Regional place-based science conferences good for scientists and locals

March 27, 2017


Green mountains surround bay with town Unalaska is the site of the 2017 Western Alaska Interdisciplinary Science Conference. Photo by Davin Holen.

Alaska Sea Grant is hosting two science conferences next month, one in the Aleutian Islands chain, the other in the fishing port of Kodiak.

Typically attended by 80 to 100 people, regional science conferences provide a forum for learning and collaborating between scientists and the public. Marine researchers work throughout coastal Alaska, sometimes alongside local residents, and at other times not. Most locals are interested in the information being gathered, and many have knowledge to contribute.

At the fall 2016 Aleutian Life Forum (ALF) in Unalaska, cosponsored by Alaska Sea Grant, research talks were followed by roundtable discussions on coastal resiliency with community members, scientists and regional managers.

“This was kind of an eye opening experience. It was a great forum for local community members to address their concerns to the scientists and managers, while the scientists and managers were able to tell them what they have been studying, what they are researching, what things are going on in the region,” said Melissa Good, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory agent.

“People expressed concerns and you could see scientists and managers’ ears perk up,” she said. Residents reported observations that came as a surprise to the scientists.

Good is the lead organizer for another Unalaska science conference coming up April 26–29, the Western Alaska Interdisciplinary Conference. “Again it will be addressing regional research that has gone on, regional research needs, and community concerns,” said Good.

Based on needs confirmed at the ALF conference, the first meeting of the new Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Water Safety Committee will be held that week. The committee will bring together people representing local marine interests to develop best practices to ensure safe, efficient, and environmentally sound operations for waterway users.

“We will also have sessions on environmental monitoring, sustainable fisheries management, climate change, and rural education. I think that having these place-based conferences is really essential. It is the main piece bridging the gap between Western science and local knowledge, traditional ecological knowledge, and knowledge that is coming from fishermen who have spent their entire fishing careers on these waters,” said Good.

Julie Matweyou, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory agent in Kodiak, also is organizing a place-based conference—the third Kodiak Area Marine Science Symposium, scheduled for April 18–21. The Kodiak symposium began in 2011. “That was the first time the science done in the region was brought here to Kodiak for the residents. It was very popular,” said Matweyou.

fishing boats in marinaThe Kodiak Area Marine Science Symposium is coming up in April. Photo by Dawn Montano.

This year the committee is planning more facilitated discussions to get the community and the scientists interacting so researchers can find out about the concerns of community members. “It is easy to bring the research to folks. It is a little bit harder to go the other way. So we are working to address that within our symposium structure,” she said.

One discussion will be on building community-based monitoring networks. In Kodiak many agency and university researchers are active in gathering data that community members are familiar with. “We want to bring in the local residents who want to participate in different monitoring events,” said Matweyou.

Paula Cullenberg, director of Alaska Sea Grant, says she has been to science-community meetings around the state—in Nome, Dillingham, and the Bethel area for example—and they have confirmed for her the high value of local knowledge. “These regional science conferences are a great thing in our state. They are certainly something that we value at Alaska Sea Grant and will continue to support,” she said.

— By Sue Keller

Alaska Sea Grant is a statewide marine research, education, and outreach program, and is a partnership between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program agents provide assistance that helps Alaskans wisely use, conserve, and enjoy marine and coastal resources.