By Dr. Ian Hartwell, Marine Biologist
National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS)
This project was designed to provide baseline data on the ecological health and condition of the bottom dwelling communities in the Nushagak and Kvichak Bays in southwestern Alaska. Almost no information exists for this area despite the fact that the most important salmon spawning run in the world passes through these waters every year on the way to the watersheds of the Nushagak , Kvichak and other rivers, Lake Illiamna, and the chain of lakes in the Wood-Tikchik State Park. It is also an important feeding ground for marine mammals and tens of thousands of migrating seabirds. The landscape is magnificent, featuring everything from vast stretches of wetlands to smoldering volcanoes covered by glaciers.
It takes a long time to get to Alaska from the east coast. Flights leave very early in the morning and with only one stop, it still takes 12 hrs to get to Anchorage. So to get through security and on the flight means being at the airport at dawn. As we were waiting for the flight to get called for boarding, instead came an announcement that the flight had been canceled! Not delayed, not rerouted, canceled. They discovered a hole in the plane. Seems like that would be something they’d notice before they pulled it out of the hangar. So, everybody had to leave and go up to the service desk to try to get booked on another flight. This is a long drawn out process Our travel agent did get us on a different flight, but we’ll miss our connection to Dillingham. Meanwhile, Dennis is flying out of Baltimore and has no idea we’re not going to meet him in Anchorage. Then to top it off, in the crush of people trying to change plans, a very elderly lady was overcome and collapsed on Tony. I flagged down a passing security officer who radioed for aid. Anything out of the ordinary attracts a lot of police at an airport. The amount of firepower they carry these days is impressive. We should have seen the start as an omen.
We had hoped to be here much earlier in the season but due to circumstances beyond our control as a result of the budget impasse in Congress, our schedule was delayed. Rather than being in the field in July as we had planned, it is now the latter half of September, 2013, and the weather is closing in on us. This is a major setback that will prove to be a hindrance to the entire effort.
We shipped our gear to Dillingham weeks ago to get it there by plane and slow barge. Most people in the contiguous US do not realize that most of Alaska in inaccessible by road. You have to ship things by air or by boat. Most places don’t have a street address, they have post office boxes, and Fed Ex and UPS don’t deliver to a post office box number. They simply turn things over to local delivery services. Living and working in Alaska requires a great deal of independence.
Our colleagues at University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) have been most helpful in collecting all of our gear as it came in to Dillingham in bits and pieces and storing it all in the Bristol Bay Environmental Science lab on the local campus. Also, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (F&WS) Togiak National Wildlife Reserve has provided us with access to their bunkhouse and a vehicle. This project would be very expensive without all the help from the local UAF and F&WS folks. The local hardware store where we picked up the odds and ends of needed equipment (coolers, gloves, etc.) is run by Todd Palin’s family, but politics does not seem to be on anybody’s mind here. How refreshing.
By Wednesday afternoon, September 17, we were able to start a shakedown sampling effort in the harbor in Dillingham. We collected sediment samples for chemical analyses, microbial analyses, bottom dwelling organisms, toxicity scans, and trawled for resident fish. By dusk, the tide had gone out, and the few boats still in the harbor were all sitting in mud. The extreme tides (~25 ft) are treacherous and would prove to be a strong influence on everything we tried to do here. Even the local fishermen sometimes get trapped in the shallows.
After figuring out the best way to rig the sampler on the boat’s boom , we set off with the tide flowing behind us. Normally we use a Van Veen grab, which is basically a clam shell dredge that bites into the bottom as the jaws close. Here we were using a Smith-McIntyre grab that has spring loaded jaws because we knew it would be difficult to sample in these currents. Sitting at anchor, the Smith-McIntyre grab, which weighed over 100lb, was dragged behind the boat at a 45o angle in the current. It was very difficult to land it on the bottom so it could grab sediment the way it was designed to do.
We spent the next two days running up and down the bay with the tides trying to sample. Also, most places we tried had rocky bottoms. Because of the strong currents, sediment never has a chance to accumulate during slack tide. A better approach may be to drift with the current, as they do in large rivers like the Mississippi, but then it is difficult to sample for multiple analyses from the same approximate spot. After trying to sample over a dozen locations, we were able to only collect two acceptable samples.
By Saturday, the weather had turned ugly, with 45 knot winds out of the northwest, and 10-20 ft seas predicted for the next week. Not a good place to be on an open deck in a 32 ft boat. The work in the protected harbor was done, and the boat captain and crew had other tasks to finish before winter set in, so rather than sit in Dillingham for another week (at least) we decided to ship our samples to the analytical labs and take the lessons learned into the field next year, when we can start earlier in the summer when the weather is likely to be calmer. The North Pacific Research Board is providing major funding to support the project.
Dr. Ian Hartwell is a Marine Biologist with a Ph.D. from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He is currently Chief Scientist for NS&T Bioassessment Projects to manage monitoring and
assessment programs in estuarine and coastal systems at various locations around the US, including response and damage assessment projects for the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Experienced in operation and management of field and laboratory research programs on ecological fate and effects of pure compounds, mixtures, effluents, spills and runoff using acute and sublethal toxicity, physiological, behavioral, and chemical assessments.