On this week’s Alaska Fisheries report with Terry Haines: Scientists are studying high mercury levels in Alaskan Steller sea lion populations. Plus a memorial scholarship aims to connect Southeast students to the seafood industry.
Sea Lion Mercury
Stellar sea lions eat a lot of fish. They are, in fact, upper trophic level predators. This means they occupy a high position in their food web.
To quote Wikipedia: “A food web is a succession of organisms that eat other organisms and may, in turn, be eaten themselves.” A living thing’s trophic level is the position it occupies in the food web’s pecking order. At the very bottom are the web’s primary producers. In the ocean that’s the tiny plant like phytoplankton. Next come the tiny animals that eat them, zooplankton. Next a succession of ever larger animals, from candlefish to silver salmon, as the web narrows toward the apex predators… like Steller sea lions. And while it may be good to be the King, it comes with drawbacks. One of which is a tendency to accumulate mercury. But so what? Mercury is natural, right?
That’s University of Alaska professor Lorrie Rea from a presentation she made to the North Pacific Management Council’s Advisory Panel. She and a remarkably diverse team of collaborators and contributors have been measuring mercury levels in the lanugo, or natal hair of sea lion pups.
So, they found surprising increases in mercury concentrations, especially in certain regions. For instance, sea lions west of Amchitka Pass had higher levels of mercury than those east of Amchitka Pass. Why? One reason might be the degree of predatory prey in their diets, as opposed to lower trophic level prey. They higher up the food web your food is, the more chance that they themselves have accumulated significant amounts of mercury, which is added to your accumulated mercury. This is biomagnification.
So where is all this extra environmental mercury coming from, anyway?
To be continued…
Decker Memorial Scholarship Sage Smiley / KSTK
A new memorial scholarship aims to connect Southeast high school students to the seafood industry, and to the legacies of two commercial-fishing siblings who were killed in a tragic accident in 2020. KSTK’s Sage Smiley reports.
21-year-old Sig Decker and 19-year-old Helen Decker grew up commercial fishing with their parents on the family boat.
That was a really fun time as a family. It’s sort of the most genuine family time you can get is all being in a little tiny boat in the middle of nowhere and working together.
That’s Julie Decker, Sig and Helen’s mom.
At a certain point, I think they wanted more, you know, to expand off Mom and Dad’s boat, and so Sig when he was 16, he went to work on a seiner out of Petersburg. And Helen, when she was 18 did the same. So then they started crewing on seine boats and were on a couple different boats, and then eventually were in the same boat, the summer of 2020.
On July 27, 2020, Sig and Helen and two other crewmates – 29-year-old Ian Martin of Petersburg and 37-year-old Dennis Lord of Elmira Heights, New York – were killed in a car crash on Mitkof Island south of Petersburg while on a break from commercial fishing.
Decker says that within hours of finding out about the accident, friends in the commercial fishing community stepped forward to provide support and started a GoFundMe. Within 48 hours, more than a thousand people had donated.
Some of the money went to cover funeral expenses for Sig and Helen. Another $50,000 was donated to help complete Wrangell’s Mariners Memorial. Now, Decker says the rest of the funds will go towards the Sig and Helen Decker Memorial Scholarship Fund. She says she and her husband, Gig, want to honor their kids’ legacy.
We were really struck by all the stories that came forward after the accident. People we didn’t even know, that we had never met before but they were friends with Sig and Helen. Stories of them helping them in the middle of the night, just going the extra mile to help somebody out, in all these weird varieties of ways, of anything from academics to their family lives to social issues or their love life. They were just always ready to help support a friend. And so I guess this follows that thread, continuing to help people out.
Each year, the $3,000 memorial scholarship will be awarded to one Wrangell senior and one Petersburg senior, and is administered through the Alaska Community Foundation.
Qualifications are pretty simple: Recipients have to be graduating high school seniors from either Wrangell or Petersburg. They have to enroll at least half-time in a post-secondary program like a trade school, college or university. And applicants have to have experience working in commercial fishing or seafood processing.
I think the fact that the majority of the funds raised from this came from people that are active in the seafood industry, made us want to connect it to the seafood industry. And the fact that the kids were fishing that summer, and fishing had become a big part of their lives, even as they were becoming adults and moving into their own version of their adult lives, they still felt that connection to commercial fishing. So we thought that that seemed like a good, natural connection.
It’s a one-year scholarship, with the possibility of a second-year extension. For the first year, the application is open to graduates from 2021 and 2022.
There’s more information about the scholarship and the siblings it honors at the Alaska Community Foundation’s website at ALASKA-C-F-DOT-ORG. Applications are due by March 17.