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Groundfish Assessment Program

Habitat Research Team Ventures Into the Northern Bering Sea

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Figure 1. The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy breaks ice in the northern Bering Sea. Photo courtesy of Andrew Trites, University of British Columbia.
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Figure 2. The route of the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy during the spring 2009 research cruise in the northern Bering Sea. Map courtesy of Tom van Pelt, North Pacific Research Board.
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Figure 3. Fine-arts photographer An-my Le captures on-ice research activities during the BEST/BSIERP northern Bering Sea research cruise. Photo courtesy of Andrew Trites, University of British Columbia.

With global climate change, there is increasing interest in the Alaskan Arctic regarding loss of sea ice and ecosystem effects that will alter the fish community. Fisheries oceanography models indicate that the distribution ranges of fish stocks, particularly flatfishes and crabs, may extend northward with the warming of the Arctic Ocean and diminishing sea ice. The National Marine Fisheries Service is taking the initiative to investigate and gather information to manage marine resources in the Arctic and formulate strategies in anticipation of the impacts of climate change on fisheries and the ecosystem.

The Bering Ecosystem Study (BEST) and the Bering Sea Integrated Ecosystem Research Program (BSIERP) were conceived to support research on scientific and socio-economic issues related to climate change in the eastern Bering Sea. NOAA works in close partnership with these programs to ensure the best science and emergent findings are available to inform management. As part of these collaborative efforts, more than 30 scientists participatied in a BEST/BSIERP research cruise which departed for the northern Bering Sea in March 2009 aboard the U.S. Coast Guard’s Healy (Figs. 1 and 2), its newest and largest icebreaker. Chief scientist Lee Cooper, a benthic ecosystems expert at the University of Maryland Chesapeake Bay Laboratory (CBL), led the scientific party, which included scientists studying sea ice communities, optics, zooplankton biogeography, biogeochemistry, and anthropology.

Academic institutions represented included Smith College; the Scripps Institution of Oceanography; the University of Alaska Fairbanks; the University of Maryland CBL; University of Southern Illinois; University of Tromsø, Norway; the Ocean University of Tsingdao, China; the University of British Columbia, and the University of Victoria, Canada. Government agencies represented were the National Park Service, the North Pacific Research Board, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and NOAA. The outreach effort was tremendous, including print, radio, and television journalists, a fine arts photographer (Fig. 3), and a PolarTREC teacher. Interactive presentations of the project were made in real-time from the ship to school children in the United States and Europe via satellite.

Representing NMFS, Cynthia Yeung of the AFSC’s Habitat Research Group participated in the cruise to investigate the benthos of the northern Bering Sea and to gather ideas and methods in benthic ecosystem studies that are relevant to the AFSC’s own habitat research. Yeung was part of the cruises’ benthic studies team led by Dr. Jackie Grebmeier of the University of Maryland CBL, who has been studying benthic-pelagic coupling in arctic and subarctic waters for over two decades. Through her long-term observations, Grebmeier has acquired unique insights into not only the changes occurring in the Bering Sea, but also the practicalities of conducting research there. (continued)


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