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KNBA News - Underfunding of scientists, labs hinders study of Fin whale, sea bird die-offs

Jan. 26, 2016

Lack of Funding, Equipment, and Overworked Labs Hinder Research on Changing Arctic

By Johanna Eurich

Scientists met in Anchorage Monday to try to pool their limited resources to understand what is going on in Alaska's oceans as surface waters warm and huge Fin Whales and seabirds like Murres show up dead along the coast.

Why whales died last year in the Gulf of Alaska remains a mystery because scientists could not get to the carcasses in time to study them.  The reason the seabirds are starving also remains unknown. 

Kathy Kuletz with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says they don't have the data to understand what is killing the birds.

“Birds are starving,” said Kuletz. “We don't know if they are contacting some disease or toxins that we can't pick up. We need good information on how they might sample for those toxins early in the spring. If it's picked up in the water... some of the prey species it means it's present. It might be affecting the birds."

Scientists from different disciplines suggest ways to puzzle out the causes and Kuletz came away hopeful. One of the areas needing more study is the lower parts of the food chain including the increase in toxic algae blooms.

As for the whales, Kate Savage, a veterinarian and biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, says she wants to help create a team ready to respond to future whale deaths more quickly.  She wants to reach out to communities to both report sighting earlier and help cut up the carcasses to prepare them for study.

"We're just putting everything in place so we can do a really rapid response,” said Savage. “We also going to contact communities and just let them know that we have to know as soon as possible because part of the issue is aside from the fact that some whale is floating off near Kodiak never to be seen again, you know, somebody might see a whale. They might see a whale and they report it two weeks later and then it's too late."

Savage says part of the problem is that money to pay for the work did not arrive until well after the whales were seen in the ocean.  She hopes to use the money that finally got here to better prepare for future mortalities.

Everyone in the room was certain that there would be more as the arctic continues to warm. 

Deborah Fauquier with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) collected a lot of recommendations for better understanding unusual events but many like adding more instruments to existing moorings to track plankton blooms will cost money --- about 100-thousand per instrument.

"All it would take is to put those nutrient samplers in that mooring,” said Fauquier. “But you have to make that case to the powers that be with the funding that that's an important monitoring, but I think that's a much more cost effective way to get at getting those samples."

Getting samples is only the first step. Getting them tested is another hurdle.  Last year laboratories were so strapped that a program tracking toxins in shellfish found itself waiting three months to get its results. 

Scientists hope that by pooling their resources and working together more efficiently they can begin to understand what is happening in Alaska's oceans while it is happening  and not just afterwards.  That's what needed by communities dependent on the ocean for their livelihood.

The Marine Science Symposium continues at the Captain Cook Hotel through the end of the week.


FEMA Official Gives Alaska High Marks for Emergency Preparedness

Associated Press

A magnitude 7.1 earthquake in Alaska's most populous region has renewed focus on the state's readiness to deal with a natural disaster. Federal Emergency Management Agency official Robert Forgit says he thinks Alaskans are more prepared to deal with natural disasters than people in other states. He says that the state does a good job of working with communities on emergency plans.


Proposed Legislation Would Change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day

Associated Press

Monday, Rep. Harriet Drummond, an Anchorage Democrat, introduced legislation to establish the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day in Alaska. House Bill 275 has bipartisan support. It follows a proclamation by Gov. Bill Walker that set up observance of Indigenous People’s Day for a year.

HB 275 has been referred to the House State Affairs Committees.