All posts by Stacey Buckelew

Massive algae bloom in the Gulf of Alaska could be good for marine life

Tiny but mighty phytoplankton live at the base of the food chain in the Gulf of Alaska. They’re a food source for small crustaceans, which in turn feed small fish, then bigger fish, then seabirds and marine mammals.

Each spring and summer, a large concentration of phytoplankton blooms in the gulf. This year, researchers recorded the biggest bloom they’ve ever seen.

To read more about phytoplankton monitoring by Gulf Watch Alaska researchers in the Gulf of Alaska, the entire KTOO article can be accessed:

Chlorophyll levels in the Gulf of Alaska as measured by a satellite in April. (University of Alaska Fairbanks)

Quarterly Currents vol 5.2

 The Gulf Watch Alaska (GWA) program and Principal Investigators (PIs) have been busy this summer preparing proposals and collecting data. Despite a persistent pandemic, many PIs have been happily out doing fieldwork – tending to their instruments, bagging and tagging samples, and appreciating the salty air. A brief summary of our program’s second quarter activities and accomplishment can be found in the latest issue of the GWA Quarterly Currents (vol 5.2).

Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey Goes the Distance to Win a Guinness World Record

Seventeen times to the moon and back –a record has been set for the greatest distance sampled by a marine survey!

Established by Sir Alister Hardy in 1931, the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) Survey has been collecting information about the health of our oceans, in the form of “plankton sandwiches”, for decades. Now in its 90th year, the CPR survey have sampled over 7 million nautical miles of ocean – ample to be awarded the Guinness World Record for the greatest distance sampled by a marine survey!

Read the full article by the Marine Biological Association:

Years After the Pacific Marine Heat Wave, Ecosystem Shifts Persist

From 2014 to 2016, the Gulf of Alaska experienced the worst marine heat wave of the decade. From single-celled organisms to top predators, practically no level of the ecosystem was left unscathed. During the Pacific marine heat wave, tens of thousands of dead seabirds washed up on beaches, unusually low numbers of humpback whales arrived in their summer habitats, and toxic algal blooms spread along the West Coast of North America.

Now, a new study in Scientific Reports casts doubt on whether Gulf ecosystems will be able to return to their pre–heat wave conditions. This study—a collaborative effort between researchers at NOAA and several other government and research organizations—combined dozens of data sets to build a detailed picture of how many heat wave–induced changes have persisted. Thanks in part to long-term monitoring efforts by Gulf Watch Alaska, a program established in 2012 to assess the ongoing effects from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, scientists were able to compare pre–heat wave and present conditions in several different sections of the ecosystem.

“We were able to show these impacts—from the intertidal out to the pelagic [open ocean] ecosystem, and from algae and phytoplankton on up to whales and commercial fisheries, and a lot of different species in between,” said Robert Suryan, a NOAA marine biologist and lead author of the study.

To read the full article by Eos, Science News by AGU visit:

Most Recent Data Shows Gulf of Alaska Marine Ecosystem Slow to Return to Pre-Heatwave State

A new study provides a comprehensive and quantitative look at initial and lingering effects of the eastern Pacific marine heatwave on Gulf of Alaska coastal and marine ecosystems.

The eastern Pacific marine heatwave, which occurred from California to Alaska in 2014–2016, was the longest lasting heatwave globally over the past decade. A new study led by NOAA Fisheries scientists and partners looked at its effects. They found that the heatwave affected various components of the Gulf of Alaska marine food web from plankton to whales to humans. There have been various impacts, some positive and some negative. Some of these impacts persisted through 2019, when this study was completed.

For the full feature story by NOAA Fisheries visit:

Quarterly Currents vol 5.1

 The Gulf Watch Alaska (GWA) program and Principal Investigators (PIs) continued with their research and monitoring during this first quarter of FY21. February 1 marked the beginning of the final year of the Trustee Council’s FY17-21 five-year funding cycle. FY21 marks the tenth year of monitoring under the GWA program. All hands were on deck this quarter as the program focused on completing annual reports and submitting a proposal package to the Trustee’s Invitation for Long-Term Research and Monitoring focus area. This Invitation potentially paves the way for an additional ten years (FY22-31) of research and monitoring, an unprecedented opportunity to better understand long-term impacts of the
Exxon Valdez oil spill on injured resources and ecosystem health in a changing environment.

A brief summary of our program’s first quarter activities and accomplishment can be found in the latest issue of the GWA Quarterly Currents (vol 5.1).

Heat Wave has Lasting Impacts on Marine Species

When a heat wave swept through the northeast Pacific ocean between 2014 and 2016, it changed the marine makeup of the Gulf of Alaska. The warm water decimated some commercial fish populations. Some species bounced back right away. But a recent study from NOAA finds others are rebounding more slowly. In this radio interview, Rob Suryan, Gulf Watch Alaska researcher, talk about the impacts of the heat wacy on marine species over time.

