Local scientists bring research to marine science symposium

The 2023 Alaska Marine Science Symposium showcased marine research in the Arctic Ocean, Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska

Homer had excellent representation at the 30th anniversary Alaska Marine Science Symposium held Jan. 23-27 at the Denai’ina Convention Center in Anchorage. This year the event returned to an in-person conference after being held by distance only for the past two years.

Alaska’s premier marine research conference, the symposium has been bringing together scientists, educators, resource managers, students, and interested public for 30 years to discuss the latest marine research being conducted in Alaska waters. More than 700 people attended this year’s four-day conference.

The mission of the symposium is to provide a collaborative public forum to promote and engage with current, relevant, and exceptional Alaska marine science, according to the AMSS website.

The spectrum of participation at the event is noteworthy, offering opportunities for shared observations and interpretations across a diversity of interests and research fields.

Homer’s Donna Aderhold attended the event in her capacity as the program coordinator for the Gulf Watch Alaska-Long Term Research and Monitoring (GWA-LTRM) program funded by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

The program monitors the northern Gulf of Alaska ecosystem as it continues to recover from the 1989 oil spill in Prince William Sound.

“We monitor oceanography and plankton, forage fish, marine mammals and birds, intertidal habitats and species, and lingering oil. We also have a specific monitoring and research focus on Prince William Sound herring which still have not recovered after more than 30 years since a population crash soon after the spill,” Aderhold said.

In general, the conference offers an opportunity for participants hear the impacts climate change through structured presentations as well as discuss personal observations from marine regions across the state with other Alaskans.

For example, Aderhold said in an email, “I was able to sit with two men from Nunum Iqua, a village near the mouth of the Yukon River, and during breaks learned a lot from them about the climate changes they are experiencing (including melting permafrost and salt water intrusion into their potable water system) and the concerns they have for their food resources as the environment warms.”

Also attending was Debbie Tobin, Kachemak Bay Campus professor of biology and coordinator of Homer’s Semester by the Bay program.

Tobin and undergraduate co-authors presented a poster session, “First Observations of Harbor Porpoise Mating in Alaska & Preliminary Results from Photo ID Matching: Conservation Implications for this Elusive Species in Kachemak Bay.”

The poster included data from the past couple of years of research with Kachemak Bay National Esturaine Research Reserve and in conjunction with KBC Semester by the Bay (SBB) courses and internships, she said.

Other former Semester by the Bay and AK Coastal Summer Institute students also attended the conference, two of whom are now working on their graduate degrees at UAA and UAF, as well as one who has been employed for the past six years by the Alaska SeaLife Center, Tobin said.

All five students also attended the AK statewide Marine Mammal Stranding Network meeting during the first day of AMSS workshops.

“It was wonderful to reunite with the students, hear how far they’ve all come, how SBB helped them on their currently career paths, and overall to engage with additional faculty, graduate students and research partners from across the State,” Tobin wrote via email. “Equally superb was the Homer contingent in attendance who represented a wide range of marine science researchers, educators, and community engagement/outreach experts.”

Josie Shostak, an undergraduate student from the College of Charleston who participated in the Semester by the Bay program during fall 2022, said attending the conference allowed her to communicate information about an organism — the harbor porpoise — that many people know very little about, even within the marine science community.

“The opportunity to be surrounded by what’s currently being researched and discovered in the marine science field left me full of questions and new knowledge,” she said via email. “As a young woman in the scientific world, to be able to see and learn from so many accomplished women scientists of all ages was inspiring!”

She recognized the support she has received from others in the scientific community, particularly Tobin.

“I felt the invisible hand of almost every person I interacted with there to help lift me up and support me in my developing career,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to go without one of those hands belonging to Dr. Debbie Tobin, so I would like to thank her especially for supporting me and introducing me to so many amazing scientists that would have had me shaking in my mermaid tail fins to introduce myself.”

Research student Lily Westphal, who is currently living in Homer after starting a degree program at California State University Monterey Bay, presented the poster, “Food for thought: bottom-up consequences of climate change at high latitudes.”

Westphal joined Sitka doctoral candidate Lauren Bell at the Kroeker Lab in Sitka in the spring of 2021 to test if seasonal scenarios of ocean pH and temperature change the taste of seaweeds to their consumers.

Westphal, who has attended the symposium twice virtually but never in person, said highlights of the experience this year included feeding seaweed snacks to folks at the poster session, gaining a pulse on the marine research going on statewide, and connecting face-to-face with a community she admires.

“The whole thing was really invigorating! I am passionate about science as a way of knowing that informs policy, communicates truth, and connects people to place,” Westphal said via email.

Other Homer representation included people from the Kachemak Bay Estuarine Research Reserve, Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, Alaska Sea Grant and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Homer community is tuned into the marine environment around us from multiple perspectives of residents. As Katie Gavenus said by email, “this year I was thrilled to see so many Homer-grown people sharing their research at AMSS. I think that it says something special about this place, all of the educators and mentors who inspire a love of science, and the scientific curiosity of the people who live here. One of my favorite parts of my job with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies is when people call or e-mail photos or stop by the office with an interesting object or video for identification and information. Fishermen, teachers, artists, chefs, writers, lawyers, office managers, musicians, grocery clerks, hunters, reporters, nurses, farmers, accountants, water taxi captains — people are paying close attention to their environment and asking extraordinarily insightful questions. Curiosity, enthusiasm for lifelong learning, and an inclination towards beach walks and oceangazing come together to create something that I think makes our Kachemak Bay communities especially rich.”

Emilie Springer can be reached at emilie.springer@homernews.com.