People of Juneau: Leon Shaul, the coho king

For 37 years, he’s studied the silvers

Earlier this month at Echo Cove, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Leon Shaul prepared for a yearly excursion. It was “Berners Bay D-Day,” and Shaul and ADFG workers prepared three boats: a jet boat, a fan boat and a propeller boat, loading them up for a six week work camp north of the Juneau road system at Berners Bay.


Weighed down with coolers, scientific equipment and two dogs, the fleet was a familiar sight to Shaul. Preparations were for the spring portion of ADFG’s coho salmon study at Berners Bay, something Shaul has helped run for over three decades.

The Douglas resident is so intrigued by the lesser-studied coho species, he’s turned down promotions to keep studying them. Shaul was given advice a while ago: The higher you get in the ADFG, the further away from the fish you find yourself. He’s heeded that advice for 37 years.

“He’s one of the world’s leading experts in coho salmon,” Ketchikan ADFG colleague Andrew Piston said.

Shaul graduated in 1979 from University of Alaska Fairbanks. During college, he worked seasonally for the Alaska Department of Public Safety on the Alaska Peninsula, hoping to catch illegal “creek robbers.” Salmon were scarce and lucrative at the time, and fishermen would sometimes cross regulatory boundaries to take spawning salmon from the mouths of creeks, where they’re congested.

“We’d get dropped off for four days at a time, hiding in the bushes. We’d camouflage our tents, be back in the bushes watching, particularly in foggy weather and in the dark at night. … Now you’d probably only find that on sockeye systems,” Shaul said.

Shaul worked for the now-defunct Fisheries Rehabilitation and Enhancement Division (FRED). He said he got “kind of disillusioned” with a career in fisheries biology after working at a “boondoggle” of a hatchery near Kodiak.

“It was a bare knuckle attack on nature,” Shaul said during an April interview at his ADFG Douglas office.

The young biologist considered going into commercial fisheries, but a job as a foreign fisheries observer in 1979 on a Russian fishing vessel in the Bering Sea “reignited” his interest. The work was for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which at the time was figuring out how to enforce the landmark 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The act outlined rules for fishing within 200 miles of U.S. land. Shaul worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Russians on trawl boats, sampling cod catches.

“The Iron Curtain was pulled right down. You couldn’t get that kind of exposure to average day Russians unless you were an embedded spy,” Shaul said.

It was on to graduate school after that. In the spring of 1981, Shaul got a letter alerting him to a position studying wild salmon out of Juneau. He’s been in the same position ever since.

“I’ve been upgraded a couple of times, but I’ve been in the same position for 37 years,” Shaul said.

Shaul leads the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Coho Salmon Research Project, which assesses strength of adult salmon returns. That program began in 1969. Before that, the only data that existed for salmon management came from what fishermen were catching. The project instead went straight to the source, sampling outgoing and returning salmon populations to develop sustainability goals.

The initial ideas were to understand how much fisheries may be being exploited. Shortly after that, the department picked a few salmon systems to study.

“The first thing I realized is cohos are pretty resilient,” Shaul said.

Shaul’s work is focused on the coho salmon in the Berners River, Ford Arm Creek on West Chichagof Island and Hugh Smith Lake out of Ketchikan (state budget cuts in 2015 ended field work at Ford Arm Creek). In these regions, he and a small team of technicians mark coho salmon smolt with coded wire tags in the spring and then count and sample returning adult coho salmon in the fall. The results help biologists determine the size of the population that survived both the fishing season and life out at sea in order to ensure the next generation of salmon can reproduce.

Shaul has expanded his work beyond developing escapement goals and assessing run sizes. After decades of studying coho, he’s putting together the puzzle pieces for a theory of what might affect coho sizes in the marine environment. Coho sizes are declining, Shaul said, and there’s an even-odd year pattern to that, indicating an affect from pink salmon, which live only two years, the shortest lifespan of Pacific salmon. The bulk of a pink run often returns one year over another. Odd- and even-year spawning fish are genetically unrelated to one another.

Coho size might have something to do with how pink and coho salmon compete for squid. Coho live only one year in the ocean, and put on a large portion of their weight during that one critical year. A large abundance of pink salmon, bolstered by Alaska hatcheries, might be disrupting this growth cycle.

[Curious by Nature: Do hatchery fish hamper wild king and coho?]

Though Chinook salmon stocks on the Pacific are struggling right now, taken in total, the Pacific Ocean currently plays host to one of the largest historical abundances salmon species. If our hatchery policies are affecting wild salmon stocks, Shaul wants to know how and why.

Dave Harris, a management biologist at ADFG, has known Shaul professionally for about 15 years. One of Shaul’s gifts, he said, is being able to see the bigger picture of salmon ecology.

“As far as understanding why fluctuations in populations occur, how different populations of animals work together or against each other, that’s one of Leon’s great strengths, being able to put these things together,” Harris said.

Harris said Shaul has the right idea in sticking with a job he finds interesting.

“If you’ve got something that’s very fascinating and interesting why leave? We’re not in this for the money. It’s about quality of life,” Harris said.

Shaul applied to retire about 10 years ago, but his developing research fascinated him too much. He’s planning on retiring at the end of the year, he said, but it’s going to be tough to leave behind a fish puzzle just now falling into place.

“After all these years, that’s what’s kept me around. Parts of this big picture are coming together now,” Shaul said.

• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 and Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.

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