Sunday, July 27, 2014

Boats and boats and boats!

This week, my advisor Kevin Boswell, fellow lab-mate Adam Zenone, and Chunyan Li from LSU joined the party. Here, we were conducting acoustic surveys at the North Salt Lagoon with two Unmanned Surveying Vessels, one equipped with 4 types of sonars, and another with an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP).

These two panoramic shots show how variable the conditions in the Arctic can be. They were taken one day apart, the first shows a cloudy, windy day with icebergs littering the beach and the second shows a beautiful, sunny day with most of the ice pushed off of the beach. We prefer the latter as the ice makes it very difficult to beach seine.

Meanwhile, back at Florida International University our intern Tim Jelavich is taking care of my sculpins that will be used in an isotope incorporation experiment that will help us better understand changes in dietary composition of wild sculpin over time using stable isotope analysis.

In order to keep Arctic fish alive in Florida we have to use a special aquatic system that uses two 3kW air conditioners to cool water down to as low as 4°C.

I have mentioned how pretty the ice is several times; please forgive me because it won’t be the last. My favorite ice is the blue ice, the locals say that this blue ice is multi-year ice, though I am not sure if there is any science to back this up. All I know is it is beautiful!

This year we have added offshore trawling surveys to our sampling regiment. Here you see Ann Robertson from the beach seining team having a conversation with JJ Vollenweider from the offshore team. This boat, named Launch 1273, was contributed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and will be an invaluable asset to this project!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Week 2: the ball is rolling!

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but pictures cannot do this scenery any justice. Looking out over these icebergs never gets old. It’s amazing to think that there are animals that thrive in these freezing conditions... when this particular picture was taken the water was a balmy -0.92 degrees and we still caught fish in our net!

In the Arctic, weather conditions can vary greatly on an hourly basis, so it is important to collect data on the environmental conditions at every single sampling event. Here Ann is using a handheld anemometer to measure wind speed.

After we set our nets, we try to measure and release the fish as fast as possible. Unfortunately, some of our catch have to be sacrificed for the greater good, but this healthy, plump (probably full of eggs) fourhorn sculpin will hopefully live out its live to the fullest after being released by the gentle hands of our intern, Samuel George.

Here is an underwater picture of that fourhorn sculpin right after we released it. For bottom dwelling fish like sculpins, their best defense against predators is camouflage, and I can certainly see why it is difficult for a predatory bird or fish to spot one of these!

Sometimes when we get a large haul of fish in our net we simply put all of it into one big ziplock bag and bring it back to our field station to process the sample with a hot cup of tea. On this particular haul we caught well over 100 larval sculpin that were less than 2cm long, these fish are hard to measure in windy conditions as they sometimes blow right off of the measuring board. Here Sam is getting a bag ready to bring it back to the Arctic Research Facility (ARF), our home base for the summer.

Now, Barrow is not exactly known for its sport fishing opportunities, but there is no wifi or cable tv to watch at the ARF, so if the wind isn’t blowing too hard and all the field work is complete for the day, I like to take advantage by spending it outside on the Elson Lagoon trying my luck. So far in the last two summers I have not caught a fish, but I swear I hooked one once! I am determined to catch a fish this year, so stay tuned for a picture of a big fat salmon! And if that doesn’t work out at least I am getting some good fly casting practice…

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Warm Freezing Welcome!

A year has passed and Arctic Circle has given me a warm welcome with a brisk 32 Fahrenheit breeze chilling my pampered Florida skin. Upon leaving the airport, the first thing I did was rush down to the Chukchi shore to be greeted by miles of crystal clear, flat-calm water peppered with ice bergs that are beginning their summer journey up the coast and around Point Barrow to wherever the Alaska Coastal Current will take them. There is no feeling quite like knowing that no human lies within my line of sight for thousands of miles; it is great to know that places like this still exist in our overcrowded world!

On day two, the summer showed itself for the first time this year with a lovely 65 Fahrenheit day with almost no wind and more mosquitoes than anyone would ever wish to encounter. Luckily, these Arctic mosquitoes, unlike their Floridian cousins spent more time buzzing around my head than trying to drain my blood, which is good since they are about three times as big!

By day three Sam and I had our gear reorganized, Ann arrived, and we were ready for our first day of sampling. As always these first days are the most exciting which was evident from our joyous reactions to even the slightest catches of fish. Nevertheless, these small catches provide us with important information on how these fish communities develop as the summer continues; we expect the abundance will increase over time as it did last summer.

