CFOS Student Spotlight – Casey Clark

Casey Clark

On a camping trip to Galbraith Lake in the Brooks Range.

By Barb Hameister

As a Ph.D. student in marine biology, Casey Clark certainly knows the importance of detailed planning, careful measurements, and organization. He is also a firm believer in serendipity.

Casey was born and raised in Bellingham, Washington. He spent his earliest years on a small farm, wandering through fields and exploring the neighboring forest—all the while developing a keen sense of curiosity about biology and nature, and why things are the way they are.

After high school Casey still felt strongly drawn to biology and the outdoors but didn’t yet have a sense of how that interest would play out. He also knew he wanted to see Alaska. These two dreams came together in what he calls a serendipitous opportunity to work in Kodiak with UAF professor Kate Wynne, whom Casey describes with a smile as “a friend’s mom’s friend’s sister.”

Kate took on Casey as a summer intern, and he spent an amazing summer assisting with Kate’s whale research, living alongside a great group of graduate students, and reveling in the natural beauty of the area as well as the seabirds, fish, and marine mammals all around him. After that summer he was completely hooked, and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in marine biology at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Before moving a few miles down the coast to work on a master’s degree at Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, Casey took a detour to South America, where he spent a few memorable weeks on the Galapagos Islands. He then spent four months in New Zealand, where he assisted a Ph.D. student with field research on Hector’s dolphin, the world’s smallest dolphin species. (Ask him sometime what it’s like to sit for hours in a chilly, damp coastal sheep pasture at dawn, intently scanning the ocean and waiting patiently for dolphins to surface!)

Soon after Casey completed his M.S. on humpback whales in 2013, serendipity struck again with a chance encounter on the streets of Dunedin, New Zealand. Casey had just arrived in town for a big conference and was trying to find his way to the meeting venue. He fell into step behind a man carrying a conference bag and eventually they struck up a conversation in which Casey mentioned his interest in pursuing marine mammal research in Alaska. Impressed by the encounter, the man passed on Casey’s name to a colleague who was actively looking for a Ph.D. student. The colleague, as it turns out, was Dr. Lara Horstmann of CFOS, and this connection led to Casey’s enrollment in a Ph.D. program at UAF under the guidance of Dr. Horstmann and Dr. Nicole Misarti.

Casey’s doctoral research focuses on the impacts of climate change on Pacific walruses. He is investigating the effects of previous warming and cooling in the Arctic on walrus foraging and movements, and hopes to be able to better understand how walruses adapted to previous periods of low Arctic sea ice cover and to determine whether the changes that walruses experienced in the past are analogous to current and future Arctic warming.

To accomplish this, Casey (with the help of many others) has compiled a collection of walrus bones and teeth from archaeological sites, historical collections, and present-day Alaska Native subsistence harvests. These samples together create a timeline that goes back about 4,000 years, with consistent sample coverage from the past 2,000 years. By measuring stable isotope ratios of the walrus bone collagen and trace element concentrations in the walrus teeth, Casey hopes to learn how walrus foraging and movements changed during periods of high and low sea ice cover in the Arctic.

“My work is part of a larger project funded by the National Science Foundation that includes investigations of changes in walrus hormone concentrations, population size, and genetic variability through time,” he says. “Taken together, these multiple lines of evidence will provide important information about the resilience of Pacific walruses to climate change and sea ice loss.”

Many of the samples in the collection he is working with came from the St. Lawrence Island region, and recently Casey had the opportunity to visit the island to present some of his preliminary work to walrus hunters and talk with them about the subsistence harvest, walruses, and how things have been changing in recent years. The trip had a big impact on him.

“Interacting with the walrus hunters on Saint Lawrence Island was an important experience for me, reminding me of the impacts my research may have on Alaska Native communities and of the depth of knowledge people in these communities have about the natural world,” Casey says. “These were things I knew conceptually before the trip, but traveling to Gambell and Savoonga to meet face to face with the hunters who provided many of the samples for our research made these concepts very real for me in a way that they hadn’t been before.”

Casey’s dedication to his graduate program doesn’t leave him with much free time. But when he can squeeze it in, he likes to explore a bit of Alaska by going on camping trips in summer with his partner and their dog. Casey confesses he’s not a huge fan of outdoor winter activities, but he’s always been fascinated by natural phenomena of all kinds, especially the aurora borealis—and he is thrilled to be living in a place where he can experience its magic simply by stepping out his back door on a quiet winter night.

