Six Cool Alaska Science Stories

Every January, hundreds of scientists gather for the Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage. For three days, I had the pleasure of diving into the latest marine science from some of the best minds working in the region. Each day brought new and exciting insights from three key marine areas: the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean.

Here are six of my favorites:

  • Our friends at Kawerak, Inc., Inuit Circumpolar Council and Pew Charitable Trusts put together an incredible workshop on “Co-production of Knowledge.” Defined as bringing together Western science and indigenous people’s knowledge, co-production of knowledge is slowly being embraced by researchers and funders. Co-production of knowledge means indigenous people/traditional knowledge-holders and scientists work together from the outset of a project, on even terms. This co-production is a critical way of working in a rapidly changing Arctic environment. The workshop underscored that we need to make changes to our processes and projects on many levels to make this approach the norm.
  • Yukon River Chinook salmon are near and dear to my heart. I spent the first ten years of my career after law school working to protect these salmon which swim over 1,800 miles from the Bering Sea to their spawning grounds in Canada.
    NOAA Fisheries.
    At the symposium, researchers presented on a novel index of juvenile Chinook salmon in the Northern Bering Sea that predicts the returns of adult Chinook salmon on the Yukon River in future years. Current predictions? Well, based on recent juvenile salmon abundance, predictions are for the current abundance to remain steady for the next two years and then decline in the third year (Jim Murphy, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, et. al.).
  • On the subject of salmon, I was stunned to learn the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has measurements on over 14 million salmon! These measurements were used by a group of researchers to assess trends in declines in size and age in Alaska salmon. Overall, they concluded, size is indeed declining, mainly due to change in length, not size at age.
  • Did you know that scientists have been equipping bearded seals with satellite dive recorders? The dive recorders fall off when the seal molts, or sheds its coat, which happens on an annual basis. And until that happen
    bearded seal_recorder_MCameron_NOAANMML
    s, we gain a unique and new perspective on a species that are born and nurse on sea ice, and weaned after only a few weeks.
  • I was fascinated to learn that scientists can measure the diet of Pacific walrus based on their bones! These techniques allowed scientists to study walrus’ diet over the last 4,000 years in relation to ice cover. The conclusion? Past changes in sea ice cover do not appear to drive shifts in walrus diet based on this record.
    Sarah Sonsthagen, USGS
    This is good news, as it suggests walrus might be able to adapt to the rapid changes in sea ice cover more than we think.
  • And finally, one more on the fascinating walrus—did you know that there are some walrus that regularly feed on seals? These seal-eating walrus are typically large males that can be identified by their sharp tusks that remain sharp because they are not dragging them on our ocean bottom in search for more traditional foods like clam.

As part of a science-based conservation organization with deep ties to the Arctic and as a board member of the North Pacific Research Board, it was invigorating and inspiring to learn about all the cool advances in science being made in Alaska.

I can’t wait to see what next year brings!

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