Kodiak High School swimming standout had a wetsuit on, but he wasn’t there to turn laps in the lake. Instead, he was there for work.
As a new biologist for the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak, Smith was hunting signal crayfish, the speedy invasive species that has made a home in the spacious lake nestled next to Bear Valley Golf Course on Anton Larsen Bay Road.
After 10 minutes of diving to the bottom of the lake, Smith returned to shore. He pulled the lone crayfish he caught out of a net bag and placed it in a see-through round tank that resembled a pet fish bowl.
This scene plays out one or two times a week during the summer for Smith and his Sun’aq tribal biologist teammate Matthew Van Daele as they try to curb Buskin Lake’s crayfish problem.
“I’m very fortunate a job like this came my way,” said Smith, a recent graduate of George Fox University. “I enjoy it so much.”
While Smith prefers snorkeling for crayfish, most people hug the shoreline in Xtratufs and waiters. That is what Van Daele and his 5-year-old daughter, Mathilda, were doing last Friday. Within minutes of parking at the Buskin River weir and trekking back on a short walk to the lake, Mathilda spotted a crayfish taking a siesta on an underwater rock. The crayfish’s nap was disturbed as Van Daele gently picked him — getting nipped by a crayfish is no laughing matter — and placed the critter in the fish bowl.
“Normally, it is not this easy,” Van Daele said.
After 30 minutes, that crayfish was joined by several of its buddies.
Mathilda’s favorite thing about tagging along with her dad in the field is “catching really tiny crayfish and the females,” she said.
They are not all tiny. Some get enormous, as crayfish have long lives. The first signal crayfish, a species that originated in Europe in the 1960s, was spotted in the Buskin River watershed in 2002. About a decade later, a high school student caught a female and brought it to a science teacher. Finally, in 2015, Kodiak Soil and Water Conservation District successfully trapped a female with eggs.
“That was the first instance that we knew they were reproducing,” Van Daele said. “Since that time, it has just kind of ballooned.”
Since then, the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak and the Kodiak Soil and Water Conservation District have concentrated on getting rid of the crayfish — native species to Idaho, Oregon and Washington state — that do harm to salmon. The Buskin is a vital subsistence sockeye fishery in the Kodiak/Aleutian region, and over the past few years that fishery has had periods of shutdown, which could be traced back to crayfish, according to Van Daele.
“We are concerned with the role they shouldn’t be playing in the ecosystem because they are invasive,” Smith said. “They have the potential to mess up food cycles and food web interactions. We don’t know specifically how much they are affecting the salmon, but as soon as we do find it out, we will probably intensify even more so.”
Buskin Lake is the only place in Alaska that has signal crayfish. That is why the Alaska Department of Fish and Game recently announced that community members could not hunt for crayfish unless they were with Smith or Van Daele.
“It’s to clamp down and make sure they don’t spread elsewhere,” Van Daele said.
Van Daele, though, said he is working with the statewide coordinator for invasive species and Sun’aq to change the regulation.
“Next year, we are hoping that people will be able to come back out here and do exactly what we are doing and really start to put a hurt on the population,” Van Daele said.
In the meantime, Sun’aq recently organized a community derby where nearly 60 volunteers dove in the water. Four hours of hunting yielded 404 crayfish. That number sounds like a lot, but it isn’t. It didn’t even put a dent in the population. A female crayfish can carry up to 400 eggs.
“The majority of the rocks in these hot spots have crayfish, if not more than one,” Smith said.
Smith and Van Daele measured and logged the 404 crayfish caught at the derby and will use some of them for a research project. Without getting scientifically complicated, the biologists will grind and dehydrate tail muscles before sending samples to a lab where the carbon and nitrogen makeup of the crayfish will be determined.
“We are going to have samples of 500 crayfish collected throughout the year to see if there is a shift in diet from an algae diet in the spring to more salmon egg diet when the salmon are spawning,” Smith said.
Sun’aq has planned another community crayfish derby for Aug. 6, the official Scandinavian crayfish party day.
“It’s going to take community effort to do this,” he said.