On today’s Alaska Fisheries Report with Terry Haines: A story by Sabine Poux about phytoplankton, and Sage Smiley’s story linking fish dinners with clean waters.
The tiny but mighty phytoplankton live at the base of the food chain in the Gulf of Alaska. They’re a food source for small crustaceans, which in turn feed small fish, then bigger fish, then seabirds and marine mammals.
Each spring and summer, a large concentration of phytoplankton blooms in the gulf. This year, researchers saw the biggest bloom they’ve ever seen, says Russ Hopcroft, a professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
091021 Plankton bloom 01 00:08 “Which theoretically means that we should have a very productive year at a whole bunch of other steps in the food chain later in the year.”
He says the phytoplankton bloom in itself is nothing out of the ordinary.
091021 Plankton bloom 02 00:15 “Part of the natural cycle in the gulf of Alaska is that when the light starts coming back in the spring and the storms start to subside a little bit, we get a big explosion of life in the phytoplankton.”
Hopcroft says people on passing ships might not register the large amounts of phytoplankton, besides more activity from birds or fish in the area.
But researchers keeping tabs on the blooms have noticed. They monitor the area each May, both with satellites and samples taken on a research vessel. This year, the bloom spanned from Kayak Island near Cordova over to Kodiak, dropping off where the gulf shelf plummets into deeper waters.
091021 Plankton bloom 03 00:15 “I think we just had the right combination of some prolonged light and just enough storminess to keep things mixing a little bit, but not so much that they diluted and spread everything out.”
Climate may also play a role. The Gulf of Alaska saw a years-long heat wave, nicknamed “the Blob,” which decimated some commercial fish populations and changed the marine makeup of the gulf.
091021 Plankton bloom 04 00:02 “There wasn’t much of a bloom during the Blob.”
But this year the Gulf has seen more normal temperatures, he says, at times even trending slightly cold.
Hopcroft says the hope is the energy from the phytoplankton make it up the food chain, from the fish that swim in the gulf’s waters all the way up to the Alaskans who eat them.
Phytoplankton Rap Terry Haines
Phytoplankton have been in the news lately, mostly stories about phytoplankton that cause deadly “red tides,” or harmful algal blooms, that are responsible for killing everything from tern chicks to human beings. But it’s easy to forget that phytoplankton are also the foundation of the aquatic food web. All phytoplankton are “plant like organisms” ranging from tiny bacteria to larger, but still microscopic diatoms. They produce energy using chlorophyll, carbon dioxide and essential nutrients, just like land based plants. They are then eaten by everything from the itty bitty animal-like zooplankton to multi-ton whales. Small fish and krill eat them, and are then eaten by bigger fish who are eaten by even bigger fish. Phytoplankton blooms feed the ocean.
And because, like plants on land, they require nutrients like nitrate, phosphate, silicate, and calcium, phytoplankton thrive where ocean currents cause upwellings that bring these elements up from the depths. But about 70% of the ocean is stratified into layers, with warm water laying on top of cool water, and very little mixing between them. Despite our present respite from the blob, the long term trend is warmer water temperatures. Scientists predict that as our planet gets warmer this stratification, with layers of nutrient poor warm water laying on top of the cooler water, will increase, and phytoplankton productivity will decline.
This is not just bad news for the rest of the food chain. Its bad news for the environment. Most of the transfer of carbon from the atmosphere to the ocean is done by phytoplankton. They use carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, and incorporate the carbon just like a tree captures carbon in its wood. About 10 gigatonnes of carbon is transferred from the atmosphere to the deep ocean each year when phytoplankton die and sink to the bottom. Warmer temps mean more stratification, which means less phytoplankton, which means less carbon capture, which contributes to the warming trend.
Resource managers have begun talking about “adapting” to a warming planet. Adapting to a planet without phytoplankton might be pretty tough.
Fish Dinner and Clean Water
Sage Smiley Reporter, KSTK
How much seafood do people eat on a day-to-day basis, and how does that number play a role in regulating clean water? As KSTK’s Sage Smiley reports, a Southeast Native environmental group is partnering with Wrangell’s tribe to try to show how much fish coastal Alaskans actually consume.
According to a state formula used by environmental regulators, Alaskans only eat a bite of fish per day: six point five grams, or about a fifth of an ounce.
Maybe the size of a quarter, but thicker.
That’s far too little, says Fred Olsen Jr., the executive director of the environmental advocacy group, the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission.
The number is a problem, he says, because it goes into a formula used by regulators to compute probable hazards from contaminants in fishy foods.
The fish consumption rate — the amount of fish people eat from that from the water sources, would then dictate how much pollution you’re going to allow into the system.
Humans are exposed to pollutants from obvious sources like the air and drinking water. But things like heavy metals can bioaccumulate in fish tissue — which we eat.
It’s a real fundamental nuts and bolts issue with you know, where the rubber meets the road where regulations are made, and water quality standards determined by this formula.
