Right about now, we would be sharing stories about how our researchers are dusting off their field gear, checking xtratufs (wellies) for leaks, and making those first few voyages out onto the water. Research is a team sport—data collectors, observers, boat operators, laboratory technicians—and often requires travel to field sites either by the researchers themselves or their collaborators.
So, considering groups and travel are not encouraged, or outright halted, as part of the global efforts to stop the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, you may be wondering how this pandemic is impacting our summer research plans, and thus, our ability to understand and monitor key marine ecosystems in Alaska.
Let’s check in on a few of our research projects:
PHOCAS 2020: On-going
Our husbandry team continued to provide quality animal care, even when the doors to the ASLC closed. This required some changes in logistics (e.g. distancing, wearing masks) but thankfully the solid foundation between trainers and seals, built on trust and cooperation, meant that this project didn’t miss a beat with collecting data. Which is really good news since March-April-May is the molt period for ice seals and a critical period of data collection! Check out more about this work in the video!
Nearshore Sentinels 2020: Postponed
A project studying the physiologic and genetic responses of razor clams to environmental variables may be postponed due to field work delays and lack of staff.
Drones and Seabirds 2020: Cancelled
After our pilot year in 2019, we were looking forward to summer 2020. In particular, we were excited about working with the amazing team at the Duke Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab in North Carolina as collaborators on the project. However, with travel restrictions, field efforts this summer had to be put on hold. Fortunately, we still have next summer to collect this data—so fingers crossed things are back to normal and we can be back in the skies!
Camera Monitoring 2020: On-going
The ASLC has several remote cameras set up at key mammal and bird breeding sites around Seward to monitor how these populations are doing every summer (e.g. how many pups/chicks are born, and adult attendance). These long-term monitoring projects, and similar monitoring efforts like our coastal bird surveys, are important because the dynamics of ocean ‘sentinel’ populations can provide an indication of the overall health of the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem. Last year the camera system was up-graded to enable the signal to be accessed on any computer via the internet, which means researchers can continue to social distance and collect data at home!
Steller sea lion diet 2020: Cancelled
Not all of our projects start in the summer. A study looking to understand the winter diet of Steller sea lions in the region was cancelled because samples could not be collected from haul outs, and thus the planned laboratory work this summer can’t happen.
Sleeper Sharks 2020: On-going
Right at the end of April we received the good news that the North Pacific Research Board awarded us another grant to continue our sleeper shark research this summer, 2020. Additionally, Taylor Smith received the NPRB graduate award which meant she could expand our work to look at additional shark species (more on that coming!).
Diving Seabird Health 2020: On-going
A study investigating the immune functions of alcids (e.g. diving seabirds like puffins) will be able to continue.
This critical research is able to move forward because of you!
We are incredibly grateful for the amazing community efforts and sacrifices across Alaska, and across the nation, in March, April, and May. Your efforts at social distancing flattened the curve, and as a result there have been relatively few new AK cases in the past month.
While we may have lost a few critical opportunities to monitor and study Alaska’s marine ecosystems, we are looking forward to a new, slightly-modified for safety, but still on-going summer of research for the projects mentioned here and many others!
Be sure to tune in throughout the summer for updates on how these projects are going! Stay safe and healthy!
Written by: Dr. Amy Bishop