Interview with Alaskan Invasive Species Biologist: Kristine Dunker

eDNA sample collection alaska

Kristine Dunker is an invasive species biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Sport Fish Division. She has researched and worked on invasive species in southcentral Alaska for 14 years and her primary focus is on northern pike. Read below to learn about Kristine’s job as well as her research experiences in Alaska!

FL: What does an invasive species research biologist do?

Kristine: I coordinate the invasive species activities that occur in the Southcentral Alaska region. 90% of my work is northern pike-related. My job is very unique in that it’s both management and research-focused. A lot of my work now is office based so my team gets to do most of the fun fieldwork, but every now and then I am able to get out in the field with them too. Another big part of my job is that I help fund the invasive species programs through writing grants and such. I help design projects, and I write a lot of reports and manuscripts of our work on the pike program as well.

FL: What species are the most harmful to Alaskan ecosystems?

Kristine: In my opinion, pike and elodea are the two largest threats to Alaskan fisheries that are currently here. I along, with my ADF&G team, manage the pike whereas the Department of Natural Resources is in charge of elodea. Elodea is a plant that can dramatically alter fish habitats. For example, Alexander Lake was found to have elodea in 2014. About two years later it had gone from a small patch to covering almost the whole lake.

Elodea

Elodea is a statewide issue, but pike are a southcentral problem (pike are native to northern and western Alaska). For more information regarding northern pike check out Kristine’s article about the differences between native and invasive pike in Alaska. Zebra mussels are another invasive species that we are looking out for. They are currently a problem in the lower 48 and we don’t want the same thing to happen up here. Right now, we do not have any known reproducing zebra mussels in the wild, and we want to keep it that way.

FL: What impact does your work have on Alaskan fisheries?

Kristine: Aquatic invasive species can have a huge impact on fisheries. As far as our pike work, we’re trying to benefit anglers and the sport fisheries that everyone loves. Everything that we do is situationally dependent, and certain places need more or less management than others. Our primary focus is trying to prevent our pike problems from getting any worse.  From there, we are trying to chip away and remove populations where we can and restore native fisheries. Currently, that is not possible everywhere.

For example, on the Susitna drainage, we are not trying to eradicate pike (because that isn’t really a feasible goal at this point). Instead, we are trying to reduce those populations and, therefore, the amount of predation on juvenile salmon and trout. Of course, we want the pike populations eradicated, but we need to focus on thinning them so juvenile salmon and trout can survive. In other areas, like Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, eradication of all pike was feasible to attain, and we’ve almost accomplished that goal.  The best part is getting to restore native fisheries along the way.  If we can minimize the effects of pike now, future anglers will have the opportunity to enjoy Alaskan fisheries for years to come.

FL: How are Alaskan fisheries and invasive species different from the contiguous US?

Kristine: Alaska is in a unique situation because our invasive species problems are just starting. I went to graduate school in Florida and worked in the Everglades before starting my career in Alaska. Down there the ecosystem is so messed with many invasive species, and due to the expanse of the Everglades, little can be done to eradicate them. We actually have the ability to do something in Alaska and change the outcome of future fisheries, which is very exciting and rewarding.

alaska

FL: What is Environmental DNA?

Kristine: Environmental DNA is a technique where water samples are collected and they can contain DNA fragments from organisms in the water. When a fish excretes waste or loses a scale, its DNA ends up in the water. The exact same testing method as COVID is used in a laboratory to determine what species are living in a certain waterway. Environmental DNA is an effective form of research because it can detect invasive species without having to catch the actual fish themselves.

FL: What is the most interesting research you have had the opportunity to participate in?

Kristine: So many answers for this one. My team and I are currently collaborating with professors at the University of Alaska Fairbanks regarding the microchemistry of a fish’s ear bone (the otolith). Pike in other parts of the world use estuaries such as in the Baltic and Caspian seas. Here in Alaska, we have received reports of pike in the Cook Inlet from commercial fishermen and even had a commercially caught pike brought into us. More recently, we brought an otolith to Fairbanks from a newly discovered location on the Kenai Peninsula with a pike that has a Cook Inlet connection. UAF ran the isotope analysis, and it had a saltwater signature (meaning we could infer it spent time in the ocean and may have originated from the Susitna). It is crazy to think that a pike can travel so far in saltwater, and using microchemistry to research this is intriguing.

I have also really enjoyed research into using eDNA for pike in Alaska, and there are lots of questions on invasive northern pike ecology and genetics that have been really fun to explore with the university and other agencies. Really, all of the pike work I have been part of is interesting, and each new project brings lessons. We’ve got a very dedicated team of folks working on this problem in Alaska. To learn all about the pike research and management that has taken place in Alaska in the last 10 years, check out: Fishes | Free Full-Text | A Decade in Review: Alaska’s Adaptive Management of an Invasive Apex Predator | HTML (mdpi.com)

FL: If someone finds an invasive species while out on the water, what should they do?

Kristine: ADF&G has an online reporting website that you can access here: https://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=invasive.report.  Report the invasive species online or contact us at 1-877-INVASIV if you have any questions. As far as other parts of the USA are concerned, if you find an invasive species you should contact your local fisheries office and report it. In southcentral Alaska, you can do your part to minimize the pike population by harvesting all the pike you can. It is actually illegal in southcentral Alaska to release a live pike. If you are visiting Alaska, make sure any gear you are bringing with you is completely dry and free of any hitchhikers. The same is true for Alaskans visiting other states. We appreciate local and visitor help in keeping our amazing Alaskan fisheries healthy!

Differences between Native and Invasive Pike in Alaska

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Floating North in the Alaskan Backcountry

 

 

 

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