While fishes, marine mammals, and seabirds are the most visible living marine resources at the top of the food chain upon which we depend, it is the tiniest organisms drifting and swimming with the currents that fuel all life in the sea.
Scientists study these lower trophic levels to improve our understanding of the overall ocean ecosystem, how it varies over time, and its response to climate change. In the Science Plan, the National Research Council recommended that NPRB support fundamental studies of the basic structure and function of ecosystems to better understand the populations they support. Oceanography and productivity studies also address legislated priorities by specifically addressing needs for marine ecosystem information and pressing fishery management issues that help us better understand the impacts of the environment on upper trophic level species.
Photo Credit: Alexandra Ravelo
Maintaining healthy habitats is essential to ecosystem-based management. According to the National Research Council, the lack of basic information on the distribution and habitat use of most early life stages of fish and the ecosystems that support them could pose a major constraint to managing fisheries.
Our national fisheries legislation calls for scientists and resource managers to identify essential fish habitat (EFH) and implement measures to protect it. In characterizing essential fish habitat, researchers need to study more than just where fish live, but answer the more complex questions of how fish production relates to a particular type and extent of habitat. The Board is helping fishery managers and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council address this very daunting challenge by funding a variety of fish habitat-related studies. They fall under three broad topics: ecosystem functions of habitat, habitat mapping, and fishing effects.
Photo Credit: Brenda Konar
The Board's Science Plan suggests a mix of research focusing on how fish relate to habitat, comparisons of fished and unfished habitat to determine impacts and recovery, gear mitigation research, and advances in technology that would enable efficient mapping and characterization of the seafloor.
Photo Credit: Cedar Stark
A major goal of the Board is to improve our ability to manage and protect the healthy, sustainable fish and wildlife populations that comprise the ecologically diverse marine ecosystems of the North Pacific, and provide long-term, sustainable benefits to local communities and the nation. This is a very large task, considering that the marine regions off Alaska support rich and vast assemblages of fish and invertebrates, and the largest fisheries in the U.S. These assemblages are extremely important not only economically, but also ecologically and socially.
If fishing is the human activity that has the greatest impact on both targeted and nontargeted populations in the North Pacific, as the National Research Council contends, resource managers must know how the ecosystem functions, and understand the life histories and distributions of the fish stocks themselves and how they are influenced by fishing and changes in their environment.
Studies funded in this category fall within five broad topics which together address pressing fishery management issues and marine ecosystem information needs:
Stock assessment research and development
Causes of major species decline
Implications of ecosystem change on fishery management
Photo Credit: Joshua Cripps
Marine mammals are among the more visible and engaging components of the marine ecosystem and are often considered to be sentinels of how an ecosystem is functioning. Top predators in the marine ecosystem, the 26 marine mammal species found in Alaska waters also provide important subsistence resources to many Alaska communities. This cultural and ecological role makes it important for us to understand how these species interact with other ecosystem components and how overlap with commercial fisheries and other human activities impact marine mammal populations.
The Board funds a mix of long and short-term marine mammal research, focusing on species that may be at greatest risk from interactions with major commercial fisheries of the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, and Gulf of Alaska.
Based on recommendations from the National Research Council and NPRB's enabling legislation to address both pressing fisheries management needs and marine ecosystem information needs, the Board has funded marine mammal research under the following six categories:
Marine habitat use
Other human-related impacts
Long-term climate change
Alaska's marine ecosystems support one of the world's greatest concentrations of seabirds, with an estimated 100 million individuals of 75 species either breeding on the state's coastlines and offshore islands or visiting Alaska's waters in the summer. Seabirds influence, and are influenced by, commercially valuable fish populations, and, as widespread and numerous upper-trophic predators, seabirds play an important role in overall marine ecosystem dynamics. Seabirds are also vulnerable to direct fisheries interactions through bycatch, and are an important resource for people who rely on
Alaska's marine waters for subsistence harvests and cultural or recreational value. For all of these reasons, seabird studies have been an important priority for NPRB. Seabird projects funded by the Board can be organized into six broad topics that address both marine ecosystem information needs and pressing fishery management issues:
Photo Credit: John Schwieder
Management tool development
Long-term climate change
Marine habitat use
Fisheries interactions and population conservation
Photo Credit: Ryan Soderlund
In structuring large marine ecosystem research programs, humans are often overlooked except for their impacts on commercially fished species, marine mammals, the benthic habitat, or other aspects of the ecosystem. As NPRB developed its Science Plan, the National Research Council made it clear that one of the main reasons to study marine ecosystems is to determine their effect on human societies. The Science Plan covers a wide array of topics related to humans, from policy analysis of living marine resource management, baseline assessments, resource protection and human health to potential impacts of climate variability and change.
Much of the research funded by NPRB centers on separate facets of the marine ecosystem. However, we must also consider the ecosystem as a whole. Through its annual Requests for Proposals, NPRB has requested and funded short-term and longer-term ecosystem studies that attempt to answer bigger questions about the structure and function of marine ecosystems. Ecosystem research topics are consistent with those outlined in theNPRB Science Plan.
NPRB also develops and implements multi-institution, interdisciplinary science projects under the integrated ecosystem research program to create a more integrated understanding of Alaska’s ocean ecosystems. Current regional projects include the Gulf of Alaska Project and the Bering Sea Project.
Photo Credit: Tasha DiMarzio
Photo Credit: Alexander Sacco
Contaminants, harmful algal blooms, invasive species, aquaculture, climate change, and an ice-free Arctic are among other prominent issues that warrant funding by NPRB.
Climate change and impacts of diminishing sea ice cover often are identified as research priorities within the major thematic sections of the NPRB Science Plan. In the past decade, climate change has become a mainstream issue on national and world agendas; NPRB is addressing this accelerating interest in climate change impacts through individual studies and in partnership with the National Science Foundation for the comprehensive Bering Sea Integrated Ecosystem Research Project.