The Sun’aq Tribe researches the state of the Buskin River estuary

Kelly Krueger and Randy Boskofsky downloading measurements from a buoy. (Photo by Mitch Borden/KMXT)

Mitch Borden/KMXT

A few years ago a runway at the Kodiak Benny Benson State Airport was extended into Chiniak Bay near the mouth of the Buskin River. This construction project raised some concerns about how the extension could affect the Buskin River’s salmon population, among other parts of the marine ecosystem.

The Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak committed to conducting a multiyear study to look at how the construction is affecting the estuary. And, as KMXT reports, researchers are finding the runway could be helping protect the important salmon stream rather than hurting it.


Chiniak Bay is alive with ducks and otters as Tom Lance and his team take a boat out to search for some buoys near the mouth of the Buskin River.

“See All the otters out here today?”

Lance is the director of the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak’s natural resource department. The buoys he’s looking for are gathering data that’s helping him assess the health of the of the Buskin River estuary. And It’s doesn’t take long to find and collect the first one.

“Got it Randy? Alright.” “Wow, this one has a lot of kelp growing on it.”

The Tribe is beginning the third year of its Buskin River Marine Zone Study. The research is focusing on the how a 600 ft extension to a runway at the Kodiak Benny Benson State Airport is affecting the marine environment where the Buskin River meets the Pacific Ocean.

Today’s measurements concern the river’s freshwater lens, which is a thin layer of fresh water extending from the mouth of the river into the bay.

“As the Buskin River runs out up here it starts to, the water doesn’t mix immediately and it lens out. And that’s what we’re trying to do is figure out how far out the freshwater lens reaches.”

Monitoring the lens is only one part of the Tribe’s larger study, but it’s a good marker of the area’s health. A report issued before the construction at the airport began said extending the runway into the bay could have negative effects on the area’s ecosystem, like causing the freshwater lens to shrink.

But Lance says instead contracting the lens may be growing because the runway may be shielding it from harmful winds and currents.

“With that runway extending out an extra…what was it? 500, 600 feet. It might be actually be helping protect that freshwater lens from washing away as fast.”

The Buskin River is an important subsistence area in the Kodiak Archipelago which is one of the reasons why the Sun’aq Tribe began studying the estuary. Every year people gather at the mouth of the river to catch salmon returning to spawn.

To have a healthy salmon population at the Buskin, the freshwater lens needs to extend far enough into the bay. The juvenile salmon produced from the summer run rely on it to begin their lives in the Pacific Ocean.

Kelly Krueger, a biologist for the Sun’aq Tribe, says if the lens shrank too much the young salmon wouldn’t be able to make the important transition from freshwater fish to saltwater fish.

“The smolt, when they’re coming out here they use the top few inches of fresh water to get acclimated before they go on their journey.”

Tom Lance, the natural resource director for the Tribe, says learning more about the area near the Buskin River will help protect an important subsistence resource for the Kodiak community.  The study will wrap up later this year unless the Tribe gets more funding to continue it.

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