Collaborative research in southwest Alaska: Mussels, mollusks and more, part 4

Seattle Aquarium Animal Care Specialist Caroline Hempstead traveled to the coastline of Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve from June 28 to July 10, 2019. Caroline assisted with a variety of research being conducted as part of a long-term monitoring program of the area. These efforts were part of the National Park Service’s Southwest Alaska Inventory and Monitoring Network as well as part of Gulf Watch Alaska, the long-term ecosystem monitoring program of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council for the marine ecosystem affected by the 1989 oil spill. Check out Caroline’s account of her experiences in Alaska below!

 

PART 4: HALLO BAY, RAZOR CLAMS AND BIRD SURVEYS

DAYS 9–11

 

Katmai National Park
Katmai National Park.

 

Day 9

Kinak Bay was our last site for intertidal sampling. Heather, Kelsey, Elsie and I headed over to the soft sediment site. At this transect, we found very few mussels and clams. Monitoring of these intertidal sites over the years has allowed us to expand our understanding of the possible contributing factors to variation in these communities and help provide recommendations on the management of the nearshore environment.

 

Kelsey and Elsie with the soft sediment sampling gear in Kinak Bay.
Kelsey and Elsie with the soft sediment sampling gear in Kinak Bay.

 

After sampling the soft sediment site, we moved over to the mussel site, where Jim and Brenda were finishing up the transect. During the previous year at this site, Heather, Jim and Brenda tagged 50 mussels in randomly selected sites to look at the growth rate. Only 10 out of the 50 mussels were retrieved, and the average growth rate was five millimeters for the year. They observed a noticeable increase in the numbers of sea stars. This was good news because in previous years the numbers were much lower due to a horrible phenomenon called sea star wasting disease, which wiped out millions of sea stars all along the West Coast of the U.S.

 

Jim and Brenda at a mussel site in Kinak Bay.
Jim and Brenda at a mussel site in Kinak Bay.

 

 

Sample of tagged mussels in Kinak Bay.
Sample of tagged mussels in Kinak Bay.

 

Measurement of a tagged mussel using a caliper instrument.
Measurement of a tagged mussel using a caliper instrument.

 

In addition to all the other studies, surface water samples were collected at different locations in the bay, filtered for particulate matter and frozen for further analysis back at the lab. Next, we headed north to Hallo Bay to take advantage of the next morning’s low tide.

 

The Miss Diane anchored in Hallo Bay.
The Miss Diane anchored in Hallo Bay.

 

Day 10

Today we arrived in Hallo Bay. This bay is famous for its brown bear viewing, and while we were there, a handful of prop planes came in and out of Hallo Bay to catch glimpses of these beautiful creatures.

After breakfast, I went out with the survey team to learn the ropes of how to survey the seabirds and marine mammals along the transects. The most challenging part was trying to identify relatively small seabirds while on a moving skiff. The number of species and their location (water, land or flying) were called out to the recorder, who then entered the data into the computer. An example of a one-minute transect went like this: “Two PIGU land, two PIGU fly, one HOPU water, two HOPU fly, two HOPU fly, one BLKI land, one HOPU water, one PIGU land,” and so on.

 

Marine bird and mammal survey team Jim, Brian R. and Brian U. in Hallo Bay.
Marine bird and mammal survey team Jim, Brian R. and Brian U. in Hallo Bay.

 

Next, we all headed out to the beach at low tide to sample and collect the Pacific razor clam (Siliqua patula) for a shellfish abundance and disease study. The disease is called nuclear inclusion X, or NIX, and is unique to razor clams, although harmless to humans. NIX is a naturally occurring bacterium that destroys the clam’s gill function and often can be fatal to the animal. Razor clams in Washington and Oregon have been infected with the disease, but in Alaska they have not. Scientists will use the razor clams harvested in Alaska in a comparison study with the razor clams collected in Washington.

 

The razor clamming team in Hallo Bay.
The razor clamming team in Hallo Bay.

 

The objective was to collect at least 35 razor clams from sites previously sampled in the early 1990s. A GPS was used to find the exact coordinates for each site, and then the hunt was on to find a show (depression in the sand when the clam’s siphon is withdrawn at low tide). The low density of razor clams in Hallo Bay was making it rather challenging to get our allotted number of animals for the study. It was a race against the tide to get to all the sites, but we were able to get more than 35 razor clams for the study. Just like we were using the low tide to find the clams, several brown bears were also foraging for clams using their long claws to dig them out.

 

Brown bear in Hallo Bay.
Brown bear in Hallo Bay.

 

After lunch the teams divided up again, and Jim, Dan, Kelsey and I tried to collect sea otter foraging data. Unfortunately the otters were mostly resting and not eating, so we tried our luck with fishing but were unsuccessful with that too. So we went with our third plan, which was to collect sea otter skulls and spraint (poop) samples. We landed on East Nina and collected one sea otter skull, a baculum (penis bone) and five spraint samples. Back on the Miss Diane, Heather and Brenda were processing the gills of the razor clams for further analysis back in the lab.

Our next stop was Ninagiak Island to collect more skulls and spraint samples. None were found, so we decided to clean the beach of marine debris—sadly there was plenty. While we were collecting trash we noted two mated pairs of black oystercatchers by the high tide line, each with one egg in their nest. Science never stops!

 

Sea otter spraint on East Nina Island in Hallo Bay.
Sea otter spraint on East Nina Island in Hallo Bay.

 

Day 11

Another early morning as I joined Heather, Jim and Brian U. for a trip to Swikshak Bay, north of Hallo Bay, for another mammal and bird survey. Brian R. met up with us on another skiff, as he was tending to the other teams, which were collecting sea otter skulls and spraint samples. From a distance, we observed a haul-out of Steller sea lions, including one large male making his resting spot on his own rock. As the evening hours set in, we headed back to Homer to end our successful trip on the Katmai coast.

 

Heather, Jim and Brian U. on a early morning marine bird and mammal survey in Swikshak Bay.
Heather, Jim and Brian U. on a early morning marine bird and mammal survey in Swikshak Bay.

 

 

Male Steller sea lion in Swikshak Bay.
Male Steller sea lion in Swikshak Bay.

 

The team of scientists back from a productive trip on the Katmai coast.
The team of scientists back from a productive trip on the Katmai coast.

 

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