Burbot: the lobster of Interior Alaska

Although I spent much of the first eighteen summers of my life floating on Alaskan rivers, I didn’t know about burbot until my partner, our dog, our housemate, and I drove to a trash-ridden bank of the Tanana River last fall. As always, the water looked brown and uninviting under a nondescript gray sky. The muddy islands between the river braids were sloughing off with soft plops. This is where the ugly, yet delicious, tender-fleshed burbot live.

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Tanana River near the Richardson Highway, Alaska. PC Don Angle Photography.

Even the Alaska Department of Fish & Game admits that burbot (Lota lota) are not the most attractive fish. Burbot are distinguished by their mottled green-black-and-yellow skin (which is incredibly slippery and slimy), elongated dorsal and anal fins, and a small chin barb. Notably, they are the world’s only freshwater cod. Mature burbot can have extremely large heads with huge gaping mouths and a protuberant stomach. Unusually, burbot spawn in the winter, under the ice, and do so in a large, writhing ball.

IMG_8517Furry meets slimy: Junie with a burbot caught on a tip-up at George Lake.

We had come to the Tanana equipped with 15 set lines. Sturdy birch branches had been cut and chiseled to a point at one end. The other end was an attachment point for a long fishing line with a weight and a baited hook. We each set out with five set lines to place along the disintegrating banks. Once the pointy ends were securely jammed in the mud, we tossed out our lines spiraling with weights into the silty water. The lines were left out overnight (our experience has been that burbot are particularly active and more prone to munch at night) and checked the following afternoon.

It’s fun to check the lines. You slowly start pulling, reeling in one hand over the other, and right away you can feel that there is something weighing down your line. It’s particularly exciting if that something feels particularly heavy. As I’ve only fished for burbot in murky rivers, you can’t see what’s on the end until it’s exited the water, so you are left to your imagination until the fishy monster is on the shore.

We may have caught one or two that first go-around on the Tanana; memory does not serve me well here. Subsequent fishing trips (the Ray River off the Yukon, George Lake off the Richardson Highway) have yielded several nice, fat burbot.

Burbot flesh is advertised as being lobster-like, tender and delicious, great with butter. I can attest that these descriptions are quite true, and marvel that such delicious meat comes from such a slimy beast.

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Genetically Engineered Babies. No, for real.

Whelp. I can’t say I didn’t see this coming.

CRISPR has been used to make genetically engineered babies.

Specifically twin girls in China have been modified to be resistant to HIV.

Want to know why this is morally reprehensible?

Read about it here.

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Susan B. Anchovy: the story of a whitefish

When you study fish in Alaska, you may find yourself covered in slime. During one slime-intensive day, Duncan Green and his field assistant were wading in knee-deep ocean 200 feet offshore. They looked back to see a polar bear perched on the bed of the truck, sniffing around for helpless terrestrial mammals covered in delicious fish goo. In reality, the bear was probably just checking out the truck, but Duncan had to call for someone to drive out and scare the bear away before they could head back in. Just another day in the life of Duncan Green, fish biologist!

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At the end of an exciting 2017 field season, 220 fish, including the illustrious Susan B. Anchovy and Edgar Allen Cod, were live-shipped on ice from the North Slope to the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. Duncan studies broad whitefish (Coregonus nasus), an Arctic Alaskan species that is an important subsistence food for coastal villages like Kaktovik, Nuiqsut, and Utqiaġvik. Although it is well known that the Arctic is warming faster than other parts of the planet, it is not well understood how ecosystems will respond to this change. To add one small piece to this big puzzle, Duncan is investigating how warming waters may influence whitefish growth rates. Will Susan and Edgar grow big and healthy in warmer waters? Or might they be stressed by an environment that’s just too hot, inhibiting growth? Time, and the data, will tell.

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Duncan is a well-rounded man. Beyond his identity as an aspiring fishy scientist, he is also a fat-tire biker (completed the White Mountains 100, a human-powered race through Alaska’s Interior), makes a mean pizza cake (fourteen layers of frozen pizza and pizza rolls, baked all together and topped with cream cheese frosting), and also ice fishes for fish for food. Itching to hear a classic cinematic monologue? Duncan delivers a moving recitation of Quint’s “Indianapolis” speech from the 1975 film Jaws. In short, Duncan is a most colorful person and adds a lot of life to any potluck, field expedition, or fish-naming production.

P in streams

I work with some incredible grad students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Today, I’d like to highlight research led by Sophie Weaver, a student in the Biology & Wildlife department.

When asked about her research, Sophie likes to say she studies “P in streams.” Sophie is investigating how differences in nutrient availability might affect the growth of the organisms that make up the green scum, or microbial skins, that one slips on when crossing a stream. Besides phosphorus (the “P” in her descriptive quip), she also works with nitrate, ammonium, and acetate.

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Sophie with her little blue cups.

After adding various nutrients to little blue cups, she launches them in her research streams. Post-incubation, she collects the cups to measure the abundance of autotrophs (critters that produce their own energy) and heterotrophs (critters that, like us, consume delicious things to produce energy). The ratio of autotrophs to heterotrophs can tell her something about how nutrients impact green scum composition. This research is important because stream microorganisms directly influence water quality and ecosystem function.

Sophie conducts her research at the Caribou-Poker Creeks Research Watershed (CPCRW), a pristine watershed located about thirty-five miles northeast of Fairbanks. Rumor has it that Sophie and her labmates been known to pursue the other wonders of CPCRW besides what fuels green scum growth, from chilling ciders in wee arctic streams to stripping down, jumping in, and cooling off on a “hot” Alaskan summer day.

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