For the full article by the Central Kenai Peninsula radio visit:

Marine and Coastal Resources Continue to Feel the Effects of the Marine Heatwave

News Release published by the National Park Service

News Release Date: April 5, 2021

Contact: Heather Coletti,


The recent Pacific Marine Heatwave (PMH) was unprecedented in its intensity and duration. Its spatial extent (the large area impacted), magnitude (how unusually warm it was), and duration (how long it lasted) made it the largest heatwave on record. While marine heatwaves have occurred in the past, they have become more prevalent and intense over the last century. The warm waters documented offshore also manifested in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Alaska. Changes from generally colder to warmer water anomalies were coincident with major changes in community structure at our intertidal sites. In the rocky intertidal, the Gulf Watch Alaska Long-term Monitoring Program documented changes in community structure across 21 rocky intertidal sites, covering four regions in the Gulf of Alaska (GOA) in response to the warming. The intertidal zone is a biome considered to be resilient to environmental extremes (heat, desiccation, storm surges, etc.). Intertidal communities are generally structured by local-scale drivers, but the strength and duration of the PMH overwhelmed those local scale influences. The result was the homogenization of these diverse communities across the Gulf through a shift from autotrophic dominated species (macroalgae) to one of heterotrophs (mussels and barnacles). This homogenization of marine communities has been documented elsewhere as a response to prolonged marine heatwaves. The loss of Fucus distichus (rockweed), one of the primary macroalgae in the rocky intertidal in the GOA, also meant the loss of a foundational species that creates habitat for other species. While Fucus was replaced by two other foundational species that also create habitat, mussels and barnacles, the shift in community composition, and hence, ecosystem function, will have to be evaluated over time (Weitzman et al. 2021).

Two other recent papers, also stemming from the collaborative Gulf Watch Alaska Long-term Monitoring Program, documented biological responses in the northern Gulf of Alaska to the recent Pacific Marine Heatwave (PMH). These responses occurred across food webs and biomes, from nearshore to offshore, and, in some cases, have persisted beyond the duration of the PMH in the North Pacific. In many cases, the perturbation was strong enough to override typical drivers of the system and it is uncertain whether the Gulf of Alaska will return to a pre-PMH state (Suryan et al. 2021).

For example, disruptions to the transfer of energy in the pelagic food web were driven by the heat-induced collapse of forage fish populations. Through varying life-histories of these forage fish species, this food web can be resilient to fluctuations in forage fish species’ abundance. However, the synchronous collapse of key forage fish populations, along with shifts in age structure, size, growth, and energy content suggests that the forage community as a whole was unable to mitigate adverse impacts of the heatwave, leading to the starvation of many seabirds, marine mammals, and other fishes (Arimitsu et al. 2021).

In the winter of 2015-2016, researchers and volunteers counted 62,000 bird carcasses washed up on beaches from California to Alaska. Because not all dead birds wash up on the shore, we estimate the total to be as many as a million dead birds. They all starved; no evidence of other causes of mortality was found (Piatt et al. 2020).

To access the recent publications and interact with the How Marine Heatwaves are Changing Ocean Ecosystems story map (developed by NPS), visit:

Quarterly Currents vol 4.4

The Gulf Watch Alaska (GWA) Principal Investigators (PIs) continue their research and monitoring to the best of their capabilities as COVID-19 persists. The most significant achievements this quarter include presenting results from their projects at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium, publishing peer reviewed papers, and drafting reports and proposals. Nothing like a cold dark winter under a pandemic to inspire some serious computer time and productivity. Be well everyone!

A brief summary of our program’s fourth quarter activities and accomplishment can be found in the latest issue of the GWA Quarterly Currents (vol 4.4).

UAF’s Seward Marine Center celebrates 50 years

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Seward Marine Center celebrated its 50th birthday this year, marking a half-century of becoming the premier research-oriented marine facility in Southcentral Alaska. In conjunction with this anniversary, the GAK-1 oceanographic monitoring site in Resurrection Bay also celebrates 50 years. Scientists have used the Seward Marine Center as a base for more than 400 occupations of GAK-1 since Dec. 10, 1970.


For the full article in the UAF news, see:

The importance of University of Alaska-based monitoring of our oceans

Located at the mouth of Resurrection Bay near Seward, Alaska, temperature and salinity versus depth profiles have been taken at oceanographic station GAK1 since December, 1970. This multi-decade time series is one of the longest running oceanographic time series in the North Pacific, and this month marks it’s 50th anniversary.

Data is the lifeblood of science. It provides scientists with a way to prove, refine, or disprove our ideas about how the world works. Data from the University of Alaska Fairbanks is providing valuable information for oil spill response, public safety and economic development efforts in the 49th state.

UAF passed a remarkable milestone this month, when scientists from the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences completed a half-century of regular observations at a Gulf of Alaska oceanographic station. Station GAK-1 is located near Seward at the mouth of Resurrection Bay, and it has the longest set of sustained measurements of surface-to-seafloor temperature and salinity in all of Alaska’s coastal and offshore waters.

What does this mean for our state? GAK-1 is providing data to drive good decision-making and help us evaluate risks to Alaska’s marine ecosystem and economy as the ocean becomes warmer and more acidic due to climate change. This monitoring contributes to our understanding of melting glacier runoff in the ocean, variations in Alaska’s commercial fisheries, and the population status of marine mammals.

The entire Anchorage Daily News opinion piece written by GulfWatch Alaska PI Seth Danielson can be accessed here.

GulfWatch Alaska Team Meeting: Reimagining Virtual

In light of the pandemic, the annual PI meeting was reimagined as a virtual collaboration event. Typically the three-day meeting is held inperson in Anchorage, Homer, or Cordova to discuss program updates and coordinate on synthesis activities. This year, the meeting utilized a virtual platform and diverse agenda to help make the meeting more inclusive, engaging and effective. In addition to the sharing of program and monitoring updates, the team took advantage of in-meeting polling to gauge reactions, virtual breakout rooms to foster discussion, and fun popup activities to spark team building and engagement.  Special thanks to Donna Aderhold and Mandy Lindeberg for the effort to keep the team  connected in these social distancing times.