The second sampling day ended with a bittersweet surprise when a local wildlife biologist received a call about 14 yellow-billed Loons that had been spotted stuck in a local fisherman’s gill net. These birds are endangered water birds and often get tangled in nets when they dive underwater looking for fish to eat; if they are not freed they will often drown. That was the bitter part…

We geared up and headed to the net with this local biologist to watch her and her crew save these birds from certain death. This may sound like a simple task but these birds are a not-so-gentle reminder that Polar Bears and hypothermia are not the only things to worry about in the Arctic. They do not understand that you are trying to help, so when you approach them they fiercely jab their dagger-like beaks directly at your eyes, hoping to disarm what they believe is a predator… needless to say, thick gloves and eye protection are a must!

Of the 14 birds, 4 had already passed away, but with patience and team work we were able to release the other 10 with minor wounds… that was the sweet part! This is a great example of why it is important to check your gillnets on a daily basis--nobody wants to be responsible for killing a beautiful animal like these Loons!

After our successful rescue mission at the top of the world, we felt like we were really on top of the world! Here is Ann having a zen moment with yoga at the tip of Point Barrow… good times!

Stay tuned for more updates as the summer continues!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Wrapping Presents

Before I begin, please check out this video that I compiled from my gopro footage at the Nalukatak Whaling Festival Blanket Toss! Thanks to Charlie Nayakik for the point of view shots!

As the field season wound to an end there was still plenty of things to get done. First on the docket was providing the local community with information on the research we had been conducting. One of the goals of ACES is to incorporate as much local knowledge into our study design as possible, we feel this is best achieved by simply allowing them to give us feedback. Sam, Ann, and I presented a talk about our efforts, findings, and future ideas; and it was very well received which made us all happy. This talk was hosted by the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, and will soon be made available via Youtube. A link will be posted when it becomes available.

Furthermore, Brendan Kelly (Assistant Director of Polar Science for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) and Kathryn Sullivan (Administrator of NOAA) came to visit us on site to see and hear first hand about our research. They were in town to discuss a number of things with the North Slope Borough, and we very excited when we heard they would be paying us a visit.

From left to right: Brendan Kelly, Kathy Sullivan, and me (Mark Barton) at our North Salt Lagoon site right after demonstrating our seining skills.

During the last week of sampling we started hearing reports of polar bear sightings in many of the areas where we sample. A local explained: since sea ice is retreating and melting much faster these days, the polar bears are eventually forced off of their preferred hunting grounds (the ice) and have to swim ashore in order to continue hunting. This swim can sometimes be over 100 miles! When they finally make it to land they have nothing but food on their minds, making them even more dangerous than usual. It became clear to us that we stood a good chance of running into one of the apex predators of the North, and we made sure to stay on guard.

On our way to the Monument site we found that the beach was littered with polar bear tracks. I would estimate to have seen close to 20 separate bear tracks moving along the beach! Luckily there was plenty of walrus carcasses washed up to keep them busy.

 This is an example of a small polar bears track! I can't even imagine how big a large bear would be.

 Once sampling had finished we had three days to tie off loose ends. Our gear had to be cleaned, stored, and prepped for winter. It was like wrapping presents for ourselves for next year. Upon arriving back in Florida two things hit me: 1. It is way hotter than I remembered and 2. It is way hotter than I remembered!

Now that sampling is over, there is plenty more to do. We caught near 20,000 fish, of which close to 3,000 were measured, bagged and tagged. Those fish now need to be processed for nutritional and isotopic analysis. Many will be dissected to separate tissues, and stomach contents analyzed for prey items. So, in short, there will be plenty to write about in the following months so stay posted!

In our last days we were lucky enough to catch the first game of the Barrow Whalers high school football season on the Northern most football field in the world. They beat their opponent 46-6!

 The rest of the crew said I wouldn't do it, but here I am emerging from the Arctic Ocean after doing the polar bear plunge with a water temperature of 2.7 Celcius!

 While bowhead whales are endangered and protected due to their population status, it is important to remember that Natives along the Arctic coastline reserve the legal right to harvest a sustainable quota of bowhead whales. Native Alaskans are incredibly fond of whale products and I was honored to try some and it was delicious.
 It seems unbelievable that an animal with such a huge mouth chooses to eat plankton!