Alaska uses the fish consumption rate of 6.5 grams per day per person as part of its water quality standards formula. If Alaskans do eat more than 6.5 grams per day of seafood, Olsen says, they could be exposed to higher levels of potentially harmful substances than the state accounts for. That’s especially concerning for rural, subsistence-based, and indigenous populations in the state that rely heavily on fish as a food source.
We’re just trying to see how much or show how much people eat. And we figure it’s more than six and a half grams a day.
So the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission — a consortium of 15 tribes — recently received a federal grant [WEB: funding — a Bureau of Indian Affairs Tribal Climate Resilience grant] for $130,000. Its task is to further investigate how much seafood the indigenous population in a coastal town like Wrangell consumes day-to-day.
It will work with the local Tlingit tribe, the Wrangell Cooperative Association, to survey households in the community about their consumption of seafoods like salmon, halibut, shellfish, and kelp over a period of two years. Olsen says the goal is to get a picture of the population by looking at select households and extrapolating from there.
It’s kind of like being a Nielsen family.
Nielsen families have boxes attached to their televisions that track their viewing habits. It’s how the networks compute TV ratings. It’s the same idea with this seafood survey, with a random selection of families indicating the habits of the area.
Esther Reese is the tribal administrator of the Wrangell Cooperative Association. She says the tribe is excited to be working with SEITC on the survey.
It’s basically going to be an avenue that continues to help protect the environment, and bring more focus on safe consumption of foods.
Reese says the partnership expands on the WCA’s recent efforts to promote and preserve traditional foodways through projects like building smokehouses for tribal citizens, and revitalizing Wrangell’s community garden.
It dovetails nicely, because it helps increase that knowledge of traditionally what we consumed. And it will help going forward to make sure that the water quality continues, or hopefully, will continue to be such that we can continue to consume at the same levels that we are used to.
Other Pacific states like Washington and Oregon use average fish consumption rates more than 25 times higher in their human health criteria calculations.
Olsen says he hopes the survey will be able to help inform Alaska officials’ decision-making.
It’s so fundamental, it’s like a little thing, like your power cord, you know, without the power cord, your TV doesn’t work at all. But it’s this little thing. You know, it doesn’t really matter, does it? But oh, it does when you need to plug in your TV. And the fish consumption rate is a fundamental part of the formula. So by keeping that low, they can pollute the water more.
Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation — which regulates our air and water — says it’s working to update human health criteria, including the fish consumption rate. It’s listed as one of its top priorities for the next three years.
But the DEC’s Brock Tabor says it’s difficult for Alaska to pin down what number fits the state best. Tabor is the water quality standards section manager with the agency in Juneau. Fish consumption is a lot higher in rural communities than urban ones, for example.
Would I say 6.5 [g/d] is reflective of fish consumption of the state as a whole? No. Because we’ve done these studies. And we’ve said that, ‘Okay, this number isn’t reflective of it anymore.’ But now, it’s a question of, ‘Okay, what number would be reflective of the state? What part of the state are you going to be concerned with?’
Plus, Tabor adds, the formula isn’t a direct line between the fish consumption rate and pollution permits. It also takes into account body weight, drinking water consumption, and other possible exposure sources over the course of a day, a week, or a lifetime.
[WEB: Even then, Tabor says sometimes human health criteria isn’t the determining factor for pollution caps. He says the state defaults to the most strict guideline, which isn’t always human health protections.
for a lot of these pollutants, certainly for metals, our water quality criteria are more stringent than our human health criteria.
Tabor adds that the process of changing a standard isn’t just about finding a new number. DEC also has to consider updated numbers necessitating new or more precise testing equipment, as well as how it will affect businesses and organizations applying for wastewater permits.
Changing regulations also opens the state up to legal and technical blowback, Tabor says. Back and forth over human health criteria between the Trump and Biden administrations has also found the state of Washington in the midst of a legal battle over their water quality standards, including their fish consumption rate, which is a worry for the state of Alaska as well.]
The survey that SEITC is planning will be the first of its kind in Southeast Alaska. But other tribal governments around the state have looked into fish consumption of their citizens.
The Sun’aq [SHOO-nuk] Tribe of Kodiak completed a survey in 2019 which found that respondents consumed about half a pound of seafood per day, and the Seldovia Village Tribe in Cook Inlet completed a survey showed respondents ate 100 grams of seafood a day.
Tabor says the state is happy to take into account data from independent surveys as it works to develop new standards and a plan to implement them.
I think we’ve got a really good foundation of data. And we would essentially, you know, any new reports that came in, we would certainly want to consider — not measure them one against the other, per se, but we would certainly want to consider the results of what one report says versus another one.
Olsen says SEITC has hired a project manager for the Wrangell survey, and they’ll hold a public forum on the project in Wrangell later this year. After that, WCA and SEITC will start hiring survey-takers and collecting data.