Quarterly Currents vol 4.3

The Gulf Watch Alaska (GWA) Principal Investigators (PIs) continue their research and monitoring to the best of their capabilities as COVID-19 persists in our communities into fall and winter. The most significant achievements this quarter include completion of fall surveys, ecosystem indicators for the annual report to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, and submission and approval of GWA FY21 Work Plans. The GWA program is now looking forward to the next and final quarter of monitoring
year nine.

A brief summary of our program’s third quarter activities and accomplishment can be found in the latest issue of the GWA Quarterly Currents (vol 4.3).

Quarterly Currents vol 4.2

The Gulf Watch Alaska (GWA) program and Principal Investigators (PIs) are persevering as we continue to endure the COVID-19 pandemic. Some projects have lost data collection opportunities for FY20 because of state or federal agency mandates. However, numerous projects have developed methods to safely conduct field studies and the majority of datasets will continue with only minor gaps. Oceanographic, nearshore, marine bird, and marine mammal surveys have been successfully conducted at some level, maintaining long-term curation of our legacy datasets. The array of remote sensing instruments supported by GWA and the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council has also become an invaluable source of information while PIs are grounded from fieldwork. During these challenging times the tenacity and ingenuity of GWA scientists and the value of their long-term monitoring efforts has become even more evident. Stay healthy everyone!

A brief summary of our program’s second quarter activities and accomplishment can be found in the latest issue of the GWA Quarterly Currents (vol 4.2).

Delta Sound Connections features GulfWatch Alaska

The Prince William Sound Science Center is pleased to announce the release of the 2020-2021 edition of the Delta Sound Connections. This annual natural history and science news publication is dedicated to the ecosystems of Prince William Sound, the Copper River watershed, and northern Gulf of Alaska. Delta Sound Connections highlights various research and education programs taking place in our region, right now. In this addition are feature articles contributed by GulfWatch Alaska scientist about Prince William Sound humpback whales, marine birds, forage fish, zooplankton, and more. Enjoy exploring more about Prince Willian Sound in this lastest edition!

‘The Blob’ video spotlights marine heatwave and seabird die-off

About 62,000 dead or dying common murres, the trophically dominant fish-eating seabird of the North Pacific, washed ashore between summer 2015 and spring 2016 on beaches from California to Alaska. A team of United States Geological Survey scientists have been researching and investigating the cause of this die off. The Blob, a short documentary by film artist Ben Collins, captures the heatwave research that has been underway as part of the Gulf Watch Alaska program in Cook Inlet.

Shared with permission from Ben Collins and produced with permission of the U.S. Gelogical Survey, Alaska Science Center, Anchorage.

For more information:

Tiny plankton tell the ocean’s story – this vast marine mission has been listening

One GulfWatch Alaska project, the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) survey, is the longest-running marine science project of its kind. It began in 1931 when the scientist Sir Alister Hardy investigated how herring were influenced by plankton in the North Sea. This month the distance surveyed will reach an impressive 7m nautical miles, equivalent to 320 circumnavigations of the Earth.

Since that first tow from Hull to Germany 89 years ago, the equipment has hardly changed. So far a quarter of a million samples have been analysed, representing a vast geographical spread over the course of the past century. The immense scope has allowed scientists to see dramatic patterns in ocean health, across both time and space, building a much clearer picture of how our marine environments are changing.

To read more about how this research aides in understanding marine ecosystem change, check out this recent arcticle published in The Guardian:

Quarterly Currents vol 4.1

Wow, things have certainly changed since the last installment of the GWA Quarterly Currents. The first quarter of monitoring year 8 was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic washing ashore in Alaska, which resulted in federal/state agency closures and restrictions from State of Alaska mandates for physical distancing. Most GWA team members shifted to working from home and developing contingency plans for postponing or in some cases cancelling field surveys. Let’s just say the suggestion of losing data is not easily accepted by principal investigators who are passionate about their research and have spent their whole careers nurturing legacy time series. Therefore, a great deal of effort is currently being put into
creative “plan Bs and Cs”. However, since the GWA program has diverse partnerships, not all data collection has been affected this season and the program continues with some successes not experienced by other researchers and organizations. A brief summary of our program’s first quarter activities and accomplishment can be found in the latest issue of the GWA Quarterly Currents (vol 4.1).

What It’s Like to Social Distance at Sea

Preparation for the research cruise in the northern Gulf of Alaska in May began in an unusual way for chief scientist Russ Hopcroft: 2 weeks of self-quarantine at home with his family.

Since the novel coronavirus put ocean-going research at a standstill, many scientists wonder how they’ll ever sail again. Research cruises have tight quarters, take scientists sometimes weeks away from land, and bring people from all over the world into the same cramped location. In March, the organizational body for U.S. universities, the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), halted all research cruises until 1 July.Oceanographers have returned to the same track for 22 years.That is, except for Hopcroft’s cruise. The weeklong jaunt on the University of Alaska Fairbanks’s (UAF) ship the R/V Sikuliaq was initially planned for 2 weeks in April. Scientists intended to measure the extent of the Gulf of Alaska’s vibrant spring plankton blooms. The annual measurements inform Alaska’s fishery management quotas for next year.

Oceanographers have returned to the same track, called the Seward Line, for 22 years, and missing out this year would have not only starved management agencies of data but caused greater uncertainty in that data.

To read the entire article published by Eos:

Citation: Duncombe, J. (2020), What it’s like to social distance at sea, Eos, 101, Published on 12 May 2020.

