Alaska Sea Grant Current Projects

Research and information on Alaska coastal and marine issues

As part of our core mission to enhance the wise use and conservation of Alaska’s marine, coastal, and watershed resources, Alaska Sea Grant supports a number of formal, peer-reviewed research projects through a biennial call for proposals.

Select "Show project description" to reveal a short project description. Click on the title of the project to go to the detail page for that project.

New research projects

Potential for resilience- Examining the effects of ocean acidification on native Alaskan bivalves [R/101-14]

No experimental work exists that characterizes the response of native Alaska bivalves to conditions of ocean acidification. Here, researchers will investigate the physiological responses of two juvenile clam species, the basket cockle (Clinocardium nuttallii) and the littleneck clam (Protothaca staminea), to pH/pCO2 conditions predicted for the year 2100 (based on International Panel on Climate Change models). Comparing the physiological responses of two species at the same life-­history stage allow us to identify the "winners" or "losers" in the face of ocean change. To characterize the environmental conditions that exist for these species, seasonal sampling of in-­sediment pore water carbonate parameters (total alkalinity, pH, pCO2 and aragonite/calcite saturation) will be measured at sites that currently support clam populations. An important subsistence species for Alaska Natives, these clams also function as a recreational harvest species of interest for a wide variety of stakeholders. What’s more, anecdotal evidence suggests that Alaska clam populations are shrinking, with no known cause. Conducting field measurements of pH may elucidate areas that are "pH hotspots" where pH levels are corrosive and prove to inhibit clam growth and performance.

Integrating local ecological knowledge and survey data to improve assessment and management of rockfishes in Alaska [R/105-01]

Despite the wealth of data collected by state and federal agencies, there are still significant gaps in information for many harvested species in Alaska. This is particularly true for more than 30 species of rockfish (Sebastes spp.) that support commercial, sport, and subsistence fisheries. While rockfish populations in the Gulf of Alaska are assumed to be healthy, there have been growing concerns about the ability to sustainably manage them, given limited biological information and dramatically increasing harvest in recent years. Our project seeks to advance the use of local ecological knowledge (LEK), in combination with scientific data, to address information needs for management and conservation of rockfishes in Alaska. Fishermen’s knowledge is a valuable source of place-­based information about long-­ term changes in coastal marine ecosystems. To address information needs for management and conservation of rockfishes, we will document LEK of commercial, sport, and subsistence fishers in three communities of Southeast and Southcentral Alaska through in-­depth interviews. Our objectives are to: (1) synthesize LEK of Alaskan fishers to characterize long-­term trends in size, distribution, and relative abundance of rockfishes; (2) assess sources of variation in fishers’ perceptions of ecological change; and (3) integrate LEK and scientific data to develop distribution maps and time series of relative abundance for rockfishes that are used in assessment and management. This study will provide estimates of relative abundance from LEK that, combined with fishery monitoring data, will enable estimation of stock status and development of harvest objectives. The research is highly collaborative and involves diverse Alaska Sea Grant stakeholders in design and implementation, including fishermen, state agency staff, and university faculty and students. Our project directly responds to ASG goals by engaging stakeholders in the development of shared knowledge about marine fish populations to directly address fishery management needs in Alaska.

Kelp reproduction and harvest rebound in Kachemak Bay, Alaska [R/101-12]

This project will supply managers and harvesters of seaweeds with vital information that is needed to ensure successful management and sustainable harvesting of two kelp species and one rockweed species in southcentral Alaska. This project was developed through discussions with managers at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) and will address questions they have regarding seaweed harvesting. This research also is relevant to the Alaska Sea Grant Strategic Plan. It will support Healthy Coastal Ecosystems by increasing knowledge on Alaska’s diverse and productive coastal ecosystem addressing harvesting concerns of management (ADF&G). In addition, this research will support Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture by providing knowledge that will facilitate the sustainable use of harvested marine resources. Lastly, this research will address Resilient Communities and Economies by providing managers with information that is needed for the regulation and permitting of commercial seaweed harvesting.

