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AFSC Historical Corner:  Environmental and Ecosystem Monitoring

Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
Species Research
Federal Hatcheries
Fisheries Management
Environmental and Ecosystem Monitoring
taking measurements
Taking measurements at  Little Port Walter.
Photo provided by William Heard (AFSC).

NOTE: This page is under development,
           pending additional content.

Monitoring Alaska's marine environment has been an important focus over the last century.

  • Following the eruption of Mt. Katmi volcano in 1912, a Bureau of Fisheries inspector was instructed to make a special investigation to determine the effects upon the fisheries, animals, and plant life on Afognak Island.
  • In 1958, 32 years of collected data on the air circulation changes over the North Pacific was studied with regard to their effects on sea temperatures, upwelling, and fish populations.
  • Many years after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Center scientists continue to monitor the long-term recovery of the environment.
  • Moving into the 2000s, a chief issue is climate change and its effects to the Alaska and northern Pacific environment; such as the receding glacial areas that are important to harbor seals that pup and nurse their young on the floating ice calved from tidewater glaciers.

Some topics worthy of mention are:

Pollution  and its impact to marine ecology was addressed by the U.S. Congress when it mandated the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, requiring the Secretary of Commerce to initiate a comprehensive program of fishery research, including the impact of pollution on the abundance and availability of fishery resources. In 1978, the National Ocean Pollution Research, Development, and Monitoring and Planning Act specifically named the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as the leading Federal agency to plan and coordinate ocean pollution monitoring and research.

Prior to this period, the impact of pollution on marine organisms was addressed primarily after environmental catastrophies had occurred. Lacking adequate information on how toxic chemicals altered living marine systems, it was often impossible to identify, much less quantify, the acute effects of even a massive spill of hazardous material. Even more lacking was information on long-term effects from major spills or from the gradual degradation of the environment from continuous, low-level estuarine and marine pollution. (Malins, 1982 *)

Following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, several studies have been done in connection with oil contamination exposure and energy flow at the ecosystem level. Summer surveys sampled numerous mussels, sediment, salmon, sandlances, and other species for analysis of hydrocarbon concentrations in tissues and sediments. Affected beaches were cleaned of oil.

Climate change:  More recently, there has been a growing recognition that global climate conditions are changing. Understanding what these changes are and how they impact the Earth's marine ecosystems have become two of NOAA's strategic goals. In response, Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC) scientists have collaborated with climate scientists and oceanographers at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) to develop new modeling tools to better project how climate change will alter the production and distribution of commercial fishes off Alaska. The models provide science-based support for long-range spatial planning and management of these commercial fisheries.  From Hollowed, A. B., et al. 2011. Integrating Ecosystem Aspects and Climate Change Forecasting into Stock Assessments. AFSC Quarterly Report Feature, July-Sept. 2011. 6 p. (.pdf, 1.84 MB).

  • Sea ice [in the Bering Sea] "plays an important role in the timing of the spring phytoplankton bloom, which in turn has impacts on benthic and pelagic communities (Stabeno and Overland 2001). It has also provided a hunting and transport platform to walrus, polar bears, and Alaska Natives. It is assumed Arctic foxes (Alopex lagopus) originally made their way to the Pribilof Islands by sea ice (Preble and McAtee 1923, 104105), and local residents have reported foxes using sea ice to move between islands in modern times. Government log books for the Pribilof Islands indicate polar bears, not normally found on the islands, have occasionally arrived and left by ice."  From "Island Setting: Role of Sea Ice". Pribilof Islands: a Historical Perspective. NOAA website.
  • Ocean Acidification:  Global climate change studies have revealed that the rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration has increased substantially since the industrial revolution in the mid-1700s. The world's oceans have absorbed between 30% and 50% of that new CO2. The increase in oceanic CO2, when incorporated into the carbonate system, has resulted in an average decrease of ocean surface pH by 0.1 units, the equivalent of a 30% increase in acidity. The increased acidity reduces the saturation of calcium carbonate, making it more difficult for some calcifying organisms to sequester calcium and carbonate to build shells.
    From Foy, R. J., et al. 2012. Ocean Acidification: Monitoring and Measuring the Physiological and Population Response of Living Marine Resources in Alaska. AFSC Quarterly Report Feature, July-Sept. 2012. 8 p.  (.pdf, 4.38 MB).

