Gulf Watch Alaska’s long-term monitoring program tracks ecosystem changes at multiple scales to develop better understanding of relationships between animals and their environment. During the first five years of integrated monitoring, two examples of interesting observations emerged: the response of species (from plankton to whales) to the warm water anomaly and identification of multi-species aggregation areas that are consistently used over time.
Warm Anomaly Observations
Increased water temperatures across the Gulf of Alaska from late 2013 through 2016 drove changes throughout the marine system, from the smallest plankton to the largest whales. The proportion of large, fatty, nutrient rich zooplankton that prefer cold water declined while smaller, less nutrient-dense species that prefer warm water increased. Long-bodied diatoms that thrive in low nutrient conditions, including species that produce toxins, increased in proportion relative to all phytoplankton.
Along with changes in the physical environment and plankton (the base of the pelagic food chain), Gulf Watch Alaska scientists documented harmful algal blooms; sea star wasting disease; altered distributions of forage fish (such as sand lance and capelin), salmon, seabirds, and whales; and unusual mortality events of murres, baleen whales, and sea otters.
Hot ocean winters
bring small copepods in spring
Redistribution of health
Collaborative monitoring in Prince William Sound indicates humpback whale, killer whale, and seabird feeding aggregations with strong seasonal and spatial consistency closely tied to prey populations and ocean conditions. This knowledge offers opportunities to improve monitoring efficiency and precision for difficult to target pelagic species, particularly forage fish.
Whale and bird beckon
to where forage fish hide out
Follow us, they say
Gulf Watch Alaska is the long-term ecosystem-monitoring program of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council for the marine ecosystem affected by the 1989 oil spill. The Trustee Council began funding the program in 2012; however, many of the studies have a much longer time series. The current five-year, $12 million program began in February 2017 and is the second 5-year increment of a program anticipated to span a 20-year period. The current program includes 11 projects within three monitoring components: Environmental Drivers, Pelagic Ecosystem, and Nearshore Ecosystem. We coordinate with our sister programs studying Prince William Sound Pacific herring and lingering oil, and receive support from the data management program.
Why are we monitoring?
Extensive restoration, research, and monitoring efforts have taken place over the past two decades following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, but full recovery is still not complete. Some oil is still lingering in beaches and may continue to affect the environment. With this program, the Trustee Council has committed to long-term monitoring to gain information about the lingering oil and the recovery of species and resources injured by the spill, as well as other factors that may be affecting recovery, such as changing climate, oceanographic and ecosystem conditions. Extensive restoration, research, and monitoring efforts have taken place over the past two decades following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, but full recovery is still not complete. Some oil is still lingering in beaches and may continue to affect the environment. With this program, the Trustee Council has committed to long-term monitoring to gain information about the lingering oil and the recovery of species and resources injured by the spill, as well as other factors that may be affecting recovery, such as changing climate, oceanographic and ecosystem conditions.
The overall goals of Gulf Watch Alaska are to:
- Provide sound scientific information on biological resources and environmental conditions to management agencies, the scientific research community and the general public;
- Identify and help understand the impacts of multiple factors on recovery of resources injured by the 1989 oil spill; and
- Leverage partnerships with state and federal agencies, universities, non-profits and private entities to integrate and provide access to data from broader monitoring efforts in the region.
What are the benefits to researchers and managers?
- 30 years of historic data are being compiled and synthesized with ongoing and future data collection.
- Patterns in environmental conditions for a variety of species (trends in abundance, geographic distribution and community composition over different time periods) can be examined to address questions about recovery from the oil spill and other factors limiting recovery across the Gulf of Alaska and lower Cook Inlet, including climate change.
- All program data is accessible through the project website and Gulf of Alaska data portal for use by other scientists to better understand marine ecosystems and by natural resource managers to better understand the potential effects of management decisions.
- Data and information products are accessible to teachers for use in the classroom.