As the sun set over Cook Inlet earlier this week, four people carried buckets, coolers and baggies to the water's edge at the Salamatof Beach. From labeled Ziploc bags they removed gobs of sand and mud, which they proceeded to sieve carefully, poring over the leavings in the failing light.
They were not panning for gold, but looking for a greater treasure: the tiny creatures that live in beach sediments and support the health of the inlet's complex ecosystem.
The four scientists spent last week traveling by car, airplane or helicopter to collect samples from some of Cook Inlet's most remote beaches to begin a new, long-term environmental monitoring project.
"The first step is to go out and do what we consider reconnaissance," explained Susan Saupe.
Saupe, an oceanographer, is the science coordinator for the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, which is sponsoring the project.
The goal of the project is to build up information about healthy parts of the Cook Inlet marine system that could be harmed by potential future pollution. The monitoring will watch for changes to the natural system from oil industry activities in the area and provide a baseline for comparison in case of an oil spill or other disaster, she said.
Tiny beach critters remain in the sifter after sand and mud have been washed away.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
It begins a new phase for CIRCAC.
CIRCAC formed in 1991 under the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990, set in place after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Its mission is to ensure the safe operations of the oil industry in Cook Inlet to minimize the industry's environmental impacts.
In previous years, the public watchdog group studied areas around Cook Inlet to see if petroleum hydrocarbons (specific chemical markers from crude or refined oil) have contaminated the environment already.
"So far, that hasn't happened," Saupe said.
In 1998, CIRCAC reviewed five years of studies and decided to move to the next phase. After giving the inlet a clean bill of health, it was time to set up an ongoing system to make sure it stayed healthy.
CIRCAC hired three scientific consultants to assist Saupe in setting up the new project: Dennis Lees, Bill Driskell and Jim Payne. All had worked with CIRCAC on previous projects and have extensive experience on Alaska's south central coast.
Lees and Driskell, biologists specializing in intertidal organisms, lived in Homer in the 1970s and did pioneering surveys of beach life around Cook Inlet. Payne's expertise is analyzing traces of petroleum chemicals in the marine environment; he worked in Cook Inlet and Anchorage. All worked on the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the studies following it.
"This is a team that has some really special historical insight into this area," Saupe said.
This year's sampling and designing of the monitoring program will cost about $130,000, she said.
The team checked out about two dozen sites selected for their vulnerability, accessibility and their importance for biological, commercial and subsistence productivity.
Most were on the inlet's remote west side, where currents would be most likely to deposit spilled oil, she said.
"Some were surveyed purely because there was absolutely nothing known about them," she added.
The weather, including the wind storm Tuesday, was the big obstacle. The best perk about the remote work was the gorgeous scenery, the scientists said.
Working south to north, following the low tides, they set down on the exposed beaches. At each site, they collected samples of the mud or sand.
Payne will oversee laboratory chemistry tests checking those sediments themselves for hydrocarbons related to petroleum. Some of the chemicals occur naturally from sources such as oil deposits, coal and airborne soot. Such analysis reveals a unique distribution of chemicals that "fingerprints" natural or pollution sources.
"That information is crucial," Saupe said.
Lees and Driskell were after living samples, which they had to remove from the mud with sieves.
"The game here," Driskell explained while up to his elbows in a bucket of muddy water, "is to get all that stuff to go through a 1-millimeter sieve and keep all the guys that come out."
Most of those "guys" were Macoma clams, the tiny pink-shelled mollusks shorebirds love to munch. The team collected a variety of clams and worms. Preserved tissues from the animals also will be tested for hydrocarbons.
The scientists plan to identify stable populations of sedentary invertebrates that they can monitor over the years to come.
"Those we are calling sentinel species or early indicators," Saupe said.
The central and upper inlet, with its heavy silt and scouring winter ice, is a harsh environment for beach critters. It also is little known to science.
"The major data gap that was pretty clear is that there was very little intertidal work from central Cook Inlet except isolated pockets," Saupe said.
Driskell said the team found the area to be relatively barren compared with the productive beaches of Kachemak Bay. They checked off-shore shoals and failed to find a single living thing. The most populous spots in the area were at Kalgin Island.
But there were a few surprises.
Lees said they were intrigued to find some anemones at Boulder Point, north of the East Foreland.
The team finished its field work Friday.
The final report on the reconnaissance is due out in January. It will include initial chemistry results and the shortened list of sites selected for the on-going monitoring in future years. CIRCAC will make the report available to the public, Saupe said.
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