Seward Line Sampling to Maintain Research Streak

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the annual research cruise will continue uninterrupted along the Gulf of Alaska’s Seward line. The University of Alaska’s research vessel Sikuliaq set sail out of Seward on Monday, May 4. Researcher Russ Hopcroft talks about the special preparations that have been made to ensure safe operations amidst global health concerns. Hopcroft spoke with Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove about the Sikuliaq’s 2020 sailing. Listen here:

Plankton Photomicrography in Prince William Sound

There are numerous types of plankton in Prince William Sound, and their abundance depends on factor such as time of year and oceanographic conditions.

Plankton must over-winter (just like herring), and many emerge in the spring as light levels increase and their phytoplankton food begins to grow. Copepods of the genus Neocalanus, the most common medium-sized zooplankton in the Gulf of Alaska, are a very important prey item for herring.

A key part of work by the Prince William Sound Science Center (PWWSC) is the connection between plankton and herring. Herring stocks in Prince William Sound collapsed dramatically in the years following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Herring stocks remain at very low levels, and one suggestion is that the amount of food available (including plankton) is at least partially responsible for the lack of recovery. Without sufficient food, herring will more likely to succumb to disease or predation.

In 2007, a plankton monitoring program began in the Sound, supported by a grant from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (under the Herring Research and Monitoring Program). Plankton populations were surveyed in the spring (as herring juveniles recover from the winter and also when herring larvae start feeding) and autumn (prior to over-wintering) to monitor populations.

Beginning in 2016, researchers at PWSSC developed a plankton camera with Jules Jaffe and Paul Roberts at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, with funding from the North Pacific Research Board.  The plankton camera was installed on an oceanographic profiler in Prince William Sound from 2016 to 2018, and has collected over 2.5 million images of individual plankters.  Work was focused on training computers to identify the plankton in those images to produce very rapid estimates of the abundance of several important plankton types. The results of this work, including the classification accuracy and thresholds, were recently published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science.

To access the article visit: R W Campbell, P L Roberts, J Jaffe, The Prince William Sound Plankton Camera: a profiling in situ observatory of plankton and particulates, ICES Journal of Marine Science, fsaa029,

You can learn more about the PWSSC plankton monitoring efforts on their website, or listen to this podcast.

Monitoring Razor Clams as an Indicator of Nearshore Ecosystem Health

A study recently completed by Gulf Watch Alaska researcher, Heather Coletti, and colleagues looked at Pacific razor clams in Lake Clark and Katmai national parks and preserves to see if they were physiologically similar and may be good indicators to monitor the health of nearshore marine ecosystems. Razor clams live embedded in the sand along the intertidal beaches and in subtidal areas. They are a source of food for bears, sea otters, other marine mammals, and people. Bivalves, such as clams and mussels, are used in environmental monitoring to better understand the local conditions and how they might be changing. Using molecular and genetic tests on bivalve physiology, scientists can detect the effects of environmental and anthropogenic stressors.

To read the entire article published by the National Park Service, Katmai National Park & PreserveLake Clark National Park & Preserve visit:

The journal article published in March 2020 is available here:

Bowen L, Counihan KL, Ballachey B, Coletti H, Hollmen T, Pister B, Wilson TL. 2020. Monitoring nearshore ecosystem health using Pacific razor clams (Siliqua patula) as an indicator species. PeerJ 8:e8761

20th year of North Pacific Continous Plankton Recorder (CPR) sampling featured at PICES

As October 2019 marked the completion of the 20th year of North Pacific Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) sampling, a celebratory workshop was held at the PICES Annual Meeting to look forward as well as review past accomplishments. Further, the two decades of work was spotlighted in the PICES winter newsletter (vol 28, no 1). The CPR program began to fill th gap for open ocean plankton sampling to better understand fisheries dynamics, especially salmonids that spend their early lives in the subarctic gyre ecosystems. At the progam onset in 2000, six monthly CPR tows during spring through summer on the California to Alaska route were undertaken; additionally, a single trans-Pacific transect from the west coast of North America to Asia was conducted. In 2002 onwards, additional funding led to three trans-Pacific transects in spring, summer and autumn, followed by transects into Alaska beginning in 2004 from Juan de Fuca Strait, across the Gulf of Alaska to Cook Inlet. Eventually, a funding consortium was set up, administered by PICES, so several agencies could contribute modest amounts in their area of interest (much less than the full costs of acquiring the data) and by the leveraging that this generated, ensured more financial security for the program. Contributors to the consortium over the years have included the North Pacific Research Board, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (through the Gulf Watch Alaska program), Fisheries and Oceans Canada, SAHFOS, the Marine Biological Association (UK), PICES, JAMSTEC, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency, and Hokkaido University.

As of 2019, over 30,000 CPR samples have been collected and stored in the archive. One-third of the samples have been microscopically processed giving information on distribution and abundance for over 400 taxa (larger phytoplankton, some microzooplankton and mesozooplankton), and some additional components of the pelagic environment such as pollen and microplastics. Overall, the survey has achieved the vision of those who sought to bring it to PICES at the very first meeting, recognizing the need for seasonal plankton data in the open ocean and coasts of the PICES region. It has had a successful first 20 years, and is in a good position to contribute to PICES science for years to come.

