The excitement is always the same as the bottom trawl slowly comes up to the surface, even after more than 15 years of doing this type of work. What will the catch look like, will it have some especially interesting creatures in it, will it be all muddy or clean?
I am part of the science crew on the research vessel Sikuliaq as part of the ASGARD program, where we sample across the various marine ecosystem components in the northern Bering and the southern Chukchi seas. My role in the group of scientists is to investigate the “epibenthos”, meaning the invertebrate organisms such as sea stars, snails, crabs, etc. that live on top of the seafloor. I get my samples from the bottom trawl, which also catches fish, but my personal research focus is on the invertebrates.
Most of my work in the past has focused on the higher Arctic seas, such as the Chukchi, Beaufort, or central Arctic Ocean. Hence, this is a very exciting opportunity to investigate the epibenthos a bit farther south. With the warming in ocean temperatures, species from the North Pacific have a chance to migrate farther north; so looking at the fauna right around the “bottleneck” of the Bering Strait gives us an opportunity to better understand which species live right at the doorstep of the Arctic and may be able to migrate north when waters are getting warmer. Indeed, the last few days have shown us an interesting mix of species common to the Arctic and North Pacific species that are more commonly known from waters of the Gulf of Alaska.
Another reason we are interested in the epibenthos is that many of these species are important food for diving seabirds and bottom-feeding marine mammals, such as grey whales and walrus.
Understanding the food base of these higher trophic levels can help us better evaluate if food limitations could be a cause for fluctuations in bottom-feeding birds and mammals populations. These higher trophic levels not only have ecological significance but also immense cultural value for the Native people living in the Alaskan Arctic.