Casey Clark

Visiting the Moeraki Boulders on the South Island of New Zealand

 

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Channing Bolt receives SMART scholarship from the Department of Defense

Channing Bolt

Channing Bolt pipettes water samples that will be analyzed using a Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer. She uses this instrument to measure trace metals concentrations in the samples. Photo courtesy of Channing Bolt.

by Lauren Frisch

College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences PhD student Channing Bolt recently received the Science, Math, and Research for Transformation (SMART) scholarship from the Department of Defense.

The SMART scholarship has paired Bolt with Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific (SSC Pacific). SSC Pacific will provide Bolt with four years of full academic support and practical experience through summer internships. In return, Bolt will fulfill an additional four years of service with SSC Pacific as a full-time civilian employee.

“This is an amazing opportunity for me,” Bolt said. “I am lucky to have this support to work on my degree and know I’ll have a great job to look forward to after I graduate.”

Bolt works with trace metals, which are elements found in very small concentrations in the marine environment. They have important environmental applications because they are essential nutrients as well as toxins. SSC Pacific is responsible for monitoring trace metals concentrations within DoD harbors to ensure compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency water quality standards. SSC Pacific’s trace metal lab also helps develop practical products and resources for the Navy.

Bolt interned at SSC Pacific’s trace metals laboratory for four summers while working towards her Bachelor’s degree in Oceanography at Humboldt State University. One summer she helped develop a compact, low energy water filtration system that can be utilized by troops in remote regions or during times of crisis relief. She has also worked on projects to analyze trace metals concentrations in DoD harbors.

Bolt anticipates she will work on similar projects as a civilian employee.

While at CFOS, Bolt is studying the cycling of bioactive trace metals in sea ice.  Bioactive metals are involved in biological processes. These elements can be required nutrients for phytoplankton and sea ice algae at the base of the food web, but some can be toxic for these microorganisms even at small concentrations. Additionally, trace metals can accumulate up the food chain, where they can impact other marine organisms.

“In particular, I want to look at how trace metals are incorporated in sea ice during periods of growth, and how these elements are released when ice melts,” Bolt said.

Current changes in Arctic sea ice dynamics can alter the distribution of trace metals in Arctic surface waters. Bolt’s research will increase the understanding of how Arctic marine food availability and security may be affected by changing trace metal distributions.

Another focus of Bolt’s dissertation deals with rare earth elements in the Arctic Ocean. Rare earth elements are a group of elements with similar chemical properties that are typically studied in a group because they tend to change in predictable, measurable ways. Deviations from expected behavior can reveal important information about biogeochemical processes in the marine environment.

“We want to investigate the usefulness of rare earth elements as effective geochemical tracers of Arctic processes – from changing hydrology to anthropogenic influences,” Bolt explains.

This aspect of Bolt’s research will provide baseline information on the distribution of these elements in Arctic sea ice and snow, and will add to current knowledge of how chemicals flow naturally thorough the Arctic marine environment.

Bolt is currently beginning to analyze samples. She hopes her graduate studies and career with the DoD will allow her to better understand the role of sea ice in chemical cycling in the Arctic.

ADDITIONAL CONTACT: Channing Bolt, cebolt@alaska.edu, 858-212-3288

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UAF scientists offer ideas on tracking Arctic biodiversity

The original story can be found at UAF News and Information.

by Lauren Frisch
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Changing food sources, shrinking ice, increasing diseases and invading southern species are taking their toll on Arctic marine animals. A new report from the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna, the Arctic Council’s biodiversity working group, suggests ways to monitor such changes across the Arctic.

The 60 international experts in CAFF’s Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Network included Russ Hopcroft, Katrin Iken and Eric Collins from the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

The experts compiled the State of the Arctic Marine Biodiversity Report, which identifies trends in key marine species and highlights gaps in monitoring of several ecosystem components: sea-ice organisms, plankton, sea-bottom life, marine fishes, seabirds and marine mammals. Changes in these areas indicate changes in the overall marine environment.

Expert committees sifted through existing data on Arctic marine species, including seasonality, abundance, distribution and diversity. They discussed similarities and differences in international approaches to monitoring key species and used this information to recommend future monitoring.

The benthic team focused on bottom-dwelling animals, including sea stars and clams. Iken noted that some countries, such as Norway, Iceland and Greenland, operate formal benthic monitoring programs. Others, such as the U.S., Russia and Canada, tend to gather information project-by-project. The differences posed challenges for the benthic analysis, Iken said.

The benthic experts worked to determine where their monitoring approaches had common ground. Small variations in gear or methods, like differences in the mesh size of collection nets, can affect species measurements and research results. Even the naming of species is not always consistent across countries.

