The Esperanza is using cutting edge submarine technology right now to explore what industrialization has already done to the Bering Sea, and soon the crew will be launching a scientific dive the first of its kind to find out what s actually happening below the surface. Kirk Sato will provide scientific support by analyzing video from ROV and submersible operations while on board the Greenpeace vessel Esperanza. For the next few weeks Kirk will work in Pribilof Canyon to collect information in support of protecting the canyon.
July 12, 2012
I am on my way to an island in the middle of the Bering Sea called St. George, one of the Pribilof islands, to meet the Greenpeace ship, the Esperanza, an icebreaker class vessel. There I will hop on a small boat with my gear and board the Esperanza, and head to Pribilof Canyon for 5 days. Supported by the Waitt foundation, Greenpeace USA will use a submersible to survey Pribilof Canyon. Pribilof Canyon is an incredibly biodiverse submarine canyon, but is threatened by oil companies like Shell and destructive fishing practices like trawling. Although Greenpeace is known for their radical conservation actions, the Save the Arctic campaign aims to protect the biodiversity of the deep sea and Bering Sea from threats such as oil spills and global warming. Countless species ranging from sponges and corals to fishery species, whales and seabirds depend on the health of this productive region.
In a couple of recent articles published in PLoS One, Greenpeace associate, John Hocevar, and colleagues have documented the nursery habitat of rockfish and new species of sponges.
I hope to contact you next from the middle of the Bering Sea!
Friday July 13, 2012 – “Scientist Gets a History Lesson on St. George Island”
Poor weather conditions (low lying fog) in St. George prevented me from flying in on schedule!
Fortunately, the weather broke and I arrived at St. George after stopping in St. Paul for a short while. Upon arrival, I was greeted by none other than the Mayor of St. George, Patrick “Pat” Pletnikof. What better opportunity to fulfill my role as a scientist than to step off of a small plane in the middle of the Bering Sea to chat with a native Aleut Alaskan, to talk marine policy, fisheries management, oceanography, and climate change? It was obvious that Pat was in a hurry to catch the same plane that I arrived in to go back to Anchorage, then on to Washington D.C. And it was obvious that I had just walked into the middle of a long standing battle between the Pribilof Islands natives and the US commercial fishing fleet.
Dutch Harbor is the largest fishing port in the United States and in recent years, these fishing vessels have begun to fish in areas where native Aleuts of St. George and St. Paul have fished for generations. St. George is also home to thousands of Northern Fur Seals, and was once the center of commercial seal harvesting for the United States. I can hear the fur seals calling across the small bay from restricted beaches and I can see them in t he distance jumping out of the water, undoubtedly hunting for fish. Dozens are scattered along the coast with their fins in the air on this calm, clear afternoon.
Here is a Proclamation by Mayor of St. George, Pat Pletnikoff:
Congress has repeatedly recognized the dependence of the Pribilof Aleuts on fishing for their continued existence and has undertaken a special relationship for their protection. Aleut Community of St. Paul Island v. United States (1973).
The legislative history of the Fur Seal Act Amendments shows that Congress intended to promote and develop a stable, self-sufficient, enduring and diversified economy not dependent on sealing. The legislative history of the Fur Seal Act Amendments shows that Congress intended the development of a commercial fishing industry to supplement or replace the declining fur seal harvest for the protection of the Aleut native inhabitants.
Our Aleut People of St. George Island have always dreamed that our U.S. Government would implement the mandate made to the Secretary of Commerce. We are a small boat fishing community only desiring the ability to make a living from our waters in a responsible and respectful manner. We want to protect the surrounding waters of our island, the fur seals and sea birds. Today, our people and wildlife that call St. George home is suffering. We ask for help to change this.
Saturday July 14, 2012
Never in my life have I witnessed such an abundance of wildlife as I have during my first day in St. George. Walking along the intertidal boulders, I am surrounded by thousands of seabirds. I can spot at least 8 different species including auklets, puffins, murres, and kittiwakes. There are literally millions on this small island. Many other bird species migrate seasonally from Asia, but some, like the snowy bunting, stay on St. George year-round. Witnessing this purple lupin-covered landscape, home to hundreds of seabird colonies and thousands of northern fur seals, I immediately understand the incredibly high level of productivity that must support this ecosystem. This is an important biogeographic region for seabirds and other marine organisms. It is also home to some 80 native Aleuts and Eskimos.
Last night I stayed at the St. George Hotel, a large 3 story home with about 15 rooms, a refurnished kitchen, cable television, and a quiet study room overlooking the Bering Sea. It is managed by a wonderful host and native Eskimo, Marge Lestenkof. The hotel is operated by the St. George Tanaq Corporation. Tanaq in Aleut means “land” . The phrase, Tuman Tanax Agliisaaxtan translates to “Take care of our land”. It is obvious that the residents of St. George take great pride in their cultural heritage. Marge told me stories of how the entire village performs native Aleut and Eskimo ceremonial dances for tourists.
