Juneau scientists probing fisheries, marine ecosystem

Posted: Monday, August 02, 2004

At least nine Juneau scientists received a boost this year to study Alaska's lesser-known aquatic resources from the state's fledgling North Pacific Research Board.

The local scientists' projects range from analyzing a persistent chemical pollutant that may be leaching from Juneau's municipal landfill to exploring coral gardens in the Aleutian Islands.

The North Pacific Research Board - set up in 1997 by a legislative act after a battle between Alaska and the U.S. government over off-shore oil entitlements along the Arctic Coast - is steadily becoming a bigger player in marine research, scientists said.

The board met July 27-30 in Juneau to review the draft outline of its science plan. It uses interest from the settlement to fund studies of fisheries and ecosystems in the north Pacific Ocean, the Bering Sea and the Arctic Sea.

"It's quite new, but in Alaska it will become the dominant outside (non-university, non-government) funder," said Mike Sigler, a scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service's Auke Bay Laboratory in Juneau.

The tentative sum for all 2004 board-funded projects coordinated by Juneau scientists is $1.44 million, but that does not include the $1.3 million for Aleutian coral research that began in 2003 by the Auke Bay Laboratory. That research is continuing this summer and has attracted millions more in funding and support from other organizations. The board's total budget for 2004-funded projects statewide is $3.6 million.

Here's a roundup of the locally led projects:

• Southeast Alaska scientific review. University of Alaska Southeast professor Ginny Eckert and about seven other scientists at other campuses will spend a year compiling all the scientific knowledge about the ocean in Southeast Alaska and will identify significant gaps and new areas for study.

"There hasn't been much scientific review of Southeast Alaska, in comparison to Prince William Sound, because of oil spills, and the Bering Sea, due to crashed fisheries," Eckert said. "Though Southeast Alaska provides a lot of important services, we don't know very much about it."

Budget: $120,000.

• Flame retardant pollution levels in Lemon Creek. UAS professors Sherry Tamone and Lisa Hoferkamp will look for the presence of PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ether), a chemical compound that accumulates up the food chain and may harm wildlife. Tamone said PBDEs can last a long time in the environment and can leach from their place of origin, such as plastics, baby clothes or computers.

The scientists will compare PBDE levels in soil and biota in Lemon Creek, downstream of the Juneau landfill and incinerator, with levels at a non-impacted creek in Juneau.

PBDEs have been found all over the world in recent years and have become a hot topic because they may mimic reproductive and growth hormones.

"We are very interested to see what we can find," Tamone said.

Budget: $48,402.

• Rockfish genetics. University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Tony Gharrett is continuing research on rockfish populations in the Gulf of Alaska. Previously, Gharrett identified a new rockfish species that had been lumped together with rougheye rockfish. The Juneau-based fish geneticist is finishing up that analysis and beginning a new study of Pacific Ocean perch, which have been found swimming in the thousands with young salmon in the gulf.

Rockfish are usually caught incidentally in longline fisheries but are commercially valuable.

"We don't know very much about them," Gharrett said. Because of the lack of information on their breeding and abundance, "there's some real issues with rockfish harvests of any kind," Gharrett said.

Budget: $105,000

• Forage fish assessment. Auke Bay Laboratory scientist Mike Sigler and Juneau-based UAF professor Nicola Hillgruber will join with six other scientists next summer to assess forage fish populations in the Bering Sea. Two additional Auke Bay lab scientists will work on the project.

"Forage fish (including herring, cod, capelin and others) are important in the ecosystem but we don't know much about them - how large are their populations and how fast they grow," Sigler said.

He estimated that the group will collect data on 10 to 12 major species.

"It took us 20 years to figure out marine mammals in the Bering Sea and learn about their life histories. It's going to take a similar effort to do the same thing with forage fish," Sigler said.

So far, Alaska fisheries research has focused mostly on the commercially important predator fish, like halibut and salmon.

"In some ways, we're working our way down the food chain," he said.

Budget: $500,000.

• Coral research. Auke Bay Laboratory scientists Bob Stone and John Heifetz are traveling on a boat in the Aleutian Islands mapping coral distributions through the archipelago right now, Sigler said.

Their project, involving about 30 scientists, has identified corals in the Aleutians that were previously unknown. Last summer, they inspected corals in shallow zones. This July they are using remotely-controlled equipment that can dive to 1.7 miles.

Budget: $1.3 million.

• Spiny Dogfish. University of Alaska scientist Gordon Kruse of Juneau is researching spiny dogfish in order to improve bycatch management, learn the shark's role in the ecosystem and collect other data to evaluate whether it can become a targeted fishery in Alaska.

Budget: $171,000.

• Atka mackerel. Hillgruber is researching the reproductive ecology of Atka mackerel to aid development of improved harvesting plans, particularly for the multimillion-dollar trawl fishery in the Aleutians. The Atka mackerel is an important forage species for birds and mammals, including the endangered Steller sea lion.

Budget: $200,000.

For more information about other NPRB projects, visit www.nprb.org.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.

Auke Bay Lab Scientists study corals

For more information about NOAA's deep sea coral expedition in the Aleutian Islands, read the daily Web logs at either www.alaskascienceoutreach.com or www.afsc.noaa.gov/abl/MarFish/coralscruise.htm

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