“If you’re looking to determine how a species’ range is changing over time, knowing what everyone calls that species is critical,” Iken explained. “We understand that we’ll never all do exactly the same thing, but this process has helped us evaluate when we can confidently compare our approaches, and when we need to be careful before we make any kind of comparisons.”

The plankton team said a central repository of plankton data sets would help in comparing methods and results. A lack of long-term data limits understanding of plankton distribution and community composition, they found.

“It is through repeated and ongoing sampling that we can begin to understand how species are changing,” Hopcroft said. “Long-term monitoring efforts can also reveal how efficient our methodology is in actually detecting plankton shifts.”

As in benthic analysis, countries have developed specialized regional approaches to monitoring plankton. The experts evaluated these to learn how processes can be improved.

“Plankton tend to rapidly reflect changes in ecosystem physics, but the challenge remains having enough data to see cycles or changes through the noise created by year-to-year variability within each region,” said Hopcroft. “Nonetheless, 70 years of observations in the Chukchi Sea suggest long-term increases in plankton productivity associated with decreasing ice cover and increasing temperatures.”

The sea ice biota team focused on microscopic bacteria, algae, and animals living in sea ice. This proved to be challenging, Collins explained, as researchers are still working to establish a baseline understanding of what kind of microbes live in the ice.

“The big takeaway for our team was that there’s essentially no monitoring for microbes that’s ongoing in the Arctic,” Collins said. “This is partially because we don’t have a solid understanding of the species in the region. Knowing what to expect when we go to a particular region to study is important, before we can branch into the monitoring realm.”

The sea ice team focused its discussion on strategies for developing sea ice microbe programs in existing research projects and exploring new ways to collaborate and standardize monitoring processes.

Refer to the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program’s Marine Expert Networks for more information. A link to the CAFF report is available at https://www.arcticbiodiversity.is/press-sambr.

ADDITIONAL CONTACTS: Katrin Iken, kbiken@alaska.edu, 907-474-5192, Eric Collins, recollins@alaska.edu, 907-474-6482, Russell Hopcroft, rrhopcroft@alaska.edu, 907-474-7842

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Introduction to the Chukchi Ecosystem Survey

The video provides a short introduction to the Chukchi Ecosystem Observatory (CEO), a moored set of instrumentation that monitors the Arctic marine ecosystem year-round. The CEO is funded as part of the North Pacific Research Board’s Long-Term Monitoring program in consortium with the Alaska Ocean Observing System and both academic and industry partners.  The research team will head to the northeast Chukchi Sea in August 2017 on the R/V Norseman II, where they will attempt the third consecutive year of mooring recoveries and redeployments.

To view this video, click on the following photo.

Recovery of the CEO biochemical mooring

Recovery of the CEO biochemical mooring on the M/V Norseman II in August 2015. Photo by Tanja Schollmeier.

ADDITIONAL CONTACT: Seth Danielson, sldanielson@alaska.edu, 907-474-7834

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Wasting disease devastates Kachemak Bay sea star populations

The original story can be found at UAF News and Information.

by Lauren Frisch

A sea star with wasting disease lies on Kachemak Bay’s shore in spring 2016. Wasting disease caused this star’s arm to disconnect from its body. Photo by Brenda Konar.

In one year, sea stars have almost disappeared from Kachemak Bay, Alaska.

This is likely the aftermath of a sea star wasting disease episode. The disease causes lesions, and may result in the loss of arms, making a sea star look as if it is melting or decomposing. Similar episodes have been spreading across the southern coast of Alaska and as far south as Baja California.

“In spring 2016 we counted 180 sea stars during our intertidal surveys, which was high in the books,” said Brenda Konar, a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. “Just one year later, we counted only five sea stars.”

Konar and CFOS professor Katrin Iken are part of Gulf Watch Alaska, a monitoring program established by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council to better understand how intertidal and other marine ecosystems were affected by the 1989 oil spill. The intertidal zone is the area between high and low tide. Konar and Iken monitor Kachemak Bay on the Kenai Peninsula near Homer.

Their transect lines are small subsections of the intertidal at various locations around Kachemak Bay. They are used to represent the entire bay. These snapshots are helpful, because you can’t measure every beach in Kachemak Bay. By monitoring these transect lines every year, Iken and Konar can get a sense of how the bay is changing over time.

Sea stars are important top predators in intertidal ecosystems. They help keep prey populations in check, which helps maintain species diversity. Without sea stars, the kinds of species that dominate these intertidal communities could change.