Walking through the dirt roads of downtown St. George, I meet Ann Prokopiof. Ann and her husband live in the oldest house on the island. She was awarded the St. George Elder of the Year in 2009, and she says she and her husband don’t get involved with politics anymore. Understandably so, Ann and her husband, Alexi, fought hard for their independence from Federal controlin the 1980’s and their family continues to keep their culture alive. She was born here in the old hospital that overlooks the bay. Her granddaughter was also born here and attends the local school.http://www.commerce.state.ak.us/dca/commdb/CIS.cfm?Comm_Boro_Name=Saint%20George
At the general store, I met the owners and native Aleuts, the Merculiefs. Since I’m not allowed to travel with chemicals, I was ecstatic to find rubbing alcohol (isopropanol) at the general store. At the checkout stand, manager Darlene Merculief skeptically asked me what purpose all of this alcohol was for. Once I explained that I was a biologist preserving biological samples, she immediately understood. Sally Merculief, directs the St. George Island Institute, an educational program that facilitates research and sustainable living on the island. Four years ago, students of the St. George Island Institute aided in the discovery of probably the rarest kelp in the world, Aureophycus aleuticus, the Golden V Kelp.
These students have been trained by Michelle Ridgway and camp volunteers to understand the basic biology and ecology of their marine environment. Today, they used a Remotely Operated Vehicle to explore the underwater world and have been collecting their own data and addressing their own research questions. Tonight there will be a potluck dinner at the community center where the kids will present their results in front of the entire town.
During World War II, Anthony, 70, and the other 200 Aleuts of St. George at the time were placed in internment camps. He and his wife were both born in St. George, and like my Japanese American grandparents, they were taken from their home and held in internment camps across the mainland United States. Anthony was just a small boy at the time, but returned to St. George Island two years later after the war ended. Anthony went on to serve in the U.S. army in Hokkaido, Japan, as a Morse Code Interceptor, a 4th Class Corporal. When he returned to St. George, he worked for the St. George Traditional Council and served as President for 8 years. Anthony’s son, Christopher Merculief, is the current President. After asking more questions about his family’s experience in the internment camp, I realized that the Aleuts of St. George, particularly Anthony, have an incredible story to share; a story very different from my Japanese American Nissei elders.
I learned that the natives from St. George were transported to Funter Bay in Southeast Alaska to stay in an abandoned gold mine. Fighting disease, hunger, and frigid weather for two years in Funter Bay, it is a miracle that I was able to chat casually with Anthony in front of a grocery store freezer. When Anthony called me “brother” (referring to my grandparents who were also interned during WWII) and requested I send him a copy of what I plan to write, I felt one step closer to fulfilling my purpose of being here. I asked Anthony if I could take his photograph in front of the store, overlooking the cliffs where thousands of seabirds nest. As a fellow photographer, Anthony and I both share an interest in wildlife photography, which was evident by the dozens of photos of seabirds and landscapes taped to the freezer windows.
A documentary about the Aleut experience in the internment camps was released in 2005 http://www.aleutstory.tv/
Anthony also explained to me the seriousness of the issues currently affecting his community. Traditionally, fishing, sealing, and hunting have been an integral part of the Aleut’s survival and culture. Anthony convinced me that eating seal meat for subsistence was the same as eating beef or pork. The Aleuts prefer the young seals the same way that the Japanese prefer smaller halibut and the Italians prefer veal. Fish, mainly halibut, has also been a key resource for these islanders. Traditionally, handmade Aleut boats called “bidars” used to haul catches by the tons from fishing vessels to shore. Before the construction of the harbor, bidars were used to haul pickup trucks and supplies to shore. Amazingly, these bidars were able to float using seal skins as canvas. Several years ago, Greenpeace and the native Aleuts and Eskimos butted heads over the traditional hunting of fur seal pups, but now, the two groups are collaborating to conserve the marine resources around St. George and St. Paul Islands.
One major concern among the residents here is the fact that catch numbers by local fishers have dwindled to record lows in recent years. In fact, native Aleut, George Pletnikof, currently works for Greenpeace USA, and is currently in Washington D.C. He and his brother, Pat (the mayor of St. George), are meeting before Congress in hopes of a Marine Protected Area be placed in federally regulated waters around Pribilof Canyon. Their argument represents the vast majority of St. George’s small community. According to Anthony, Pat, and Greenpeace, overfishing by the American commercial fishing fleet has contributed to the decline in the Pribilof fish stocks, especially halibut, leaving essentially no fish for the subsistence fishers of St. George. In addition, the trawling methods used to catch these fish is destroying the coral and sponge habitats on the seafloor of the canyons.
