Dynamic lagoons of Arctic Alaska: getting a baseline

The National Park Service has produced a video on lagoon fisheries ecology research  in Cape Krusenstern National Monument and Bering Land Bridge National Preserve being led by WCS’s Arctic Beringia program. The video gives a clear and concise view of where and why the work is being conducted and features WCS fisheries ecologists Trevor Haynes and Marguerite Tibbles.

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Algal Soup

What do you get when you combine a longer ice-free season in the Arctic with unseasonably warm temperatures? In some cases “algal soup.” And where would one discover algal soup in the Arctic? For our lagoons research crew, it was in the shallow waters of Aukulak Lagoon, just north of Kotzebue on southern coast of Cape Krusenstern National Monument. Aukulak Lagoon is covered by ice for most of the year. During the summer season, ice melts off the lagoon, leaving water that is bounded by the sandy edges of the Chukchi Sea shoreline and highland tundra permafrost to create a shallow, brackish and productive waterbody. With only a short open water season and no agricultural nutrients (which are a common source of these eutrophic events in more populated areas), Aukulak Lagoon might seem like one of the least likely places one might find a massive algal bloom. That is why what we found seemed so remarkable.

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Sampling whitefish at the site of an algal bloom in 2016 in Aukulak Lagoon near Kotzebue, Alaska. Photo Jessica L. Bryant

In August, 2016, our lagoons research crew, accompanied by members of the National Parks Service’s videography team went out for what we thought was a typical round of fish sampling. While the sampling itself was routine, the weather over the past week had been anything but normal for autumn in northwestern Alaska. The last few days of August had been unseasonably warm, approaching 70°F, well above the average monthly high of 56°F – a positive heat wave in this area! As part of our commute, we hauled our boats from the Chukchi Sea over the narrow marine berm into the lagoon water that looked like chocolate milk. The culprit, algae, was washing up on shore forming a congealed algal bathtub ring around the entire lagoon. Visibility in the water was essentially zero, and the tiny gelatinous strands of algae could be cupped out of the water held in your hand. However, despite the drastic change in the water, we fished all day and found no obvious effects on the fish we were catching.

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Brian Perrault (author) pulling in a whitefish sampling net. Photo Jessica L. Bryant.

Large algal blooms may be relatively undocumented at high latitudes, but are likely on the rise across Arctic lagoons in Alaska. Perhaps connected, productivity of the Arctic Ocean has increased by 47% from 1997-2015. While large algal blooms are common summer events in many freshwater and brackish water ecosystems at lower latitudes, blooms of this scale and at this time of the year in the Arctic raise many questions and also raised the eyebrows of our local partners. Alaska Native communities have been fishing these lagoons for millennia, and local fishermen are truly concerned about the seemingly new phenomenon of large algae blooms. As we later described the event to Cyrus Harris, an experienced subsistence fisherman from Kotzebue, he pulled out his smartphone and showed us pictures from this summer of an algal bloom in another lagoon. He expressed concern about the increased frequency of algal blooms and what it could mean for the subsistence fish that his community depends on.

With a longer ice-free season, algal blooms are likely to become a more common event within the coming years. Of concern to us is that blooms at lower latitudes are often accompanied by large scale fish die offs, often seen in the media as pictures of masses of dead fish floating in the water or washing up on beaches. To our knowledge and that of our local partners, there have been no catastrophic die-offs from algal blooms observed in the Kotzebue region. However, as the Arctic continues to warm, it may only be a matter of time until algal blooms release the large amounts of toxins into lagoons at concentrations that could cause a fish die-off.

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Algae growing in the water of Aukulak Lagoon. Photo Stacia Backensto.

Recent research has shown that pinnipeds –seals, sea lions and walruses– in Alaska, most of which feed heavily on fish and shellfish, have high levels of the algal toxins domoic acid and saxitoxin. Given that both seals and fish are critical to local food security, it is no wonder that the blooms of concern to researchers and local residents alike. Alex Whiting, the lead scientist for the Native Village of Kotzebue, points out that there is a general lack of awareness of the issue outside of the local community and marine mammal scientists, noting “It’s concerning when we see the impacts (of algal blooms) in the Great Lakes and California… (but) the local issue will continue to be esoteric until there is a die-off”. Whiting and WCS are working hard to ensure there is more research and monitoring of algal blooms in these lagoons so that we have the information necessary for managers and fishermen to respond to this new phenomenon.

Written by Brian Haggerty Perrault. December 2016.