“We will have to keep monitoring this area to see any long-term changes,” Iken said. “It could be that the prey of sea stars, such as mussels, limpets or chitons become more abundant, or maybe other predators become more abundant for at least awhile.”

It’s hard to gauge what normal numbers are, especially since 2016 was a big year for sea stars. But Konar explained that sea stars can usually be found all over Kachemak Bay. In 2015, 64 sea stars were reported along the transect lines, and 76 were reported in 2014.

“We don’t know why numbers spiked last year, or if it’s related to the drop we saw this year,” Konar said.

Diversity of sea stars along the transect lines also dropped from seven species in 2016 to two species in 2017. Previous years had five or six species along these lines. This year the researchers saw leather stars and blood stars, which are known to be more resilient to wasting disease than other species.

“The spread of the disease to Alaskan waters and its impact on sea star diversity may be related to the unprecedented warm waters that we experienced in the Gulf of Alaska in the past two years,” Iken said.

But things might look up in the future. Konar explained that sea stars started disappearing from intertidal zones off the coast of Washington, Oregon and California in 2014. Recently, baby sea stars are starting appearing again, and populations are rebounding.

“We’re at the height of this episode right now,” Konar said, “but we’re not suggesting that these regions will never have sea stars again. Kachemak Bay may just have a few years before we start seeing any kind of recovery.”

More information on this research can be found at the Ecological Trends in Kachemak Bay Gulf Watch project website.

Mottled sea stars cover a portion of the Gulf Watch Elephant Island site in spring 2016. Photo by Brenda Konar

ADDITIONAL CONTACTS: Katrin Iken, kbiken@alaska.edu, 907-474-5192, Brenda Konar, 907-474-5028 bhkonar@alaska.edu

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Moisture played a role in megafaunal extinctions

The head of Blue Babe - Photo by Matthew Wooller.

The head of Blue Babe, a mummified ice age bison, rests recently in a lab at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. The bison, uncovered near Fairbanks in 1979, was first described by Dale Guthrie, now professor emeritus. Most of Blue Babe's skin was preserved and is now publicly displayed on a model at the museum, but the head and horns were kept frozen. Professor Matthew Wooller and others are now analyzing them to improve our understanding of Blue Babe’s environment. The work includes extraction of collagen from the bones for nitrogen isotope analysis.

by Lauren Frisch

A new study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution reveals that increased moisture levels may have been a primary cause of death for giant herbivores approximately 10,000 years ago.

“The mass extinctions of mega-herbivores across the globe have been an ongoing puzzle for scientists,” said Professor Matthew Wooller of the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences and UAF’s Alaska Stable Isotope Facility. “We looked at carbon and nitrogen isotopes in ancient animal bones to learn about what the herbivores were eating, which can also tell us about what climate was like around the time that the megafauna died.”

Wooller was part of an international research team led by University of Adelaide researchers Alan Cooper and Tim Rabanus-Wallace that synthesized data from hundreds of bone samples from around the world to show that moisture changes played a role in the extinctions.

Mega-herbivores—large vegetarian animals including some species of horses, bison and mammoths that used to tromp around Alaska—rapidly disappeared or declined at the end of the Pleistocene era about 10,000 years ago. The mass extinction coincided with a period of significant environmental change, when the earth transitioned from the last glacial period to the current interglacial period. This was also the time that modern humans began to spread into the Americas.

A lot of environmental changes were happening around the world, and it is likely that many of them played a role in the mega-herbivore extinctions. That’s why it has been exceptionally difficult to piece together the story of why these giant vegetarians disappeared. Understanding how species respond during periods of rapid environmental changes may shed light onto what would happen to modern animals affected by the rapid environmental changes we are currently facing.

‘‘This extinction event had been going on for awhile, but we wanted to study a particularly sharp spike,” said Tim Rabanus-Wallace, a PhD student at the University of Adelaide who spearheaded this project. “That’s when we lost all the really cool things, like mammoths, Steppe bison and giant short-faced bears.”

Digging into this story relies on understanding a number of changing variables. The researchers looked at bone samples from a number of species that lived in a variety of environments on different continents. In order to figure out what killed the mega-herbivores, the researchers had to be able to account for differences in species, environments and continents. This can be accomplished by having a huge number of samples.

Bison bone - Photo by Julien Soubrier.

This Bison bone was excavated from permafrost at Quartz Creek in the Yukon. It was used for DNA and isotope research. Photo by Julien Soubrier.