Below is a message from the Christopher Merculief, President of the St. George Island Aleut Tribe:
Sustaining the cultural heritage and economic well-being of the Aleut people in Pribilof Domain is of utmost importance to me as a Tribal Leader. To achieve this requires protection of our Bering Sea ecosystem and access to her resources by the people that live here. Maintaining our access to fish, marine mammal and invertebrate species for subsistence and commercial harvest are key to our livelihood and cultural integrity.
The main reason why I am here is to provide the scientific support necessary for Greenpeace to collect, preserve, and later identify the benthic communities in Pribilof Canyon. I will be working with Greenpeace on their ship the Esperanza, analyzing video and still images taken from their submersibles and processing the samples they bring back. During their last cruise to Pribilof Canyon, Greenpeace and their colleagues (including Ms. Ridgway) identified a new species of sponge (the species name is Aleut for heart because of its shape). During this cruise, the team will be equipped with high resolution topographic maps, thanks to multibeam sonar surveys conducted by Ms. Ridgway last year. I am on a mission to collect samples representing various taxa of interest to my colleagues at Scripps and to Ms. Ridgway.
Tomorrow morning, I will board Greenpeace ship Esperanza with my gear and we will begin our journey to Pribilof Canyon. I could not be more thrilled to have this experience and I have many people to thank for making it possible, especially my advisor, Dr. Lisa Levin, and Greenpeace associate, John Hocevar.
July 17, 2012 – “Truck Sized Jellyfish and Submarine Dives”
Watching the Esperanza move across the horizon of the Bering Sea, I realized that I was about to embark on an experience of a lifetime. However, my training at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and more recently the research cruise, San Diego Coastal Expedition, has prepared me for the field research I was about to conduct with Greenpeace in Pribilof Canyon.
In 2007, a research team led by John Hocevar (Greenpeace) partnered with Nuytco Research Ltd., NOAA, and biologist Michelle Ridgway to explore Zemchung and Pribilof Canyons for the first time with submersible technology. A great YouTube video was produced onboard. During these scientific dives, video recordings and collected samples were analyzed by expert biologists around the world. This process was repeated at 36 sites, a new species of sponge was discovered, and new ecological associations were found. Video footage of habitats rich with biodiversity and of unremarkable complexity was documented by Michelle and John. We are now exploring the sites missed in 2007 to get a more complete picture of the canyon’s gems.
Being a witness to the scientific operation and underwater world has been a thrilling and eye-opening experience. In the few days onboard the Esperanza, I’ve seen the 2-person submarine “Deep Worker” record footage of incredibly dense schools of rockfish, swimming halibut and cod, jellyfish the size of trucks, and rocks covered with dozens of animals. Here in Pribilof Canyon, the 4th largest submarine canyon in the world, we have been able to document some of the activity and biodiversity of the seafloor. We conducted the video transects at a depth of about 250-400 meters because destructive trawling activity by commercial fishermen primarily occurs in this range.
Every dive brings up something new and unexpected. One rock has 10 species of invertebrates ranging from sponges and anemones to various polychaete worms and sea cucumbers. Another rock, collected only meters away from the first, has 5 species of hydroids, 3 species of bryozoans, brittle stars and brachiopods living in harmony. It seems as though the entire tree of life is more or less represented by the samples retrieved by pilot John Hocevar and his rotating passengers. As I break apart a sponge, I cannot help but feel as
USA ALASKA BERING SEA 16JUL12 – An example of rich biodiversity found on a rock taken from the seafloor at Pribilof Canyon in the Bering Sea. The organism in the centre of the image is a species of sea cucumber.
The Greenpeace ship Esperanza is on an Arctic expedition to study unexplored ocean habitats in the Bering and Chukchi Seas threatened by offshore oil drilling, as well as industrial fishing fleets.
Photo by Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace
© Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace
though I’m discovering a specialist amphipod or a fish egg living inside of the sponge’s pores. Or, as I chip away a volcanic rock with a hammer borrowed from the crew, I cannot contain my excitement when I find 4 polychaete worms and 2 rock-burrowing clams living inside.
How are these animals capable of living within this rock, without a constant source of food like those living outside? Are they too chemosynthetic, like many of their hydrothermal vent or methane seep cousins?
It is obvious to me, and to the Esperanza crew and campaign team who witness the sampling process, that the physical structure created by sponges, gorgonian corals, and other animals creates a habitat and a refuge from predators for many other species. Like a tropical coral reef, the organisms living on the cold, dark bottom of the Bering Sea live in close association with other animals. For example, the pink brittle stars gripped to the pink sea fan coral have adapted to look like the coral, possibly to avoid predators, or perhaps as a result of a common diet.
