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March 2016 Fishlines Newsletter


Vol. 36, No. 3
March 2016

Coming up

First Discovery of Algae Toxin in Alaska Marine Mammals

group of walruses on sea ice

Gay Sheffield, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory agent, is coauthor of a peer reviewed article on the first confirmation of algae toxin presence in marine mammals in arctic Alaska, published in the journal Harmful Algae.

The authors report that loss of sea ice and warmer temperatures in the Arctic are creating favorable conditions for toxin-producing harmful algal blooms, which might contaminate marine resources such as whales and walruses harvested by Alaska residents to feed to their families, throughout northern and western Alaska. While the toxin levels in marine mammals currently do not exceed regulatory limits for food safety, impacts to marine mammal populations pose food security concerns for northern people.

The two most common algal toxins are domoic acid and saxitoxin. In 2015, both biotoxins caused significant illness and mortality in marine mammals along the US Pacific coast. Their recent discovery in the Arctic highlights the need for constant communication and monitoring.

Sheffield provided samples for the study from ice-associated seals both harvested for subsistence and stranded dead in the Bering Strait region. The research was a collaborative effort between government agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, organizations, coastal communities, and hunters.

At Sheffield’s request, NOAA has agreed to translate a press release they issued into Russian, so it can be shared with neighbors on the western side of the Bering Strait.

“We can put it on the Internet, we can get it to the Chukotka Native marine mammal hunting associations, coastal communities, as well as their Russian marine biologists,” said Sheffield. “The Bering Strait is a shared waterway, and the populations of marine wildlife, seabirds, fish, clams, walruses, seals, sea lions and whales do not need a passport to travel across the border to either shore. It is ethically responsible to share this new information with our neighbors, and that may help further our understanding of what is happening in our waters throughout the Bering Strait region.”

Shortly after the Harmful Algae article was published, members of the US Marine Mammal Commission toured the Nome region to hear concerns from local hunters regarding marine mammals. Sheffield assisted in hosting MMC members by briefing them on marine mammal concerns and arranging meetings with community members and tribal councils throughout the Bering Strait region. Issues cited by residents include disease, decrease in ice, increased noise with more industrial ship traffic, and algal toxins. The MMC is an independent government agency that provides external review of marine mammal conservation policies of NOAA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Online Guide for Recreational Boaters

sailboat with rock formation

After navigating and researching the daunting central and western Gulf of Alaska coast, Terry Johnson, Marine Advisory recreation and tourism specialist, has completed an online guide for recreational boaters. The guide begins at Cape Spencer near Glacier Bay and runs west along the coast all the way to Homer, Alaska.

Although vessel traffic is sparse, communities are few, and exposure to the North Pacific is challenging, “it is a spectacular trip in good weather, with opportunities to experience the scenery, the solitude, geology, human history, wildlife and excellent angling,” said Johnson.

Over several years, while operating a variety of recreational boats from a 40-foot tri-cabin trawler to a 15-foot runabout, Johnson compiled information for navigating, anchoring, and handling typical weather conditions.

The free Gulf of Alaska Coastal Travel Routes website includes maps, photos, location information, and basic safety tips. It is useful for adventurers, fishermen, sailors, and recreational boaters.

Alaska Tsunami Bowl

group of students Petersburg Tsunami Bowl teams

The Mat-Tsunami team from the Mat-Su Career and Technical High School took first place at the annual Tsunami Bowl regional ocean sciences competition in Seward, among the nineteen competing Alaska teams. The Mat-Tsunamis will go on to compete in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl in North Carolina in April.

Two Petersburg High School teams had a good showing, coached by Marine Advisory agent Sunny Rice and educator Joni Johnson. The Ocean Motion team took first place in the research project on Petersburg’s resilience to tsunamis, their research paper, and oral presentation, and came in seventh overall in the quiz competition. The Suspiciously Swanky Scyphozoa took eighth place for their research paper on economic resiliency to changes in the China seafood market and came in eighth overall. Marine Advisory agent Melissa Good co-coached the Unalaska team, Tusk, who came in ninth.

Alaska Sea Grant has been involved in the Alaska competition for 19 years. Communications coordinator Carol Kaynor maintains the National Ocean Sciences Bowl Alaska Region website, where complete results are posted.

Sea Grant Announces 50th Anniversary

Sea Grant 50 Years

March 2016 marks the start of the National Sea Grant Program’s 50th anniversary year. In honor of the anniversary, the national program is organizing a year of outreach efforts to highlight how Sea Grant has successfully put science to work for America’s coastal communities since its founding in 1966. Alaska Sea Grant is proud to have been part of this program for 46 years.

Over the next year many stories will be told on several themes to show nationwide Sea Grant successes and impacts. Sea Grant directly engages community members to identify pressing information and research needs, and then works with both scientists and the individuals who will put research to work. This model has been practiced successfully.

Alaska Sea Grant communications coordinator Deborah Mercy contributed footage and content to a video to launch the anniversary celebration. You may see some familiar Alaska faces and locations in the 10 minute video.

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