Explanatory Note: One of our responsibilities as scientists funded by the National Science Foundation is to foster a broader impact of our research results. In the Arctic, local communities that are dependent upon local marine food resources are quite interested in learning of scientific findings that relate to the health of the overall ecosystem where they live. To this end, Vera Metcalf of the Alaska Eskimo Walrus Commission in Nome facilitated the participation of Mr. Perry Pungowiyi of Savoonga (on Saint Lawrence Island) on our May 2006 research cruise aboard Healy. His report back to the Alaska Eskimo Walrus Commission, the Savoonga IRA Council and to the cruise chief scientist, Jackie Grebmeier, is provided below.
To: Jackie Grebmeier
Prepared by: Perry Pungowiyi, Savoonga, Alaska.
RE: Report on the USCG Ice-breaker Healy activities from May 19–22, 2006
My name is Perry Pungowiyi and I have lived all my life in Savoonga practicing the subsistence way of life. I was asked by the Director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission to be an observer aboard the USCG icebreaker Healy that is doing research on the southern and northern waters of St. Lawrence Island. I was to take part, if I wanted, in the science activities they would be performing and to learn about what the scientists were studying around the waters of St. Lawrence Island. I was interested to learn about what they were finding with their scientific studies and to see what it was like on an icebreaker.
I was picked up from Savoonga May 19th and flown by helicopter to the icebreaker which was located 80 miles southwest of Savoonga. I stayed on the ship four days.
While on the ship, I participated in some of the different scientific projects including: sampling the seafloor with the Van Veen grab and Haps corer, sampling the animals that live on the seafloor with the trawl net, and observing the water sampler (CTD).
The most startling thing I learned about the waters of St. Lawrence Island was the fact there is a “cold pool” of very cold water that lies on the seafloor south of the island. This water is very salty, the temperature of the water is below freezing (28F), and normally doesn’t change much during the year. This is a good area for clams and snails. The sea ice keeps this area cold and in place. Because the ice is getting to be less in this area, this cold pool of water is shrinking. What does this mean? It means that some of the area that used to be rich with snails and clams is shrinking and some of the species of animals from warmer waters will move in to this area. The Bering Sea is changing and most of the sea mammals are moving or might have to move further north to feed. The effect this change may have on the walrus feeding areas is yet to be totally understood.
Jackie Grebmeier is the lead scientist and her area of study is the cold pool. She measures the amount of oxygen used and carbon dioxide released by animals that live on the seafloor. It is like seeing how productive the organisms are and she can see if there are more organisms or less. Her findings are that production is on a decline and therefore some of the animals from warmer waters are moving north (for example, the crabs). The crab industry is moving further north too.
There was a Russian scientist onboard named Boris Sirenko. He has done studies in the waters south of the island since the 1950’s. He is knowledgeable about all the small creatures that live on the seafloor. For example, I didn’t know that clams could be up to 20-30 years old. He was very passionate about his work. With his studies combined with Jackie’s project, they get a long time perspective about this area.
Another scientist that I asked questions to, Jim Lovvorn, was studying the winter and spring habitats of the spectacled eider. The most interesting things I learned about the eider was that it could dive to a depth of 180 feet and that their winter feeding area was also in the “cold pool” of water.
Another project they were working on was studying the “plankton bloom”. This is when a large amount of algae in the water grows in the sunlight in the waters around St. Lawrence Island. These tiny algae grow in a short period of time during the spring and then eventually fall to the bottom and are devoured by all the animals that live on the seafloor. I found out that the amount of algae that grows in the spring has declined.
I also participated on two projects that Gay Sheffield was working on. The first was to try and catch and glue a satellite transmitter on to a seal pup. The transmitters give information about the migration patterns, movements, and diving behavior of seals.
The second project is a study is used to understand how closely related the seals are within each species. A crossbow is used to get a small piece of skin from adult seals for genetics study. The boat that was used for this work was a Rigid Hull Inflatable with a 300 hp inboard engine. Unfortunately, this boat was loud and a very bright orange color. We went out in this boat twice. On the first trip we saw some ringed seals in the water and there wasn’t much ice around. Then the fog started to come in, the icebreaker couldn’t see us, and had us come back. The second time, there was plenty of ice around but the wind was picking up so we couldn’t go very far from the icebreaker. No seals were seen on the ice.
Captain Oliver was easy-going and fun to be around. The crew of the Healy were very hospitable and were eager to answer any questions I had. They were interested to learn what life was like on the island. Jackie’s 11 year old daughter, Ruth, was also aboard the ship. She was adorable and very smart for her age.
There were many instruments on the ship. If you asked, the crew would give out updated ice patterns, weather maps, and the ships present location which was all displayed on several electronic screens. The icebreaker even had an autopilot. A special thank you to Tim Sullivan for showing me the equipment on the bridge.
Other scientists were studying water temperature, water chemistry, and ice conditions. They were very knowledgeable about each of their projects. I was encouraged to ask questions. Some of their answers to my questions were very detailed and lasted for several minutes.
The people of the Bering Sea and Bering Straits region are a part of the ecosystem that is being studied. We should be the first ones to be aware of the results of the research. It is important to be involved, be able to ask questions, and to understand more of what is happening in our waters – especially if something is changing.
In conclusion, I think it will be beneficial for the people around the Bering Sea to have a local resident see first hand what the scientist’s do and to participate with this research.
I would like to thank Jackie Grebmeier, Vera Metcalf, and the IRA council who made it possible for me to observe and participate in this project.