The samples I’m preserving in the rubbing alcohol I bought in St. George will be identified, documented, and kept in the museum at the Scripps Collections in La Jolla. I will work with experts in taxonomy, including Scripps professor, Dr. Greg Rouse, and Harim Cha of the Benthic Invertebrates Collections to determine the evolutionary relationships of the organisms we’ve collected. Hopefully in future research expeditions, we will be able to address some of the ecological mysteries of this fascinating canyon. So far, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the deep ocean here on the Bering Sea slope.
Pilots Shannon Lo Ricco of Australia and John Hocevar of the USA get ready for their first dive in a two-seater submersible craft, on loan from the Waitt Institute is prepared on board the Greenpeace ship Esperanza for its first dive exploring the deep sea canyons of the Bering Sea, Alaska. Photo credit: Jiri Rezac and Greenpeace
July 20, 2012 – Hiking, Space Walking, Submarine Diving in the Bering Sea
A special “Thank You” to the crew members of the Esperanza, who have treated me with utmost respect. They have been exceedingly accommodating in supporting my operation, and it has been a pleasure to work with them. I’ve enjoyed every moment living onboard with such dedicated sailors and I’ve become envious of John and whichever passenger he dives with. They both step out of the sub with such joy on their faces, excited about what they brought up in the Bio Box. Just watching the HD video and processing the samples has piqued my interest in what a submarine diver actually experiences at the bottom of sea.
As my labmate, Mike Navarro, described, diving in a submarine is a lot like hiking in the deep sea. Except at 1,000 feet, where there is no sunlight, one’s ability to see is entirely dependent on large flashlights attached to the sub, so it’s more like hiking at night. Listening in on the video recordings is like listening to astronauts exploring the surface of an alien planet. I can hear a faint echo from the speaker and I can imagine the passenger surrounded by hundreds of mysterious little eyes from chaetognaths, other zooplankton, and fishes. What an opportunity to see the incredible abundance of life at the bottom of the ocean!
The Bering Sea is about 2.2 million km2 and each dive only covers a small 2-hour transect. Needless to say, our submarine dives only capture a snapshot of what actually occurs at these small localities within Pribilof Canyon.
So far, we’ve conducted 6 dives in Pribilof Canyon, we’ve recorded over 18 hours of footage, and I’ve collected over 120 independent samples. Many more species have been observed by the divers including schools of squid, rockfish, beautiful jellyfish, several king crab and a 6 foot octopus. Swimming in the water column are thousands of chaetognaths, dozens of ctenophores, and what appear to be floating white dots (probably copepods).
Fishing pressure in the Bering Sea is huge. About 2 million metric tons of fish are removed per year (mainly walleye Pollock). Fishers from Russia and the United States target the huge canyons because they, like the native Aleuts, understand that these canyons support an incredibly productive ecosystem that in turn supports multiple fisheries and enormous populations of marine life.
Today, the integrity of this ecosystem and that of the Aleut culture has been disturbed by large scale trawling, and continues to be threatened by destructive fishing practices, climate change, ocean warming and ocean acidification. What once was a sustainable subsistence fishery in St. George and St. Paul has become a struggle for survival among these peaceful island communities. Greenpeace and the Pribilof Island tribal nations have tried to work with government agencies to provide protection for these waters, but ironically, efforts have been unsuccessful due to seemingly conflicting interests of federally regulated, highly profitable fishing industries.
While the future health of their ocean is at risk, the residents of St. George are struggling to endure what they claim to be the harshest winters they’ve ever seen. Even in mid-July, I can see snow along the coastal bluffs and on the hilltops of the island’s interior. While the meteorological explanation of these anomalously harsh winters remains uncertain, many families have pickup up and moved to mainland Alaska as a result. From what I’ve gathered, the winter of 2011-2012 was an incredibly harsh winter for Alaska. One hypothesis for why this happened is that an increase in sea-ice melt, retreating sea-ice cover, and warming of the polar seas resulted in a southern migration of the intensely cold atmospheric conditions to latitudes of St. George and Juneau. However, the initial cause of the sea-ice melting in the poles remains debatable. Could it be due to anthropogenic (human-caused) releases of fossil fuels? Or are natural cycles of climatic forcing primarily responsible for the extreme weather we currently see worldwide?
This is the type of debate that scientists like myself need to be prepared to address as information becomes readily available. So far, we only have enough data to say with confidence that natural variations in climate patterns can cause shifts in weather and fish abundance, and that the rate of greenhouse gas release has occurred at a rate greater than that seen in approximately 300 million years (Honisch et al. 2012). Understanding how these phenomena interact to result in observed weather conditions is a challenge oceanographers and climate scientists face when making predictions and ecosystem management decisions.
June 11, 2013 – UPDATE
The NPFMC decided yesterday to continue research on the Bering Sea shelf edge canyons. While no formal steps were made toward protecting the canyons yesterday, the Council acknowledged that further research is needed to manage Bering Sea resources sustainably.