Steelhead Scales

by Jessica Evangelista Balduzzi ’05

About a month after Matt Catterson ’03 graduated from Hobart, he moved to the remote Alaska village of Yakutat. “Even by Alaska standards, Yakutat is pretty wild,” remarks Catterson. Located approximately halfway between Juneau and Cordova, on the “lost coast” of Southeast Alaska, Yakutat has no landbased connection to the rest of the state. The approximately 700 residents rely primarily on the sport and commercial fishing industries for their livelihoods, and harvest much of their food from the land and sea.

In Yakutat, Catterson began volunteering with the United States Forest Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). The experiences helped him realize a passion for managing and conserving the fisheries of Alaska, while supporting the seafood industry and local community development.

“This was the life I wanted to live and knew I had to return to school to gain the academic experience necessary to support my professional goals,” says Catterson, an architectural studies major at HWS.

By 2010, Catterson had obtained a B.S. in Fisheries from the University of Alaska and began pursuing graduate studies as a fellow with the Sustainable Ecosystem-based Management of Living Marine Resources, a National Science Foundation master’s program at the University of Alaska. He continued working with ADF&G, spending most of his time on the Situk River, home to the largest known population of steelhead trout in Alaska that also supports a world-famous sport fishery.

“ADF&G has been monitoring this important steelhead population for more than 20 years and had collected a unique, long-term data-set that is used to inform sport fishing regulations,” Catterson explains. “Included in this data was a collection of scale samples from steelhead going back to the early 1990s; these samples had not yet been utilized for any particular research purpose and seemed like an ideal data-set for me to incorporate in my master’s thesis.”

With access to the most comprehensive set of data on an Alaska steelhead population, Catterson has been exploring the potential utility of these scale-derived growth measurements to provide information on marine growth and long-term trends in steelhead productivity.

“This type of proactive monitoring may help us understand how changes to the marine ecosystem, driven by large scale patterns of climate change, may impact populations of steelhead and salmon,” Catterson says.

Steelhead are anadromous rainbow trout that, like salmon, are born and rear as juveniles in rivers, then migrate to the ocean to feed and grow, returning back to their natal rivers to spawn several years later. Unlike salmon, steelhead are capable of surviving this spawning event to emigrate back out to the ocean and begin the cycle again. Steelhead populations in Alaska are much smaller than salmon populations and little is known about their marine ecology and the specific factors that affect their abundance.

“Preliminary findings in my research suggest that there are some regionwide abundance patterns in Southeast Alaska,” says Catterson. “The coherence of these patterns across a large geographic area suggests that a marine, and possibly climate-driven, process may be impacting steelhead productivity.”

Catterson’s discoveries, digital scale images and growth measurements are being incorporated in a statewide archive maintained by ADF&G and available to fisheries managers and researchers across the state.

And while his steelhead research is ongoing, Catterson serves as an economic development adviser for the State of Alaska, a job which allows him to approach fisheries and seafood industry issues from a new, development-focusedperspective.

“It’s a great opportunity to learn more about how fisheries, management, research and development can interact to support a sustainable fishing industry in Alaska that provides critical jobs and income to Alaska communities,” he adds.


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