The Kenai Lowlands region is one of the world’s most productive habitats for spawning salmon.

Key landscape elements promote resilience in salmon-producing watersheds on the Kenai. One of the most important are peatlands, which provide carbon inputs for the stream systems and regulate groundwater temperatures.

New outreach tools and materials inspired by knowledge produced by the Kenai Lowlands Working Group are aiding salmon management and decision making. They also inform private landowners on how to preserve and protect the Kenai’s vital salmon habitat.

About Our Work

Salmon are a cultural touchstone in Alaska and we have an incredible opportunity to sustain the landscape that supports them, before it becomes too late. Our hope is that through regional ecosystem-based understanding of salmon habitat, stakeholders will be able to make informed decisions that increase community stewardship of the landscape and result in greater salmon resiliency.

The extensive research on healthy salmon habitat is not necessarily common knowledge among decision makers. This issue is especially pressing in the Kenai Lowlands where land ownership is predominantly private, and land use decisions are made at various geographic scales.

Our working group strives to put years of research into the hands of stakeholders. In collaboration with landowners, resource managers, land use planners, tribal leaders, regulators, and researchers, we have developed a variety of tools that can aid in decision making surrounding salmon support systems as well as outreach materials curated for the general public.

We also present the state of watershed research related to salmon with an interactive story map and short videos that help stakeholders understand how different landscape elements (i.e. alder, peat wetlands, and shallow groundwater flows) are essential for salmon success. The geospatial tool allows landowners and decision makers to view these elements within a geographic information system including land parcels, existing infrastructure, and waterways. Incorporating the geospatial tool into decision making allows stakeholders to pursue development in a way that maintains watershed connectivity and landscape elements that support salmon streams.

What we've learned

Understanding the ecosystem

Alder, peat wetlands, and shallow groundwater are all key elements supporting the productivity of salmon streams in the Kenai Lowlands. Working collaboratively with researchers from across the country since 2005, the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (KBNERR) has been studying how different landscape elements support juvenile salmon in the watersheds of the Kenai Lowlands.

Research shows that nitrogen from alder groves and carbon from peat wetlands are essential building blocks of the stream food web. These elements are transported by groundwater. Additionally, groundwater moderates stream temperatures, providing cooler water in summer and warmer water in winter. By exploring salmon use of estuaries and overwintering sites throughout the watershed, we can learn from the landscape connections that are foundational to salmon habitat in the region’s watersheds. It is clear that the systems that support these iconic fish extend well past the banks of the rivers.

The role of waterflow through the Kenai Lowlands

This basic model of a watershed illustrates how shallow groundwater moves nutrients from peat wetlands (carbon) and alder patches (nitrogen) into the river system. These nutrients, coupled with the groundwater, are fundamental in stream productivity.

KBNERR in the community

We know that connecting local communities to salmon science is critical. KBNERR partnered with ProjectGRAD to give local teens first-hand experience with salmon research. The youth sampled baby salmon using electrofishing equipment, and invertebrates using kick nets in creeks that flow near their schools.

Outreach Tools

Landscape Story Map

This interactive, data-filled story map is an exploration of people and salmon on the lower Kenai Peninsula of Southcentral Alaska. In video, maps and graphics, the story map examines how 15+ years of research have enhanced our understanding of the ways in which the landscape supports our salmon. We also explore how our decisions on land influence the success and productivity of our salmon streams.

View Map

Principal Investigators

Coowe Walker

Principal Investigator
Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

Coowe has led the development of the watershed research program at KBNERR since the Reserve’s designation in 2001, and she became Reserve Manager in March 2018. Her projects focus on understanding ecosystem processes that support watershed productivity, and in particular, juvenile salmon habitats.

Ryan King

Baylor University

Ryan and his lab are working to understand how altering the availability of the essential building blocks of life–phosphorus, nitrogen, and carbon–may cause detrimental and even irreversible damage to the ecosystems on which we rely for water, food, and recreation.

Mark Rains

University of South Florida

Mark Rains is a Professor of Geology and the Director of the School of Geosciences at the University of South Florida and the Associate Editor for Wetland and Watershed Hydrology for the Journal of the American Water Resources Association. Dr. Rains’ research is focused on hydrological connectivity and the role that hydrological connectivity plays in governing ecosystem structure and function.

Charles Simenstad

University of Washington

Charles (“Si”) Simenstad – Research Professor Emeritus in the University of Washington–is an estuarine and coastal marine ecologist who has studied the organization and function of estuarine and coastal marine ecosystems, communities, seascapes, and restoration potential throughout Puget Sound, Washington, Oregon and California coasts, and Alaska for over forty years.

Dennis Whigham

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Dennis Whigham is a Senior Botanist and Founding Director of the North American Orchid Conservation Center. He is an Associate Editor for Estuaries and Coasts, AoB Plants, Plant Species Biology, and Restoration Ecology. Dr. Whigham’s research is focused on plant ecology, especially orchid-fungal interactions, and wetland ecology.