Vessel impact on marine species is a concern being investigated by Center scientists now for the last several decades:

  • Traffic:  i.e. Recent concerns for harbor seals have arisen due to increased vessel traffic and disturbance by sightseeing and cruise ships in several tidewater glacial regions.
  • Noise:  The significant increase of Low Frequency Active noise in the world's oceans has been a subject of concern among marine mammal scientists since the 1980s. Vessel traffic, geophysical exploration, long-range sonar, and other sources of underwater anthropogenic noise are often regarded as a source of potential disturbance to aquatic animals.

Effects of fishing, plastic and other refuse: 

  • Ghost fishing, which occurs when lost or abandoned fishing gear continues to trap and kill aquatic organisms, can have substantial economic and ecological effects. Lost nets can continue to ensnare animals, including birds and mammals, while lost crab or fish pots keep on attracting animals. Pots can be particularly damaging because they are often sturdily constructed and can last a long time and because animals that die inside them become bait that lures in the next set of victims. Ghost fishing gear is also non-discriminatory in that it will capture both fishery and non-fishery species, as well as individuals that would usually not be harvested, such as reproductive females.
    From Foy, R. J., et al. 2012. Ocean Acidification: Monitoring and Measuring the Physiological and Population Response of Living Marine Resources in Alaska. AFSC Quarterly Report Feature, Jul-Sept. 2012. 8 p.  (.pdf, 4.38 MB).
  • Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPCs) highlight specific habitat areas deemed especially vulnerable to anthropogenic impacts, having extremely important ecological functions and/or areas that are especially vulnerable to human-induced degradation. Fishing gear can damage corals and habitats used by a fish species for the processes of spawning, breeding, feeding, or growth to maturity. Gorgonian corals, especially red tree coral (Primnoa sp.), are HAPCs that are thought to be particularly vulnerable to the impacts of fishing gear. Skate nurseries in the eastern Bering Sea are exceptional areas of the Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) identified for skates.
  • Marine debris:  Society has developed an increasing number of uses for plastic due to its lightweight, strength, durability, versatility, and low cost. Products include bags, bottles, cups, six-pack yokes, balloons, strapping bands, plastic sheeting, resin pellets, packing materials, and fishing gear. When dumped, lost or abandoned in the marine or aquatic environments, plastic debris not only looks bad, but can harm the environment and wildlife.

    Environmental impacts arise from entanglement of marine animals in plastic debris and from ingestion of plastic by aquatic organisms. Marine debris poses a threat to humans when divers, ships, or boats become fouled in debris. Beaches and waterfronts are becoming littered with plastic garbage requiring costly cleanup procedures. In 1989, the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act made it illegal to dump plastics at sea and in all U. S. navigable waters.
  • Entanglement "in marine debris, specifically in plastics associated with the commercial fishing industry, has been documented for a number of species of seals and sea lions." "Northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) become entangled in plastic debris and scraps of fishing nets as they forage in the open ocean. Such entanglement, especially in scraps of net, is a source of mortality for this species and has been the focus of research examining recent declines in the northern fur seal population on the Pribilof Islands."  From Fowler, C. W., and T. J. Ragen. 1990. Entanglement studies, St. Paul Island, 1989: Juvenile male northern fur seals. NWAFC Processed Rep. 90-06, 39 p. (.pdf, 1.59 MB).
  marine debris coloring book page
A page from the 1989 Marine Debris Coloring Book; an educational NOAA publication  (.pdf, 9.7 MB).

"In response to the northern fur seal entanglement problem and the 1984 [Fate and Impact of Marine Debris] FIMD workshop, the United States set up the Marine Entanglement Research Program in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This program is charged with formulation and execution of research, mitigation, and education activities to address the marine debris problem in U.S. waters."  From Coe, J. M. 1990. Marine debris research, education, and mitigation in the North Pacific. In R. S. Shomura and M. L. Godfrey (editors), Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Marine Debris, April 2-7, 1989, Honolulu, Hawaii, p. 19-49. NOAA Tech. Memo., NMFS-SWFSC-154.

