The first comprehensive oceanographic and fisheries survey of the Chukchi Sea is under way, with the first of two vessels being used for the survey about to head north from Dutch Harbor, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Aug. 3.
With the likelihood of increased oil exploration and transport through the region, a team of marine scientists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and from federal and state agencies are conducting the survey, with funding from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), NOAA and the state of Alaska Coastal Impact Assistance Program.
And on Tuesday, the U.S. Coast Guard announced the departure from Dutch Harbor of the Cutter Healy carrying a team of scientists for a three-week expedition to study marine life in the Hanna Shoal area, in the northeastern Chukchi.
The project announced by NOAA is the first survey to sample the entire marine ecosystem throughout the U.S. waters of the northern Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea, including waters at least 50 feet deep from south of Hooper Bay to north of Barrow on the eastern Chukchi Sea shelf, the agency said.
"We have scientists from UAF, NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game participating in this Arctic ecosystem integrated survey," said Franz Mueter from the University of Alaska, the lead scientist for the collaborative effort. "So it is a bit of a scientific dream team."
NOAA officials said that the primary purpose of the survey is to gather scientific data needed to avoid or mitigate the effects on Arctic marine life of potential future oil and gas development projects.
Topics of particular interest include: the abundance of fish, shellfish and plankton; biological and environmental connections between the Bering and Chukchi seas; the densities, compositions and distributions of fish communities at different levels in the water column; and the biology of various fish and other marine species that are sources of food for seabirds.
The first survey vessel to leave Dutch harbor will conduct a 60-day cruise traversing the southern Chukchi Sea, the northern Chukchi Sea and the northern Bering Sea, returning south in late September.
A second vessel, leaving Dutch Harbor a few days after the first, will conduct a 47-day cruise in the northern and southern Chukchi Sea, using a bottom trawl net to count, measure and sample organisms that live on the seafloor.
By ALAN BAILEY