Sun’aq wins grant to study invasive species’ effect on subsistence resources

Signal crayfish are not native to Alaska. Discovered in the Buskin River in 2001, the population is now well established and breeding. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

What kind of threat do invasive crayfish in Alaska pose to subsistence resources? That’s a question the Sun’aq Tribe won a grant to study. The award was announced Tuesday.

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Tribal biologist Kelly Krueger said Sun’aq applied for a Tribal Wildlife grant through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about a year ago. Now, the group will get almost $200,000 in funds as part of a continued effort to study crayfish in the Buskin River watershed.

Krueger said signal crayfish are from the Pacific Northwest, but have been in the watershed for at least 20 years.

“We’re not sure how they got here or even how long they’ve been here, but the population is breeding, and we’re worried about the subsistence resources and the fish that we all rely on and how the crayfish are impacting those resources,” Krueger said.

Krueger said part of the two-year project includes diving down and collecting crayfish for study and then coming back to the spot a month later to see how many of the animals have repopulated.

They’ll also follow the individual crustaceans remotely.

“We’re going to be attaching these little PIT tags,” Krueger said. “They use them for tracking salmon in other fish, but we’re going to be putting them in the crayfish to see where they’re moving so we can see if they’re going down to the bottom of the lake or if they’re moving out into the river.”

They also want to know what the crayfish feed on.

“So, are they eating dead salmon carcasses? Are they eating salmon eggs? Are they just eating insects? We don’t do know,” Krueger said.

The goal is ultimately to better understand what threat the relatively recent crawfish population poses  to the species people have relied on for subsistence for thousands of years.

The other two Alaska-based Tribal Wildlife grant recipients are St. Paul Island for sustainable reindeer management and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska for shellfish population and habitat research in Southeast.