Fishing for answers: Geneticist using DNA to decode Alaska salmon’s family ties

Wei Cheng is a member of the Council’s Scientific Advisory Committee. The committee is made up of scientists and citizens working to promote the environmentally safe operations of the terminal and tankers through independent scientific research, environmental monitoring, and review of scientific work.

Volunteer Spotlight: Wei Cheng

Wei Cheng says she is happy and fortunate to be able to use her expertise in genetics to help protect Alaska’s salmon.

At her job with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADF&G, she analyzes genetic changes in fish to map the relationships among populations of salmon and other species of fish. The information she gains helps fisheries managers make decisions protect the integrity of wild populations of fish species.

Cheng is surprised at how much she enjoys the work. “To be honest, I was not interested in fisheries at all at the beginning,” she laughs.

Before coming to the United States from China, she graduated from medical school. Her area of interest was in human genetics and diseases, so she moved to Pittsburgh for graduate work in molecular biology at Duquesne University.

After graduation, her husband’s work brought them to Juneau.

“In Alaska we don’t have medical schools, pharmaceutical companies, or medical research labs,” Cheng says about her search for a job.

But she got lucky. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Auke Bay Laboratories reeled her in to help with studies using genetic analysis.

“That’s where I started working in fisheries.”

Cheng and her family eventually ended up in Anchorage, where she now works at ADF&G’s Gene Conservation Laboratory.

She has studied the population structure of pink salmon in Prince William Sound This study is the initial step to examine the interactions of wild and hatchery pink salmon in the area.

Salmon tend to spawn in the streams and rivers where they were born. But Cheng says sometimes they stray.

“Hatchery-origin fish may stray into natural streams. They may interact with wild fish and influence wild fish populations through ecological or genetic effects.” Cheng adds.

To protect the populations of wild fish, hatchery programs are required to collect their eggs from local fish. Using fish with local genetic profiles means that strays are less likely to harm local populations if they interbreed.

“I never did field work before I started working for Fish and Game,“ she says. “Alaska is a very beautiful state, especially during summertime. Although the work is really hard, Prince William Sound is so beautiful. I really appreciate seeing the project from the field to the final results.”

Joining the Scientific Advisory Committee

A few years ago, the committee started developing projects that involved genetic analysis, such as a recent study of mussel DNA to learn more about how genes respond to stressors such as crude oil, among several others. So the committee sought out an expert on the topic. Cheng says it’s been a great fit.

“For me, it is nice to use my expertise to help the community.”

Cheng says there are other ways genetic tools could help further the Council’s mission. One possibility she finds interesting is analyzing the waters of Prince William Sound for environmental DNA, referred to as “eDNA,” to monitor for invasive species.

This could be useful for the early detection of invasive species such as European green crab. Current monitoring methods are labor-intensive, requiring placement of traps in waters where invasive crab are likely to take hold. Early in an invasion, there may only be a few individuals.

All living beings shed cells into their environment.

“We can collect water and the water sample can contain eDNA if those animals exist in that environment.”

Cheng has helped the Scientific Advisory Committee develop several projects using genetic analysis tools. You can read about several of these here on our website:
Genetics as a monitoring tool

Matt Cullin builds life of growth and success out of expertise in corrosion and failure analysis

Volunteer Spotlight

Cullin is a member of the Terminal Operations and Environmental Monitoring Committee. Volunteers like Cullin dedicate their time and expertise on committees who advise the Council’s Board of Directors on technical issues related to the safe transportation of oil through Prince William Sound.

At his job as the director of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s BP Asset Integrity and Corrosion Lab, Matt Cullin imagines himself as a detective.

“I do a lot of failure analysis work for the oil and gas industry,” he says. “Basically when stuff breaks, we do the CSI forensics to figure out why things broke and why they failed.”

They get big projects and a lot of smaller failures too. “Every couple of months somebody shows up with an old piece of pipe and asks us to tell them what happened.”

His goal isn’t just to solve the crime, though, he wants to learn how to prevent corrosion. For all of these projects, Cullin says his next question is always “how can you keep it from failing in the first place?”

Volunteering for the Council

Cullin also puts his background in mechanical engineering with a specialty in corrosion, materials, and failure analysis into use for the Council as a member of the Terminal Operations and Environmental Monitoring, or TOEM, Committee. He says working with the committee helps him better understand the pipeline and terminal. The students in his classes at UAA benefit too.

“Students have a lot of questions about the pipeline and the terminal,” Cullin says. “These are engineers who might go to work for the state or Alyeska and for them to have that information before they graduate is pretty neat. It’s not a given, when you get a university degree, that you’ll get to study this applied information that’s relevant to your local installation.”

“It’s a cool symbiotic relationship,” he adds.

Cullin recently partnered with a fellow TOEM member, Tom Kuckertz, and staff member Austin Love to create a model to help the committee estimate how much oil could potentially leak through a secondary containment liner at the terminal, if that liner was damaged.

“Typically, when you’re talking about modeling, you want to understand the physics,” he explains.

“I’m good at computer programming, so if you explain the model to me, and the equations that govern it, I can program almost anything. Once you have the equations, solving is the easy part.”

Cullin says you have to be willing to keep an open mind in this line of work. It requires a lot of “let’s figure this out” which he loves.

“Otherwise, it would be boring!”

Cullin says that taking things apart and figuring out how they work is the introductory spark for a lot of engineers. “You don’t have to have that to become an engineer, but it certainly helps to have that curiosity.”