Caspian Terns Nesting in the Arctic

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First photo of a Caspian tern chick in Arctic Alaska. This photo was one of two chicks on the island. The breeding pair was first discovered on July 23rd, this photo was taken July 26, 2016 by Kevin Rodriguez.

Arctic coastal lagoons are incredibly important for a diversity of breeding birds. Arctic lagoons are key habitat for feeding, nesting, molting and chick rearing for Pacific, red-throated and yellow-billed loons; waterfowl species such as longtail ducks, white-fronted geese and common eiders; shorebirds such as western and semipalmated sandpipers and black turnstones, and tern species including Arctic and Aleutian Terns. However, there is a new species of bird that is now relying on Arctic Lagoons.

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Adult Caspian tern at Cape Krusenstern, 2016. Photo by Kevin Rodriguez.

While sampling the physical properties of water at Cape Krusenstern Lagoon in late July, a strange call drew our attention. Up until then, it was an unfamiliar noise in the Arctic; but for the rest of the summer it occasionally punctuated our day as we sampled lagoons as part of a Vital Signs Program for the National Park Service. That noise was the call of a Caspian tern, investigating us as we came close to a small sandy island in the lagoon. We approached the island to find that the terns had two healthy chicks. We were surprised to see breeding Caspian terns, knowing that this was far beyond their known breeding range. We revisited the island to check on the tern chicks through the rest of the season. Monitoring their progress, we were excited to see that the chicks fledged. On regular occasions after the chicks fledged, we saw either one or two chicks flying around the lagoon with their parents.

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Adult Caspian tern breeding on a small island in Cape Krusenstern Lagoon. Photo by Kevin Rodriguez.

As a consequence, Cape Krusenstern National Monument now hosts the first known breeding Caspian terns in the Arctic (defined here as above the Arctic Circle). The Caspian terns breeding on Krusenstern Lagoon are almost 600 km further north from the previously recorded most northerly nesting location at Neragon Island in the Bering Sea. The breeding pair also represents the first Caspian terns observed breeding in the Chukchi Sea basin. The success of the breeding Caspian terns in the Arctic is likely related to the expanding growing season. Compared to most terns, Caspian terns have a longer incubation period and chicks grow more slowly. Warming in the Arctic has resulted in a dramatically longer ice free season and potential shifts in prey base that have been accompanied by major shifts of seabird species (Gall et al. 2016) and their ecology (Divoky et al. 2015). The ice-free season may only recently be long enough for Caspian terns to complete the long process of breeding. As Caspian terns continue to expand their range northward, we shouldn’t be surprised to find our successful pair being joined by other Caspian terns as they increase their presence in the Arctic.

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The small island in Cape Krusenstern Lagoon used by a breeding pair of Caspian terns. Photo by Trevor Haynes.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S007966111500107X

Divoky, G.J., P.M. Lukacs and M.L. Druckenmiller. 2015. Effects of recent decreases in arctic sea ice on an ice-associated marine bird. Progress in Oceanography 136: 151–161

Gall, A.E., T.C. Morgan, R.H. Day and K.J. Kuletz. 2016. Ecological shift from piscivorous to planktivorous seabirds in the Chukchi Sea, 1975–2012. Polar Biology: 1–18

Written by Trevor Haynes, Wildlife Conservation Society. November 8, 2016.

Fishing in Kivalina: putting research in context

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WCS researcher Kevin Rodriguez and local Kivalina resident Kyle Sage with Dolly Varden char on the banks of the Wulik River near Kivalina, in northwest Alaska.

Even the most devoted scientists seldom surpass the level of environmental knowledge acquired by those who spend their entire lives surviving off of the land. Information passed down through generations has allowed subsistence cultures to cultivate a comprehensive understanding of the ecosystem, complete with the subtleties only experienced while living a subsistence lifestyle fully dependent on natural resources. We recently witnessed this knowledge first hand on a trip to the Wulik River.

It all began earlier in the field season, through a fortuitous encounter with some residents of the village of Kivalina who were out hunting late summer caribou near Kotlik Lagoon. They invited us to fish with them for Dolly Varden on the Wulik, where you can catch world-class specimens. The Wulik originates in the De Long Mountains of the Northwest Arctic, flows southwest into Kivalina Lagoon and empties into the Chukchi Sea. For the village of Kivalina, the Wulik serves as a primary source of food fish, including trout and whitefish. The river also functions as a navigable route to the inland caribou hunting locations and up-river camps of many Kivalina locals.