Marine Bird Response to Prey Fish in the Winter

Of the seabirds that overwinter in Prince William Sound (PWS), nine species were initially injured by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, including three species that have not yet recovered or recovery status is unknown (pigeon guillemot, marbled murrelet, Kittlitz’s murrelet). The majority of seabird monitoring in areas impacted by the spill has occurred during the breeding season when food is relatively abundant. However, the non-breeding season may be a critical period for seabird survival as food tends to be relatively scarce or inaccessible, the climate more extreme, light levels and day length reduced, and water temperatures cooler. Monitoring marine birds in PWS during winter is needed to understand how post-spill ecosystem recovery and changing physical and biological factors are affecting marine bird abundance and species composition, as well as their distribution and habitat use.

In an article published in March 2020, Gulf Watch Alaska researchers at the Prince William Sound Science Center discuss marine bird response to forage fish from wintertime monitoring in sub-bays. During the 5-year study, more fish schools were detected in early winter, and the marine bird community shifted from marbled murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus) and large gulls (Larus spp.) in early winter to common murres (Uria aalge) in late winter. This work indicates the importance of temporal, habitat, and fish school variables as drivers of marine bird presence and abundance, underscoring the complexity of predator–prey dynamics in the marine environment during winter .

The full article can be accessed here: Schaefer, AL, Bishop, MA, Thorne, R. Marine bird response to forage fish during winter in subarctic bays. Fish Oceanogr. 2020; 00: 1– 12.

Hungry Alaska bears find a new prey: Katmai’s sea otters

For more than a decade, researchers on a remote stretch of Alaska’s coastline have watched brown bears scavenge sea otters. But as Dan Monson, a federal scientist and sea otter expert based in Anchorage, Alaska, scrutinized the carcasses left on the beaches in Katmai National Park and Preserve, about 400 kilometers southwest of Anchorage, he started noticing a strange, unexplained trend. Many of the dead animals appeared to be in their prime—they weren’t the juvenile or older otters one would expect to find dead—and more and more of them were showing up.

Following years of research, Monson and his fellow scientists have now confirmed that at least one of Katmai’s brown bears is preying on live sea otters—a previously undocumented behavior that speaks to broader ecological changes driven by the rebound of Alaska’s sea otter population.

To read the full article published by Hakai Magazine visit:

Gulf Watch Alaska Researchers Featured in Conservation Connection Podcast

The podcast Conservation Connection interviews today’s leading wildlife scientists and conservationists about their most recent findings. We were thrilled to host the producers Last Chance Endeavors, Chance and Sarah Kathryn, during the 2019 Sitka WhaleFest. Throughout this years festival many of our fabulous speakers, Jackie Hildering, Rob Suryan, Mayumi Arimitsu, Janet Neilson, Keisha Bahr and even a Science Center Education Director, Janet Clarke, were interviewed and have since been featured on the program.

Get access to podcasts featuring Gulf Watch Alaska researchers, Rob Suryan and Mayumi Arimitsu, here:

Quarterly Currents vol 3.4

The Gulf Watch Alaska (GWA) program and principal investigators (PIs) are closing out the fourth quarter of monitoring year 8 by finalizing contributions to various reports including a draft science synthesis report to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (EVOSTC). As numbers are being crunched this winter all have been keeping an eye on the weather, will warm conditions persist? A little sigh of relief could be heard as January 2020 brought a genuine polar freeze. Here is a brief summary of our program’s fourth quarter activities and accomplishments in the latest issue.

Gulf Watch Alaska Presents at the 2020 Alaska Marine Science Symposium

The Gulf Watch Alaska program participated from January 27-31 in the 2020 Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage, Alaska. The symposium is Alaska’s premier marine research conference, bringing together over 700 scientists, educators, resource managers, students, and interested public to discuss the latest marine research being conducted in Alaskan waters. Each day of the conference highlights important Alaskan marine ecosystems, including the Gulf of Alaska session on January 28 that featured many Gulf Watch Alaska talks. The Alaska Marine Science Symposium uniquely convenes all presentations during one combined plenary session (as opposed to split sessions) to maximize the sharing of information with the entire audience.

Researchers from the Gulf Watch Alaska program were authors of two oral presentations and 12 posters featured in two different sessions. Presentations covered climate and oceanography, ecosystem perspectives, lower trophic levels, and new discoveries about the biology of plankton, infauna, fish, birds, and mammals. Highlighted was a presentation given by Rob Suryan, entitled “Ecosystem Response to a Prolonged Marine Heatwave in the Gulf of Alaska: Perspectives from Gulf Watch Alaska” about the impacts of the recent North Pacific ocean “heat wave,” 25 years of Exxon Valdez oil spill experience, newly discovered ecosystem connections, human/resource connections, and many other subjects of direct relevance to response and restoration in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska.

Gulf Watch Alaska was featured in 17 posters at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium poster sessions on January 27 and 28 (photo credit: NOAA).

The following talks were presented by Gulf Watch Alaska researchers. A list of  all the Gulf Watch Alaska presentations and posters can be found here.

Throughout the symposium, the Gulf Watch Alaska program also engaged in separate discussions with Alaskan colleagues on current and planned research and monitoring activities. Additionally, a program-wide meeting was held on January 28 as an opportunity to coordinate on program activities, share research updates, and plan annual activities.  

The Gulf Watch Alaska program convenes in a special one-hour session at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium to coordinate on program activities and share recent research and monitoring updates (Photo credit: Stacey Buckelew).

The Fragile World of Prince William Sound

A scientist with a cold beer in his hand, Rob Campbell settled into his Adirondack chair, contemplating the autumn sun from the deck of the Reluctant Fisherman, a popular watering hole above the Cordova boat harbor. …. As a principal investigator working for the Prince William Sound Science Center, last summer Campbell measured temperatures in the Sound that were 7 to 9 degrees above normal. To put that in perspective, that increase is significantly more detrimental than the same increases of temperature on land.

