Auke Bay Laboratory – Part 1. Fishing for Answers: Alaskan Salmon Research

Today’s post was written by Sarah Pendleton, Archivist in Digitization Archival Services at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

Sign with elkhorns
Image 146 from Kodiak Island: Aerial and Worksite Photographs, 1958 
(National Archives Identifier 318439571)
Kodiak Island mountains
Image 1 from Kodiak Island: Aerial Photographs Provided by the Department of the Navy, 1944 
(National Archives Identifier: 318439830)

Though many of us might not think about Alaskan salmon populations very often, it’s an important topic for many U.S. federal and state agencies, commercial fisheries, and scientists. Alaskan salmon populations aren’t just important because of their importance as an economic commodity, but also because of their ecological value and cultural significance.1

The newly digitized series, Auke Bay Fisheries Laboratory Salmon Project Research Data, 1882–1972 (National Archives Identifier 95115924), provides important scientific records of the Alaskan salmon population in the twentieth century and highlights the significant role of salmon conservation and study. Consisting of data sets and analyses, maps, photographs, published academic papers, correspondence, records of commercial fishery catches, and some flora and fauna specimens from salmon observation worksites, this series sheds light on the Alaskan salmon lifecycle, their conservation, and the industries that surround them. 

Formal governmental study and conservation of U.S. fish populations dates back to the nineteenth century, when Congress established the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries in 1871.2 This agency was a predecessor to both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), each of which are responsible for different aspects of fish population conservation today.3 

The data in this series is part of a larger research effort conducted out of Auke Bay Laboratory, Alaska, which conducted large-scale research projects to determine the health of aquatic life in Alaska, including the studies that are detailed in the Salmon Fisheries Research Data series of records.4 Scientists and seasonal student workers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gathered salmon population and ecological data from the Kodiak Island, Bristol Bay, Yukon, Olsen Bay, and Rudyerd Bay areas.5 The data touched on every aspect of the biological, chemical, and physical features of lakes and streams, as well as the animal and plant life that make up the wider ecosystem. They also conducted targeted experiments in specific lakes to see if they could produce a formula to increase the salmon population. 

They gained an understanding of lake and stream conditions by collecting a variety of highly specific and detailed measurements over multiple years. They collected water samples to compare the water chemical makeup, and conducted tests to understand the speed of the water in the streams. Temperature readings were recorded using a thermograph – a device recording a line graph of temperature fluctuations on a circular disc. To gain an understanding of lake visibility, they took Secchi depth measurements by sinking a highly-visible disc into the water until it was no longer visible and recording the depth. They also gathered information on plankton populations and lifecycles, since plankton are a major food source for salmon. Understanding the health of plankton populations in lakes and streams provided a basis for understanding the salmon population health.

thermal graph readings
Image 7 from Karluk and Thumb River Weirs Thermograph Recordings, 1938-1940 
(National Archives Identifier: 318437146)
plankton drawings
Image 2 from Brooks and Coville Lakes: Scientific Drawings of Copepods and Plankton 
(National Archives Identifier: 318453598)

To better understand migration and spawning patterns of the many varieties of Alaskan salmon, researchers studied every stage of salmon and other native fish development. They started by locating the egg deposits throughout the lakes and associated tributaries. They set up weirs (a type of dam fish can swim through) and counting towers across the mouths of lakes and across rivers to measure the number and size of juvenile fish migrating out to sea. They also cast seine nets and pulled trawls to capture the fish at all stages of life to measure their size, weight, length, and sex. Finally, they studied both live and dead salmon after their return to the rivers for spawning.

Image 105 from Kodiak Island: Aerial Photographs Provided by the Department of the Navy, 1944
(National Archives Identifier: 318439830)
river worksite
Image 196 from Kodiak Island: Aerial and Worksite Photographs, 1958 
(National Archives Identifier: 318439571)
river worksites
Cropped image 28 from Karluk River: Marking Experiment Charts and Photographs, 1921-1940 
(National Archives Identifier: 318439940)

Collecting all of this data seems like it wasn’t easy either. Besides the constant need to monitor all of these measurement aspects and recording areas, as well as the remote and rugged terrain of the Alaskan wilderness, researchers also dealt with the reality that their work could be (and was) interrupted by wildlife also interested in the fish they were studying. In one instance, they contended with bears destroying a seine net cast to capture fish for study.

handwritten note(s)
Image 94 from Brooks River: Sockeye Salmon Smolt Length Frequencies, 
Outmigration Data, and Smolt Catch Data, 1962-1963 (National Archives Identifier: 318456077)

These studies, though conducted more than half a century ago, are still a relevant topic today. Just this year, California announced renewed concern over its declining salmon population,6 while the Alaska Department of Fish and Game projected an increased harvest over last year’s.7  Still a topical subject, if you’re interested in learning more about Alaskan salmon, check out this newly-digitized series!


1 Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Alaska’s Wild Salmon (Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 2019),

2 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (2023). “About Us”; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2023). “History of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service”

3 Ibid.

4 Fish and Wildlife Service, “Interior Department Research Laboratory Aids Alaska Fishery” (Department of Interior, June 21, 1963),

5 Ibid.

6 Norma, Nicole and Rachel Ramirez. “California’s salmon fishers warn of ‘hard times coming’ as they face canceled season,” CNN online, April 2, 2023,

7 Alaska Department of Fish and Game (2023). “Run Forecasts and Harvest Projections for 2023 Alaska Salmon Fisheries and Review of the 2022 Season Published,”,be%20approximately%20189%20million%20fish

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