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Trevor Haynes with a pink salmon.

It didn’t take much convincing for us to pack our bags and head to the Wulik River to learn about subsistence fishing from Kivalina residents. As we approached the river by bush plane, we could already see hundreds of fish from the air. We were dropped off 13 straight-line-miles upriver from Kivalina, beside a small mountain ridge, which we later learned is used by local hunters to spot game migrating along the tundra. “We call it Mt. Jarvis. We climb up there in the morning, sit and drink coffee and use our binoculars to find the caribou” said Carlos Sage, a local hunter and outdoorsman.

We began our float trip, hoping to travel the 7 or 8 miles between our drop-off point and the spot where Kyle Sage, a local expert fisherman from Kivalina, would meet us. We stopped to fish along the way, catching several species, including Chum Salmon, King Salmon, Grayling, and the target species, Dolly Varden. Once at our rendezvous point we met up with Kyle who had already landed some huge trout.

Dolly Varden trout (Salvelinus malma) is a semi-anadromous or sea-run fish, which spawns in riverine systems along Northwest Alaska during mid-summer and early fall. Kivalina locals take advantage of this spawning migration and target Dolly Varden, both with rod and reel as well as late season gill-nets, catching the fish they will later age and freeze for consumption during the winter months. Throughout many years of trout fishing and harvesting, Kyle has come to know the Wulik like the back of his hand. He knows exactly where the fish should be given the time of year and weather conditions. During our time on the river, Kyle and his companions shared with us their incredible knowledge of the subsistence resources, including how fish use the Wulik River and the coastal lagoons surrounding Kivalina.

“Trout love the deep holes and structure within them”, Kyle told us as he reeled in a true giant. He has learned where all the deep holes are on the river during his winter ice fishing expeditions. When the river freezes, only certain locations hold fish and Kyle has amassed all these “hot spots” into a collection of personal honey holes he can target for the biggest Dolly Varden on the Wulik.

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WCS researchers and their local hosts warm up by the fire on the banks of the Wulik River. From left to right, Brian Haggerty Perrault, Virgil Adams, Kevin Rodriguez, and Kyle Sage.

But during his lifetime, the river has begun to drastically change.

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Taking a break from setting up camp near the village of Kivalina, on the Chukchi Sea. Kivalina has been the site of environmental drama in recent years, as it is faced with the decision to relocate the entire village due to climate-related environmental changes.

Kyle told us how ice has been forming later and melting earlier, which has caused a significant change in the fishery. Current NOAA reports say Northwest Alaska’s 2016 winter was the 2nd warmest ever recorded, with temperatures throughout January and March at roughly 28% warmer than normal. Brendan Scanlon, a Northwest/North Slope area biologist from the ADF&G Sport Fish Division, is seeing behaviors from the Dolly Varden that have not occurred in previous years.

“All information from previous tagging studies on the Wulik and Noatak Rivers suggest that this [Spring] was the earliest outmigration of Dolly Varden we have ever observed.” Our research team has been hearing reports from many Arctic Circle locals of increasingly warmer winters, longer ice-free seasons and an overall change in the flora and fauna seen in this region. It is evident that the subsistence lifestyle of the locals depends on resources that are subject to these changes. Climate shifts are altering the patterns that they have been following for thousands of years. The changing climate is changing them.

It was truly a fascinating opportunity to be guided along the meandering shores of this unique arctic freshwater system by Kyle Sage and his companions, whose lives are intimately tied with the waters of this river. Our team looks forward to coming back and sharing more time with the locals of beautiful Kivalina and we’re extremely thankful for the incredible kindness the people of Kivalina showed us and friendships that we made while we were there. The information on trout and whitefish that Kyle and others provided us will help guide our fisheries research. Working with villages such as Kivalina also helps us put our research findings in the context of the subsistence fisheries that support northern communities. We hope that our research will help promote the conservation of the arctic environment and the subsistence lifestyle for generations to come.

Written by Kevin Rodriguez, WCS field technician. October 21, 2016.

Artist in Residency at Fish Camp

The National Park Service (NPS) Artist in Residency program provides opportunities for artists to create art in our National Parks. Painter Jessica Bryant recently spent a month in the Western Arctic Parklands, and visited the joint NPS/WCS whitefish ecology study taking place in the lagoons of Cape Krusenstern National Monument. Jessica took some great photos of the work, and kept a diary of her time in the western arctic.

You can read her work here. She was at our field site on August 31 and September 1, but all of her posts are a fun read.

