Reid Brewer takes the helm as director at NOAA’s Kachemak Bay Kasitsna Bay Lab

The Kasitsna Bay Laboratory is located on the south side of Kachemak Bay from Homer near the community of Seldovia. According to the facility website, the laboratory is owned by NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and operated in partnership by NCCOS and the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

When Holderied came to Alaska in 2005, NOAA needed a director quickly and she left Washington, D.C., to take the position in Homer. Holderied provided some details on the longer history of the lab.

It was established with the help of Clem Tillion and Rae Baxter, a renowned fish ecologist, in 1959, Holderied said.

According to Holderied, people often ask why the lab is located on the south side of Kachemak Bay. At the time, the community of Seldovia was larger than Homer and where the natural resources were located. The lab is located on the road to the Seldovia because that dated back to the Red Mountain Chromium Mine in 1909, which is no longer processing.

Holderied also noted that Baxter was living on MacDonald Spit at the time the lab was started and originally wanted it located there but it was not feasible because there was no source of water. Kasitsna Bay is a protected area with a freshwater stream available that was necessary to run the labs. One of the first primary topics of study at the labs was crab in the region.

Brewer noted that the location of the lab can be compared to why most Alaska Native communities are located where they are. “Is there freshwater available? Is the location protected? Does it have all of the resources available to make it a sustainable location?”

According to Holderied, in the mid-1970s to the early 1990s there was also the addition of the offshore shelf environmental assessment program that was a collaboration between NOAA and the Minerals Management Service that is now Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

“The documents that came out of the lab during that time are still the most comprehensive environmental assessments we have for Cook Inlet. They did everything there: oceanography, birds, plankton, marine mammals. The lab was a field station for that effort. They also did a lot of experimental work with oil and ice, oil and the environment and how salmon respond to oil,” Holderied said.

Holderied noted that all of this research predates the Exxon-Valdez oil spill and mentioned a research document from the lab in 1981 with findings that North Slope oil would take “decades to weather,” she said. “We have now proved those findings with the 1989 Exxon oil spill,” she said. Since then, the lab has also looked at things like what are the environmental effects of cleaning post-spill.

Also in the mid-1980s, University of Alaska professor Dr. Ray Highsmith started collaborations between the laboratory and university students and teacher trainings.

“Many of the people who originally took Ray’s classes are still in the area because they were turned on to taking students out for field work and early environmental education training opportunities,” Holderied said. Highsmith was a big part of that in the community of Homer because he started taking people to the Kasitsna Bay lab, she said.

In the early 1990s, the field lab needed a makeover.

“It was kind of a broken down field lab with band-aids and holes in the floor; there really wasn’t much there,” Holderied explained.

The status of the labs was mostly trailers and features being used for multiple needs. When Holderied arrived in 2005, the lab was about two-thirds through its reconstruction. Part of the feature that provided funding for the lab reconstruction was the establishment of the 372,000 acre Kachemak Bay Research Reserve with NOAA in 1999.

“A lot of the push that people made for getting the Reserve designated also helped get the lab back up to speed,” Holderied said.

Originally, the lab was going to be a part of the Reserve directly but NCCOS was created in the late 1990s and Kasitsna became a part of NCCOS in 1999, according to Holderied.

“The lab reconstruction money, $12 million dollars, came in the late 1990s thanks to Mr. Ted Stevens and Mr. Don Young and the actual reconstruction started in 2003 and we finished in 2007. I got to come up here because of the reconstruction; there wasn’t a NOAA federal employee on-site at the time and we needed one,” Holderied said.

“It just happened to be good timing! I was literally walking by our deputy director’s office and she pointed me out for Kasitsna,” Holderied. “I came from D.C. to here and fell in love in a week. We have the best natural laboratory in all of Alaska at our doorstep,” she said.

Brewer, who has also worked in places all over Alaska, agreed.

Brewer started graduate school in marine biology in 2005 at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“I was a Highsmith grad student at the lab before the face-lift. We were sleeping on the floor! We had a few inflatables at the lab and you had to put on your dry suit and swim out to the buoy to get the boat and bring it back to the beach to load the gear. A lot of the diving we did was either during spring break or in the summer and the gear would freeze in the open buckets back then. We just didn’t have the heat and insulation like we do now. It was very much a simple field station. But, it worked,” he said.

Another UAF professor who still uses the lab station frequently is Dr. Brenda Konar. According to Brewer, she really saw a lot of opportunities, like Highsmith, for students to use the facilities in the real world. There are many more opportunities here than at the campus located in Fairbanks in the middle of the state.

“Brenda would take students diving at the lab and then students would develop our research projects there. She’s been doing this for 20 years now and this speaks to the really important connection between NCCOS and UAF because this is a NOAA lab and facility but the mission of UAF is to get people interested and excited in ocean and coastal science and to make that information open to the public. The NCCOS mission is exactly the same,” Brewer said.

Brewer noted how his experience at the lab compares with other diving across the state, “I have seven or eight hundred dives at the lab, but I also have six or seven hundred out in the Aleutians and three or four hundred in Sitka. I have been all over the state, but this is the best diving I have ever seen,” he said. “There are worlds down there that I can’t explain to you because of the color and diversity and mechanisms like the glacial influence and the kelp forest. All of these things come together here which makes Kachemak Bay the perfect test bed for almost any kind of environment you can find in Alaska where you can work year round,” he said.

Holderied said that the federal staff at the lab is also increasing in size. They have recently hired three new scientists.

“This year is a total game changer for our capacity,” she said. “It’s a really exciting time for us.”