Early last month, when the tailings dam at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia breached releasing 10 million cubic meters of contaminated water into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake, southeast Alaskans woke up to the possibility that other BC mines could pose the same threats to southeast Alaskan fisheries.
Tailings dams are built to hold the waste rock that is extracted from ore during mining. These toxic tailings are often stored under-water and the dams are built to keep the waste from spreading to the surrounding environment. Because the waste rock can be so harmful, tailings dams need to be maintained forever.
The tailings dam at Mount Polley Mine was only 14 years old.
As more new mines are built along the BC and Alaska border, Alaskans now know the risks mining accidents pose to the people and ecosystems sitting downstream. And they can do nothing to protect themselves.
The Transboundary Mine Issue
Mining has been a part of the British Columbia economy for more than 9,000 years, since First Nation peoples first started trading obsidian. When Europeans arrived in the 19th century, mining took on a more prominent role and there are no signs of activities slowing down.
BC premier Christy Clark promised to bring eight mines in four years to the province when she was elected in 2011. With the recent completion of the Northwest Transmission power line up the western border of BC, it looks like she can make good on her promise.
The first mine to make use of the new power line is the Red Chris Project, which is set to begin operations by the end of the year. The Red Chris Project tailings dam is located near the Iskut River which is one of the main tributaries of the Stikine River – the largest river by volume in the Tongass National Forest and one of the largest producers of salmon.
The tailings dam at Red Chris is set to be 330 feet high and needs to hold 183 million tons of toxic tailings. The mine will process 30,000 tons of ore per day for 28 years, according to owners, Imperial Metals Corporation. The Imperial Metals Corporation is the same mining company that built the Mount Polley Mine.
All of the proposed mines will process tens of thousands of tons of ore per day with the largest mine, Kerr Sulphuretts Mitchell (KSM), set to process 120,000 tons of ore per day for 52 years. Most of the proposed mines will be in operation for less than 25 years.
And, the Red Chris isn't the only mine threatening southeast Alaskan watersheds. The major salmon-producing watersheds in danger from the new mines are the Stikine, Unuk and the Taku. Commercial and sport fishing are a $1 billion industry in southeast Alaska and salmon is also important for tourism and subsistence in the Tongass. Should a tailings dam breach or another mining accident occur, these watersheds and southeast Alaskans that depend on them will bear the brunt of the risk.
Alaskan senators, fishermen, conservationists and natives alike recognize the risks these new transboundary mines pose for southeast Alaska and the livelihood of the Tongass National Forest. But, because Canada is the sovereign country, southeast Alaskans have no way to protect themselves from the dangers upstream.
The Boundary Waters Treaty places responsibility for any pollution in Alaskan waters from the mines on Canada, but little is required for pre-emptive action to prevent the pollution from ever occurring.
And it's not just a major catastrophe like what happened at Mount Polley that Alaskans should worry about. Dust from the mines could smother salmon eggs. Leaking chemicals could kill salmon foods sources. Increased copper in the water is believed to impair fish hearing and make them less able to avoid predators. All of these side effects affect the survivability of the salmon before a major accident happens.
Preserving the last frontier
The Tongass National Forest is the largest in tact temperate rainforest in the world. The forest is home to about 70,000 people that all depend on the healthy and sustainable fisheries found here. Salmon is a part of the Alaskan way of life. From commercial and sport fishing to subsistence, the five species of Pacific salmon are a lifeline for the culture and people.
As the FDA continues to test the limits of genetically modifying fish and more and more farmed fish make it on to American plates, we should be fighting harder to protect what wild and sustainable fisheries this country has left. Fish that can grow bigger and fatter faster pose unforeseen threats to American health and only fulfill the wasteful desires to always have excess. Fresh, wild fish should not be the delicacy, but the norm.
And finally… Alaska is America's last frontier. We are a nation of explorers, of entrepreneurs and innovation. Part of that identity comes from the wilderness within our borders, the adventure that can be had in our own backyard. But that wilderness is quickly disappearing and these mines might destroy the little that Alaska has left. America needs wildness and should fight hard to protect it.