Currently, kelp mariculture research focused on the sugar kelp, Saccharina latissima is funded by Sea Grant in southeast Alaska. This project will compliment that research by asking questions of the wild populations of S. latissima, the bull kelp, Nereocystis luetkeana, and the rockweed, Fucus distichus in southcentral Alaska as it relates to harvesting. Specifically, researchers will determine the timing of reproduction and the size that adults become reproductive. They will also determine temporal variability in in situ harvestable biomass and will compare these harvestable measurements with regrown biomass to determine biomass rebound rates of harvested areas. Finally, researchers will examine beach wrack for potential harvestable biomass and the reproductive potential of beach-cast seaweeds. The results of this research will be shared with managers, researchers, and the public through various venues, including presentations at meetings, a peer-reviewed publication, outreach events, and informational flyers/posters. Approximately 100 Homer Middle School students will participate in this project.

Metabolic and growth physiology of early life history stages of the northern spot shrimp, Pandalus platyceros [R/101-13]

The Northern spot shrimp (Pandalus platyceros) ranges from southern California waters to the Aleutians. There continues to be a commercial fishery for this species from Santa Barbara, CA, to Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound although the commercial fishery in many regions of Southeast Alaska have been closed since 2011. The closure in Southeast Alaska also extends to personal use harvest after 2012. The life history of this species is generally known to include planktonic larvae that hatch in the spring and settle as benthic juveniles. Molting increases their size and all shrimp become functional males prior to transitioning to reproductive females. This type of life history is known as protandry and as the functional male molts first to a transitional stage and later to the functional female, the shrimp increases greatly in size. As the fishery targets the largest shrimp, the reproductive females are removed preferentially. The timing of the fishery coincides with egg brooding and ovigerous females are removed from the population. To date, studies of spot shrimp life history are limited to California, Washington, and British Columbia where warmer waters accelerate life history parameters. The objectives of this project are to investigate the early life history of Alaska P. platyceros. Specifically researchers will study molting physiology (molt intervals and molting hormones) and oxygen consumption as a proxy for metabolic rate. After investigating the baseline physiological parameters, we will measure the effects of multiple stressors to include increased temperature and CO2 on molting biology and metabolism. Because early studies have published nutritional needs of the larvae and because we can maintain brooding females and post hatch larvae in the laboratory, we are confident that we will reveal important biological information concerning this Alaska species and potential impacts of climate change.

Arctic Risk Management Network: Linking Regional Practitioners and Researchers to Improve Mitigation Through Participatory Action Research by Community Monitors about Erosion, Surges, and Nearshore Sea Ice Loss as Mutual Priorities [R/127-02]

This project will continue the development of the Utqiagvik (Barrow) community-based coastal observation network, and will develop a coastal hazards forecasting system focused on the forecasting of coastal surge and flooding and coastal erosion. The existing coastal monitoring system consists of the monitoring of six cross-shore transects, and was initiated two years ago by project team member Anne Garland (ARIES). The coastal monitoring system will be expanded in two respects. First, a team of community observers will be formed to document storm surge heights. Second, an Argus video camera will be deployed on a public building to document the near-shore wave conditions and water level. Data collected by the observers and the observation system will be used to calibrate and validate the storm surge, coastal flooding, and coastal erosion forecasting system. In the event of a large storm, erosion forecasts generated by the project will be provided to the North Slope Borough Risk Management Office so local emergency responders can take pro-active measures to control erosion and flooding.

