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SOUTHEAST SLIME CHASERS Young Alaskan fishery targets hagfish

>> Seals are

an important piece of the ecosystem and an incredibly important subsistence and cultural resource for coastal Alaskans.

SEALS VS. CLIMATE CHANGE

Seals: 1, climate change: 0, so far

Aaron Baldwin holds an enormous hagfish.

fishermen have been harvesting hagfish during the off season. The market value of a hagfish is for its skin, which buyers in southeast Asia purchase and turn into wallets, handbags, and even couches. “If you’ve ever seen anything that’s eel skin, the vast majority of eel skin is hagfish skin, if not all of it,” Baldwin says. Fish and Game scientists are studying hagfish populations in southeast Alaska in an effort to gather data and ensure the

fishery remains viable if it grows. Baldwin says that so far, the results show that there is a large population of hagfish in the region. The fishery could turn into an earning opportunity for fishermen looking to make some extra money during the off season, but harvesting hagfish comes with some downsides—like carrying the smelly fish on board and scrubbing the hull clean from slime. “It looks like a fishery that you really have to want to do,” Baldwin says.

RINGED SEALS AND BEARDED SEALS, which both use ice during the pupping season, were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act with the anticipation that a decrease in sea ice over the next century would cause the population to decline. Monitoring through 2016 shows that, so far, seals are doing well. “That was sort of counter to what people thought,” says Lori Quakenbush, a biologist who has been studying ice seals for three

decades. Quakenbush says she doesn’t know yet why the seal populations aren’t stressed and surmised that the decrease in ice cover through 2016 must be within the range of seals’ flexibility. “I think they’re probably more resilient and more flexible than we give them credit for,” she says. She noted that data collected during 2017 and 2018 have not yet been analyzed, and maximum winter sea ice during those years was the lowest on record. Seals are an important piece of the ecosystem and an incredibly important subsistence and cultural resource for coastal Alaskans. As such, the state’s Department of Fish and Game has been monitoring seal populations since the 1960s. “I think we’re lucky that we have a way to monitor, and we have data that goes way back. That’s pretty rare for Arctic marine mammal populations,” Quakenbush says. “So at this point we’re in pretty good shape for recognizing something different if it comes along.”

One of the best stops on the Alaska Marine Highway! Plan your adventure now! Whale Watching • Photography • Biking Beachcombing • Fine Dining Glacier Bay Day Cruise • Hiking Local Trails Fishing for Halibut and Salmon Sea Kayaking • Art Galleries

EXPLORE MORE AT: GUSTAVUSAK.COM

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HAGFISH ARE ABOUT AS APPEALING as their name implies. These ocean dwelling, eel lookalikes average about 25 inches long, scavenge whale carcasses and other marine detritus, and produce copious amounts of white slime. Now they’re also the target of a fledgling Alaskan fishery. A hagfish fishery already exists along the west coast of the contiguous United States and there’s been interest in harvesting hagfish in southeast Alaska for decades, says Alaska Fish and Game biologist Aaron Baldwin, but until 2016 no one successfully harvested the animals and took them to market. For the last few years, however, a couple of southeast Alaskan

A L A S K A M A G A Z I N E . C O M JULY/AUGUST 2019

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Alaska Magazine July 2019  

Alaska Magazine July 2019

Alaska Magazine July 2019  

Alaska Magazine July 2019