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Setting a whitefish net in Aanigak Lagoon at Cape Krusenstern National Monument. Photo Jessica L. Bryant.

 

Arctic Feeding Frenzy

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Gulls and kittiwakes feeding in the intertidal zone of a lagoon on the Chukchi Sea coast north of Kotzebue, Alaska. Photo Kevin Rodriguez.

Arctic terns flew with effortless precision, as they plunged into the outflow of an Arctic lagoon, catching their prey and returning to their nesting sites just a few hundred yards away. Glaucous gulls and black-legged kittiwakes flocked amongst the terns, while the parasitic jaegers continuously harassed these birds until they dropped their catch, swooping in to intercept the prize midair. For the three of us researching the fish of arctic lagoons, it was great to be welcomed back to camp after a long day of fish research by such a beautiful display of a productive Arctic ecosystem – the sun projecting over the sides of the nearby mountains casting a smooth orange glow on the gravel beach and the cast of characters that had congregated there to feed.

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An arctic tern plunges into the water in seek of prey. Photo Kevin Rodriguez.

 

This commotion was not only attracting the attention of seabirds. Many marine mammals and fish also cued in on what was unfolding that night. Off in the distance, bearded seals swam stealthily with nothing but their heads exposed. Alert to our presence; they skimmed the surface of the water to maintain constant visual contact with us as we watched from the gravel beach. Groups of juvenile and adult Dolly Varden char cruised the shore, taking advantage of the seemingly never-ending supply of food. But we had yet to see what was causing this confluence of different organisms. It was not until small fish began riding the waves onto the shore that we realized the identity of the lead performer in the amazing ecological drama that was unfolding before us. Capelin, a smelt species that is an important forage fish in the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans, were “rolling” onto the beach, attracting hundreds of birds and marine mammals, and countless predatory fish. Capelin, as evidenced by the feeding frenzy, are important prey items for a host of top marine predators and act as a critical link between zooplankton and higher trophic levels. Although generally associated with pelagic (offshore) habitats in the marine environment, on this day, a huge school of capelin had chosen this small section of beach above the Arctic Circle to spawn – breeding while laying innumerable eggs along our beaches.

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An arctic tern flies off carrying a male capelin snatched from the beach. Photo Kevin Rodriguez.

The sizeable swell washed the capelin up on shore by the thousands, stranding the capelin for mere seconds until the next crashing swell washed them back into the water. Capelin could be seen forming dark amorphous schools as they swam a few feet offshore, apparently waiting to fulfill their biological need to spawn while simultaneously avoiding all the hungry onlookers. Capelin are part of a group of forage fish, including other smelt and sand lance species, which spawn on beaches. Although intertidal spawning is rare, capelin are only one of two marine fish (along with the grunion, so well-known in California) that fully emerge from the water to spawn. With each successive wave, more capelin purposefully washed themselves high and dry, allowing them to deposit and fertilize eggs at the high waterline.

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Capelin spawning on the beach of a lagoon on the Chukchi Sea Coast. Capelin were seen spawning like this over a period of three weeks in June 2016. This event may be a new phenomenon in this area. Photo Kevin Rodriguez.

We examined the fish washing ashore and determined that most (about 95%) were males in breeding condition, distinguished by the presence of an elevated ridge of scales along their lateral ventral edges and longer pectoral fins. Why were there so many males compared to females? The literature suggests that one to three males may accompany a female onto the shore, but our sex ratio was far more skewed. How extensive are these spawning events on this coast, and how important are they to marine predators? Our collaborator, Alex Whiting with the Native Village of Kotzebue, was surprised by the event and suggested that this could be a new phenomenon in Kotzebue Sound. Alex had never encountered reports of beach spawning capelin from the subsistence fishing camps. These beaches lie within the Cape Krusenstern National Monument and our work adds to the understanding of this coastal treasure. We couldn’t have asked for a better end to an already beautiful day of Arctic lagoons research, but as always, we go to sleep with more questions that we will need to find answers to in order to understand and protect this unique Arctic environment.

Written by Kevin Rodriguez, National Park Service and WCS Research Technician. July 2016.

Winter Lagoon Explorations

This April we had the chance to travel back to our summer stomping grounds in Cape Krusenstern National Monument. We arrived in Kotzebue to a wash of white; what was previously a sea of rolling swells and breaking waves was now a sheet of ice as far as the eye could see. Despite the early spring conditions, a brisk breeze continued to blow through town, sending chills down limbs.