To read the full article from Anchorage Press about Gulf Watch Alaska researchers, Rob Campbell and Caitlin McKinstry:

GulfWatch Alaska Scientists in the News

Congratulations to the Gulf Watch Alaska team members who led and contributed to the seabird die-off paper published this week in PLoS ONE ( A wide variety of news media have prepared articles and stories about this publications. A short list of the media attention includes the following:

Science News:

New Scientist:

Inside Climate News:

New York Times:

Washington Post:


The Guardian:

BBC News:


USA Today:

Mother Jones:

Anchorage Daily News:

Alaska Public Media:


LA Times:

ABC13 (Houston, Texas):

The journal citation with the contributing GulfWatch Alaska team members are highlighted. The diversity of authors and their affiliations highlights the collaborative nature of our long-term monitoring program.

Piatt, J. F., J. K. Parrish, H. M. Renner, S. K. Schoen, T. Jones, M. L. Arimitsu, K. J. Kuletz, B. Bodenstein, M. García-Reyes, R. S. Duerr, R. M. Corcoran, R. Kaler, G. McChesney, R. Golightly, H. Coletti, R. M. Suryan, H. Burgess, J. Lindsey, K. Lindquist, P. Warzybok, J. Jahnke, J. Roletto, and W. J. Sydeman. 2020. Extreme mortality and reproductive failure of common murres resulting from the northeast Pacific marine heatwave of 2014-2016. PLoS ONE.

Massive Die-off of Pacific Seabirds Linked to a Warm-Water ‘Blob’

Scientists say they now better understand how a Pacific Ocean heat wave known as “the blob” contributed to huge numbers of common murres dying across a swath of Alaska’s coastline in 2015 and 2016.

In 2014, the blob spread through waters up and down the Pacific coastline. The warmer water disrupted the seabirds’ food supply, leading to starvation, according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.

In warm water, the small fish that make up the diving bird’s diet suffered, the study reported. The murres also faced more competition with larger fish that eat the same thing, according to John Piatt, lead author of the study and a research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Alaska Science Center.

During a period of months in 2015 and 2016, scientists documented around 62,000 murres washed up on beaches from Southern California to the Gulf of Alaska.

For the full article published in the Anchorage Daily News see:

Making a Case for Herring Research: 2019 Synthesis

The Prince William Sound Science Center’s herring researchers have been working to compile a synthesis of existing information about Prince William Sound herring for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (EVOSTC).  Integrated herring research started with herring surveys in 2009 and was followed by the Herring Research and Monitoring (HRM) program’s research projects that started in 2012. The goal of the HRM program is to improve the mathematical model that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game uses to predict herring biomass, and years of research has done this.

Herring Research and Monitoring program manager Dr. Scott Pegau says that the biggest breakthroughs toward improving the prediction model have been in tracking disease, particularly Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (VHS). Although it is still an active area of research, VHS is suspected to have been involved in the most recent Prince William Sound herring population collapse. There was a spike in antibodies for VHS in 2015, suggesting that there may have been an outbreak between 2014 and 2015. Herring continued to decline from 2015 to 2018 when it reached an all-time low of about 3,000 to 4,000 tons. Hope was renewed in 2019 when a relatively large group of three-year-old herring joined the spawning population. Though the good recruit year nearly tripled the population, according to mile-days of milt surveys, the population is still very low. Scott holds out hope though; herring can build a very large population from a small one depending on how many youngsters join the spawning stocks in a given year. The population may be beginning to build again. 

For the full article published by the Prince William Sound Science Center visit:

GulfWatch Alaska PI Wins Emil Usibelli Distinguished Researcher Award

The University of Alaska Fairbanks has announced the winners of the 2020 Emil Usibelli Distinguished Teaching, Research and Service Awards. The Distinguished Research Award will be presented to Katrin Iken, a marine biology professor at the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. 

Iken, who has taught at UAF since 2002, has earned a reputation as a committed researcher and a strong supporter of students. Her extensive, externally supported research program on Alaska’s ocean ecosystems in a changing climate has contributed to her publication record of more 100 peer-reviewed articles. Nominating letters also consistently mentioned her work guiding graduate students and helping them gain research experience.

“Papers and research results are important, but our future depends on how well we train our students,” wrote Michael Castellini, interim dean of UAF’s Graduate School. “In this case, Dr. Iken has done both the hard research and the setup to train future generations of scientists.”

For the full article published by UAF news and information, visit:

Quarterly Currents vol 3.3

The Gulf Watch Alaska (GWA) program has wrapped up a robust summer sampling season from Middleton Island, Prince William Sound, Kenai Fjords, Kachemak Bay, and the Katmai coast–with some of our efforts continuing into fall and winter. In early October we held our annual Principal Investigators meeting in Homer, Alaska, with approximately 40 attendendees. This meeting provides important facetime between investigators for discussions on their recent findings and setting goals for the next year. Yes, it was a highly productive gathering of science nerds.

A topic that dominated investigator discussions at the annual meeting was the Pacific marine heatwave (The Blob) which began in 2014, persisted through 2016, had a temporary hiatus in 2017, and returned in late 2018 through 2019. The graph below is from a recent article by NOAA Fisheries on the status of the marine heatwave. This marine heat wave is the theme for the GWA FY2020 science synthesis report to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (EVOSTC).

A brief summary of our program’s activities and accomplishments is available in this latest issue.

A comparison of the Pacific marine heatwave shown in September 2014 and 2019
(NOAA Fisheries).

