Vol. 33, No. 2
A two-day conference, the Bering Strait Maritime Symposium, was held in Nome earlier this month, to help residents of the region respond to increased ship traffic. Gay Sheffield, Marine Advisory agent in Nome, initiated the conference after local residents emphasized that people living in the area, who depend on the sea for subsistence and transportation, are unprepared for changes in maritime traffic due to decreased arctic ice.
City and tribal representatives from Wales, Savoonga, Shishmaref, Teller, Brevig Mission, and King Island traveled to the Nome conference to offer concerns and to hear experts from the U.S. Coast Guard, NOAA, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As many as 60 people attended the conference.
USCG Commander James Houck told the group that within the 23 miles between Cape Wales and Little Diomede Island, recommendations are being made to limit two-way ship traffic to a 4 mile wide swath. He advised that when hunters and boaters are in the Strait, they should be equipped with a radio and access to the automatic identification system (AIS) to stay informed about nearby ships. The International Maritime Organization requires vessels of 300 gross tons or more to carry an AIS transponder, which transmits information on the vessel's name, flag, size, location, speed, and course.
While many Bering Strait community members are worried about the effects of increased traffic, they are committed to being proactive. "From the conversations I was part of, I received the strong impression of a powerful commitment both to the welfare of each individual and to the welfare of the community. They're doing their best to get ahead of it, be prepared, learn as much as they can, and form coalitions that can increase their voice and their power," observed Carol Kaynor, Alaska Sea Grant web coordinator. Kaynor assisted with meeting registration and support.
Conference organizers are Gay Sheffield; Bob Metcalf, director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Northwest Campus; Rose Fosdick, director of the Reindeer Herders Association, Kawerak Inc.; Julie Raymond-Yakoubian, Kawerak Inc. social scientist; and Matthew Forney of NOAA'S Office of Coast Survey, representing the NOAA Alaska Regional Team. Major funding is from a National Sea Grant NOAA Regional Team Collaboration Grant, and NOAA Fisheries. Sponsors also include Alaska Sea Grant, University of Alaska Fairbanks Northwest Campus, Pew Environment Group, and Kawerak Inc.
A dead killer whale discovered near Ketchikan, Alaska, last month spurred a lot of interest in the marine mammal science community. Sighted by a recreational boater, the whale became the focus of a response involving the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Coast Guard, University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the Vancouver Aquarium.
This was not an anonymous whale. She turned out to be a leader of one of the best known northern resident pods of killer whales, and a great-grandmother. Known as Yakat in records at the Vancouver Aquarium Adopt a Whale Program, she was born in 1958 and belonged to a whale group that roams the waters off northern Vancouver Island and the mainland coast as far north as southeast Alaska. There are 16 pods totaling more than 200 whales in the northern (Canada and southeast Alaska) resident community of killer whales.
After NMFS specialists were contacted about the dead whale on January 10, they got in touch with Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory agent Gary Freitag. Freitag, who has participated in the Marine Mammal Stranding Network in Alaska since 1993, sought transportation to the site from the Coast Guard.
The small Coast Guard vessel, carrying Freitag and Mike Walsh of NMFS, found the whale floating next to the beach during high tide. Freitag took pictures of the whale’s dorsal fin and saddle coloration for identification, and secured the animal to a tree. Back at the Coast Guard station he sent out the photos, and within an hour he had a positive identification from the NOAA Fisheries Service, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, in Seattle, and the Vancouver Aquarium—the whale was Yakat.
Because of the known history of Yakat, a full necropsy was requested by several biologists from California to Fairbanks, Alaska. Freitag arranged for a necropsy to be done by veterinarian/pathologist Stephen Ravert and assistant Chelsea Himsworth from British Columbia, and Russ Andrews of the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward. On January 13, at low tide, the Coast Guard took them to the site where they took tissue samples from many organs. The samples were distributed to several institutions on the Pacific coast and are being analyzed for contaminants, pathogens, diseases, and diet information.
“I want to thank the fine crews of the 27 foot utility boats and personnel of U.S. Coast Guard Station Ketchikan on behalf of the NMFS Marine Mammal Stranding Network in Alaska for the assistance they provided for this work. Without their help and professionalism this very important work would not have been possible,” said Freitag.