Event items:

  • Center scientists investigate the effects of Cook Inlet, Alaska, crude oil on shrimp and crab larvae, 1976

    "An investigation of the effects of the water-soluble-fractions (WSF's) of Cook Inlet crude oil on coonstripe shrimp and king crab larvae has been completed by Anthony Mecklenburg. This series of experiments was designed to show the influence of Cook Inlet crude oil on molting for both larval species. Data analysis has been completed, and this information is being incorporated with previous studies describing acute toxicities on the same species. Preliminary findings indicate that stage I larvae of both king crab and coonstripe shrimp are more susceptible to oil during molting than in the intermolt stage."  (From Northwest Fisheries Center Monthly Report, July 1976).

  • APPRISE study initiated in Auke Bay, 1985

    Field work was initiated in early March on a cooperative study of the Association of Primary Production and Recruitment Processes in Subarctic Ecosystems (APPRISE). Participants in the study include scientists from the University of Alaska at Juneau and Fairbanks, the Oceanic Institute in Hawaii, and the NWAFC's Auke Bay Laboratory. Auke Bay will serve as the study ecosystem in this investigation. The Laboratory's role involves assessing of the density, distribution, and seasonal dynamics of zooplankton in Auke Bay and providing assistance to University of Alaska scientists preparing a summary report of existing knowledge of the chemical, physical, and biological oceanography and marine biology of Auke Bay.

    According to Fishery Biologist Dr. Bruce Wing, the initial sampling of zooplankton was carried out the second week of March. Participating scientists included Dr. Bruce Wing (ABL), and Dr. Lewis Haldorson and John Watts (both with the University of Alaska-Juneau).

    The initial set of samples yielded modest catches of calanoid copepods (primarily Pseudocalanus sp.) and small numbers of planktonic fish eggs and larvae. Two species of fish eggs (walleye pollock and an unidentified flatfish) and several species of larval fish were found in surface tows with 0.20 m2 Norpac plankton nets and 0.56 m2 rectangular midwater trawl tows to 50 m depth taken at the Auke Bay Monitor Station. The larval fish catches included Bathylagus stilbius (California smoothtongue), possibly two species of cottids (sculpins), and two distinct stichaeids (pricklebacks).

    Hydroacoustic assessment of the seasonal density and distribution of zooplankton and associated off-bottom fishes is due to begin in April.  (From Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Quarterly Report, Jan.-Mar. 1985).

Additional reading:

  • * Malins, D. C. 1982. Effects on Environmental Stress on Fisheries Use and Enjoyment: A Historical Overview. In R. R. Mitsuoka, R. E. Pearson, L. J. Rutledge, and S. Waterman (editors), Fifty Years of Cooperation and Commitment: 1931-81, the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center, p. 133-145. U.S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS F/NWC-34.  (.pdf, 1.24 MB).
  • Coe, J. M., and D. B. Rodgers. (editors) 1997. Marine debris: Sources, impacts, and solutions. Springer-Verlag, New York, 432 p.
  • Gottschalk, J. S. 1982. Environmental Stress and the Use and Enjoyment of Marine Resources: The Future In R. R. Mitsuoka, R. E. Pearson, L. J. Rutledge, and S. Waterman (editors), Fifty Years of Cooperation and Commitment: 1931-81, the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center, p. 181-192. U.S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS F/NWC-34.  (.pdf, 984 KB).
  • Ebel, W. J. 1982. Effects of Environmental Degradation on the Freshwater Stage of Anadromous Fish. In R. R. Mitsuoka, R. E. Pearson, L. J. Rutledge, and S. Waterman (editors), Fifty Years of Cooperation and Commitment: 1931-81, the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center, p. 147-180. U.S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS F/NWC-34.
    (.pdf, 4.71 MB).
  • Karrick, N. L., and S-L. Chan 1982. Research on Effects of Chemical Contaminants. In R. R. Mitsuoka, R. E. Pearson, L. J. Rutledge, and S. Waterman (editors), Fifty Years of Cooperation and Commitment: 1931-81, the Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Center, p. 55-61. U.S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS F/NWC-34.  (.pdf, 792 KB).
  • Large Marine Ecosystems: a Breakthrough Concept for Ecosystem Management.  ("NOAA Celebrates 200 Years of Science, Service, and Stewardship" website)
  • Shomura, R. S. and M. L. Godfrey (editors), Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Marine Debris, April 2-7, 1989, Honolulu, Hawaii, p. 19-49. NOAA Tech. Memo., NMFS-SWFSC-154.  (.pdf, 70.9 MB, Note large file size).
  • AFSC Quarterly Report articles on:  environment, pollution, oil spill, effects of fishing, climate change, sea ice, all topics.

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