Almost three months have already gone by since I started my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society, under the supervision of Scott Harris, the Conservation Science Directorat SCS. It is now the start of September and I cannot believe how fast time flies by when I am truly enjoying my eye-opening opportunity. It still feels as though only yesterday I landed in Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport. Nowadays waking up every morning to rhythmic pulses of the rain droplets and the fresh aroma of the soothing ocean breeze has become a part of my daily life.
Along with the overwhelming invasion of nature in my life, I also get a chance to spend the majority of my time here in the largest national forest in the United States at 17 million acres. The Tongass is one of the last few forests untouched by industrialization and remains as the largest temperate rainforest on earth. The forest encompasses part of the Northern Pacific coastal forests along with the Central and North Coast regions of British Columbia. Due to its vast size, the forest hosts a number of various types of trees: western red cedar, sitka spruce and western hemlock. The forest is also home to five species of salmon, brown and black bears, and Bald Eagles.
My days at Sitka are often filled with a variety of outdoor activities- all of which have constantly kept me marveling at the great nature I am surrounded by. From hiking up mountain trails to kayaking upstream against the swift tides, my internship projects have led me to explore different parts of the Tongass while having the opportunity to meet other biologists, conservationists, and interns. One of my projects involved monitoring a conservation and restoration project implemented by the U.S Forest Service (USFS) in the Starrigavan Recreational Area. I am conducting vegetation surveys in these forest gaps and collecting data from trail cams to monitor deer activity within the gaps for tagging purposes. The workers of the USFS cut oval forest gaps with anarea of 100 ft in diameter to mimic natural disturbances in the forest. The purpose of this is to encourage the growth of shrubs and ferns, which are another type of food sources for deer and bears. Starting since the 1950s, a significant percentage of the big trees (old growth) in the Tongass were logged and when the second generation of trees grew, they left little space for sunlight to reach to the ground. Thus, without these gaps, the growth of shrubs and ferns will decrease, thereby lowering the food sources for the deer, which may lead to a decline in the deer population in the future. Within the gaps, there are also deer enclosures to monitor how deer foraging affects vegetation growth.
From the peaks of the mountains to where streams meander across the landscape, my weekly duty takes me to a stream that flows through the community of Sitka. Once a week I would ride my bike down to Indian River to collect water samples from the river. According to the protocol, I would filter the water from the river and pour them into two sampling bottles. The Sitka Conservation Society is a part of SALMoN (Southeast Alaska Long-term Monitoring Network) and participates in the Global Rivers Observatory (GRO). GRO documents water chemistry from rivers around the world in order to understand long-term ecological changes to freshwater ecosystems. To document the water chemistry, GRO analyzes nutrient concentrations, dissolved organic carbon, and the isotope ratio of strontium. Local streams such as Indian River will be studied alongside the great rivers such as Amazon, Yangtze and others. The program started when Dr. Bernhard Peucker-Ehrenbrink, a Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and one of the founders of GRO was a Scientist in Residence at the Sitka Sound Science Center.
My days often began with journeys packed with wilderness adventures. I went on a five day camping trip to West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness which is located about 55 miles away from Sitka and it takes around 3 hours to get there by boat. This trip by far is the longest period of time that I've been out camping. The purpose of this project is to install temperature loggers into five different streams in order to monitor the health and the quality of the stream waters. To arrive at some of these streams, we had to bushwhack through the forest while making noises to alert the bears. Some trails were challenging and tedious with rugged and slippery mud-covered grounds but they were all fun. Once we've reached the streams, we conducted a variety of analyses such as installing temperature loggers and recording the stream width. We also measured the flow of the streams and noted down the dissolved oxygen levels. While performing these tasks, it was fascinating to see thousands of salmon fish swimming up these streams, their silvery scales reflecting the sunlight underneath the clear water. The end of each day was an even bigger adventure for me since we would move from one campsite to the next. Before the sun sets, we would spend about 30 minutes, cruising around the ocean in our boat, searching for a safe spot to camp. We camped on different parts of the forest each night and got to explore the wonders of the old growth wilderness in the dark, quiet night.