 A not so gentle reminder that when you are in a 8 foot rubber dinghy, small waves can still spell disaster. Even though it looks as though Sam is falling overboard, he managed to find his balance and nothing happened. We did, however, choose to not set the net at this location.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Nanuqs vs. Nanuks

This week started with a thrilling experience. We were ferried to Cooper Island where George Divoky has spent the last 40 summers studying a nesting colony of Black Guillemots. These birds are an excellent model organism for the effects of retreating sea ice on nearshore Arctic animals. These birds create nests inside cavities, which George has provided in Nanuk cases to help protect the birds from real Nanuqs (Polar Bears). There are many videos to be seen on YouTube showing polar bears trying to get the birds out with no avail.

As the chicks develop the adults are constantly searching for food for them to eat. Their favorite food is Arctic Cod, one of our target species, which is mainly found near sea ice. George has found that the birds are struggling to provide for their chicks during years in which sea ice is further offshore. In those years many of the birds have switched to a less nutritious, but more readily available prey item, the sculpins. The guillemots are not the only species that preys on the nearshore fish that ACES is interested in, but it exemplifies why it is important to better understand these marine ecosystems.

 George Divoky shows off two guillemot chicks
 This is the modified Nanuk case. It has an entrance drilled on one side with a baffle to hide the chicks from predators that may peak through the entrance. These cases give the birds a secure nesting site that can easily be accessed for daily measurements.

 Here I am holding a fluffy guillemot chick. This chick was very young and lacked feathers completely, it was not afraid to bite me when I picked it up though.
This is what an adult guillemot looks like, a gorgeous bird in my opinion. Not only do they share penguin colors, but they also waddle in a similar way!

On the same day, Chunyan Li and his student arrived, and immediately set out to deploy their ADCP. It has been on the bottom of Eluitkak pass for 4 days now. The data collected from this will be used to better understand the current dynamics of the Elson lagoon. Locals have informed us that tides and currents are mostly wind driven in Barrow and this data will be coupled with meteorological data to understand how wind effects currents. It is likely that variability in these currents is linked to the variability in nearshore fish communities.

 In order to understand why these fish communities vary the way that they do, we try to record as much data as possible about the conditions during each beach seine. We look at water chemistry using a YSI (depicted above), but also document weather conditions and the presence of potential predators.
 John Moran preparing our sediment samples for shipping back to the NOAA lab in Juneau, AK. These sediment samples will be tested for hydrocarbons to establish a baseline so that if an oil spill occurs in the future we can tell how much of that oil reaches our sampling sites.
 The USV Nanuq has run its course and collected its valuable data. Here I am getting it ready to be shipped back to FIU where it will reside until next year. 

This is an example of the types of bathymetric maps that can be created using data from the USV Nanuq.
 A handfull of biodiversity. This represents the typical species we catch in our hauls.
 Local subsistence fishermen are highly dependent on the fish within Elson Lagoon. Here a local fisherman checks his gill net, after snapping this shot I gave him a hand. He caught a bunch of big Chum Salmon!
 A view of the trail to Plover Point. This is the last trip to the point I will make this summer. It's bittersweet as it is great to know we've had a great sampling season, but sad to know that I will be missing this amazing place for almost a year before I return.
 At the North Slope Borough kids day we allowed the local kids to help us set the seine net, and participate in other science related activities. Here we are educating some of the locals about the types of zooplankton that we find along their beaches.
 Nancy Deschue, a BOEM employee, joined us to see how we do our beach seines. This is her smiling as she is enjoying an ATV ride to Plover Point.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Excitement Continues

It has been an exciting week on the ACES project. The USV Nanuq has finished its sea trials and has been collecting valuable acoustic data inside the Elson Lagoon and along the Chukchi coast, and will be deployed today off of Plover Point to survey the pass between the Beaufort Sea and Elson Lagoon.

The beach seining crew continues to bring in increasingly diverse hauls. We have seen steady growth in a number of larval and juvenile species (sandlance, capelin, and sculpin). This week a new cohort of larval fish has been mixed in with the previous cohort, suggesting that these species spawn more than once during summer.

