Peering through a small aquarium, Madeline Mullikin keeps her eyes on several tiny creatures living in the water at the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve in Homer recently.
Photo by Hal Spence
Madeline Mullikin and Kate Kerns hover over a high-powered microscope taking turns peering at a nudibranch floating in a small glass container.
Across the lab table, Catie Bursch, an education assistant with the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve in Homer, relays a few of the finer points regarding the miniature shell-less snail's habitat.
The home-schooled nature enthusiasts, both 10, listen intently, before shifting around the table to gaze into a small aquarium filled with other tiny sea life.
Elsewhere in the spacious laboratory, more eager youngsters eye assorted marine life including green sea urchins, tiny crab, shrimp, and blue mussels that have been placed in small aquaria and viewing tanks.
Every first and third Thursday of the month, the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center opens its lab to the general public. The Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, or KBRR, sponsors these "Discovery Labs." This lab features creatures from Homer Harbor. Similar labs are scheduled through March.
Open to anyone, the free labs have become popular fare with folks of all ages, including public school groups, home-schooled students, parents with toddlers in tow and seniors - basically anyone looking for a fascinating and educational way to spend a couple late afternoon hours.
"It is really exciting for the kids," Bursch said during an interview last week in Homer. "Lots of kids come in who say they've never touched a microscope before. We have pretty much been letting them have at it."
Future Discovery Labs are set to investigate such things as the sea stars of Kachemak Bay (Dec. 16), invasive species (Jan. 6) and fishes of Kachemak Bay (Jan. 20). One scheduled for Feb. 3 entitled "SpongeBob SquarePants: Meet the Cast" is expected to be well attended. According to Bursch, characters in the popular cartoon series are supposed to represent actual sea creatures.
The Discovery Labs represent just one the programs now under way at the newly dedicated research reserve.
The Kachemak Bay Re-search Reserve was established in 1999 as part of the National Estuarine Research Reserve, or NERR, a system of research reserves in coastal areas around the nation. The KBRR began operations at the visitors center when the structure was completed late last year. The reserve shares the spaces with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The building formally was dedicated at a ceremony July 4.
Research Reserve Manager Judy Haner has been the reserve's boss since Oct. 13, a job she took after a long stint with a research reserve in Florida.
The KBRR employs 13 people, including three researchers (a fourth is on the way) and 10 others. Haner said though she is an administrator, she likes to get her hands dirty in the lab and on field trips as often as she can.
The staff is in the midst of preparing a new five-year management plan that will revise long-term goals. When approved by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it will replace the existing plan written as the reserve was being launched.
"That plan was more of a political plan," Haner said. "This one will actually be a management plan, a working document. We have a building in place, labs in place, educational programs in place and excellent partners. Now what are we going to do?"
In many ways that "what" already is being answered. KBRR programs are collecting data on Kachemak Bay and Cook Inlet tides, looking closely at the history and patterns of coastal erosion (and preparing a report for the city of Homer), launching a research effort to learn what can be learned about nutrient supply in area streams and rivers, sponsoring educational initiatives including the Discovery Labs and more formal K-12 marine science educational programs.
"We've done some pretty extensive intertidal mapping, and now we are looking at extending that to the subtidal areas and the upland areas and connecting that whole continuum," Haner said.
While working primarily on large-scale projects, the reserve sometimes engages in smaller "microprojects," using their data as the basis for extrapolating assumptions and hypotheses that can be tested at other locations, she said. An example, she noted, involved research into nutrient exchange in streambeds, comparing nutrients entering streams as part of the upland runoff with nutrients delivered into the stream by returning salmon.
That work is ongoing in the Anchor River, but the KBRR hopes to be able to apply the methods to other waterways around the reserve, Haner said.
The reserve also is doing hydrographic studies to determine how currents affect life in the bay. Among the currents under study are so-called deep water currents and currents caused by freshwater runoff from glaciers. That knowledge is important because currents have an impact on such things as crab larvae recruitment from outside Kachemak Bay and Cook Inlet.
Research Coordinator Scott Pegau, who holds a doctorate in physical oceanography, has been doing the hydrologic studies in partnership with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Oregon.
