SOLDOTNA (AP) -- Five researchers will spend the next week studying the creatures that live in Cook Inlet's muddy beaches.
The Cook Inlet Citizens Regional Advisory Council is launching the $130,000 study to learn which animals live on beaches most likely to be polluted in the event of an oil spill, and what levels of oil-related chemicals can currently be found in them.
The idea is to create a baseline of information about the healthy beaches before they are affected by either long-term pollution or a catastrophic oil spill, said Sue Saupe, research coordinator for the council. The Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council is an oil transportation watchdog created by Congress and funded by the oil industry.
Surprisingly little is known about upper Inlet beach life, the researchers say.
The work undertaken this week will mark the first time scientists have analyzed many of the inlet's intertidal areas, the beaches exposed by falling tides twice a day. Not only are the beaches home to large clam beds that attract migrating shorebirds and humans, they're also the most likely to be heavily oiled if a spill occurs, Saupe said.
The council's budget will allow the crew, led by biologist Dennis Lees of San Diego, to take samples from 22 upper Cook Inlet beaches, Saupe said.
A few of the sites are on the Kenai Peninsula, such as Clam Gulch, the mouths of the Kasilof and Kenai rivers, and the East Foreland in Nikiski. But most of the work will be done on the eastern side of the Inlet, where tides and winds are more likely to push an oil spill, Saupe said.
While the project will log all the creatures researchers find, they're singling out clams as the Inlet's ''sentinel species,'' Saupe said. The filter-feeding invertebrates strain water and store chemicals in their meat, so fluctuations in contaminants can be tracked over time.
This study marks a major shift in the research conducted by the Regional Citizens Advisory Council. Since it was created, in the early 1990s, the group has focused its research on oily wastewater discharged from drilling platforms.
Those studies and others have found that the Inlet's silty bed is remarkably unaffected by the past 30 years of oil and gas production, Saupe said.
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