From sampling streams, my internship has also taken me to Redoubt Lake, a unique meromictic lake where its top layer is freshwater with several hundred feet of saltwater on the bottom layer of the lake.Going to Redoubt was a whole new experience unlike anything before at Sitka. Not only was it the longest camp trip, it was also riveting to be at Redoubt Lake where I had a chance to work with the Forest Service. Located about 12 miles from the city of Sitka, Redoubt Lake plays an important role in the subsistence fisheries for the people of Sitka. The Forest Service maintains a weir system to count and record the fish entering whereafter the Alaska Department of Fish & Game makesmanagement decisions based on the data collected each season. Once the fish pass through the weir, they head up to the northern tip of the lake and travel up streams to spawn. Through out the process, I witnessed the physical transformation of these iconic fish. Their bodies become bright red and the male sockeyes' heads morphed into sharply hooked noses with gawking teeth. They nipped and bit at one another, fighting to reproduce for the first and the last time, before they lie lifeless beneath the streams. It definitely was a biological process worth observing.With large amount of ocean surrounding the island comes the freshest seafood. The most important resource of Southeast Alaska is salmon. There are five different types of salmon here: king, sockeye, coho, chum and pink salmon. Here, salmon is fished for industrial purposes and plays a major role in sustainable fishing as well. Out of the five different types of Salmon, I have already tried three of them, which are King, Sockeye and Pink. The two that I haven't tasted yet are Coho and Chum. Most people here prefer the King and I have to agree with them on that. I also got a chance to try deer meat, which tasted like beef but leaves a trace of gamey palate in your mouth.
Despite the nature explorations that were required for work, I also had a chance to enjoy the beautiful picturesque landscape of Alaska. The town of Sitka is small with a population of 9000 people, yet it is lively and vibrant with esthetically decorated small vendor shops. Sitka is surrounded by the sounds of clashing waves and mountains varying in heights. During my leisure time from work, I went on hikes on the mountains with friends and enjoyed stunning landscapes from the peaks of the mountains. Along the way, I met other interns and co-workers who were passionate about conserving the natural beauty that the Tongass has to offer.
On the 28thof August, I completed my internship with the Sitka Conservation Society and had the opportunity to gain hands on conservation experience that I have longed for. Within the past three months, I learned so much about the importance of conservation methods, and my internship gave me a chance to work with land managers who are working on making important conservation decisions. I learned new research and conservation approaches and methods as well as the importance of social outreach to the community for our conservation works. Overall, this internship has given me invaluable knowledge and taught me to have even more respect for the beautiful wilderness and the natural wonders of the earth. This was truly an eye opening experience and certainly, one that I will never forget.
The Alaska Way of Life 4-H project had a fun summer of gardening, exploring the forest and beach, listening to birds, kayaking in the Sitka Sound, and learning how to sew; all while creating a sense of belonging among new friends in Sitka! This fall we will get dirty harvesting Sitka's Wild Edibles and learning some basic food preservation skills.
The new 4-H year is just around the corner! It is time to wrap up current projects andthink about updating member registration. For new and old members, the forms to complete registration are below:
What is 4-H? Check out the brochure link below!
Sitka School District schools have been serving locally-caught fish in their school lunches for three years. But starting today, kids will be eating coho caught right in their own backyard every Wednesday!
Fish to Schools was a brainchild of the fall 2010 Sitka Health Summit and a pilot program began in the spring of 2011 with Blatchley Middle School serving fish in school lunches once a month. Since that time, the program has expanded to become a state-funded initiative that brings locally caught fish into public school lunches all across Alaska.
The Sitka Conservation Society has been an instrumental part of the program development, with Tracy Gagnon leading the charge.
"It's a viable way to connect the fishing fleet to young people," Gagnon said. "It connects fishermen to the classroom."
