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Kodiak’s Sun’aq Tribe tests electrofishing as it expands the hunt for Buskin Lake crayfish

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Matt Van Daele, Daniel Smith and Will Frost scour Buskin Lake for signal crayfish while electrofishing.

The Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak has been looking for ways to reduce the number of invasive signal crayfish from the island’s Buskin Lake, in order to protect crucial salmon habitat.

Matt Van Daele is the Sun’aq Tribe’s natural resources director. On a recent Wednesday morning, he went to Buskin Lake to test out a new method of catching the invaders – an electrofishing pack

We’re gonna try to make these mudbugs ride the lightning,” Van Daele said.
The pack looks like it comes from Ghostbusters. A large battery connects to a control box mounted onto a hiking backpack frame. It connects to a long rod with a hoop at the end. A long rat tail extends behind the pack, with an exposed stretch of wire at the end that drags behind Van Daele and his team – completing a circuit from the hoop at the end of the rod, through the water, and back up the tail.

There’s a lot of current running through that wire – enough to temporarily paralyze small freshwater animals. When it comes to hunting juvenile crayfish, the current propels them out of hiding and into Van Daele’s waiting net.

Will Frost is the instructor for this electrofishing expedition. The former habitat biologist with Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game was hired as a consultant by the Sun’aq Tribe. He says that the electric shocks don’t harm other wildlife.

“It doesn’t really hurt em, it just flexes their muscles sporadically. And it gets them to come to the surface, and we can net them, off ID’ em. And so if we get juvenile salmon, we can just return those, put them in a bucket, let them recover real quick and return them to the water,” Frost said.

After a few hours, Van Daele has a small menagerie of crayfish in his net. Juveniles and adult crayfish close to the shore are all affected by the electricity.

The electrofishing pack might seem like an extreme solution, but Van Daele says Buskin Lake’s crayfish are an extreme problem. They present an existential threat to the salmon population, and the Sun’aq Tribe has been trying to eradicate them before they spread to other salmon habitats. The electrofishing pack is another way to fight the problem.

“The whole point of this was to try to catch the smaller ones and the juveniles that otherwise we wouldn’t necessarily be able to catch when we’re diving; we’re doing exactly that,” Van Daele said. “I mean, granted, I would like to be catching the adults more easily too, but that’s why we have a bunch of different tools in our toolbox to deal with these mudbugs.”

The Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak has scheduled two community crayfish boils this summer in an effort to get locals involved in eradicating the pest from the Buskin Lake. The next event will be held Saturday, Aug. 6 at 1 p.m. at the Buskin Weir. Participants can help collect the mudbugs, and will get to boil their crayfish and eat them on site.