“We were fortunate to have access to a large data set,” said Wooller. “When you get a new fossil, one of the first things you want to do is date it. This can be done by radiocarbon dating a fossil’s collagen. And this process often generates bonus data in the form of stable nitrogen isotopes.” Scientists all over the world have been collecting valuable isotopic information, but until now nobody has looked at it all together to study the mega-herbivores.

The research team used the radiocarbon data to place fossils from megafauna all over the world on a timeline. The nitrogen isotope data helped reveal what the environment was like when the animals were alive. In essence, the fossils tell us about the conditions that these animals lived in, and the timeline helps researchers study how these conditions changed.

Isotopes refer to the number of neutrons that an element like nitrogen carries. Different isotopes of the same element have different numbers of neutrons, which affects the element’s weight. Distinct environments involve varying amounts of heavy and light isotopes of an element. Wet and dry environments can have very different isotopic signatures in their soils, plants and subsequently the collagen of the herbivores that are eating those plants. Collagen is a protein, some of which remains in bones long after an animal has died. As a result, nitrogen isotopes found in the collagen of herbivores’ bones illustrate the nature of the environment they lived in.

“You are what you eat,” said Rabanus-Wallace. “When you consume food with a certain ratio of heavy and light isotopes, your bones develop a related ratio. So we can learn what and where different animals ate based on the isotopes in their bones.”
The researchers measured isotopes from the bones of animals all over the world with funding from the National Science Foundation, Norges Forskningsråd, Australian Research Council and Australian Centre for Ancient DNA.

Across the board, these isotopes show a spike in moisture just prior to the extinction of megafauna.

“This makes sense for a lot of reasons,” Wooller said. “This change in moisture could have affected the dominant environment that the mega-herbivores were living in.” Large herbivores likely preferred living in cool, dry grasslands. Increasing moisture could have radically affected the ecosystem that they thrived in. Areas that were primarily grassy likely became swampy and eventually transitioned into forests.

The mega-herbivores may have lost their primary food source as landscapes changed. “If you’re adapted to grass, you can’t live in a forest,” Rabanus-Wallace said. “The plants are full of plant toxins specifically designed to fend off herbivores.”

Tim Rabanus-Wallace collects bone samples from Quartz Creek in the Yukon. Photo by Julien Soubrier.

Tim Rabanus-Wallace collects bone samples from Quartz Creek in the Yukon. Photo by Julien Soubrier.

This trend was observed across continents, even though the timing of the extinctions varied.

“We find that on different continents the climate changes happened at different times, but they all showed a similar kind of feature, that moisture levels changed just prior to extinction,” Wooller said. “That’s recorded in the fossils themselves.”

Africa appears to be the outlier, possibly due to the structure of the environment at the time. “Northern Africa has desert on the top, grassland in the middle, and forest at the bottom,” Rabanus-Wallace explains. “It is possible that given the change in moisture levels, the grasslands in Africa just shifted up and down in latitude, rather than disappearing altogether, which would allow species to move in order to keep up with their food source.” The researchers did not have enough isotope data on African species to confirm whether this might be the case.

These results are a good indication that increasing moisture had a significant role in the extinctions, and support the findings from previous, regionally-focused research on the mega-herbivore extinctions. However, this does not rule out that other environmental changes, including the spread of humans, also played significant parts. As the researchers continue to collect a broader range of global samples, it will be easier to piece together the whole story on what caused the extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene.

A press release for this story was published in the UAF Cornerstone.

ADDITIONAL CONTACT: Matthew Wooller, mjwooller@alaska.edu, 907-474-6738.

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Hybridization between native and invasive trout is increasing in the West

The original story was published by the USGS.

New research provides evidence that stocking non-native fish in conjunction with on-going climate change may accelerate the rate of hybridization between species. This may reduce wild fish performance and lessen resilience in a warming world.

College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences professor Peter Westley was part of a team of national researchers who synthesized climate predictions for Rocky Mountain ecosystems, genetic data from 12,878 individual fish, and detailed historical stocking records from 1924-1980 for approximately 200 million introduced rainbow trout. The study found hybridization is increasing over a broad geographic region despite ending stocking practices nearly 40 years ago. Data going back to the 1980s show that 50 percent of sites with long-term data show increases in hybridization, the majority of which were initially genetically pure. The study highlights vulnerability of sites that are close to historical stocking locations and cautions that cold headwater streams may not be resistant to the invasion of foreign genes.

More information on this research can be found in the USGS press release or in the published journal article.

ADDITIONAL CONTACT: Peter Westley, pwestley@alaska.edu, 907-474-7458.