“I really appreciate how it links everything together and you can describe the world in a mathematical form.”

‘Alaska gets its hooks in you’

Cullin’s dog Eva photobombs a scenic portrait. Photo courtesy of Matt Cullin.

ey figured out the physics that governed how the fluid would flow through the materials and then Cullin says it’s just a matter of programming.

Outside of work, Cullin has developed a passion for all things outdoors. He hikes, bikes, skis, packrafts, fishes, camps, and recently took up white water kayaking. He loves the variety of activities Alaska provides and just being outdoors.
“That’s what you’ve gotta do. I can’t just sit inside the house, especially during shoulder season. That doesn’t make me unique, though, just makes me like everybody else in Alaska.”

“When I was in Pennsylvania, I was not outdoorsy,” Cullin adds. “Alaska gets its hooks in you, you start doing this stuff, and then someone says ‘there’s a good job opportunity down in Arizona,’ and you’re like ‘yeah but they don’t have real mountains.’”

“The people that really embrace it, you’re not going to be able to leave.”

Volunteer cultivates resilience and seaweed in Prince William Sound

Skye Steritz
Member, Oil Spill Prevention and Response Committee

Volunteer Spotlight: Skye Steritz

Skye Steritz’ passion for a clean environment started at an early age, during a childhood spent outdoors in Texas.

“I was raised with environmentalist values and became an advocate, especially for water, as I got older.”

You can hear the smile in her voice when she’s asked why she first moved to Alaska.

“My love of water,” she replies. “It’s critical to thriving of life on earth.”

Growing respect for diverse opinions

Her father was a geophysicist for Exxon for 30 years; conversations with him gave her a well-rounded perspective and a deep respect for oil workers.

“He recognizes the threats of transporting oil, from drilling to pipelines to tankers,” she explains. “My conversations with him prepped me to be able to communicate with people from all backgrounds.”

She pursued these ideas after high school, racking up three Masters degrees: water resources policy and management; water management and governance; and water cooperation and diplomacy. Her studies took her to Ghana, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, California, and Oregon.

“I was in water management classes with students from all over the world,” Steritz mentions. “In the Netherlands, I was one of two from the U.S. out of about 200 students.”

Her studies included collaborative projects, working with people from different cultures with different communication styles.

“We were learning to listen deeply and understand where people are coming from,” Steritz continues. “We integrated ideas together, rather than assuming any one person had all the answers.”

Steritz believes that’s an integral part of living in small-town Alaska. “You’re going to have neighbors that have different opinions than you and that’s okay. We all still need to work together.”

Steritz landed in Soldotna at first, working for the Kenai Watershed Forum. She now lives in Cordova, where she works as a kelp farmer and a special education aide at Mt. Eccles Elementary School.

She recalls her first glimpse of Alaska during her plane trip to Soldotna in 2015. “I was having a dream about a community caring for each other in a really cold, harsh subarctic environment, helping each other through a tough winter,” she recounts, “then I woke up, and the first part of Alaska that I ever saw was Prince William Sound.”

“I just remember being filled with awe,” she shares. “It feels full circle that I live here now and work on the Sound.”

Cultivating the environment by growing healthy food

Find out more about Steritz’ work, including recipes for using kelp in stir fry or seaweed salad: Noble Ocean Farms

Steritz’ latest adventure puts her values to work. In 2019, she and her partner Sean Den Adel started Noble Ocean Farms, a new kelp farm in Simpson Bay, near Cordova.

“It increases food security and nutrition security for rural communities like ours and provides habitat for fish species like salmon and herring.”

They are currently growing ribbon and sugar kelp. After spores are collected in nearby waters, they are then grown in seawater aquariums at the Alutiiq Pride Marine Institute and Native Conservancy. Once they are big enough to survive on their own, the still-tiny kelp get shipped back to Steritz and Den Adel, who “plant” them along ropes attached to a structure below the water surface. The kelp is harvested in April and May. They plan to sell fresh kelp at the docks in Cordova and potentially Whittier and Valdez.

Volunteering for the Council

When Steritz first moved to Cordova, she participated in Alyeska’s Ship Escort/Response Vessel System’s fishing vessel training program to clean up oil spills.

“It became very clear how hard it would be in reality to clean up an oil spill,” she says. “It seems like an astronomical challenge, so our only true hope is prevention.”

In 2020, Steritz joined the Council’s Oil Spill Prevention and Response, or OSPR, Committee.

She is interested in spill planning for the Copper River Delta area, in particular a project OSPR developed to capture the history of the Copper River Delta and Flats’ oil spill protection strategies.

In the 90s, a group of Cordovans pushed to get geographic response strategies developed specifically for the region. The area is home to important marine species and cultural sites, and it would be particularly challenging to clean up a spill in the area. The results were adopted into government plans in the late 90s. The committee is working with researchers to document that history, including why this work was later dropped from the government plans, and how to support planning for the area in future.

“People in our community are concerned that there is not a plan for the Flats in place currently,” Steritz notes.

Community Corner: Committee volunteer recognized for achievements in conservation

Council volunteer Kate Morse recently received a Conservation Achievement Award from Alaska Conservation Foundation. These prestigious awards recognize individuals and organizations committed to protecting Alaska. The Council was proud to support Kate’s nomination for the Jerry S. Dixon Award for Excellence in Education, which rewards educators who integrate stewardship of Alaska’s natural environment.

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