We sat quietly in the colony struggling not to make noise for fear of scaring the birds. It was about ten o'clock at night and the sun was still setting. To the west the sun sank over the horizon and the last few flickers of light colored the approaching clouds. To our east and south the full moon rose in a brilliant orange, promising to illuminate our night's work. The scene was dreamlike, surreal.
Part of what makes Saint Lazaria so unique is its somewhat unusual land use designation. The island of Saint Lazaria is part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Homer, AK. It is also a designated Wilderness Area protected under the National Wilderness Preservation System. Thismulti-level protection has kept the island in pristine condition.
My work with SCS brought me to Saint Lazaria to learn about Alexis Will and the research she is conducting on the island. Will is a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where she is working towards her Masters' of Science in Biology and Wildlife. For her thesis she is trying to determine the diets and foraging grounds of Rhinocerous Auklets (i.e., Cerorhinca monocerata). Will believes that by better understanding this species' diet and foraging grounds, we will better understand how these birds may adapt to an increasingly variable environment.
Will's research is also part of a bigger study. In recent years the population of five key groundfish species in the Gulf of Alaska have been significantly lower than in previous years. This is particularly alarming as these five fish species are all commercially important to the state. To determine what is causing this decline, the North Pacific Research Board is currently in the process of conducting a Gulf of Alaska-wide study. Their goal is to better understand the causes for these declining populations.
So how does Will's research fit in to this bigger project?
Here's the thing. Rhinocerous Auclets feed on the same fish that the five groundfish species feed on. If Alexis can determine where and how much fish the Saint Lazaria Rhinocerous Auclets are eating, then we will have a better picture of the food base in the Gulf, at least, theoretically. With better information on the health of the food base in the Gulf, the state of Alaska will have better science with which to base their fishing quotas. It's cool research and I was glad to have the opportunity to learn more about it.
However, what intrigued me most about Saint Lazaria was my experience in the Rhino colony. The Rhinoceros Auklet colony is located at the edge of a very steep and menacing cliff. Below the cliff we could see the commercial salmon fleet at anchor, protected in the lee of the island. As the Rhinos arrived at their nest to feed their chicks, the commercial trolling fleet sat below bracing for the approaching gale, and in the distance the lights of Sitka illuminated the night sky. As I sat in the darkabsorbing the night's activities, I was reminded of the simple fact that we are ALL part of this global ecosystem.