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AFSC Historical Corner:  Brooks River Field Station

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Research and Mgmt.
Brooks station
Brooks Lake field station, salmon weir and tagging trap.  Ted Merrell, photographer.

Shortly after World War I, the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (BOF) decided to undertake a predatory fish destruction program in the various major Bristol Bay tributaries because salmon at that time was the only fish desired by local canneries. Any species that preyed on salmon was considered undesirable, and trout were specifically identified for destruction.

As part of that effort, the Bureau sponsored a broad survey of fish populations in the Naknek River system as well as other major Bristol Bay drainages. In 1928, the BOF established a fisheries station 5 miles upriver from Naknek and maintained a salmon-counting weir at the site until 1932.

In 1936, biologists showed renewed interest in the Brooks Lake area, which had been added to Katmai National Monument 5 years earlier. They noticed that Brooks Falls was a block to red salmon during seasons of low water. In other years they observed that many salmon died unspawned below the falls, presumably because of injury caused in attempting to negotiate the falls. Based on that overview, the biologists made plans for "blasting steps in the falls" in the spring of 1937. Those plans, however, were put on hold.

Lake Brooks field laboratory
Lake Brooks field laboratory in 1957.
Warren Steenburgh, photographer.
National Park Service (NPS) website.

In 1938, concern about Japanese offshore fishing in the Bristol Bay area brought about a renewal of interest in Katmai's fisheries resource. Congress directed an investigation of the salmon fisheries of Bristol Bay. In 1940, the BOF decided to concentrate their Naknek basin research efforts along the mile-long Brooks River. Fisheries personnel were well aware of the stream's abundant fish runs and felt that the stream was representative of others draining into Bristol Bay.

The 1940 Reorganization Plan No. III merged the Bureau of Fisheries and the Biological Survey as part of the Interior Department's new Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Because of the BOF's earlier decision to concentrate on the Brooks River fish runs, the FWS began building a field laboratory at the eastern end of Brooks Lake in 1941. That same year, FWS personnel also built and began operating a second station just below the Naknek River rapids, a few miles southwest of the field station. In addition, the FWS constructed a salmon-counting weir and a rough road connecting Brooks and Naknek lakes. Based on those improvements, the Agency carried on a successful fish research and management program, one that was to last at that location for more than 30 years.

Fisheries research in the Naknek drainage continued during World War II. Construction of a wooden weir each year allowed FWS fisheries personnel to make an exact fish count; the weir was set up and removed each season. At war's end, FWS biologists began tagging studies on Brooks River and aerial spawning ground surveys on the entire Bristol Bay watershed. "Index areas" were identified on each of the main river systems and photographed each year. Researchers then counted fish in the photographs and, as before, developed annual statistics.

For the remainder of the 1940s, The Fish and Wildlife Service focused its management activities at its Brooks Lake field laboratory and at other sites within the salmon-rich Naknek River drainage. Recognizing the value of the Brooks River salmon run, Agency personnel made repeated attempts to construct a fish ladder to circumvent 8-foot-high Brooks Falls. As noted above, the Bureau of Fisheries had initially proposed a fish ladder in 1937, and in the early 1940s, new plans emerged for the project. But the latter attempt was foiled due to a reduction in personnel caused by the onset of World War II.

  Lake Brooks field laboratory, 1998
The fish ladder at Brooks Falls, 1954.
Victor Cahalane, photographer.  NPS website.

In 1947, engineers and biologists at the FWS's Montlake Laboratory at Seattle unveiled a new proposal for a Brooks River fish ladder. Unencumbered by financial or personnel difficulties, the Agency's proposal was quickly put into action. The following year, a 4-man crew arrived at the site and began constructing a ladder on the south side of the falls; the ladder had seven pools, each 1 foot above the other. After more than 2 years of construction, the ladder opened on 7 August, 1950.

Some National Park Service (NPS) officials were chagrined that the FWS had built the facility without the NPS's permission; Regional Director Owen Tomlinson, for example, protested that "this structure hardly complies with NPS principles relating to the preservation of natural structures." But the FWS insisted upon the right to continue using the structure. For over 20 years the fish ladder remained in operation.