Close-up of non-hybridized westslope cutthroat trout Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi) from the Flathead Basin in Montana. This fish, its scientific name inspired by Lewis and Clark, represents the genetic and life history diversity of western trout by surviving extreme climatic variation over millions of years. Photo by Jonny Armstrong. Public domain.

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UAF 100 Big Ideas: Diving into icy waters

The original story can be found in UAF 100 Big Ideas.

Photo by Brenda Konar

The 2016 Scientific Diving class lounges in the water in Kasitsna Bay. Photo by Brenda Konar.

University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences faculty member Stephen Jewett pioneered the first university cold-water diving program in the late 1980s.

The UA Scientific Diving program was started in 1988 to address a growing need for scientific divers for industry and academic research around the state. But at first, the small program was limited to professional training, and unable to offer student programs as well.

Striving to fill this void, Brenda Konar expanded the program in 2000 to include the first Alaska cold-water scientific diving course, which was taught out of the Fairbanks campus. Although similarly structured diving programs existed around the country, this became the first university program to focus on tactics for successful cold-water scientific diving.

Photo by Brenda Konar

A small boat is brought to shore so it can be loaded with divers. Photo by Brenda Konar.

Since then, the program has expanded its cold-water training opportunities, and now offers multiple courses that involve scientific diving and various subtidal research projects.

Many of these courses are taught out of the Kasitsna Bay Laboratory near Seldovia, which is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and operated by UAF.

Students trained by the UA scientific diving program have become a major force in the Alaska-wide scientific diving industry, with projects in Southeast Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, Cook Inlet, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

More information:

Photo by Brenda Konar

Two Scientific Diving students return from a dive. Photo by Brenda Konar.

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University of Alaska fills need for fisheries professionals

The original story can was written by Margaret Bauman at Fishersmen’s News.

April Rebert

April Rebert, a fishery biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a master's degree student at CFOS, participates in an ADF&G diver survey in the summer of 2016. Photo courtesy of ADF&G.

From its campuses to broad based research in the field, the University of Alaska’s College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences has for decades produced a wellspring of talent to enhance fisheries on a local, state and national level.

As the University of Alaska celebrates its centennial anniversary in 2017, graduates of the CFOS continue to fill jobs with the state of Alaska, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey and private sector firms on the domestic and international level.

Founded by a legislative mandate in 1960 as the Institute of Marine Science, the program expanded to become the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences in 1987, and in 2016 the school, based in Fairbanks, became the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

The 261-foot oceanographic research vessel Sikuliaq, owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by the college, is one of the most advanced university research ships in the world. It is home-ported at the Seward Marine Center in Seward, Alaska. Scientists from the United States and the international oceanography community, through the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System, conduct extensive at sea research projects aboard the Sikuliaq.

What makes the CFOS curriculum so special is that many of the research experiences result in publications, said Gordon Kruse, chairman of the Department of Fisheries.

For the undergraduates, that’s some, but for graduate students, it is most, as it is expected that the graduate students would tend to publish their work in peer reviewed scientific journals, he said.

“Our programs are recognized by fishery professionals nationally,” Kruse said. “Students who complete the bachelor of sciences fisheries degree meet the educational requirements for professional certification with the American Fisheries Society,” he said.

In addition to degree seeking students, the college each year attracts fishery professionals who enroll in courses in fishery management, population dynamics and statistics as part of their ongoing career development and lifelong learning. The college is exceptionally successful in providing graduates for the job market, he said.

Kruse earned a degree in biomathematics from Rutgers University, then went on to earn a masters and doctorate in fisheries at Oregon State University. Based at the university’s Juneau campus, Kruse teaches courses ranging from fisheries ecology to marine invertebrates, and serves on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s scientific and statistical committee.

Trent Sutton, associate dean for academic programs within CFOS on the Fairbanks campus, holds a bachelor’s degree in fisheries biology from Michigan State University, a master’s degree in ecology from Michigan Technological University, and a doctorate in fisheries biology from Virginia polytechnic Institute and State University.

In addition to their teaching responsibilities, both remain engaged in a broad range of research projects on fisheries in Alaska and far beyond the state’s borders.

The faculty of CFOS fisheries currently offers about 85 courses on a regular basis, including 35 undergraduate and about 50 graduate level.

Since 2007 alone, 45 percent of the 69 students who completed undergraduate programs have gone on to jobs with the state of Alaska or federal fisheries agencies, with another 14 percent at work at the university, 14 percent in the Alaska fishing industry, and 27 percent attending graduate school. Those who have earned post-graduate degrees on the master’s and doctoral levels, likewise have gone on to state and federal government employment, work as fisheries consultants or in the fisheries industry, or as educators.

