Looking Back at the ASLC’s First Year of Research

 

A page from the Anchorage Daily News on October 20, 1996, which reads a quote from the past ASLC Executive Director, "We'll be exhibiting the scientists, just as if they were octopuses or sea lions or sea urchins."
A page from the Anchorage Daily News on October 20, 1996, which reads a quote from the past ASLC Executive Director, John B. Hendricks; “We’ll be exhibiting the scientists, just as if they were octopuses or sea lions or sea urchins.”

Imagine stepping into an aquarium and looking beyond the thick acrylic glass walls to see accomplished marine scientists, microbiologists, and veterinarians on exhibit who are actively working on projects, researching, and rehabilitating animals.

This is what the Alaska SeaLife Center was visualized as 28 years ago; an elite marine research and rehabilitation facility complemented by a public education center.

Traditional zoos and aquariums are always a fun and educational way to spend a day out with the family, so why reinvent the wheel?

Massive environmental disasters usually have a way of inciting change.

Aerial view of a maxi-barge and spill workers.
Spill workers hosing oil off from rocky shorelines of LaTouche island, on September 11, 1989. Photograph provided by Alaska Resources Library and Information Services.

10.8 million gallons of crude oil coated 1,500 miles of Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (EVOS) served as a catastrophe with an immense wake-up call to the entire scientific community, and unified concerned residents and researchers of Seward, AK.

Thus, the Seward Association for the Advancement of Marine Science (SAAMS) was formed, became a major influencer, and transformed into what we now know as the Alaska SeaLife Center.

Wasting no time, the ASLC hit the ground running after its grand opening on May 2, 1998.  The ASLC’s early work spearheaded marine research and rehabilitation to fill a knowledge gap in understanding EVOS damages, how to improve the region’s biodiversity, and ecological recovery processes for wildlife.

Harbor Seal Image
An ASLC original, Snapper, participated in our first research projects and provided critical data used to help explain the decline of harbor seals in the Gulf of Alaska.

Several research projects began during ASLC’s first year and focused on marine mammals, crustaceans, fish, birds and technology developments.  The bulk of the 1998 mammal research concentrated on Steller sea lions and harbor seals, whereas bird research focused on sea ducks, murres, and pigeon guillemots.

Biologists studied valuable blubber energy stores in harbor seals along with how proteins and other nutrients are broken down, converted into energy and distributed throughout different tissues. Ultimately, researchers wanted to determine where harbor seals fell within the North Pacific food web and to make predictions on how well wild harbor seal populations could adapt to changes in diet due to shifts in prey availability caused by EVOS.  Read the full report here.

 

Image of a river otter.
River otters are found throughout Alaska, with the exception of the Aleutian Islands, the offshore islands of the Bering Sea, and the area adjacent to the arctic coast east of Point Lay (ADF&G). River otter photograph courtesy of the Oregon Zoo.

Oil contamination exposure was studied in 15 coastal river otters housed at the ASLC from May 1998 to March 1999. Researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) discovered even low levels of exposure to oil contamination may lessen wild river otters’ capability to capture prey and have profound effects on their diving abilities and mobility.  Another oil exposure study conducted on these same otters found that oil contamination may impact body condition, food and waste passage, survival, and reproduction.

 

Image of a pigeon guillemot.
Pigeon guillemots struggle against multifaceted threats such as prey availability, nest predation, bycatch, and pollution.

Local pigeon guillemot populations of Prince William Sound diminished by 67% after EVOS and these populations remain at risk of becoming locally extirpated from the region.  This decline was speculated to have begun in the late 70s’ and escalated in 1989 with little to no recovery progression as of today.

Almost 30 years following the spill, small amounts of crude oil and oil contaminate are lingering in Prince William Sound. Marine animals within EVOS affected locations are still at risk of ingesting residual oil and trace oil contaminates through their food.

20 years ago when the ASLC opened, that risk was much higher.

In the first few decades following EVOS, researchers observed declines in fecundity, body condition, and general survival rates of several seabirds like pigeon guillemots and harlequin ducks. Consequently, Pigeon Guillemot Restoration Research began through partnerships between USGS and the ASLC nine years after EVOS and is still carried on today by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.  Pigeon guillemots were raised from eggs at the Center and fed differing diets of fish to test how fish quality can alter chick growth.  To help test whether colonies near where the oil spill occurred could be enhanced, fledged chicks were released from the Center with the hope they would return to this area to start their own nests.

Significant findings from this research revealed residual oil in prey negatively impacted adult pigeon guillemots much more heavily than chicks.  This is because adults forage for food in rocky crevices and prefer to eat crustaceans, bivalves, and other invertebrates which all bio-accumulate crude oil toxins and traces of heavy metals along with many other chemicals present in the water. The chicks, however, eat fish which break down and metabolize some of these harmful contaminants.  Prey availability, a lack of nutrient and fat-packed sandlance fish, was found to reduce chick survival the most as these chicks require lipid-rich food to survive. Read the full report here.

AP Photo Al Grillo
The Exxon Valdez being towed out of Prince William Sound on June 23, 1989, by the U.S. Coast Guard. Associated Press photograph by Al Grillo.

A need to define best practices of oil spill clean-up became apparent after EVOS.  Despite the growing knowledge of oil’s destructive effects on flora and fauna, scientific communities knew very little about the toxic impact of oil-dispersing chemicals used in oil clean-up.  Using the ASLC wet lab facilities UAF researchers exposed larvae of Alaskan Tanner crabs, Chionocetes bairdi; early life stages of mysids, Mysidopsis bahia; and larvae of estuarine fish, Menidia beryllina to levels of dispersants they would encounter during oil spill clean-up operations.  Impact on animal health was measured to better equip oil spill response teams with crucial information necessary to effectively and responsibly use these chemicals in cold-water environments  Read the peer-reviewed article and additional report here.

An image of a bay mussel being dissected.
A bay mussel being dissected to study contaminant bio-accumulation.

ASLC rehabilitators and researchers still are working to improve on research and treatment practices.  Much of the early work completed through the ASLC would have been near-to-impossible to accomplish without support from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, Oiled Wildlife Care Network; as well as collaborations with academic researchers and visiting scientists from throughout the country.

Today, 20 years later, the ASLC microbiologists continue to investigate the effects of dispersants used in oil clean up. Other research areas of focus include animal movement patterns and tracking, detecting pregnancies in Steller sea lions, and discovering previously unknown biological and physiological information on ice-dependent artic seals.

The ASLC also strives to reach out and inform the public on all aspects of marine research to promote understanding and stewardship of Alaska’s marine ecosystems, but there is much more work to do to further its mission.

What’s the best way for you to get informed on science? (Comment below to let us know!)

Written by: Lisa Massicotte, ASLC Interpretation and Research Fellow.

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