CIRCAC helps monitor health of Alaska's coastline

Posted: Tuesday, February 25, 2003

In the summer of 2002, the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council formed a unique partnership with state and federal agencies and a host of other organizations to conduct the first Alaska portion of a nationwide program to assess the health of the U.S. coastline.

Susan Saupe, CIRCAC's director of science and research, led the group of scientists for 50 days of sampling, trawling and testing at sea before coming ashore to continue the work in several labs.

The Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program, or EMAP as it is known, is an Environmental Protection Agency project conducted within the state through the Alaska Department of Environmental Con-servation.

CIRCAC and DEC created their partnership in order to maximize the expertise and resources available for this coastal assessment. Through its government-to-government relationship with the EPA, DEC provided the administrative support and oversight for the project and for EPA funds. CIRCAC provided the lead scientist and support to facilitate the Alaska project.

To attain its goals, the Western States Coastal EMAP applies certain monitoring and assessment tools to create an integrated and comprehensive coastal monitoring program along the West Coast of the United States. Water column measurements are combined with information about sediment characteristics and chemistry, sediment-dwelling organisms and data from bottom trawls to describe the current estuarine condition.

The overall objectives are:

To describe the current ecological condition of coastal resources in Washington, Oregon, Alaska, California and Hawaii;

To work with the states and others to build a strong program of ecological monitoring which will lead to better management and protection of western bays and estuaries; and

To develop the infrastructure in the region to implement the monitoring program.

Because scientists use a core set of parameters, they can ensure the consistency and comparability of data from all coastal states includes several oceanographic and water quality parameters, sediment toxicity analyses, sediment chemistry, tissue chemistry, fish pathology, benthic community analyses and fish community analyses. The 50-day voyage allowed scientists to collect the necessary water, sediment and bottom trawl samples.

The main goal of the national EMAP is to "monitor the condition of the nation's ecological resources to evaluate the cumulative success of current policies and programs and to identify emerging problems before they become widespread or irreversible."

The national coastal assessment portion of EMAP is a five-year effort through 2004 to survey the condition of the nation's bays and estuaries that will create an integrated and comprehensive coastal monitoring program among the coastal states.

Both CIRCAC and DEC have interests in Alaska's coastal environment and recognized the value of a program that uses a probability-based sampling approach, which allows a limited number of sites to represent the total area in the sampling design.

DEC has a vested interest in such a project through its Air and Water Data and Monitoring Program, since the program is tasked by its mission statement to "create better tools for better air and water quality decisions." The EMAP protocols provide a suite of measurements that will build a database on which decisions can be made.

"The data is going to provide a context, or background, to improve our abilities to interpret data from other more focused studies," said Saupe.

"This is especially important in Alaska, since most of the existing Alaskan coastal environmental monitoring studies are focused in relatively narrow geographical ranges and are limited to fewer measured parameters. The state of Alaska didn't have an existing marine coastal monitoring program in place, unlike many of the other coastal states, so the EMAP funds give us a chance to build a program around this national effort."

The EPA has identified five regions of Alaska's coastline for possible study with the total distance greater than the remaining U.S. coastal areas combined. If additional funds become available in future years, Alaska will extend the EMAP sampling to incorporate the additional four regions of Alaska.

In 2002, the Alaska sampling was conducted in an area of the northern Gulf of Alaska that encompassed the coastline's bays and estuaries between Unimak Pass and Cape St. Elias, including the Alaska Peninsula, Cook Inlet, Shelikof Strait, Prince William Sound and the Kodiak Archipelago. There were 50 core EMAP sites that were required as part of the national EMAP program.

At each site, scientists conducted the following activities:

A conductivity, temperature and depth profile was obtained with additional sensors measuring profiles of fluorescence (a measure of chlorophyll concentrations), optical backscatter (a measure of the amount of suspended solids in the water column) and dissolved oxygen.

Discrete water samples were collected from the surface, at a midwater depth and near the bottom for nutrient analyses (ammonium, nitrate, nitrite, phosphate, silicate), chlorophyll A and suspended sediments.

Samples were collected to obtain sediment for measuring persistent organic chemicals, hydrocarbons, metals, total organic carbon and nitrogen and sediment grain size; to determine sediment toxicity; and to conduct benthic invertebrate community analyses.

Fish trawling was conducted to collect data on fish and invertebrate community composition; to conduct fish pathology analyses; and to obtain subsamples for tissue chemistry analyses.

Due to the large trawl size and the desire to limit the mortality of the benthic fish and invertebrate populations, trawls were shortened from the EMAP "requirement" for 10-minute trawls. Typically, the trawl was on the bottom for a five-minute tow. Because the stations ranged from a depth of 6 meters to more than 300 meters, several different trawl nets and gear were used to accommodate the differing conditions.

"Because funding for the program didn't allow for hiring and training of new people, the success of the first Alaska EMAP field sampling effort rested largely on the willingness of other organizations to let their personnel participate in the field work," said Saupe. "The sampling crew was a mixture of people from a range of backgrounds and sources. Only a few of the scientific personnel were available for the entire eight-week sampling program, but a full complement of necessary field crew was available during the entire field season by rotating the agency personnel, volunteers and paid contractors or interns. It took a lot of logistical work."

The science crew included Allan Fukuyama, a researcher and friend of Saupe's from the University of Washington; Kirsten Rodgers, an undergraduate student intern from New Zealand who was on a student exchange to University of Washington; Mark Myers, Paul Olson and John Buzitis, fisheries biologists with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle; Tim Loher from the International Pacific Halibut Commission; Chris Ehrler a volunteer from California who had decades of experience sampling in the marine environment and who wanted the opportunity to work in Alaska again; Nettie Kelly, another volunteer from California and who had worked on oil spill projects along the same coastlines; Dixon Landers from the EPA, who came out to conduct an audit of the sampling program and to provide extra field sampling hand; and Lorrain Edmonds from the EPA, who spent several days obtaining photo documentation for EPA.

Saupe said she selected laboratories that recently had completed similar work for other programs within the Western States Coastal EMAP in order to meet strict EPA standards already in place.

The Washington State Department of Ecology's analytical laboratories in Manchester are conducting all of the sediment and fish tissue chemical analyses, as well as overseeing the sediment toxicity testing being conducted by a past EMAP subcontracting laboratory. The University of Washington's School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences analyzed the discrete water samples.

The University of Alaska's School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences will conduct the benthic sediment invertebrate sorting and taxonomy.

Once tests and analyses are complete, Saupe will file her final report. She hopes funding will be made available to continue the coastal assessment in other Alaska waters, but for now she's just happy to have gone this far in the first round.

"You know, so much of this work relied on organizations pooling resources, staff and funding to pull it off," said Saupe.

"We worked hard out there, but we also tried to get out and enjoy the places when we had the opportunity. We ate a lot of butter and steamer clams, dug razor clams in Alitak Bay and caught halibut and rockfish with our fishing lines. We've had great bonfires and visited Homer, Kodiak, Sand Point, Chignik, Alitak, Seward, Valdez and Whittier. It was a pretty nice view from your desk."

Steve Howell is the public outreach director for the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council. CIRCAC was created in 1990 to meet the mandates of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

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