Most of those who left the state are employed at universities, federal and state agencies, other fishery organizations, tribal organizations, or the fisheries industry, and even for universities and government agencies in other countries, he said.

Vera Alexander, now a professor and dean emerita of the university, in 1965 became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Alaska. Alexander went on to serve as dean for the first 17 years of the former School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. She also was a visiting professor at the National Institute of Polar Research in Tokyo, and at the University of Turku, in Finland.

In 2004, she stepped down as dean of SFOS, but has remained very active in international fisheries research. When the Sikuliaq was launched in a shipyard in Marinette, Wisconsin, several years ago, Alexander was there for the christening.

“I have my initials on the keel,” she said.

Back when the old SFOS was started, “I wasn’t looking for growth” (of the school), Alexander said. “I was looking for survival.” The tough part was making those engaged in various related courses understand that they were now part of one unit, she said.

The college today, complete with an organized research unit, the Institute of Marine Science, is one of the largest and most geographically diverse academic and research organizations in the state. While the college is based in Fairbanks, courses are available from Nome to Ketchikan and Fairbanks to Unalaska.

So why continue to headquarter fisheries studies on the only land-locked campus?

Alexander is quick to answer that question with one of her own.

“If you study solar physics, do you need to live on the sun?” she said.

Key to the success of the CFOS studies today is the number of scholarships available to students.

The Ladd Macaulay graduate Fellowship in Salmon Fisheries Research, for example, is funded through an endowment and donations provided to the university by Douglas Island Pink and Chum Inc., a private non-profit salmon enhancement organization based in Juneau.

The Pollock Conservation Cooperative Research Center, through the end of 2014, put more than $20 million into marine research and education at COS, and is the largest single contributor to marine research at the university, and that number has only continued to increase, Kruse said.

The North Pacific Research Board, based in Anchorage, and the PCCRC have funded research into the decline in size-at-age of Pacific halibut in the Gulf of Alaska since the mid 1980s, he said.

For example, on average an age-20 female halibut weighed 121 pounds in 1988, but weighted 44 pounds in 2014. That decline has been associated with reduced halibut biomass and reduced quotas.

Under Kruse’s direction, master’s degree student Jane Sullivan examined potential effects of fishing and environment on halibut size at age. “Interestingly, we found no relationship between growth and environmental variables,” Kruse said. “However, this result is consistent with previous findings. Results suggested a negative relationship between arrowtooth flounder biomass and halibut growth (more flounder, lower growth) and a similar, but lesser effect of halibut biomass on halibut growth,” he said. “These ecological relationships explained only about 28 percent in the variability in growth, indicating that other factors were likely more responsible for the declining size-at-age.

However, Jane and her graduate committee constructed an age-and-size structured simulation model that suggested that size-selective fishing can explain between 30 percent to nearly 100 percent of the observed declines in size-at-age since the 1980s, depending on sex, age, and region.

“Size selective fishing is the disproportionate removal of larger fish from the halibut population. In particular, our results indicate that harvest rates were too high during 2000-2014. Recent changes by the International Pacific Halibut Commission have addressed some problems with their stock assessment models which contributed to excessive harvest rates, and there is evidence that further declines in size-at-age may be abating in recent years.”

Additional research into the halibut size-at-age issue is being conducted by another doctoral student, Cheryl Barnes, under the direction of professor Anne Baudreau in another project funded by the PCCRC. Barnes is looking more into the hypothesis that competition between arrowtooth flounder and Pacific halibut has limited the growth of Pacific halibut stocks.

Another master’s student, Casey McConnell, is doing research funded by the Ladd Macaulay Graduate Fellowship in Salmon Fisheries Research into the ecological causes and consequences of straying by examining evidence for stress and competition on the spawning grounds between wild and hatchery produced chum salmon.

The objective of McConnell’s research are threefold. The first is to explain the incidence of hatchery straying by analyzing environmental and anthropogenic factors associated with development during imprinting, and hatchery release methods. The second is to differential stresses associated with correctly homing wild origin and straying hatchery origin salmon through blood cortisol concentrations. The third objective is explain resource competition on the spawning grounds between hatchery and wild origin chum by analyzing dissolved oxygen concentrations and spawner density.

The college today includes the Lena Point Fisheries Facility in Juneau, an alliance with the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward for research on marine fish, birds and mammals, and major enhancements of the fisheries undergraduate program that include support for distance teaching through high-bandwidth audio-video systems throughout CFOS.