Assessing the resilience of southeast Alaskan salmon to a shifting freshwater environment [R/31-25]

Salmon are important economic, subsistence, and cultural resources for Alaskans. The forest stream ecosystems that salmon depend on for spawning and rearing are already responding to climate change and are likely beginning to influence salmon growth and survival at multiple stages of their life cycle. In contrast to threatened and endangered populations of salmon in the Lower 48, we have an unprecedented opportunity to prioritize future management actions for freshwater ecosystems in a region where salmon populations are generally still healthy. Researchers propose to model and predict the implications of shifting stream temperature and discharge regimes on salmon productivity in Southeast Alaska, where in the coming decades climatologists predict increasing air temperatures, increased annual rain accumulation, and decreasing precipitation falling as snow. Researchers will work with tribal partners to focus research on anadromous streams that are important for subsistence, as well as document local observations as to which streams are being impacted by changing climate conditions. Results will be shared with communities via local meetings and contribute to scenario-­planning exercises that explicitly incorporate stakeholder input into future proposed management actions. User-­friendly models developed as part of this project will be made publicly available, and communities will receive training to adapt them to local systems.

Continuing research projects

Assessing the Costs and Benefits of Whale Watching in Juneau, Alaska [R/112-05]

Whale watching is a global multibillion-dollar industry that provides important economic benefits and intangible benefits such as increased environmental awareness and conservation advocacy. As the whale watch industry grows, the health of whale populations and thus the viability of the industry may be jeopardized if whale watch pressure changes foraging behavior or causes chronic stress. The goal of this project is to assess the costs and benefits of whale watching in Juneau, Alaska, a premier whale watching destination. This project will: (1) identify costs by determining if whale movement and behavioral patterns are affected by whale watch vessel presence; (2) determine how these costs are related to the number, type, and proximity of vessels to whales, and whale group size, group type, and residency; and (3) identify benefits by measuring the educational and conservation value of whale watching. The project will use a surveyor's instrument or theodolite to observe changes to humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) movement and behavior according to whale watch vessel presence. Surveys will be administered to whale watch passengers to assess changes in knowledge, attitudes, values, intentions, and behaviors before and after whale watching. Results of this project will be shared with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) so that whale viewing regulations and guidelines may be refined and improved. Results will also be shared with whale watch operators to increase the effectiveness of onboard educational messages. The project will contribute to the growing body of literature on whale watch effects throughout the world and will be useful in developing appropriate and effective management strategies.

More information on this project can be found in a video describing the study and the BREACH lab.

This project has been highlighted in Juneau Empire and the CBC News.

Bristol Bay Residents Taking a Stake in Shoreline Erosion Monitoring [R/127-01]

This project entails the design of an interactive workshop to share erosion monitoring strategies with participants from at least seven Bristol Bay communities. The training opportunity will heighten the scientific capacity of the Bristol Bay region by enabling residents to use low-cost time-lapse camera systems in conjunction with survey stakes to collect quantitative measurements of coastal, river, and/or lake erosion. This technique combines existing methodologies of erosion monitoring in a new and innovative way to transform anecdotal reports of erosion into rigorous measurements that will create a quantitative record of shoreline change.

For more project news, please see “Alaska's Coast Is Vanishing, 1 Storm at a Time” published in Scientific American and “State works with communities on coastal erosion response” published in The Bristol Bay Times–Dutch Harbor Fisherman.

Incorporating Environmental Change in Planning for Healthy Coastal Ecosystems and Economies [R/101-11]

Coastal wetlands are highly productive systems that provide a suite of critical ecosystem services to the surrounding landscape and to humans living in coastal communities. However, the structural and functional integrity of many coastal wetlands is currently threatened by climate change, which is predicted to be particularly intense at northern latitudes including Alaska. This project will assess the effects on coastal ecosystem structure of two major consequences of predicted climate change: (1) increased temperature of fresh and brackish water ponds, and (2) increased extent and rate of spread of invasive aquatic plants, in particular Elodea. We will use the Copper River Delta (CRD) as a model system within which to understand how the effects of these environmental changes may cascade through the trophic structure of a coastal system to ultimately influence waterbird distributions and breeding parameters. The CRD is an ideal location in which to conduct this study because it is relatively pristine yet contains an impressive east-west temperature gradient and an ongoing Elodea invasion. Numerous waterbird species using the CRD as staging and breeding habitat (Lesser Yellowlegs, Whimbrel, Hudsonian Godwit, Short-billed Dowitcher, Aleutian Tern, Arctic Tern, Dusky Canada Goose, and the non-waterbird Rusty Blackbird) are listed on the USFWS 2008 “Birds of Conservation Concern” list. These birds, and other wildlife, are a major attraction for nature-based tourism in the CRD, which contributes substantially to the local economy. Thus, understanding how climate change impacts to CRD coastal ecosystems may influence these species distributions and life cycles is a crucial component of understanding how to manage and enhance recreational tourism opportunities in coastal communities such as Cordova, Alaska. We will apply the results of our research to improving Alaska's capacity for science-based climate change adaptation strategies for the coastal ecosystems on which human and non-human species depend.

