WHITTIER - It looked like some cartoon concoction, a fantasy fish. Like seaweed with a sea horse's snout.
But the half-grown bay pipefish was real enough, its long, green body wriggling in the net on the beach of Shotgun Cove, a protected bay in Prince William Sound six miles up the coast from the dock in Whittier.
A long-term plan by this second-class city on Passage Canal could someday transform the nearby cove and its rich marine life into the Sound's recreational gateway, complete with paved roads that lead back to town, homes and shops, and a new marina.
But there's a deadline. Whittier has to develop 600 acres in the area by 2014 or lose the land under terms of a state grant. And a scheme to seed a tax base and offer home sites for residents is one of several plans aimed at remaking Whittier from active industrial rail yard into nice seaside destination. Other projects include rebuilding the city's existing harbor and creating a new marina at the head of Passage Canal.
So that biologists can give solid advice on developing the cove - now a quiet anchorage amid rain forest and steep mountains - they have begun cataloging the fish life.
In six trips since April, they've caught 7,000 critters from 20-plus species at six sites - salmon, cod, sticklebacks, Dolly Varden, pipefish and more. Building on 20,000 juvenile and larval fish collected last year, the scientists hope to map the cove's floor and figure out what animals use the area and when they migrate to deeper water.
"I'm really happy that we're doing this study," said Jon Kurland, coordinator of fish habitat studies in Alaska for the National Marine Fisheries Service, who helped pull the net to shore. "It's not often that we do something like this, where we get out in front of the issue."
The ongoing study is one harbinger of big change in Whittier, the closest marine community to Anchorage and Alaska's urban center.
Depending on how fast people make the 55-mile drive down Turnagain Arm through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel from Portage Valley, Anchorage residents can be standing along a misty fjord with a view of waterfalls, glaciers and seals less than 90 minutes from their doorstep.
"Whittier is all about access," said Whittier city manager Rick Hohnbaum. "We are the access point to Prince William Sound and Chugach National Forest for well over half the state."
While the tunnel has been open to vehicle traffic for five years, Whittier hasn't quite flowered yet. But it's trying.
This year it welcomed visitors with new curbs, sidewalks, pavement and lane stripes along the waterfront, plus flush toilets for tourists. But the ambience remains more like a mid-century rain-spattered freight train stop than a quaint bed-and-breakfast tourist village.
There's a new hotel, a private marina, organized parking and signs giving directions. Cruise ships will dock 57 times this season, and an estimated 120,000 vehicles will pay at least $12 for a trip through the tunnel. That's 36 percent more than the 88,000 vehicles that used the tunnel in 2000, when the trip was new and free. In good weather, the stunning view of ocean and mountains is as spectacular as ever.
Several long-term residents said Whittier has changed more in the past year or two than in the previous 20. "It's pavement, stripes and cruise ships," said Sue Miller, office manager of the harbor office and a 13-year resident. "It changes your whole outlook, your attitude."
Community leader Marilynn Heddell and her husband, Pete, have operated Honey Charters for 17 years, dropping off kayakers and taking sightseers all through western Prince William Sound.
"It's evolving, and we're going in the right direction," Heddell said last week. "But the thing is we've got to stay focused. That's always the problem in Whittier - we don't stay focused."