Alaska Sea Grant announces new marine research projects –

Alaska Sea Grant announces new marine research projects Published:  26 March, 2012

Red and blue king crab from waters around the Kodiak and the Pribilof islands, seals and king salmon in Bristol Bay, and sea otters in Southeast are the subjects of more than $1 million in research being funded by Alaska Sea Grant during the next two years.

Alaska Sea Grant is a state-federal marine research, education, outreach and marine advisory program funded largely by NOAA and headquartered at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

Every two years, Alaska Sea Grant conducts a scientific peer-review process to select research projects to address important marine research needs in coastal Alaska. During 2012-2014, Alaska Sea Grant will provide $1,179,119 in federal and state funds to support four new projects and related graduate student traineeships aimed at advancing marine science understanding.

One project will assist researchers with the Alaska King Crab Research, Rehabilitation and Biology (AKCRRAB) program, who have worked since 2006 to develop the knowledge to hatch and raise wild red and blue king crab as a way to reinvigorate collapsed stocks in places like Kodiak Island and the Pribilof Islands. They’ve made significant progress, increasing the number of crab reaching the juvenile stage from almost zero in 2007 to 50 percent in 2010.  A wild restocking program would likely release hatchery crab raised to the juvenile stage.

But researchers don’t know why many of these crab die in the hatchery soon after reaching the juvenile stage.

“A nutritional deficiency has been proposed to explain the source of the bottleneck, and we propose to test this hypothesis,” said Ginny Eckert, an associate professor of marine biology at the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and AKCRRAB science team leader.

Eckert will receive $202,578 over the next two years to conduct biochemical, visual, and stress tests to gain a better understanding of the nutritional factors that affect healthy larval stage crab growth. Eckert said the project would contribute to the development of food enrichments customized to Alaska king crab.

In Bristol Bay, Alaska Sea Grant will provide $134,962 to researchers eager to test whether the naturally occurring element strontium can be used to trace commercially caught king salmon back to their birthplace streams.

Matthew Wooller, associate professor of chemical oceanography at the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and graduate student Sean Brennan, will measure strontium isotopic composition found in the waters of salmon spawning tributaries of the Nushagak River. They’ll also measure strontium isotope signatures found in the ear bones, called otoliths, of adult king salmon caught in commercial harvests in the bay, to see if salmon can be traced back to their natal streams.

“Being able to accurately identify the natal streams of commercially harvested salmon is really important to maintaining the health and sustainability of both salmon populations and human coastal communities,” said Wooller. “This two-year study tests the feasibility of using strontium isotopes to characterize salmon population structure at the tributary-scale in the Nushagak River watershed, and whether this information can be used to trace natal origins of salmon caught during fisheries in Nushagak Bay.”

Wooller holds a joint appointment with the UAF Water and Environmental Research Center. He also directs the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility and the Alaska Quaternary Center, both at UAF.

Also in Bristol Bay, researchers studying how patterns of subsistence harvest of sea otters and bearded seals have changed will receive $157,754. Chanda Meek, assistant professor of political science at UAF, and Helen Aderman, marine mammal coordinator at the Bristol Bay Native Association (BBNA), will document traditional knowledge and marine mammal harvest patterns by hunters in the Bristol Bay communities of Togiak and Port Heiden, and the Alaska Peninsula community of Chignik Lagoon. Oral histories will be combined with “rescued” quantitative data from agencies and prior research projects to document snapshots of change across time.

“The project will help BBNA create regional-scale traditional ecological knowledge maps of sea otter and bearded seal habitat preferences, abundance, and harvests, which can be used for marine conservation planning uses,” explained Meek. “This study will help communities and managers strengthen their capacity to track and evaluate the impacts of habitat change, industrial development, or changes in fishing pressure on subsistence resources.”

In Southeast Alaska, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program agent Sunny Rice and UAF associate professor Ginny Eckert will receive Alaska Sea Grant funding to continue their research aimed at better understanding the impact of sea otters on the region’s commercial shellfish fisheries. Sea otters have been increasing in number and expanding their range southward, with unquantified impacts on commercial fisheries worth more than $16 million to Southeast coastal communities.

The Southern Southeast Alaska Sea Otter Project began in 2010. Rice, Eckert and graduate student Zachary Hoyt have been tracking and monitoring sea otters to better gauge their food preferences and consumption rates, and working with fishermen to learn their concerns about the growing sea otter population’s impact on local sport and commercial fisheries.

The researchers are collaborating with Verena Gill of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor 40 radio-tagged sea otters as a part of a companion project funded by the North Pacific Research Board. Over the next two years, researchers will use $157,629 in Alaska Sea Grant federal funds and $29,446 in state matching funds to expand their sea otter diet survey to new areas important to commercial fisheries. They will attempt to determine if the amount of food eaten by sea otters along the leading edge of the population expansion is greater than that consumed by sea otters in habitats inhabited by otters for several years.

Using data obtained through these efforts together with Alaska Department of Fish and Game catch and bioassessment statistics, Rice and Eckert will quantify current impacts and project future effects of sea otters on marine invertebrate fisheries in the region. Rice and Eckert also will examine historic sea otter distribution by collecting local and traditional knowledge through stakeholder interviews. They will present their results to stakeholders during meetings in five Southeast communities near the end of the project.

Finally, Alaska will provide $394,984 in federal funding and $101,766 in state matching support to graduate students working with researchers on these projects during the next two years.