During most of the 1950s, the Agency's Bristol Bay research efforts were influenced by funding levels. In 1952, the first installation of the permanent weir at Brooks Lake took place. Aluminum pickets in bipeds fitted on jackhammer bits were sunk in the rock at the bottom of the river. Additional funding during the 1950s allowed tagging programs, foot and photograph surveys, and similar research efforts. In some years, the FWS decided to focus its Alaskan research efforts away from Bristol Bay. Regardless of funding levels, the Agency continued to staff the Brooks Lake field laboratory and maintain the adjacent weir.

In 1960 the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (BCF) (a descendant of the BOF and original U.S. Fish Commission) decided to expand its fisheries research from Brooks River to the entire Naknek drainage system. The Brooks Lake field laboratory became a coordinating center, and to provide for its expansion, new housing was added.

Lake Brooks field laboratory
Modern appearance of the laboratory, 1998.
Janet Clemens, photographer.  NPS website.

By 1962, studies were being conducted at remote sites within the Katmai National Monument. To support those studies, the BCF built several remote cabins in the Monument. Three temporary camps were still active as of 1971. The BCF, during the 1960s and early 1970s, also had fish weirs and counting fences on Hardscrabble Creek and at the outlet of lower Kaflia Bay. Meanwhile, the salmon counting activities along the Brooks River – the mainstay of the BCF's work for more than 25 years – were discontinued after the 1967 season, and the fish weir was removed for the last time.

A continuing sore point between the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service throughout the 1950s and 1960s was the Brooks River fish ladder. Throughout the 1950s, for example, the NPS wanted to get rid of it, while the FWS defended it.

In 1970, the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries was renamed the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and Brooks Lake facility was transferred to NMFS. In 1973, NMFS conducted the second year of a Naknek Lake salmon incubator project and also conducted limnological and biological sampling of the lake system. The following winter, however, the incubators froze and the project was abandoned. NMFS did not staff the Brooks Lake field laboratory in 1974 or thereafter.

In 1977, NMFS transferred Brooks Lake facilities to the National Park Service. In 1979, the NPS rehabilitated the two Brooks Lake cottages. The Brooks Lake field laboratory (then known as the Brooks Lake National Marine Fisheries Research Station) was converted into a residence.

Additional reading:

  • Clemens, J., and F. Norris. 1999. Fisheries Research and Management. In Building in an Ashen Land - Historic Resource Study of Katmai National Park and Preserve (Chapter 10). National Park Service website (last accessed 4-11-13).
Brown Bear Burglers
"Marauding brown bears, hungrier than usual because of a shortage of spawning salmon, caused at least $6,000 damage to seven National Marine Fisheries Service buildings in the Bristol Bay area of Alaska last month. Heaviest damage was at Brooks Lake, where they broke down heavily bolted wooden doors, tore off sturdy shutters, and smashed picture windows of two residences and a field laboratory, and broke up refrigerators, freezers, small appliances, and glassware, and shredded furniture and bedding.

The only NMFS employee who had not vacated the premises after spending from April through September there was trapped in an inner room when one of the bears smashed open the kitchen door, emptied the garbage can, and departed without venturing beyond the kitchen -- to the extreme relief of the biologist. Emergency repairs were made on the NOAA installations, and the buildings will be renovated when the field stations are opened next spring.

Brown bears, which can weigh up to 1,400 pounds, and are the largest land carnivores on earth -- larger than grizzlies and polar bears -- consume enormous amounts of salmon, particularly during spawning perriods. Because of increasing reports of bear intrusions into housing on the Katmai National Monument grounds this year, U.S. Park Service administrators injected tranquilizers into several of the creatures near the Brooks Lake site, and transferred the bears to other habitats some distance away."  (NOAA Week newsletter, 10-27-72 3(44), p. 5).
Burgling Brown Bears Strike Again
"Not content with the $6,000 damage they inflicted upon National Marine Fisheries Service buildings in Alaska last fall, burgling brown bears struck a month later in the Brooks Lake area. They gained access to the main NMFS laboratory building through windows and doors, and rampaged through equipment and furniture, causing about $12,000 damage.

Furnishings and fixtures, including a large chest freezer, were completely demolished and the rubble piled in the middle of the floor. A boarded-up stairwell leading to stored scientific and electronic equipment did not deter them -- they tore out several thicknesses of ceiling to gain entrance to the loft. They smashed a $1,500 radio and other gear, but fortunately did not venture into all sections of the storage area."  (NOAA Week newsletter, 12-29-72 3(53), p. 3).


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