Navigating the Predator Gauntlet: Impacts of Nearshore Marine Fishes on Hatchery and Wild Juvenile Salmon in Southeast Alaska [R/32-07]

Hatcheries invest significant resources into salmon production to support lucrative and culturally important fisheries in Alaska. A key measure of success for hatcheries is the number of salmon that return to spawn of those released when young. However, the productive marine waters that support salmon are also a fertile environment for predators. Releases of hatchery fish can act as a “dinner bell,” attracting predators to release sites. This pulse of salmon smolts into the environment can also lead to higher predation rates on wild fish by increasing local predator densities. This predator gauntlet is the major source of mortality for smolts during the vulnerable first phase of their marine life, yet surprisingly few studies have quantified predation impacts on hatchery smolts. This study will provide insight into the fate of hatchery smolts by assessing the impacts of abundant predatory fish on young salmon in estuaries. We will measure densities and diets of two abundant predators known to consume smolts—Dolly Varden and staghorn sculpin—at natural rearing areas and release sites for one of the largest hatcheries in Southeast Alaska. Predators will be sampled before and after release of hatchery smolts to test the hypotheses that there will be a higher density of predators at hatchery release sites relative to natural rearing areas and that predation on smolts will be greater following release events. Our work will inform hatchery release strategies that reduce predation risk to smolts and provide an improved understanding of ecological factors that affect early marine survival of salmon.

Long-Term Records of Abundance and Effects of Large Scale Climate Change on Alaska Peninsula Sockeye Salmon [R/31-23]

The sustainability of Alaska’s fisheries, including the sockeye salmon fishery, is of utmost importance not only to the health of Alaska’s marine ecosystems but also to the vitality of Alaska’s coastal communities. Investigators will collect and analyze sediment cores from Sapsuk Lake, a sockeye spawning lake with traditionally large sockeye returns, to determine fluctuations in numbers of sockeye returning from the Bering Sea over the last few thousand years. This is of concern to stakeholders in the area, as historically the Sapsuk system had large runs but fish numbers have declined in recent years to the point of impacting subsistence and commercial use. The project will use sediments from Sapsuk Lake to detect relative numbers of sockeye returning to this spawning lake over the last 4000–5000 years, reconstruct changes in past productivity of the lake, and construct a model that could identify numbers of returning sockeye. Since historic data periods are too short to capture the large climatic changes the world—specifically the north—is now experiencing, long-term data sets such as this one will help determine the effects of warmer and colder climates on Bering Sea sockeye. This project will add to the knowledge of stakeholders and policymakers and may inform future management decisions and improve the chances of sustaining economic and sociocultural stability in Alaska coastal communities.

Please see Long-term records of abundance and effects of large scale climate change on Alaska peninsula sockeye salmon website for additional information.

National Strategic Initiative

The following projects were funded as part of the National Strategic Investments (NSIs) established by the National Sea Grant College Program to complement the strategic objectives of the state Sea Grant programs. NSIs have a national focus and are intended to enhance Sea Grant's network-wide capabilities to respond to high priority issues and opportunities.