Since 1987, more than 650 students have earned undergraduate, masters and doctoral degrees from CFOS who have gone on to careers in fisheries.

Herring spawning timing

(LEFT) During a 2003 project to develop a predictive model of herring spawning timing, Gordon Kruse, chairman of the Department of Fisheries, observed herring spawning on a beach on Summit Island off Togiak. Photo by Naoki Togo, CFOS. (RIGHT) Former master's student Naoki Tojo observed herring spawning on a beach on Summit Island off Togiak. Tojo is now an assistant professor of fisheries at Hokkaido University in Japan. Photo by Gordon Kruse, CFOS.

Given the state’s current fiscal situation, the CFOS faculty is aware of the possibility of some programs being cut, but so far, said Kruse and Sutton, CFOS is holding its own. Theirs is one of the most productive units at the university, and CFOS is continuing to deliver the science that is contributing to sustainable fisheries management, an important contributor to the state’s economy.

Fisheries, as Sutton noted, is wide and diverse and statewide. “There is a lot of interest in it, recreational, commercial, personal use. Everyone has a stake in it,” he said. “We produce over 60 percent of the nation’s fish.

“It’s a tourist destination (for sport fishing). There is subsistence fishing, cultural significance. Fisheries is a big deal in Alaska,” he said.

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Seasonal Arctic lagoons granted long-term ecological research site status

by Lauren Frisch

Beaufort Lagoons bounded by ice, 2 July 2012 (Ken Dunton)

Beaufort Lagoons bounded by ice, 2 July 2012. Photo by Ken Dunton, University of Texas, Lead of Beaufort Sea Lagoon LTER.

University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers will contribute to a new Beaufort Sea Lagoon Long-Term Ecological Research Site funded by the National Science Foundation.

The Arctic Beaufort Sea coast is spotted with lagoons, which are small water bodies protected from the ocean by barrier islands.

Water enters lagoons from river runoff, wetlands and other terrestrial sources as well as from the ocean. The makeup of the lagoon varies depending on the intensity and timing of water input from these different sources.

In the Arctic, water flow in and out of a lagoon is halted for much of the winter, when the water bodies are essentially frozen over. As a result, all water flow is concentrated during peak seasons when the lagoons have open water.

“You go from a system with no connection to land and limited connection to the ocean to a system that has really high peak times of terrestrial input, and a different peak exchange with the open ocean,” said UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences professor Katrin Iken. “It’s that seasonality that makes them a very complex and interesting system.”

The Arctic coast is also experiencing rapid environmental change, due to factors such as melting permafrost and changing concentration of ice cover. These variables are likely to affect how, when and how much lagoons receive water input from the land. For example, if warming temperatures decrease the number of days in a year that a lagoon is frozen over, this increases the number of days that water can flow in and out of the lagoon.

Although the project will be run out of the University of Texas, Iken is leading a component of the research that focuses on understanding food web structures in the Arctic lagoons. This involves learning how critters living in these lagoons have adapted to a unique environment with such a high seasonal exchange of resources, and monitoring how they will cope with environmental change.

“We are looking at the big picture, from terrestrial input and nutrient cycling within lagoon systems to microbes and up through fish and shore birds,” Iken said. “Once you get to those higher levels in the food chain, there is also a strong connection to the local communities up there because they’re harvesting both fish and birds as a source of food.”

UAF researchers Andy Mahoney and Jeremy Kasper will also play a role in the new LTER research. Mahoney (UAF Geophysical Institute) will focus on sea ice conditions as well as dynamics in and around the lagoons. Kasper (UAF Institute of Northern Engineering) will study the complex physical oceanography of the system.

LTER sites are intended to be funded over the long-term. The program is designed so researchers can study and compare distinct ecosystems in order to generate and test fundamental ecological theories. New sites are chosen in ecosystems that are not yet represented in the program, and usually tend to be established in places where researchers have a proven track record of collecting meaningful data.

Coastal erosion near Kaktovik (Ken Dunton)

Coastal erosion near Kaktovik. Photo by Ken Dunton, University of Texas, Lead of Beaufort Sea Lagoon LTER.

Although targeted research projects have been done on the Beaufort Sea Arctic lagoons in the past, this is the first large-scale study to take place in the region.

There are 25 previously established LTER sites, including two in Alaska at Bonanza Creek and Toolik Lake. The Northern Gulf of Alaska LTER was also recently funded by the National Science Foundation with leadership by scientists at the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

ADDITIONAL CONTACT: Katrin Iken, kbiken@alaska.edu, 907-474-5192.

 

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