Marine Heat Wave Update: Anomalies Doubled Previous Records

A mild winter followed by an abnormally calm and sunny summer this year led to marine water temperatures that doubled the previous marine heatwave record in Prince William Sound. Science Center oceanographer Dr. Rob Campbell observed that monthly average temperatures at the surface during the months of July and August were seven degrees Fahrenheit above the seasonal average with one observation of nine degrees above average. Temperatures are recorded by Rob for his work with the Gulf Watch Alaska program. 

Read the entire article published by the Prince William Sound Science center:

Gulf Watch Alaska featured at UAA Public Square Series in Homer

On Tuesday night, scientists from the Gulf Watch Alaska (GWA) program shared their findings at the Kachemak Bay Campus with a group of 50 community members. Mandy Lindeberg, GWA Program Lead, introduced the program and long-term effects of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (EVOS). Kris Holderied, GWA Principal Investigator, NOAA Kasitsna Bay Lab, talked about more recent effects of the marine heatwave in Kachemak Bay. Brian Robinson, GWA Biologist, U.S. Geological Survey, introduced black oystercatchers as an indicator species for nearshore marine environments. Rob Suryan, GWA Science Coordinator, NOAA Auke Bay Labs, gave an in-depth look at the negative and positive effects of the marine heatwave with an aim at understanding how populations will respond and whether negatively affected resources will recover. This event was open to the public and part of the UAA Public Square Series at Kachemak Bay Campus.

Collaborative Research in Southwest Alaska: Mussels, Mollusks and More, Part 1

Seattle Aquarium Animal Care Specialist Caroline Hempstead traveled to the coastline of Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve this summer to take part in the National Park Service’s Southwest Alaska Inventory and Monitoring Network and Gulf Watch Alaska ecosystem monitoring. Check out Caroline’s account of her experiences in the Seattle Aquarium’s blog:

New Study Shows Arctic Cod Development, Growth, Survival Impacted by Oil Exposure

Today, a team of U.S. and Norwegian scientists published new laboratory research findings that show how an Arctic fish species can be seriously affected by small amounts of crude oil released into surface waters. For Arctic (Polar) cod in its early stages of development, crude oil can be lethal if exposure is high enough. Some exposed Arctic cod eggs die not long after hatching due to toxicity. At lower exposure levels, others experience developmental issues affecting their survival when they become larvae and juveniles. The new findings can help resource managers project how Arctic cod populations will respond to future oil spills. This will improve estimates of environmental risk and guide the development of mitigation measures, the latter to reduce the likelihood of accidents in forage fish spawning habitats. 

The full article can be read in the latest edition of the NOAA Fisheries News:

Quarterly Currents vol 3.1-3.2

The latest version of the Quarterly Currents v3.1-2 (Feburary 1, 2019 to July 31, 2019) newsletter is now available. We are well into monitoring year 8! Gulf Watch Alaska (GWA) principal investigators (PIs) have been monitoring away and data continues to flow. This year the program is focused on science syntheses and we will be submitting a science synthesis report to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (EVOSTC) in advance of attending their synthesis workshop in early 2020. The theme of our synthesis products will be long-term monitoring and the marine heat wave. The marine heat wave has certainly made its way into the public eye as reports highlight anomalous ocean conditions, mass die-offs of marine birds and mammals, and disease outbreaks. This has definitely piqued the interest of our PIs and their long-term datasets will be useful in gauging the intensity of these perturbations. Who said monitoring was boring? A brief summary of our program’s activities and accomplishments is available in this latest issue.

Why Hundreds of Puffins Washed Up Dead on an Alaskan Beach

A large number of seabird deaths have been observed in the Bering Sea off the Alaska coast, which may be linked to warming water and a changing menu. Gulf Watch Alaska researcher, Kathy Kuletz, contributes her knowledge to what might be causing the deaths. She references the 12-years of seabird surveys that have been conducted through monitoring efforts like Gulf Watch Alaska, the Northern Gulf of Alaska Long Term Ecological Monitoring, and others.  

To read the article by The Atlantic see:

As some sea star populations make a comeback, scientists may have found cause of ‘wasting disease’

Along the West Coast, there are signs that sea stars are recovering from a wasting disease epidemic that began around 2013. Stars suffering from the disease literally melt away within 48 hours of the first sign of sickness.

Scientists once thought it was caused by a virus or another pathogen, but now they think it may actually be another sign of climate change.

University of Alaska Fairbanks ecologist Brenda Konar and her graduate students begin to survey a beach on a small island in Kachemak Bay. They’re here to count sea stars and other intertidal plants and animals.

To read the full article by KTOO Public Media see:

NewsWave Special Feature: GWA Long-Term Monitoring of Nearshore Marine Ecosystems

The Gulf Watch Alaska’s Long-Term Monitoring of Alaska Nearshore Ecosystems project was featured in both the spring and summer 2019 issues of the Department of Interior’s (DOI) Newswave, a quarterly newsletter from the DOI featuring ocean, Great Lakes, and coastal activities across the Bureaus. The spring 2019 issue included two special feature stories: Long-Term Monitoring of Nearshore Marine Ecosystems: Gulf of Alaska 30 Years Since Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (p. 15) and Seabird Die-Offs are Becoming More Extreme (p. 16), both written by Heather Coletti (NPS and GWA researcher).