Gagnon said that they did not advertise as much for donations this year, but the support that came in was overwhelming. They received double of what they asked for in this year's donation drive - 1,000 pounds of fish."Overall it's very exciting," Gagnon said. "What a generous fishing fleet!"
With state funding, the Sitka School District will be able to start paying fishermen to have their catches served in school lunches.
"Donating actual coho is so much more meaningful than writing a check," Beth Short-Rhoads said. She is one of the coordinators of the Fish to Schools program. "It's like giving time on the ocean, the excitement of landing a gorgeous fish, and the satisfaction of working hard for a way of life they love," she said.
Today, Wednesday Sept. 2, marks the first day of a fully year of fish lunches on Wednesdays. Lunches will be offered at Baranof Elementary, Keet Gooshi Heen, Blatchley Middle School, Sitka High School, Pacific High Schools, Mount Edgecumbe High School, SEER School, & Head Start.
"There's a certain poetry that people eat food from the lands and waters around them. In Alaska, that means fish caught fresh from the Pacific and not fried chicken from Kentucky," Alaska House Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins said.
My internship has also taken me to Redoubt Lake, a unique meromictic lake, wherethe top layer is freshwater with several hundred feet of saltwater on the bottom layer of the lake. Located about 12 miles from the city of Sitka, Redoubt Lake plays an important role in the subsistence fisheries for the people of Sitka. The Forest Service maintains a weir system to count and record the fish entering whereafter the Alaska Department of Fish & Game makesmanagement decisions based on the data collected each season.
Going to Redoubt was a whole new experience unlike anything before in Sitka. Not only was it the longest trip of my internship (a total of 6 days out in the field), it was also riveting to be at Redoubt Lake and tohave a chance to work with the Forest Service. Throughout the entire trip, we lived in a small cozy cabin that is built on an island completely surrounded by water. Every morning, I was up by 6:30 and the day officially started off at 7:00. Through the quiet serene waters,we boated towards the weir, the morning silence broken by the Forest Service employees yelling,"Hey Bear" and the sound of the blow horn. The Forest Service runs a mark and recapture study of sockeye returning to the stream. In addition we sampled the fish, which entailed weighing, measuring and collecting a scale sample.
Sitting at the weir and counting fish as they pass through was quite an experience. It was fascinating to see thousands of salmon swimming up these streams, their silvery scales reflecting the sunlight underneath the clear water as they fought against the downstream currents. While there was a feast of action packed beneath the waters, the above grounds were active with local dip netters at the outlet of the lake and hungry bears that roamed around the surroundings. One day, as I was sitting at the weir and counting fish with Janelle Horstman, a Forest Service employee, a bear snuck up to the end of the weir. It was a chilling experience, yet quite incredible to see a wild bear within 20 feet. With the gush of rapids pouring out at the outlet, I barely heard the bear coming down from the island. It made me appreciate the rugged beauty and graceful movement of these magnificent grizzly bears.
Once the fish pass through the weir, they headed up to the northern tip of the lake and traveled up-stream to spawn. Throughout the process, I witnessed the physical transformation of these iconic fish. Their bodies became bright red and the male sockeyes' heads morphed into sharply hooked noses with gawking teeth. They nipped and bit at one another, fighting to reproduce for the first and the last time before they lie lifeless beneath the streams. It was definitely a biological process worth observing.
The scenes at Redoubt Lake were pretty mesmerizing. The sight of glassy black pearly water reflecting the clouds above and nearby mountains created a dreamy ambiance. The sounds of nature and refreshing ocean breeze swirled around the lake, creating a perfect blend of serenity. With its picturesque landscape and its importance to the subsistence fishery of Alaska, Redoubt Lake is definitely one of the most precious landmarks of the Tongass National Forest.
Tourism is a $1 billion industry in southeast Alaska, fueled by visitors coming from all over the world to view the glaciers, bears, eagles and to experience the wilderness. But, they also come for the whales!