This week while we were setting our net next to the boat ramp in the center of town, a young boy stood on the boat ramp staring at the water, occasionally appearing to snatch something from the water. After finishing our set we talked to him, and he showed us the fish he had been trying to catch with his bare hands. He had managed to catch one and to our surprise it was a larval Arctic cod, one of the target species for the project, one that coincidentally had been mostly absent from our catches. These cod had taken to the boat ramp structure as if it was an iceberg, and there were hundreds of them. So we did what any scientist in our situation would do, we used anything and everything we could come up with to catch them. I personally favored my mosquito head net, but empty cups, bottles, and strainers worked well too.

We quickly attracted a lot of attention and decided to turn it into a community outreach event. We handed out dip nets to all the kids who had been watching us and asked them to help us collect samples while teaching them about the fish they were catching. These fish cannot be used in relative abundance or community structure analysis but they were all saved for energetics and isotopic analysis. It just goes to show that it’s not about how big your net is, but how you use the net you’ve got. 

Probably the most exciting catch was two unidentified salmon smolts in the North Salt Lagoon. Historically salmon were not found in these northern reaches of the North Slope, but in recent years local fishermen of Barrow have started catching chum and pink salmon in their gill nets. These salmon smolts along with the two that were caught last year indicate that salmon are beginning to spawn in these Arctic waters.

Range extensions of this type are of high importance to us because they clearly indicate that global warming is having a noticeable effect on Arctic ecosystems. In this particular case the range extension is being welcomed with open arms, but global warming also has the potential to cause range shifts in a negative way. For instance, Arctic marine mammals that are dependent on nearshore ice conditions are struggling because nearshore ice has been melting much faster in recent years. Unlike the salmon, these animals cannot move further north to find more nearshore ice.

In the next few days we will be spending a day with George Divoky on Cooper Island to see the nesting colony of black guillemots that he studies. Chunyan Li from Louisiana State University will be joining us to deploy an ADCP to measure current dynamics of the Elson Lagoon system. More on that in the next post!
 Ann and Sam setting the seine net using a simple but effective setup.
 Positive Ann is excited to go sampling on this drab and rainy day.
 JJ Vollenweider is incredibly excited to see her first Walrus, even though it is dead and headless. Inupiat people find ways to use every part of the animals on which they subsist. Whenever a dead animal is found, they will salvage any parts they can use. In the case of Walruses the heads and penis bones (known as an Usik) are removed and used in native handicrafts. Unfortunately this particular walrus had been dead too long for its meat to be salvageable.
 Many Inupiat villages have adopted the use of a bone pile. All remains of carcasses that may attract polar bears are piled up several miles outside of town so that any bears in the area will stay there and not make their way into town.
 Local scientists of the North Slope Borough have setup a bear fence around the bone pile. Not to keep them out, but to capture their fur for DNA samples. It certainly does not stop them from getting in which was made clear by the fact that 3 inches to the right of the picture the barb wire had been snapped in half by the bear who's fur is shown.
 On our way along the Chukchi coast we ran into this man, Charles Hendrich, and his spaceship-like row boat. He is currently on a rowing expedition from the Bering Strait and onward to Canada along the Chukchi and Beaufort coast. In the past he has accomplished seemingly impossible goals such as a solo rowing expedition across the Atlantic in 36 days!
 When its nice weather, Ann likes to lay out in the sun while picking fish out of the net.
 The Chukchi coast is undergoing major erosion. This location illustrates just how much: the soil erodes away faster than the permafrost can melt.
 On our way to one of our sampling sites we came across a pod of approximately 300 Beluga Whales that were swimming right up to the beach. After they left, we set our net and realized why they were there as we hauled in thousands of sandlance.
 Though these kids are holding a play station controller, they are not playing video games. They are actually driving the USV Nanuq, which is many ways is like the most expensive video game you can imagine.
 Here I am staring into the water trying to figure out what the phalaropes in the background were feeding on. Apparently their they have better eyesight than me because I saw nothing but water and pebbles.
 Our methods are not graceful, but they are effective. Crawling around on all fours with tweezers in hand is still the best way to make sure we collect our entire catch.
Here we are at the boat ramp scooping up fish with the local kids while the USV Nanuq station-keeps to the left.

 Midnight sun can sometimes seem like a never ending sunset. This particular night, the scenery was so beautiful it almost looked fake.
August 8th, the first sunset. It lasted all of 5 minutes before the sun reappeared.