The Boreas team and photographer Erin Conger recently took a trip to beautiful Alaska, where they fished, slept in yurts, foraged for blueberries, dug for clams, may have had a run in with a bear, and just plain got inspired.
One of the highlights of the trip was spending a few nights in a yurt at the Kachemak Bay Reserve in Homer, Alaska. As an estuary, the Kachemak Bay has a unique ecosystem where an abundance of marine plants, birds, fish, and other aquatic organisms thrive. You can only access Reserve by plane or boat granted there is no road access to most of the park. The team had the opportunity to hop on a boat to explore the reserve and learn first-hand how this ecosystem is protected. On the boat ride over, they providentially met Angela Doroff, a research coordinator and very active member of the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve (KBRR). She gave the perfect introduction to the area and spoke passionately about current and past projects she has been involved with. After returning back to San Francisco, the Boreas team caught-up with her to learn more about the KBRR, how Angela got involved and how they could help. Read-on to learn more about the KBRR from Angela.
Angie, you are originally from Minnesota but have lived in Alaska for the past 20 years. What drew you to Alaska to begin with, and what has kept you there?
I first visited Alaska to work on a University of MN research project on sea otters and I was in awe of the place, the abundance of near-shore life, and of course the marine mammals. The University professor I was working with at that time then transferred me to the southern Sea Otter Project where I did similar work (but Alaska has a way of getting in your bones and I knew that I would take any opportunity to go back and work in my favorite habitat).
In 1989, I joined the Alaska Science Center (then FWS now USGS) and began to work on studies associated with the EXON Valdez oil spill to assess damages to the sea otter population through documenting mortality, population surveys, and monitoring health and survival of sea otters in PWS. These were very intense times - when we weren’t in the field, we were meeting with legal teams and preparing synthesis reports to help communicate and convey the damage to the sea otter population. I remained in the field of studying sea otters through the Marine Mammals Management program in FWS for another 16 years; sea otters continually surprise me and I’ve never tired of working with them.
Initially, what held me here in Alaska was my love for being in close proximity to wild places and the joy of living and working in the near shore ecosystem. It’s also been a wonderful place to learn and grow personally and professionally.
You currently play a dramatic role in The Kachemak Bay Research Reserve (KBRR). Can you tell us a bit more about the main goals and mission of KBRR?
The overall mission of the KBRR is to “enhance understanding and appreciation of the Kachemak Bay estuary and adjacent waters to ensure that these ecosystems remain healthy and productive”. In our research program we maintain long-term monitoring of water quality, meteorological data, and vegetation cover types to understand short-term variability and long-term changes in the coastal environment. We obtain grants to study physical and biological oceanography, coastal ecology, and watershed ecology; these studies are highly collaborative in nature and bring researchers, students, and their skill sets from around the country to work in Kachemak Bay. In part, we meet our mission through translating science to coastal decision-makers and managers to help the local ecosystems remain healthy and productive.
What does 'community coastal stewardship' encompass, and what are your key strategies in getting people involved?
That is a very big question! So much about community coastal stewardship comes from having an engaged community that values the integrity of the local environment. The Reserve system is unique in that is supports not only a research coordinator, but also an education coordinator and a coastal training program coordinator. Our education program is an extremely valuable asset for connecting young students to nature and to teach the ecological concepts behind the studies we do at the reserve. One of our recent grants on relative sea-level rise was funded to incorporate a citizen science section on monitoring biological diversity in 4 local salt marsh sites. It was a tremendous success and people came away with a whole new appreciation for what is living and thriving in these salt marsh habitats. Our research program developed the information for the community to collect and our education team had the skills to make it all happen. On another level, our coastal training program reaches the needs of our local resource managers and the mariculture industry. An in-depth needs assessment is conducted in the region and based on the local information needs, an implementation plan for training and communicating science and providing training is developed and acted on.
Team Boreas had the privileged opportunity to stay in a yurt at one of your dominant research stations on the Kenai Peninsula. We fished, dug for clams, and foraged blueberries for three days (most of the team wanted to stay behind when the boat came to give us a ride back to Homer)! What makes Kachemak Bay such a dynamic and unique ecosystem?
That is also a very big question!! Part of the answer is where we are geographically located. Kachemak Bay experiences up to an 8m tidal exchange, has complex bathemetry, is influenced by fresh water runoff from seasonal snow pack in the spring and melting glaciers in the late summer and fall. The landscape on the southern side of the Bay where you were, is dominated by the Kenai mountains but the northern side of the Bay has a much more shallow relief and influences the coastal system differently. All of these structural things contribute to biological diversity.
How do Alaskans depend on the marine environment during all four seasons of the year?
There are year-around oyster farming sites in several of the bays along the south side of Kachemak Bay. There is a year around salmon hatchery in Tutka Bay and seasonally, there are set net and seining fisheries for salmon. Ecotourism is another source of income ~ people coming to enjoy this amazing landscape; that is predominantly seasonal but some year around too. Homer is connected to the rest of the world through the Sterling Hwy but also through the Alaska marine highway; many of our smaller communities and neighbors rely on boat transportation to connect and resupply.
Your research during the past years has been largely focused on the effect of a changing climate. How will these changes effect Alaska as a whole, and how is the KBRR working to engage the local community to mitigate the negative effects that a warming temperature will have?
One of our valuable assets at the Reserve is our long-term monitoring and research on the environment. These data are essential to understanding the biological processes on going in a coastal environment. These time series of data are being used to validate ocean circulation models, contribute to understanding of PDO and elNino patterns, and modeling habitat associated with the fresh water life stages of juvenile salmon. We have a very strong community-based monitoring program for harmful algal blooms; the phytoplankton that produces PSP can be temperature dependent and is a big concern in Alaska. Our role at the Reserve is not advocacy but rather getting the right information to people who are making decisions for communities and boroughs. Climate change is not going to be a linear process, it’s more like multiple processes happening concurrently that will shape a different outcome. Yes, there will be warmer temperatures but we’ll need to understand the associated temporal/geographic patterns also as they are contributing to the biological changes we may be seeing. The city of Homer has been very progressive about taking action on the municipality level and they have been implementing a climate change action plan for the past few years now.
How do school groups you work with help inspire your work and other local coastal decision makers?
Our Education program works with local and visiting public of all ages, K-12 student groups, continuing education for teachers and interns, and develops and implements citizen science projects. They simply rock! On the research side, we have worked with over a dozen graduate students (PhD/masters levels) and many, many undergraduate student interns from across the country on our projects. Our CTP program has been an amazing asset to the Reserve and to the community.
We want to send out a huge thanks to Angela Doroff for her Kachemak Bay expertise, Danner Boots, Mountain Hardware, TOPO Designs, and Aether Apparel for providing wardrobe and Erin Conger for the beautiful photography.