The population of North Pacific humpback whales in southeast Alaska used to be a lot higher, but humans actually almost hunted the animals to extinction. Whale oil is very fuel efficient and used to power much of Juneau. But, after whaling began, a population of 15,000 humpbacks reduced to only about 1,000. Today, the whales are protected and even tour companies have regulations to keep from disrupting feeding patterns of the animals.
North Pacific Humpback whales can be seen around Sitka all summer long. The humpback whales that inhabit these waters all summer likely spend their winters in the warmer waters surrounding Hawaii, Mexico, or in the western Pacific. If you are looking for whales on the horizon, best to try and spot a surge of water, oxygen, carbon dioxide and maybe a little bit of whale snot shooting into the air. The spouts that humpbacks send up into the air are exhalations of breath than can be at speeds of 300 miles per hour! If you look carefully enough, you can see these spouts from shore!
Why Alaska in the spring and summer? There is so much food for them to eat!Speaking of food, North Pacific humpbacks feed on herring and krill. They take in tons of water into their mouths, and then as the water is released, their teeth act as filters and catch the fish in their mouths. Despite the size of the animals, their throats are only the size of grapefruits. So they eat lots of really tiny food to fuel their big bodies.
Why are they called humpbacks? Oh, that's easy! There is a large hump along the back of the whales. Humpback whales also have very long flippers. They can be distinguished from other whales from the size of their flippers which can be up to 25 or 30 percent of their body length. Now for whales that can be up to 50 feet long - those flippers are rather large! Humpbacks also weigh about one ton per foot of length. That means a 50 foot whale can weigh 50 tons!
The National Ocean Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) can actually keep track of the individual whales that make their way up to southeast Alaska every year. The flukes (or tails) of humpbacks are unique to each individual. They are like fingerprints and NOAA has names for individuals it has identified from photos of flukes. Maybe next time you're out on the water looking for whales you can snag a picture that NOAA can use to name a new whale visiting the southeast for the summer!
The soft morning sunlight shined upon as I rode my bike to the Crescent Harbor, making my way towards Scott's Boat. Today was the very first overnight camping trip of my internship, and that fact alone had already made the trip exciting. As I got to the boat, Scott was already there, making sure that the boat was ready for the journey to Kruzof Island. A few minutes later, Mary Wood showed up to the boat. Mary is the Living with the Land Jesuit Volunteer, and since she has had a lot of camping/ backpacking experience, she will be my guide for the overnight trip. I was glad to have such a reliable guide as I felt nervous at the thought of my first, real camping experience. The only time I camped was my first year at Knox College where we went to a forest reserve and spent the night in a cabin with bunk beds. I was psyched about spending the night in a tent since it was something I had never done before.
At about 11:00 in the morning, we departed from the harbor and ambled our way to Kruzof Island. With each coming wave, we headed out to sea; the boat hurdled up and down, dancing along the rhythm of the waters. Forty-five minutes into the trip, our boat approached the island. With a gush of excitement, I set my foot on the Kruzof Island for the very first time. The salty soothing ocean breeze rippled across my face as I took my first breath of cool gentle air of this uninhabited nature. It was a stunning panorama, with trees that danced along to the wind and rhythmic ocean waves. After taking it all in, we unloaded our camping gear from the boat and headed to the campsite. Two graduate students from University of Michigan greeted me. They had been conducting surveys regarding resource management and social dynamics on the island, and were creating a monitoring plan for a section of Shelikof Creek. That night, we sat next to the warm fire, and as the sun slowly disappeared into the horizon, the excitement of the first day faded away as well.
The next day, we woke up at around six in the morning to get ready for work. Our morning fuel consisted of a warm bowl of oatmeal, topped with a generous squirt of honey and fruits and by 6:30 we were ready for work. In order for us to get to the work site, we had to drive ATVs and since Mary knew how to drive one, I went along with her. Riding the ATV was like a thrilling roller coaster ride as it tense over the uneven rocky trails. After 30 minutes of the ATV ride and another hour of bushwhacking through the dense forest, we finally reached our destination.
