Scientists, managers and public connect at Kachemak Bay Science Conference

In an ideal world, science would enlighten us about how the things around us work, and managers would use that knowledge to steward resources in fair and sustainable ways.

But sometimes, as participants observed during the Kachemak Bay Science Conference, scientists speak in complicated and confusing terms, and managers stray away from facts due to ignorance, wishful thinking, or political pressures. The theme of the Homer conference, held Friday and Saturday at the Alaska Islands and Oceans Visitor Center, was linking science to management. An impressive roster of scientists and managers spoke about efforts to connect the two to better safeguard the region’s resources and natural values.

David R. Montgomery, a geologist and environmental historian from the University of Washington in Seattle, gave the keynote talk. He is best known in Alaska as the author of “King of Fish,” a sobering history of how people in other parts of the world destroyed salmon runs despite good intentions and adequate knowledge of the fishes’ habitat needs. He described his personal experience with a flawed logging operation that unleashed damaging landslides. Managers permitted the logging despite warnings from Montgomery and his colleagues that the area was too steep.

Montgomery told the audience that he is guardedly optimistic that society’s attitudes will change to work with nature rather than against it. Although at present the political will is lacking, he said attitudes can change and rational ways to achieve sustainability exist.

Terrie Klinger, a marine ecologist also from the University of Washington, was the other guest speaker. She described a recent effort in which scientists, shellfish businesses, tribes and her state’s management agencies effectively partnered to assist Puget Sound oyster farms after a devastating 2008 die-off. To confront the growing, long-term threat of ocean acidification, Washington established a research institute and an advisory council of stakeholders. Klinger said that leadership and trust have been key to progress. She was optimistic that scientists assisting stakeholder groups, plus innovation and good communication — especially face-to-face contacts — would improve ocean governance, she said.

Locals had their own experiences with collaborative projects that link science to management.  Sue Mauger, the science director from Cook InletKeeper, described working with the Kachemak Heritage Land Trust and Anchor Point landowners to identify and protect parts of the Anchor River where relatively cold water shelters salmon during warm spells. Lisa Beranak from the Kenai Watershed Forum outlined the successful StreamWatch program, in which volunteers help educate anglers and clean up sullied areas along popular rivers. Brandon Bornemann, also from the Kenai Watershed Forum, talked about computerized mapping data on Kenai Peninsula water bodies, compiled over the past decade using resources from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Kenai Peninsula Fish Habitat Partnership. The University of Alaska will manage the resulting database. Such projects are too large for any one entity in the area to handle alone, Bornemann stressed.

Conference participants gave 37 presentations on diverse topics ranging from extirpating invasive elodea pond weed from Nikiski lakes to enhancing Native subsistence users’ role in managing harbor seals. The scientists have learned many things about this area.  For example: alder shrubs nourish juvenile salmon; sea stars suck up water just before the tide goes out; unusual Alaska blackfish live in urban wetlands within Kenai; winter king salmon in the bay and inlet come from as far away as Idaho; and in recent years the peninsula has seen atypical weather phenomena include lightning and funnel clouds.

The scientists’ work is far from the stereotype of ivory-tower isolation. When not writing code or crunching numbers on their computers, many Alaska scientists work in the field under extreme or bizarre conditions. They dive in the bay’s frigid waters, confront dangerous animals, fly to remote sites in tiny aircraft, brave winter conditions, and install sensors in rugged terrain. Sarah Webster, a marine biology student from Alaska Pacific University, got samples for her study on halibut growth by pulling fish carcasses out of Dumpsters on the spit. Sea-bird specialists travel to raucous breeding colonies streaked with guano, where they pull chicks out of underground burrows for measurements and study food chains by counting partially digested prey vomited up by captured parent birds.

The scientists did not shy away from touchy topics. 

John Morton, the supervisory fish and wildlife biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said, “We’ve done some relatively controversial things.” He and his federal colleagues usually partner with state game managers, but state actions that increased the take of peninsula brown bears in recent years led to diverging views of the population’s health. The refuge undertook an intensive project to count bears by collecting hair samples and identifying individual animals via DNA. This involved stringing barbed wire around remote stations baited with cattle blood and fish oil, then picking tufts of hair off the barbs. The results indicated a 17 percent decrease in the brownie population over the past four years.

Morton was not the only one challenging state agencies. Tracie Merrill from the Seldovia Village Tribe described a project prompted by subsistence users’ skepticism about Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation assurances that wild foods are safe. The study interviewed village families about food use and found consumption, especially of fish, far higher than state estimates. “The take home message is, tribal members eat a lot of fish,” she said. Tribes involved are asking the state to revise numbers it uses to estimate safe levels of contaminants such as heavy metals in the resources.

