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Habitat and Marine Chemistry Program

Arctic Fish Assessment in Near-shore and Lagoon Habitats

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This summer the ABL Habitat and Marine Chemistry (HAMC) program commences a 3-year study to assess the fish assemblages in Arctic near-shore and lagoon habitats. The project is led by Johanna Vollenweider and Ron Heintz, with collaborators from University of Alaska Fairbanks (Professor Brenda Norcross) and Florida International University (Kevin Boswell). The Arctic shoreline is a matrix of shallow lagoons and barrier islands on the edge of an expansive shallow shelf and, with the prospect of oil development, is the most vulnerable habitat to chronic long- term contamination should oil come ashore.  There is a dearth of knowledge about fisheries population and productivity in the near-shore because these shallow habitats are relatively inaccessible to deep-draft vessel surveys.  Near-shore fish assemblages are different from those offshore; hence, these near-shore surveys will complement the offshore fish assessment surveys.

The objective of the HAMC study is to describe and quantify the fish species in the shallow near-shore areas and lagoons along the Arctic coastline, providing information essential in environmental assessments associated with oil and gas development and damage assessments, should a spill occur. In addition, a variety of biological characteristics that are poorly documented for Arctic species will be measured, including nutritional content, diet, trophic position (isotope content), and size-at-age—information needed to understand the ecological value and use of these vulnerable habitats.

We will use novel technologies from small, shallow-draft vessels to work in these difficult areas, including an autonomous vehicle equipped with SIMRAD and DIDSON hydroacoustic gear. Fish identified with hydroacoustic methodology will be verified, and samples will be collected for laboratory analyses using small otter trawls and beach seines. In summer 2012, HAMC scientists will conduct a site visit and pilot study based in Barrow, Alaska. During summer 2013 and 2014, surveys will be expanded along the shoreline to areas such as Wainwright and Peard Bay.

Support for this study comes from several sources: the National Pacific Research Board (NPRB), Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, National Marine Fisheries Service, North Slope Borough, and student support provided by Florida International University (FIU) and University of Alaska Fairbanks. Results from the study will provide an understanding of the productivity of Arctic near-shore habitats and their overall importance and contribution to the Arctic ecosystem. Our evaluation of the importance of near-shore Arctic habitats is integral to management of areas considering the potential impacts and vulnerability to climate-induced changes and anthropogenic alterations.

By Johanna Vollenweider


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