It was a serene beautiful sight, surrounded by trees while a meandering river cruises across the landscape. The United States Forest Service (USFS) was performing salmon habitat restoration work in the stream. In the past, forest management practices allowed logging all the way to the stream banks. Now we know that was a mistake because large-tree riparian forest provide valuable benefits for salmon and other wildlife. So now we're putting logs back in the stream to provide rearing and spawning habitat for salmon. While assisting, I had the opportunity to be control of the wench, a tool used to pull in logs from the banks. These logs would provide hiding places for the salmon from natural predators such as bears and eagles. It was a magnificent sight to see these huge timeworn logs getting pulled into the waters.
Meanwhile, Chris Leeseberg, Fisheries and Wildlife Biologist at the USFS, was trimming down the forest near the river to prevent overcrowding of the second-generation growth. This would allow trees to grow without any competition and will allow shrubs to grow on the bottom of the forest floor. By the time we finished with placing the logs into stream, it was about five in the evening thus we headed back to our base camp.
Although this was only a two-day trip, this experience further enhanced my knowledge regarding salmon habitat restoration work. Salmon plays a major role in the lives of the people of Alaska in both industrial and subsistence fishing. Organizations such as the USFS and SCS implement restoration projects in an effort to protect the salmon, a reminder of the important and highly valued fish. Many respect and appreciate the importance of the work done by the Forest Service and I am glad to be have been apart of this restoration work.
Fish to Schools started in the fall of 2010 and we've steadily grown the program over the last four years. We grew from one school to two to four to eight. We went from serving fish from once a month to twice a month to EVERY week. For the 2014-2015 school year the Sitka School District will be serving local fish lunches every Wednesday rotating between coho and rockfish. We're so excited to see these healthy and sustainable lunches offered weekly. Fish to Schools is redefining what is possible for school food service. Scratch cooking? Yes! Local foods? Yes! Happy, healthy kids? Yes!
Take a listen to this sweet PSA featuring Ava and Emerson sharing the good news of weekly Wednesday lunches. Click this link: http://archive.sitkawild.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/fishwednesday.mp3
Sitka Conservation Society Executive Director Andrew Thoms is a member of the Tongass Advisory Council, a group of 15 stakeholders from all over the Pacific Northwest, including fishermen, timber salesmen, Alaska Native groups and conservationists.
Thoms traveled to Ketchikan last week for the first of many The Tongass Advisory Committee meetings that will discuss strategies for implementing a new management plan for the Tongass National Forest. The goal of the new plan is to shift from old growth to young growth timber harvesting.
"This committee is leading the way in figuring out how land and resource management can sustain and benefit communities while also conserving intact ecosystems," Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society and a member of the committee said. "It is natural that this is being done in Southeast Alaska because all of us who live here are so connected with the natural environment and the resources it provides."
The Tongass National Forest, Sitka's 17 million acre backyard, is the largest in-tact temperate rainforest in the world. And, the Tongass Advisory Committee wants to make sure it stays that way. Thoms and other members of the committee still want the forest to be profitable, but in more sustainable and community-focused ways. The Tongass National Forest is home to 74,000 people.
"I am very impressed that 15 people can come to consensus and put community at the top of the list," Wayne Brenner, one of the nominated co-chairs of the committee said after the three-day conference. "That is the key that holds Southeast together."
The old growth that is left in the Tongass only makes up about 4 percent of the forest. The committee wants the U.S. Forest Service to shift the focus from valuable old-growth timber to renewable resources and industries like salmon fishing and tourism. Timber harvesting will not completely disappear, but rather the committee wants to encourage a shift to young-growth harvesting.
Forrest Cole, Tongass National Forest supervisor, said the transition to young growth will support a healthy forest ecosystem, while also creating more sustainable southeast communities.
"We are confident this transition will work long term and we are excited that it has already started with Dargon Point, which could become a benchmark for future projects," Cole said. Other young growth harvesting projects are being planned for Kosciusko Island and Naukati-Greater Staney on Prince of Wales.
"For the past several decades there has been significant conflict with harvesting old growth timber and building roads," Cole said. "This struggle has damaged the local timber industry and has negatively affected the Southeast Alaska economy."