Conference scientists voiced concerns about unexplained die-offs and threats connected directly or indirectly to climate change.

Jan Rumble from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game noted a decline in Kamishak scallops, starting in 1996, that led managers to close the fishery in 2013 and 2014. Sampling dredges pulled up “clackers” — empty shells. The razor clams on Cook Inlet’s east side also are in trouble, and the state just closed that fishery. ADFG biologist Mike Booz told the conference that the population crashed in recent years and the problem seems to be due to weak recruitment and poor health more than overharvest. The struggling species that attracts the most attention and research is the chinook salmon. Terry Thompson, also with ADFG, described the statewide chinook salmon research initiative, and said the evidence so far points to ocean problems harming fish survival.

Participants spoke of climate change as inevitable and moved on to discuss the predictions and ways to cope with current and future changes in the region.

Mauger noted predictions for warmer times on the Kenai Peninsula, especially in winter, and that by the end of this century Homer’s average winter temperatures are likely to be even higher than they were last winter. That will stress cold-water fish such as salmon. “Our goal is to keep streams on the Kenai Peninsula cold as long as we can,” she said.

Elizabeth Bella, the ecologist at the Kenai refuge, said forests, too, are at risk. Studies of trends on the refuge match climate models, and statewide forests are declining with more fires and encroaching grass. Forestry specialists fear the current trees may not have viable offspring. “What we have right now is really not a forest. It is a zombie,” she warned.

Other speakers mentioned that climate change synergizes with other changes such as more human influences to enhance problems such as disease, parasites, invasive species, toxic algae blooms and metabolic stress. They see changes already in things as diverse as kelp and earthworms.

Morton said Kenai refuge scientists see many changes already and expect some familiar species to die out. Unpredictable, perhaps unique, biological communities will replace them. Ecologists are considering radical actions to deal with this unprecedented threat to conservation.  “It may involve moving species to places they never were, which some of my colleagues choke on,” Morton said.

Many studies are expensive and labor-intensive, a challenge in these times of budget cuts. Long-term monitoring is of particular concern. It provides irreplaceable information that grows more valuable over time. Among the many things being monitored mentioned at the conference were bycatch, sea level, glacier retreat, acidification, salinity, suspended silt, nutrients in water, temperatures in salmon streams and sea water, and sample populations of salmon, scallops, plankton, kelp, intertidal organisms, sea birds, sea otters, and beluga whales.

To make the best use of time, money, and other resources, scientists strive to be strategic and creative. Increasingly, they rely on partnerships, interdisciplinary approaches, and new technology. They prioritize and share projects. Computer advances not only allow them to collect, analyze, and store far more data, but also to visualize and share information in ways that improve both usefulness and public access. They incorporate new tools such as miniaturized electronics and remote sensing. They put tiny bar-coded wires in the snouts of juvenile salmon, use tough little cameras to spy on halibut and bears, place sensors in streams, and launch instrumented buoys in the sea. Teams hope to use drone aircraft to survey remote beaches and photograph dining sea otters. They already are using robots, including one nicknamed “Buttercup” that takes submarine videos of lingcod and rockfish on the outer Kenai coast.

Several other events were held in conjunction with the conference.  These included panel discussions, field trips, workshops, a display of academic posters, and a showing of the film “Chuitna: More than Salmon on the Line.”

Conference planning was done by a 13-member steering committee, with members representing the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, the Kenai Peninsula Fish Habitat Partnership, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Kasitsna Bay Laboratory, the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, the Seldovia Village Tribe, Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council (CIRCAC) and Kenai Peninsula College.

This was the seventh Kachemak Bay Science Conference; the first was held in 1995.  This year it was held jointly with the Kenai Peninsula Fish Habitat Partnership conference.  Funding sponsors were the fish habitat partnership, the Kenai Watershed Forum, ConocoPhillips Alaska, the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, CIRCAC, The Salmon Project and Alaska EPSCoR (the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research funded by the National Science Foundation).

More than 150 people attended, according to organizer Beth Trowbridge, from the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies.

Much of the science presented originated from ADFG, the University of Alaska, the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, the NOAA Kasitsna Bay Lab, the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District and the peninsula’s two national wildlife refuges. But non-governmental organizations were prominently represented, with the Kenai Watershed Forum, Cook InletKeeper, CIRCAC and the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association represented. Native interests participating were the Seldovia Village Tribe and the Alaska Native Harbor Seal Commission. Other presenters were consultants assisting other groups, a student from Alaska Pacific University and a representative from Bulletproof Nets. Kenai Peninsula Mayor Mike Navarre and state Sen. Peter Micciche also addressed the group.

Navarre thanked the scientists for their work and said, “We not only live in the information age; we also live in the misinformation age. … Science is terribly important.”

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer who lives on the southern Kenai Peninsula.

 

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