Tiglax vessel celebrates 20 years of Alaska research, opens doors to town

Posted: Sunday, July 01, 2007

UNALASKA - Celebrating 20 years of research, the research vessel Tiglax opened its doors to the community of Unalaska during a stop on its way out to the Aleutians.

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During the open house, the entire 120-foot boat was open for exploration. Crew members were available for questions, and handouts and snacks were in the galley. A video about the refuge was playing as well.

During this trip, the ship will be making several stops. One stop will include gathering research on an island where the fox population was recently removed. Researchers will be looking at the bird population on the island to see its recovery rate. During the fox removal, some birds were killed with the foxes.

"It's a trade off, we lose some birds to regain a bunch later on," said Poppy Benson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service representative.

Foxes were introduced on Avatanak island for harvesting, but after pelt prices fell, the foxes remained unharvested and began to prey on the seabirds. In 2002, a survey of the population was taken, and in 2004 the foxes were removed. This summer, a crew from the Tiglax will do another survey to determine the success.

When foxes are taken from these islands, they are destroyed rather than relocated.

Tiglax Capt. Vernon Byrd said it is unusual for arctic foxes and red foxes to live on an island together, and usually when they're temporarily co-existing, the red foxes dominate.

On a couple of eastern Aleutian islands, including Unalaska, red foxes are native because the islands were once a part of a land bridge to the mainland. In the central and western Aleutians, the foxes are not natural and were only introduced for harvesting.

Fox removal is successful on smaller islands, but there isn't a technique for removal on large islands.

At one point, the Aleutian-Canadian goose was only thriving on two small islands in the Aleutians. After fox were removed from a few islands, and after several years, the population returned to notable numbers.

"Some birds don't come back very well and may take 10 to 15 years to recover," Byrd said.

The ship will be doing intermittent site surveys for birds, looking at invasive species, primarily rats, doing special studies looking at seabird egg contaminants and marine mammal observations.

In addition to the threat of foxes on seabird populations, rats are also causing population problems. On the Tiglax, Poppy Benson was passing out rat-shaped Gummi treats to children and brochures to adults, explaining the threat rats are becoming.

Recently a new rodent law, which goes into effect on July 2, was passed in Alaska. The principle of the law is to create a good prevention program.

"Alaska is one of the last places that is (largely) rat free," Benson said. "But Unalaska has had rats since the 1800s."

Cities with known breeding populations of rats can be found in Nome, Fairbanks, Kodiak, Juneau, Sitka, Wrangell, Craig, Ketchikan, Akutan, Unalaska, Atka and Adak. Rats are also found on Kagalaska, Great Sitkin, Amchitka, Kiska, Shemya, and Attu.

Rats are a danger to boats. As rodents, they are constantly chewing and have been known to chew important wires in boats. They also gnaw through pipes and hydraulic lines.

Rats can breed at the age of 3 months and are capable of having a litter of a dozen rats every three weeks. Rats are capable of squeezing through holes that are a half-inch in diameter and are known for their swimming skills.

The concern of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge is that rats pose a serious health threat and are a main predator of seabirds. Rats are known to kill birds and store them for winter.

"There have been rat nests found with over a hundred dead birds in them," Benson said.

Rat removal has taken place on about 250 islands worldwide but not in Alaska yet, a situation that may change. Rat Island will represent the first attempt at rat removal in the state next year, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to remove Rat Island's rats, which landed in the island in the 1780s when a Japanese ship wrecked there.

The national wildlife refuge has rat prevention kits available for homes and boats on the Web site www.stoprats.org.

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