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Trevor Haynes pulling a sheefish through the ice. Photo M. Tibbles.

Our first day in town, we had the opportunity to travel to Kobuk Lake by snow machine to go ice fishing, accompanied by old and new friends including Bill Carter and the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge office, Alex Whiting (Native Village of Kotzebue), Todd O’Hara (UAF), and several subsistence fishermen. We drilled holes through the 5 feet of ice with a gas-powered auger, hoping to catch some sheefish. Beneath the ice, schools of sheefish swam by our holes in waves. It would be quiet, heads down, hands jigging. Suddenly, exclamations would come from all around the group as giant silver sheefish were dragged onto the surface of the ice. We caught over 50 fish as a group in the span of a few hours, and everyone went home thrilled after having such a fantastic day of fishing. These fish are essential to the food security of this and many other villages in the region.

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Sheefish. Photo A. Whiting.

Not only were the fish plentiful that day, so were the caribou. We had the luck to watch a herd of caribou stream down onto the ice, briefly unaware of our existence. The sounds of snow machines alerted the herd to our presence shortly after their appearance and they headed back up off the ice.

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Caribou streaming down from the hills onto Kobuk Lake. Photo T. Haynes.

The real work for us began two days later with a snow machine trip across Kotzebue Sound and into the frozen maze of wetlands surrounding two of the lagoons we monitor during the summer months –Krusenstern and Aukulak lagoons. We drilled several holes in creeks and sloughs to observe the ice thickness and the presence and conditions of any water below the ice. We were looking for oxygenated water, which indicates areas where fish could survive the long winter under the ice. This is part of our effort to work with local experts towards understanding where fish overwinter and find the critical habitats that are often ignored by researchers due to the difficulty of sampling during the cold harsh winters.

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Marguerite Tibbles measuring water quality parameters beneath the ice. Photo T. Haynes.

When we finally reached Krusenstern Lagoon, we watched a red fox scamper off into the distance. We took an ice core from the lagoon to determine the salt balance in the winter. Measuring the salinity of the ice core as well as the water beneath the ice and comparing these measurements with the salinity of the water before freeze-up will allow us to determine if Krusenstern Lagoon has a connection to the marine environment during the winter. Understanding the physical properties of the lagoons is another important step in revealing the mysteries of the coastal lagoons of the Arctic.

All of these preliminary measurements will guide future efforts to find overwintering habitat of fish and monitor ice conditions in partnership with the National Park Service. This exploratory trip was a huge success thanks to the help of so many people, and will hopefully become a yearly excursion.

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The crew eating lunch at Cape Krusenstern Lagoon. Photo T. Haynes.

Written by Marguerite Tibbles, WCS Research Technician. May 2016.

Where Fish Come to Grow

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Muskoxen at Cape Krusenstern. Photo T. Haynes

A herd of muskoxen waited on shore as we approached the beautifully rugged and remote coast of Cape Krusenstern in the Western Arctic by boat for the first time. Having never seen muskoxen in the wild, our crew was elated. However, we weren’t there to study muskoxen- we’ll leave that to Joel Berger, another WCS scientist who’s been studying the animals for years. Rather, we were there to study the diverse fish communities that inhabit the mysterious waters of coastal Arctic lagoons. Luckily, the muskoxen decided to stick around for the season and turned out to be entertaining neighbors.

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Hauling in a net at one of the lagoons of Kotzebue Sound. Photo R. Sherman

The coastal lagoons of Cape Krusenstern National Monument and Bering Land Bridge National Preserve had far more to offer us beyond muskoxen. Arctic lagoons are among the last naturally functioning lagoons in the world and are habitat to a wide array of animals, including a host of migratory birds such as loons, terns, and waterfowl; and a diversity of fish. The lagoons play a key role in the subsistence fisheries of coastal communities; the local fishermen consider the lagoons as a place where the “fish come to grow”.

Marguerite Tibbles holds a sheefish. Photo T. Haynes

Marguerite Tibbles holds a sheefish. Photo T. Haynes

Staring at Google Earth images, reading research papers, and discussions with experienced people can only prepare you so much for a summer on Alaska’s Arctic Coast. Getting there and experiencing it yourself is a whole different story.

