Fostering ocean literacy: the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute

A look inside the Lena Point NOAA facility

Posted: Sunday, March 14, 2010

Perched atop a rocky outcrop at the tip of Pt. Lena, framed by Favorite Channel on one side and snow-encrusted mountains on the other, the ultra-modern Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute seems as out of place as it does foreboding. Its concrete and steel gated entrance, replete with surveillance cameras and strongly worded warnings, does little to soften the austerity.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

But don't be fooled. Brave the twisty road leading to the NOAA facility and you'll find some of the friendliest scientists this side of a gas chromatograph. Oh, and don't let the name fool you either - it honors the ex-senator's lifelong commitment to sustainable fisheries management, not his procurement of funding. It's a laboratory, after all, not an international airport.

I trekked out to Pt. Lena on just the type of blustery morning that many Juneauites - especially those with young children - spend searching for an indoor activity that doesn't involve Fred Meyer. Or Costco. This certainly fit the bill.

Immediately inside, a rack of self-guided tour pamphlets greeted me, along with a sign encouraging visitors to enjoy the exhibits at their own pace. A large curving aquarium teemed with local sea life: starfish, anemones, salmon, sablefish, a ping-pong paddle halibut and more rockfish than you could shake a rod at. Several smaller tanks displayed different habitats, more starfish, crabs. An as-of-yet unassembled humpback whale skeleton, the recent victim of a boating accident, sat tucked behind the staircase to the second floor atrium. I'll admit it: I copped a feel. No sign said not to.

Upstairs, impressive representatives of 40 different species of Alaskan fish decorated a whole wall, comprising the aptly named "Wall of Fish." Suspended from the ceiling: "Science on a Sphere," an animated depiction of global weather and ocean patterns, projected onto - you guessed it - a sphere.

"We're also trying to get hydrophones," said Steve Ignell, 55, a biological mathematician as well as the lab's deputy director. "That's one of the pleasant surprises of our new location - all the whale activity."

Open since May 2007, the facility houses four different research groups: Habitat Assessment & Marine Chemistry; Marine Ecology & Stock Assessment; Marine Salmon Interactions; and Ocean Carrying Capacity. Interestingly enough, it is the only Alaska Fisheries Science Center actually located in Alaska.

Primarily, Ignell explained, the lab provides assessments that enable policymakers to set sustainable fish harvests. "We do science, not management," is how he put it. But they also emphasize community outreach, with the ultimate goal of fostering ocean literacy.

Each May, for instance, the lab conducts Seaweek, during which local elementary students participate in a variety of hands-on marine ecology-related activities. This June 12, it will also host World Ocean Day, an all-ages community event so large it only happens every other year.

While both floors of the atrium comprise the lab's only designated public space, for events like these it opens doors usually closed to the masses. These include the Wet Lab (live animals), the Ichthyology Lab (preserved animals) and the Necroscopy Lab, which seems right out of one of those true crime forensics shows, only for sea life (turns out the orca did it).

"We're happy to have the public," Ignell said. "Just not busloads at a time, all day, every day."

However, he pointed out, almost all of the NOAA facility's employees enjoy giving informal tours. He wasn't kidding.

Marine chemist Larry Holland, 49, for example, was all too happy to explain how he's been able to apply chemical expertise from his Prince William Sound/Exxon Valdez study to other areas, such as "who's eating who and how much."

Not to be outdone, genetics lab manager Chuck Guthrie, 50, took a full half-hour from his research - identifying hundreds of salmon per week by genetic sequence - to demonstrate the entire process from pulverizing fish scales to amplifying DNA to analyzing scatter plot data. I almost understood what he was talking about.

Much of the lab's staff has been working there for years. However, it also employs its share of younger scientists, some of whom began as student interns.

"We get graduate students, college kids," said Bonita Nelson, 53, a biologist and director of community outreach. Additionally, the lab is currently mentoring 20 high school students for the Southeast Alaska Regional Science Fair, offering a rare opportunity for them to get involved in actual NOAA research.

"We're your government," she said. "We're a resource for everyone's betterment. And with our new facilities, we'll be able to do more and more."

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