What we learned at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium

Knowledge is Power, and AWA soaked up a lot of knowledge at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium 

We work hard to make sure you have opportunities to learn about Alaska’s wildlife through events such as our Wildlife Wednesday seminar series in Juneau and Anchorage, and by keeping you up to date on current wildlife issues.  To do this, we also have to educate ourselves, and we did just that when our President of the Board and our two staff attended the Alaska Marine Science Symposium (AMSS) in Anchorage.  We’ve all heard about the devastation to the environment and wildlife as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill 30 years ago (and if you haven’t, join us for our March Wildlife Wednesday seminar in Anchorage!).  As a result of that tragedy and the need to connect various researchers working in Alaska’s marine environment, the AMSS was born as a means for researchers to collaborate and share science-based findings.

The AMSS is Alaska’s premier marine research conference and has been bringing together over 700 scientists, educators, resource managers, students, and interested public for over twenty years to discuss the latest marine research occurring in Alaskan waters. After starting the conference with plenary sessions and talks on Monday, each subsequent day of the conference focused on a different Alaskan marine ecosystem: Gulf of Alaska (Tuesday), Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands (Wednesday), and the Arctic (Thursday). The program included over 75 oral presentations, 15 workshops, and hundreds of posters covering the general topics of climate and oceanography, lower trophic levels, fishes and fish habitats, seabirds, marine mammals, human dimensions, and ecosystem perspectives. If you missed the conference, you can still read short abstracts about each talk and poster by reviewing the AMSS 2019 Book of Abstracts.  The AMSS organizers also make available the abstract books from past symposia.

While there is too much information for us to cover here, we do want to present you with some overarching concepts we learned, and some avenues we plan to pursue for future AWA collaborations or activities.

1.Science is important

We heard pre-recorded messages from Senators Murkowski and Sullivan, and Congressman Young recognizing the importance of the AMSS for studying and learning about the marine environment in Alaska, and how a healthy marine ecosystem is critically important for Alaska’s economy.  Senator Murkowski even relayed a conversation she had with a high-ranking military official who, after visiting Alaska, told her “I’m not a scientist, but I am a master of the obvious.”  He was referring to the fact that climate change is real, especially in Alaska, and that there is no reason to waste effort continuing to debate the topic. Instead, we need to take action now to curb the effect of climate change. 

2. Things are changing

One clear sign that our oceans are changing is the fact that the Chukchi Sea is now beginning to resemble the Bering Sea, in that it is also becoming a seasonally ice-free sea. In some areas of the Bering Sea, the “cold pool” was missing entirely.  The warming sea temperatures (as much as 5 degrees Celsius) and loss of sea ice is having significant effects on all levels of the ecosystem, from the acidity of water, to the small plankton, to the fishes that feed on the plankton, to the seabirds and marine mammals that feed on the fishes and plankton, and to the humans whose subsistence lifestyles are dependent upon the seabirds and marine mammals.  This is only one example of the cascading food web effects that are affected by warming ocean waters. Here are some recent interesting online stories we found discussing this general topic: In 2018, Alaska’s Bering Sea was all out of whack and NOAA’s 2018 Arctic Report Card: Visual highlights.

3. We learned a lot about Alaska.

·        the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill are lasting longer than anyone imagined;

·        nitrogen mixing and concentration are critical for ocean productivity;

·        the surface layer of the sea off Cordova is getting less saline while the deep ocean is getting more saline; this leads to decreased ocean mixing;

·        salt and salinity stratification in the ocean may trap heat below the surface and prevent expected thermal mixing;

·        the deep Bering Sea cold pool, which was a barrier to Pacific fish mixing with Arctic species, has disappeared in some areas;

·        paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) is a problem in the Gulf of Alaska – cleaning, cooking, and freezing do not fix the issue; there is no State agency for monitoring PSP in subsistence foods;

·        sea otters contribute greatly to the health of kelp forests (come learn more about Alaska’s sea otter at our February Wildlife Wednesday seminar in Anchorage!);

·        Stellar eiders have an extrarenal salt gland between their eyes which helps them get rid of excess salt, however, this gland doesn’t work until they are about one week old; the increasing salinity in the Yukon Delta region may be the reason some of the baby birds are dying;

·        reproductive success of hatchery chum salmon appears to be lower than natural reproductive rates; ADF&G is doing research on this;

·        there needs to be recognition that different life stages of species, such as birds and fish, may have different habitat needs, and a one size fits all approach to habitat does not work for all life stages;

·        humpback whales have been documented using novel feeding techniques (whereby they use their pectoral flippers to corral fish into their mouths) at a hatchery in Sitka;

·        killer whales hunt both beluga whales and bowhead whales; this may explain why belugas and bowheads (neither of which have a pronounced dorsal fin) are often found close to the ice edges; the large dorsal fin of the killer whales may make it hard for killer whales to navigate in ice-covered areas; decreasing sea ice may make it easier for killer whales to hunt belugas and bowheads;

·        2014 was the year of very large changes in the Arctic sea temperatures and maybe the start of a new era; we may be witnessing an ecosystem shift whereby warmer sea temperatures are the “New Normal”.

4. We are taking what we learned and applying it to our programs

In addition to learning about the current research and condition of Alaska’s marine environment, we learned about several new collaborative groups that we plan to follow up with throughout the year.  Some of these groups were research focused whereas others were education focused.  Either way, AWA will be working to build new Conservation Coalitions to help us achieve our goals.