On Stickleback & Socializing

1As a certain mustache-ioed lab member recently put it: “The problem with Alaska is there are too many Alaskans!”

Miguel & I have been trapping for stickleback in the Mat-Su Valley for a week now and what strikes us is the far-reaching and very recent development in this, the greater Anchorage area. In particular the “sleepy” hamlet & hometown of Sarah Palin, Wasilla is bustling with a major highway and boasts a number of large chain stores such as Target, Super Walmart, Lowe’s and Sportsman’s Warehouse. As we drive this stretch of road everyday we were regaled by Mr. Mustache about the good ole days before there were any stoplights to slow us on our way to the 70+ lakes we hope to trap at in the next 4 weeks. The lakes themselves are particularly juicy targets for suburbia’s encroachment. It is rare to trap at a lake (most are pond-sized) with any less than 3 or 4 houses and many have entire subdivisions catering to a lake lifestyle. We drove by a private community that was strictly for pilots of float planes. The infrastructure to support these communities is staggering. Miles upon miles of winding road systems and the gravel excavation pits from whence they came. Downed timber and trash litter the sides of the road and “For Sale” signs are just about as common as “No Trespassing/Private Property” here in the land of libertarians.


So what does all of this mean for two rogue stickleback collectors? It means that in order to collect at these lakes we often do it on private property and that means befriending the locals. On a typical day we pull up to any number of properties to inquire if we may set our traps for collecting. Most people are more than happy to allow us on their land and, in fact, often wish to learn more about the “minnows” they find off of their dock. We often find ourselves teaching the very young and the not so young that stickleback are indicators of lake health, that the beautiful birds they enjoy must feed their young something and if you let northern pike invade there will be no fish to support the birds.

3These impromptu opportunities to educate the locals is lovely and sometimes they even teach us a thing or two! Today a homeowner recounted observing a stickleback turn on his side & shimmy in the sun. He was quite pleased to see that this important behavior went right into the notes. Often these kind folks invite us to stay or gift us salmon fillets. In addition to humans, we often get “help” from the fuzzy family members of these properties. Today a standard poodle knocked aside our traps and a few days ago, we met monty, a three month old fearless pup who led us right down the long muskeg trail to where we might trap and bounced alongside us through the whole process. We even had a particularly curious kitty who was drawn in by the smell of fish.

4Of course, the story of increasing anthropogenic inputs influencing lake productivity and the resulting behavioral and life history shifts is one that our lab continues to investigate. It seems clear that this story is commonplace across these lakes as more folks choose to live the lake lifestyle. Trapping on these beautiful lakes, across variable degrees of development, will bolster our understanding of such patterns. And in the process we will meet many a friendly Alaskan and maybe, just maybe, take home a fillet or two.

A fillet or two.
A fillet or two.