The articles discuss the role of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council’s long-term monitoring program in providing foundational information for ecosystem-scale understanding of not only the effects of the spill but also for detecting other patterns of environmental change. Through the Alaska Nearshore Ecosystems project, researchers have closely monitored the recovery of marine bird and seabird species impacted by the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Many seabirds rely heavily on habitats and prey associated with the marine nearshore ecosystem. These species are top-level consumers of fish and marine invertebrates, such as mussels, clams, snails, and limpets. Because of these characteristics, these birds are good indicators of change in the marine ecosystem.

Through this monitoring, one of the largest and most extensive seabird die-off episodes in Alaska ever recorded was witnessed (i.e. murres in the Gulf of Alaska in 2015–16). This event, along with several other die-offs in Alaska, are concurrent with above-average sea surface temperatures in the region, which could have resulted in starvation due to shifts in the seabird food supply among other changes.

A photo of Heather and the Alaska Nearshore Ecosystems project team conducting a marine bird and mammal survey can be seen in the summer 2019 photo edition (p. 13).

GWA Shares With Seldovia About ‘What’s Up in Kachemak Bay?’

On May 17, Gulf Watch Alaska scientists met with Seldovia residents to share information about marine ecosystem observations in Kachemak Bay. Researchers Kris Holderied and Dominic Hondolero (NOAA-NCOS Kasitsna Bay Lab), Brenda Konar and Danielle Siegert (UAF SFOS), and Ben Weitzman and Kim Kloecker (USGS) gave short presentations ranging from ocean temperature variation, to intertidal organisms, and sea otter populations. The presentations were followed by over two-hours of lively conversation by the Seldovians, who discussed their own observations and curiosities about their ‘backyard’ Bay. This event was co-organized with Ground Truth Trekking, as part of their ongoing climate change community conversation series.

Quarterly Currents vol 2.4

The latest version of the Quarterly Currents v2.4 (Novmeber 1, 2018 to January 31, 2019) newsletter is now available. The Gulf Watch Alaska (GWA) program progressed through the 4th quarter of monitoring year 7 with a
few hiccups due to the federal government shutdown. The GWA management team and affected Principal Investigators (PIs) are playing catch-up. The biggest impact to the program affected the timing of submission of our annual reports; to accommodate for the time lost, we received a one-month extension on the deadline. We appreciate the EVOSTC staff for understanding the situation. Read this lastest summary of our program’s fourth quarter activities and accomplishments.

30th Anniversary of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: March 24, 2019

The 30th Anniversary of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill is on March 24, 2019. To commemorate this anniversary a series of public outreach events and products have been made available. These materials made be used by venues in and out of the spill-impacted region and to raise awareness. The EVOS Trustee Council extends it appreciation to all those who contributed their time and expertise to these excellent products.

A SHORT FILM“Listening to the Sound: The work of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council” (approx. 18 min). This film includes historic footage of the spill, new interviews and information on the scientific and habitat work funded by the Trustee Council since the spill.

A SOCIAL MEDIA CLIP based on the short film is being produced and will be available on the EVOSTC webpage at a later date.

A POSTER available for display alongside the film or media clip is available here.

Additional information about a TRAVELING DISPLAY and HOSTING VENUES are available on the EVOSTC Website. The EVOSTC office can be contacted (907-278-8012) about borrowing a display for your organization.  A collection of Exxon Valdez Oil Spill materials, FAQs, links, and resources has also been compiled by the Alaska Resources Library and Information Services (ARLIS).

‘In Hot Water’, Science magazine features Blob impacts in the Gulf of Alaska

In a recent article published in the journal Science, reporter Warren Cornwall writes:

Five years after an unusual pattern of warm water started to form in the Gulf of Alaska, scientists are starting to understand the sweeping ecological impacts of an underwater heat wave that became known as The Blob. From tiny algae to humpback whales, the warm patch of water that eventually stretched across much of the west coast of North America touched virtually every level of the ecosystems there. Although the Blob has now faded, its effects continue to be felt. This research comes at a time of growing scientific interest, and mounting concern, about these underwater heat waves. Scientists now predict they will become more intense, more frequent, and longer lasting over this century, because of climate change. Blob-like temperatures are expected to become the new normal in the northeast Pacific Ocean by midcentury.”

The article spotlights Blob-related findings from the GulfWatch Alaska program for copepods (PI: Russ Hopcroft), forage fish (PI: Mayumi Arimitsu), and seabirds (PI: John Piatt), as well as includes research from program partners at NOAA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The article can be accessed at:  Cornwall, In Hot Water Science 363 (6426) 10.1126/science.363.6426.442 (2019).

30 years later, researchers are still learning from the Exxon Valdez oil spill

The Exxon Valdez oil spill that happened almost 30 years ago has left a scientific legacy in the marine science research field that’s now being used as a powerful research tool to evaluate the impact of other spills around the world.

At the 2019 Alaska Marine Science Symposium, a session was held to examine how these observations informed the understanding of more recent oil spills, like the 2007 Hebei Spirit spill in South Korea and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

To read the full KTUU article visit:

Quarterly Currents vol 2.3

The latest version of the Quarterly Currents v2.3 (August 1, 2018 to November 1, 2018) newsletter is now available. The program submitted FY19 Work Plans to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (EVOSTC) in August and recommendations by the Science Review Panel, Science Coordinator, Public Advisory Committee, and the Trustees were to fully fund all projects including some additional unfunded needs. This long-term ecosystem level monitoring program stands out as a hallmark for Alaska providing a wealth of information to the scientific community, resource managers and the public. We greatly appreciate the EVOSTC support and positive feedback. Read this latest edition for a summary of the third quarter activities and accomplishments.