Kirk Hardcastle, a committee member, is also a commercial fisherman in southeast Alaska. He applied for the committee because he wanted to help transition the Tongass Management Plan to one more focused on fishing and renewable energy.
"We have every renewable energy resource in southeast Alaska," Hardcastle said. "We're not looking to export as much as apply the technology to our communities."
In addition to fishing and renewable energy, the committee meetings on August 6 – 8 in Ketchikan also focused on subsistence, tourism and recreation.
Thoms is honored to be a member of this committee and to be a part of implementing a new management plan in the forest. While the actual transition may be several years away, he is working with the Forest Service to ensure they are taking steps in the right direction.
As published in the Sitka Daily Sentinel on Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Scientists are searching for a method to eradicate the invasive tunicate species that has kept Whiting Harbor closed since 2010. This invasive sea squirt has been found all over the world and can have detrimental effects on marine ecosystems if not controlled. But killing the invasive, is not so easy.
"Sometimes people have this notion that you can just kill anything," Ian Davidson, of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Maryland, said in a recent interview. "There is not a standard template you can just follow and do."
Whiting Harbor is the cove between the Northwest end of the airport runway and the causeway linking the islands of the Fort Rouseau State Historical Park. If not for the tunicate contamination, Whiting Harbor would be the preferred access to the state park, which is accessible only by boat.
This September, Davidson and other scientists from the Smithsonian will be testing a possible treatment method for the invasive tunicate to see if they might be able to remove the species from Whiting altogether.
Didemnum vexillum, or D vex, is a fast-growing sea squirt sometimes called marine vomit. It has been found all over the world and has greatly impacted ecosystems off the coasts of New Zealand and Wales and has been particularly harmful to scallop populations near Massachusetts. Scientists believe D vex originated in Japan.
"It establishes well over surfaces," Tammy Davis, invasive species program director for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said. "It's a really fast grower."
Fortunately for Sitka and the rest of Southeast Alaska, despite the fast-growing characteristics of D vex, surveyors have not found evidence of the tunicate spreading anywhere else in Alaska.
D vex often attaches to boats and fishing lines and is spread to other areas, so Davis said Whiting Harbor has been closed to all human activity since the discovery of the tunicate to limit the spread of the organism. As for what brought it to Sitka, no one knows.
"We can't say what the vector was," Davis said.
Scientists can't say just how long it's been here either.
Marnie Chapman, a professor at University of Alaska Southeast, was on the bioblitz expedition that discovered the tunicate in 2010.
"It's hard to identify on first look," Chapman said. If the scientists hadn't realized what they had found, "that would have been a nightmare scenario," she said.
Containing and ultimately eradicating the species is important because "invasive species compromise our sense of place," she said. "They take what is special and unique about a particular area and they make it less special."
But while the tunicate has remained contained in Whiting Harbor, scientists still don't know how to get rid of it. Davidson explained part of the research this fall will be testing the effects of increased salt content in the water of the harbor. A higher salinity of the water may help kill the tunicate, he said, but the scientists need to figure out if they can control the salt content in the harbor long enough to be effective.
Davidson's team of scientists will return early next year or in the spring for full on experiments in eradication, he said. This first trip is just testing the methods.
"I want to emphasize that this is not an eradication attempt, but rather a trial to determine how one might go about an eradication effort," Linda McCann of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center said. "We face several challenges with the work," she said including managing the delivery of the treatment and not harming the substrates the tunicate is attached to.
Davidson said that mobile creatures in the harbor will disperse if the salt content gets too high for them during the testing. He said the scientists were not worried about other invertebrates that may not be able to escape, because they were positive the harbor would repopulate because of Sitka's healthy intertidal zones.
Getting rid of the D vex tunicate in Whiting Harbor is another important step in the management process. Davidson said Alaska has less of an invasive problem than many other coastline states, particularly California.
"Alaska has a stronger reason to protect its territory," Davidson said. "You can get back to a pristine condition."