A team of researchers have been spending part of the summer at a Kodiak Island bay studying the effects of climate change; it’s part of a community monitoring project that could hold bigger clues for the future of fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska.
JoEllen Lottsfeldt spends part of her time at a cabin she owns on Larsen Island in Kodiak’s Anton Larsen Bay – less than a mile’s skiff-ride from the boat launch.
Deer and Kodiak brown bears frequent the shoreline of Anton Larsen Bay, and sea otters and loons float on the water’s surface. Lottsfeldt is a marine ecosystem researcher and she says under the water, there’s a thriving ecosystem, too.
“The bay has lots of great eelgrass and kelp beds, which is of particular importance to young fish, that have hatched, and are spending that first summer somewhere before they leave,” said Lottsfeldt.
Of particular interest to Lottsfeldt are the tiny species that you can’t see – zooplankton. Those are the microscopic organisms that drift in bodies of freshwater and saltier bays – like Anton Larsen. She’s been monitoring zooplankton at sites around the bay since 2017.
“I’m doing work and research in what I call the near shore zone, which is really kinda where the freshwater comes down, meets the ocean, all the way to where the continental shelf drops off,” said Lottsfeldt. “That interplay of organisms is humans down to the really teeny phytoplankton, and it all matters.”
Lottsfeldt said one of the biggest concerns she heard from her neighbors when she’d tell them about her research, were questions about where fish once common to Anton Larsen Bay – like Pacific cod – had gone.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is also trying to answer that question – the organization’s draft regional climate action plan for the Gulf of Alaska outlines studying the effects of marine heatwaves on juvenile Pacific cod as one of its recommendations. Increased research on zooplankton is also part of the plan’s proposal.
This year, Lottsfeldt received funding from Alaska Sea Grant to expand her monitoring project and welcomed a team of researchers to her property on Larsen Island in mid-July.
“It’s on the road system, so there’s some logistics that Anton is selected,” said Ben Laurel, a research fisheries biologist with NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center.
He was part of the team that traveled to Larsen Island earlier this summer to study Pacific cod. He said that site monitoring – like what’s being done on Anton Larsen Bay – could hold bigger clues for the rest of the Gulf. And it’s critically important as research budgets – and seasonal temperatures – tend to fluctuate.
“We need to have these sorts of partnerships established and information exchanged between groups so we can benefit from one another,” said Laurel.
An invaluable part of that information exchange comes from people who live on Anton Larsen Bay – and fishermen from Kodiak who are on the front lines of climate change, according to Laurel.
“I’ve been doing this work for 17 years, but there’s people out there for more than 30, 40 years that have seen even more dramatic changes,” he said.
Connecting locals living on the bay and researchers was a big part of this last trip to Larsen Island, according to Lottsfeldt. She says that connection is crucial as climate change accelerates ocean variability. And she’s hoping to expand the annual gathering to include more members of the community in the years to come.
“Having information from people who live on the sea or live on the coast, who are out there all the time, that information is valuable. It may not be a perfectly designed statistically valid study, but it’s really good information,” she said.
Lottsfeldt says it’s too early to tell whether this summer’s samples from Anton Larsen Bay point to broader trends in the Gulf of Alaska, but it’s just a starting point.