Applied Research for a New Seaweed Aquaculture Industry in Alaska [R/40-09]

The proposed research has the objective to address major constraints that limit the development and progress of developing seaweed aquaculture in Alaska. There has been increasing interest in seaweed aquaculture in the state. But currently, there is no commercial production of seaweed by any of the aquaculture farms in Alaska. The species that is most likely to have a ready market is the sugar kelp, Saccharina latissima. Although kelps have been under artificial culture for decades in other countries, little work has been accomplished on kelps in northern latitudes. The research proposed here addresses some critical questions, the answer to which will help create a viable seaweed aquaculture industry in the state. The objectives under this proposal are 1) to determine the timing of fertility of parent plants used to create seed, 2) to investigate ways to slow down the normal life cycle of the kelps to control the timing of outplanting, 3) to determine the best season, depth and location for outplanting the seeded lines, 4) to determine how to grow the kelps for the optimal quality, and finally 5) to determine whether strain selection is feasible with this species. The research involves both field and lab work. Fertility will be determined on plants collected by scuba throughout the year. Plants on seeded lines will be placed in the ocean throughout the year and at different depths. Oceanographic data will be collected and plant growth and quality monitored. Research on the alternate generation, gametophyte, will entail subjecting the microscopic plants to various conditions of light, temperature and nutrients to find ways to retard growth and reproduction. Strain selection will be examined using both parent plants and by making crosses using cloned gametophytes. Results of this research will be disseminated to interested parties by various means.

Project news can be found in the 2016 stories “University of Alaska professor receives Sea Grant funding for seaweed aquaculture research” from Alaska Sea Grant, “Investors bet on farmed kelp being Alaska's next seafood export” from Alaska Dispatch News, and “Southeast to begin seaweed farming soon” from Capital City Weekly.

2017 National Aquaculture Initiative

The following projects were funded as part of a national initiative focused on answering key questions impeding the development and expansion of sustainable United States marine, coastal, and Great Lakes aquaculture.

Geoduck Spawning, Nursery Techniques, Seed Security and Technology Transfer for Alaska [A/152-41]

This project will provide Alaska geoduck farmers with Native Alaska geoduck seed to provide farmers with access to seed to grow and expand their farms. Broodstock for the hatcheries will be provided by Alaskan divers. The spawning and nursery project will take place on land based facilities that will not impact the environment. The seed produced will be planted by farm sites that have already been approved by the State of Alaska.

MaricultureMap - Development of a GIS Tool to Inform Mariculture Expansion in Alaska [A/152-42]

Development of mariculture in Alaska has been restricted to date by a lack of information needed to assess the profitability of mariculture investments, which depends upon key environmental and social variables. This project will define and prioritize parameters important to mariculture development, identify existing data sets related to these parameters, and collect, analyze/process and layer existing data into a GIS tool which can be used by investors and regulators to better inform and focus investment in mariculture development in Alaska.

Assisting Alaska Shellfish Managers to Avoid Emergency Rainfall Closures [A/152-43]

The project will create a highly-detailed dataset characterizing key water quality and microbiological conditions at remote farm and harvest sites currently subject to closures due to storm and rainfall events. Project staff will conduct baseline water profiles for currents, temperature and salinity while collecting bacteriological samples at an Alaska oyster farm site currently subject to rainfall closure conditions. A real-time instrument for bacteria indicator organisms will also be deployed at the farm, and spot samples will be collected at nearby geoduck harvest sites. These observations will be compared with the historical and current bacteriological sampling regimes. Project partners—including shellfish growers, harvesters and regulators—will then review the findings to assess current water quality monitoring and management procedures and recommend new ones.

This project aims to address a significant impediment to shellfish production in Alaska, provides critical support to ADEC, fulfills regional shellfish grower objectives, and contributes to the national need for sustainable seafood production. Efficiency of farm and wild harvest in Alaska will be increased through reduced water quality closures. The results of this project will effectively increase production of safe shellfish to meet growing domestic and international demand.