Monitoring devices offshore of Homer and Seldovia currently collect important marine data every quarter hour from near the surface and near the bottom, including basic physical parameters like temperature, pH, salinity and dissolved oxygen. Active monitoring has been ongoing for about two years, too short a time to begin drawing conclusions or predicting trends from the numbers, Haner said. But given a database of five to 10 years, and trends will become noticeable.
The Kachemak Bay reserve will one day be part of an Ocean Observing System, tying it to ocean-monitoring efforts around the nation. Among the benefits will be data that could help predict effects of global climate change.
Among the reserve's future projects will be making monitoring data available on the Web in real time. That would, for instance, give commercial fishers and other boaters the ability to see the local conditions at monitored sites miles away prior to setting sail.
"That is something on the horizon," perhaps a couple of years away, Haner said.
The reserve also has sponsored and hosted workshops - public forums that brought scientists together with local decisionmakers from government and business - such as a NOAA-sponsored coastal training program held last March.
A workshop on Cook Inlet physical oceanography is set for Feb. 21 and 22 at the visitors center. A flier encourages participants to learn about current research on inlet waters and to help brainstorm ideas for products and services that might prove of value to mariners, scientists, industry, resource managers, educators and others using Alaska's marine resources.
Rick Foster, an education specialist with the reserve, said a discussion on floodplains funded by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Division of Community and Economic Development tentatively has been scheduled for March 31-April 1 in Seward. He's also planning a Kachemak Bay Science Conference for next October.
As its name implies, the reserve focuses primarily on Kachemak Bay, but at least some of its work takes in the broader scope of the inlet of the Kenai Peninsula as a whole. In part, that's due to necessity.
KBRR's current budget is about $1 million. A bit more than half - about $550,000 - is covered by a NOAA grant. Fish and Game also contributes, but much of the annual funding has to be found in the world of competitive grants. Part of Haner's job is to raise the visibility of the reserve and seek outside funding. That means looking for ways to make the reserve as useful as possible to anyone who needs its information.
"That can sometimes make it stressful," Haner admitted.
Partnering with other members of the Homer community, including the city government and other agencies, has helped. The city of Homer has been instrumental in helping secure grants, and the reserve has a good relationship with Cook Inlet Keeper. Keeper's lab performs some of the water-quality testing for KBRR, she said.
But while Cook Inlet Keeper has a research and advocacy role, the KBRR is strictly research oriented, Haner said.
Concern that a research reserve designation in Homer would amount to placing another layer of government over development efforts around the bay led some critics to oppose its creation. Those fears largely have been eased. If anything, the reserve opens the door to funding sources and research opportunities that did not exist before. As for regulations, there is plenty of existing law doing that, Haner said.
"We are a government agency, basically, and one of the great things about the way the reserves are set up is that we are nonregulatory," she said. "We are focused on the nuts and bolts of research and education, and we don't take an advocacy role."
Most recently, the reserve has been preparing a study of the shoreline for the city of Homer. Beaches along the southern boundary of the city have been receding rapidly for decades.
Steve Baird, a reserve re-search analyst, has taken aerial photographs from 1951, 1968, 1975, 1996 and 2003, rectified them on computer to account for their being shot at different altitudes and angles and compiled them on an interactive map that demonstrates graphically how the shoreline has changed. It has receded an average of 1.5 meters per year at some sites.
But while such science can prove immensely useful to governments, businesses, private landowners and the like, few things can turn up the enthusiasm meter like watching the wonder on the faces of youngsters attending the Discovery Labs.
In many ways, the KBRR staffers, like Bursch, have learned to rely on some of them. A number of students from local schools have signed on as volunteers, she said. Among other things, lab participants are helping to compile a Kachemak Bay plankton guide.
Special lab cameras make good color photos of the variety of sea critters that call the bay home. Bursch does black and white sketches to accompany the photos.
"The coolest thing is to be able to walk right out the door with the kids, and you're right on the beach (a short jaunt down a boardwalk from the visitors center brings you within a block of Bishops Beach)," she said.
And those samples brought back from the field trips? The budding scientists waste little time before putting them under the microscope.
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