The Arctic’s rugged, untouched feel gives you the impression that you’re on some exotic planet, teeming with strange and unusual plants, mammals, birds and fish. For a fish ecologist such as myself, these lagoons represent one of the few aquatic systems in the world that still hold much of their mysteries. There has been a relative lack of research conducted on Arctic lagoons. In other parts of the world where access is easier, scientists can dedicate more research to each waterbody. However, the Alaskan Arctic, particularly here in the shallow waters away from comfortable live-aboard research vessels, remains an isolated frontier, resulting in a relative paucity of scientific research. It’s a place that is simply difficult to get to and challenging to live safely in, never mind collect data. This type of challenge is why being a scientist is so enthralling for me – the prospect of discovery and the challenge of working in a demanding, but fascinating and wild environment.

As a small crew of 3 people tasked with conducting fisheries science in five large lagoons, we were cautiously enthusiastic, as we knew that the summer was going to be incredibly rewarding as well as severely demanding. Our summer involved hopping from camp to camp on small planes, bouncing around in boats, setting and pulling nets, and being up to our elbows in lagoon water and fish. We found that chest waders and five layers of clothing is the vogue fashion for lagoons research, however, dressing for success in the Arctic was only one of our many challenges.

The unforgiving environment of the Arctic has little to offer in terms of amenities and also magnifies all the logistical challenges of fieldwork. Having an engine break down can quickly become a serious situation in a lagoon that is accessible only by float plane, and only in flyable conditions! Simply moving people and gear around via small aircraft is costly and requires careful planning. Weather plays havoc with the best laid plans. On regular occasion, we found ourselves huddled for warmth in creaky cabins shaking in the wind, waiting for days until storms subside, or waiting patiently on a beach wondering if the plane can pick us up. Fog often kept planes grounded in Kotzebue, stranding us for days at a time. However, careful planning in the Arctic includes preparing for all eventualities. We always carried extra supplies, camping equipment and an attitude that each problem we encounter is simply a part of the adventure.

Looking for fish amongst the ice in a late-season net haul. Photo M. Tibbles

Looking for fish amongst the ice in a late-season net haul. Photo M. Tibbles

We were very pleased with the information that we were able to gather this summer…we met the summer’s challenges well, collecting useful data that builds the understanding of the lagoons. Some notable highlights include:

–          Lagoons are used by both marine and freshwater fish, and we are still discovering species that have not been recorded in these lagoons before.

–          Mysids, a shrimp-like crustacean, are superabundant and are a major dietary item in the diet for most lagoon fish

–          Ninespine stickleback, a diminutive and seemingly unassuming fish, is highly abundant and are important in the diet of larger fish species such as sheefish.

–          The fish community composition and fish abundance are strongly driven by the connectivity of the lagoons – fish time movement in and out of the lagoons to take advantage of seasonal access

–          We appear to be the first to document pond smelt in these lagoons. Pond smelt were a locally abundant fish species, however, very little is known about them. Pond smelt likely play an important role in the trophic dynamics in some lagoons.

The National Park Service, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Native Village of Kotzebue have recognized the ecological and subsistence importance of Arctic lagoons. By supporting this research, these organizations are creating a stronger understanding of Arctic lagoons, including the fisheries resources that local communities depend on. Having muskox as supervisors of our daily progress is just an added perk of the job!

Whitefish Ecology in Coastal Lagoons

Coastal Arctic lagoons represent important habitat for a diversity of fish species and sustain a vital subsistence fishery for Alaskan villages. Despite the ecological and cultural importance of coastal lagoons, very little research has been conducted on lagoon fish communities in the western Arctic.

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Floatplane leaving Kotlik Lagoon near Kotzebue Sound, Alaska. Photo M. Robards

Our research addresses the need for a better understanding of fish ecology in these lagoons, as well as the dearth of scientific information about the fish resources used for subsistence. Without a clear understanding lagoon ecosystem structure and function, it is impossible for managers to detect long-term changes resulting from climate change, to quantify the impacts of development, or to implement appropriate management plans. For example, lagoons provide important habitat for whitefish species – one of the most important subsistence taxa in northwest Alaska. Local fishermen have observed the loss of “countless numbers” of whitefish in some areas of the western Arctic, emphasizing the need to understand, and if necessary, respond to the factors driving perceived declines.

Trevor and Marguerite lavaging a Sheefish - a method that allows us to see what the fish eat and release them back into the wild alive. This is one of the most important local food fish - Inconnu as it's called in Kotzebue.

Trevor and Marguerite lavaging a Sheefish – a method that allows us to see what the fish eat and release them back into the wild alive. This is one of the most important local food fish – Inconnu as it’s called in Kotzebue. Photo M. Robards