Alaska News

Pribilof youth science camp earns recognition

Teenagers who say no one takes them seriously should take a good look at the response a group of teens from St. Paul Island got for keeping a close eye on kelp and crab.

The students were honored last week at a gala in Anchorage for their continuous dedication and efforts tracking native marine species around the Pribilof Islands. The Pribilof Student Marine Research Team, which is made up of more than 20 students, several student marine research assistants, and five staff members, collectively received a youth leadership award for their efforts over the past five years to track several marine species in the area. They were honored specifically for their contributions in discovering a second sample of an extremely rare species of kelp and for research on crab stocks.

"At the gala, the kids were honored primarily for their research on the Pribilof blue king crab," said Michelle Ridgway, a researcher with the Alaska Deep Ocean Science Institute and the director of the Pribilof Science Camp. "The student team discovered the basal life form of that crab after the population of the crab had depleted over the past 20 years. They discovered that there had actually been some reproductive paths in the Pribilof Islands, which was quite exciting."

The research team was the first to make this discovery in the past 20 years, she added.

The team also researched, and was awarded for work on, the rare Golden V kelp.

The majority of the team's research takes place during the summer, when the students attend a summer science camp. The Pribilof Marine Science Camp in 2013 was held on St. Paul Island in July. This past summer marked the seventh annual Pribilof Marine Science Camp, which had the student research teams exploring the surrounding areas of the Bering Sea by boat, along the beaches and docks, as well as through artistic expression, like music and performing arts activities.

"They are very hands-on in the research activities that we lead them through, which is a big deal for them," said Ridgway. "Hands-on work that is meaningful to them and to their communities, especially to their grandparents and their parents."

The species studied are an important part of every day life for the students, which makes the research all that more meaningful.

"It's learning what is right out the front door, which is the entire Bering Sea," she said. "So the value is not just from an academic exercise, but it has ecological and economic consequences in their villages."

A typical day at the Pribilof Science Camp begins with a group gathering over breakfast to discuss the findings of the previous day, followed by an examination of the tide and weather conditions for the day to determine what research projects can be done. After the team goes out and spends the better part of the day outside and researching the Pribilof marine ecosystems, the team returns to base to eat, socialize and discuss the day's findings.

"Something that we do every single day with every single camp is document new species confirmed," said Ridgway. "So everyone is gathered after dinner and we have a master list and we have books and reference material to look up the names of new species found that day. Anything that is not in our catalog showing the biodiversity of the islands is added to the master list. We write the names of the new species in English, Aleut, and then in Latin just to be thorough."

Anthony Lekanof and Danielle Merculief are both juniors in the Pribilof Island school district and veteran members of the science camp. Both have participated in the in the science camp for multiple years and continue to pledge their support and enrollment for future camps.

"It is absolutely a great experience to get involved in this camp, not just in terms of knowledge but to meet other students from the islands," said Merculief. "It is just a really creative place overall. You end up learning so much and get a background knowledge of species that are local but we also talk about science and developments from all over the nation."

Both Lekanof and Merculief attended the gala in Anchorage to receive the youth leadership award on behalf of the camp. They are thankful that the camp has finally achieved statewide recognition and that the research is being used and appreciated.

"We got a $1,000 grant toward the continuing of our research efforts in the Pribilof Islands as part of our youth leadership award," said Lekanof. "I think we are going to spend it on inflating our camp funds. We are thinking about getting some short-term vehicles out there, as we don't have a lot of access to vehicles out there and the ones that we do are on a volunteer basis or rented out to us from different people."

While the rumors are unconfirmed, there has been speculation that during this year's science camp, the research team will be able to enlist the help of a submarine that will be stopping by the Island to assist them in their ongoing research into the baby blue king crab. Lekanof and Merculief both claim that the promise for a chance to ride on a submarine has been on the table for a few years now, but according to Ridgway, 2014 might actually be the year that it happens.

"The tribal government here on St. George has already made that request and I think they have lined out their funding," said Ridgway. "They are hoping to have the submarine stopping at the Island to help assist with our research, which should be quite useful for gathering information on baby blue king crab."

Whether a student is just getting ready for fifth grade or about to graduate high school, all applicants anywhere between 10 and 19 years old are encouraged to apply and be a part of the 2014 Pribilof Student Marine Research team.

"I would recommend this camp to anyone," said Lekanof. "Not just kids from St. Paul and St. George, but anyone from within the state or even the nation, it is a great program to get into every year. You get to spend at least two weeks outdoors, basically the whole time and it is a great experience for anyone who is interested in any kind of science. I would do it again in a heartbeat."

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.