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Peter Searle shouted triumphantly and raised the forceps above the slimy worktable on the dock at Pybus Point, Alaska.

A few sport fishermen turned to see the BYU biology major’s prize: A tiny fish bone that tells a big story about our changing climate.

“You can only learn so much in a classroom,” said Searle. “But here, we’re actually getting our hands dirty.”

For the past five summers, Professor Mark Belk has brought students like Searle to Alaska’s Admiralty Island, population 1,600 grizzly bears and 650 humans. Belk’s scientific goal is to analyze the impact that rising ocean temperatures have on one of the world’s most productive fisheries.

“If you don’t believe the climate is changing, move to Alaska,” Belk said. “The evidence is right here.”

In the summer of 2016, for example, a huge pocket of warm water moved into the Gulf of Alaska. Scientists actually call it “the blob.” It wreaked havoc on fishing. The negative impact cascaded to marine animals that depend on the fish. Warmer temperatures also caused certain diseases to proliferate. The BYU students that summer watched one disease wipe out all the sea stars.

“In education we talk about watching the lights go on in a student’s eyes,” Belk said. “That happens multiple times a day around here because everything hits you right in the face.”

That’s why the owners of the Pybus Bay Lodge welcome BYU back each year with a gracious discount on their guided expeditions and lodging. Scott and Jody Jorgensen are BYU alums that see the value of getting good data about what’s happening to the Alaskan ecosystem.

A fish bone held by forceps
An otolith's rings contain ocean climate data. PC: Brian Wilcox

The lynchpin of Belk’s teaching and research is a particular bone found in the inner ear of rockfish. It’s called an otolith, and it’s no bigger than a dime. And just as tree rings provide an annual weather record, otoliths contain a continuous of ocean temperatures across their lifespan, which ranges from 10 to 200 years depending on the rockfish species.

Otoliths don’t only contain a temperature record; they also show changes in the food chain and evidence of nuclear events, such as underwater bomb tests in the 1950s and 1960s and the Fukushima accident in 2011.

“There’s really nothing like picking up a fish and looking at all the different parts,” said Taylor Bly, one of seven students on the 2017 field project. “You learn so much more about what’s actually going on and the environment they live in.”

  • a sea plan taking  off on the water
    Pybus Bay is a short flight south of Juneau.

    Photo Credit: Dennis Shiozawa

  • a view of the Pybus Bay
    On Admiralty Island, the ratio of grizzly bears to humans is nearly 3 to 1.

    Photo Credit: Joe Hadfield

  • Mark Belk and three students on a boat
    A different group of students come each year to get rockfish samples for an ocean health study.

    Photo Credit: Brian Wilcox

  • a rockfish
    These rockfish contain a climate record in their bones.

    Photo Credit: Dennis Shiozawa

  • Mark Belk and two students on a boat
    When they caught their limit of rockfish, Professor Mark Belk pumped the students up for halibut fishing.

    Photo Credit: Brian Wilcox

  • Samantha Tilden and Andrea Kokkonen fishing
    Samantha Tilden and Andrea Kokkonen setting the hook for halibut.

    Photo Credit: Dennis Shiozawa

  • Samantha Tilden holds up a big halibut
    The biggest halibut are egg-laying females and get returned to the water after a pic.

    Photo Credit: Dennis Shiozawa

  • Michael Sorenson holds up a 40 inch lingcod
    Michael Sorenson holds up a large lingcod

    Photo Credit: Dennis Shiozawa

  • Dennis Shiozawa and a student squat low on a dock as they catalog fish parasites
    Back at the dock, Professor Shiozawa shows students how to extract and catalog parasites.

    Photo Credit: Joe Hadfield

  • An otolith bone in the forceps
    The rings on this rockfish bone contain a continuous record of ocean climate data.

    Photo Credit: Brian Wilcox/BYU

  • a bald eagle
    The negative impact of climate-induced shocks to the ocean system cascade to species that depend on fish.

    Photo Credit: Mark Belk

  • the dock leading up to the lodge
    The dock leading back to the lodge at Pybus Bay.

    Photo Credit: Joe Hadfield

  • Andrea Kokkonen kayaking
    Andrea Kokkonen making the most out of a little down time.

    Photo Credit: Dennis Shiozawa

  • From left: Parker Nielson, Taylor Bly, Peter Searle, Professor Mark Belk, Samantha Tilden, Andrea Kokkonen, Michael Sorenson and Haley Brown.

    Photo Credit: Brian Wilcox

  • Brian Wilcox sitting on top of the boat filming students at work
    If anyone knows how to film on a boat, it's BYU's Brian Wilcox.

    Photo Credit: Joe Hadfield

So while the other guests enjoyed the stunning Alaskan scenery each evening, the BYU students stayed on the dock and kept their eyes on the scientific prize. Belk’s long-term research goal is to create an ocean climate history based on otoliths. And in the short-term, every student writes an original research paper based on the field data.

Biology major Michael Sorenson wrote a paper that will help establish more sustainable fishing regulations for rockfish. His work confirms that two distinct species of rockfish have been incorrectly combined as one, and the two populations need to be managed differently.

Results like this have drawn financial support from the Sant Foundation. Additional funds came from the BYU “Inspiring Learning” initiative, which seeks to provide thousands of students with life-changing learning opportunities.

“I’ve realized God’s creations are really just marvelous, and he’s put us on this earth to take care of them,” Sorenson said. “We have a great responsibility to care for these fish and the lands He has given us, and make it a better place.”

Writer: Joe Hadfield