University faculty member assesses kelp biomass

Posted: Wednesday, October 03, 2001

Mike Stekoll, Ph.D., a faculty member in chemistry for both the University of Alaska Southeast and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, recently received a $340,000 grant from NASA.

The grant will allow Stekoll to develop rapid biomass assessment technology for Alaska's kelp industry. The funds will be used to develop a set of kelp resource maps for the Sumner Strait region, which lies around the north end of Prince of Wales Island. The maps will delineate the biomass classes of kelp and derive a procedure to continue the systematic monitoring of kelp populations.

Half of the project takes place in the air above the ocean's surface. "Our plan is to use a multi spectral differential video camera (MSDV) which will be mounted on a plane," Stekoll said. "We fly at different altitudes to get different resolutions, chartering planes with the proper holes in them to take pictures." He cannot use satellite images to survey kelp biomass because those images are not rendered in high enough resolution.

He will accomplish his research working with a California firm, Ocean Imaging, with which he has worked previously on oil spills.

The other half of the project takes place on the ocean's surface. It involves using a boat, scuba diving and taking measurements and samples to estimate the biomass present in the survey area.

Three species of floating kelp are involved in the assessment: Giant kelp, bull kelp and a variety of alaria. All have gas-filled vesicles that help them stay on the surface to soak up sunlight.

These species are currently harvested to produce a fertilizer supplement and for the herring roe-on-kelp industry. In addition, they form an ecosystem of their own which is important for bottom fish, Stekoll said.

"There is concern about over-harvesting of certain kelps in certain places in Alaska. My research will help the state Department of Fish and Game come up with a management plan for future harvesting," he said.

Stekoll has lived in Juneau since 1978. Since 1987 he has had a joint appointment to UAS and UAF. He usually spends his time doing seaweed ecology or pollution work, he said.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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