THE VAST TEMPERATE RAINFORESTS THAT BLANKET THE ISLANDS OF SOUTHEAST ALASKA are home to a myriad of rare and endangered flora and fauna, and the surrounding waters teem with wildlife and seaweeds. These waters support a number of sustainable commercial fisheries and are inhabited by one of the world’s largest populations of endangered humpback whales. Some of the islands of this archipelago – notably Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof (the ‘ABC Islands’) - are among the healthiest functioning ecosystems remaining on the planet, and provide great value as a reference sites for understanding how ecological communities adapt to change. Despite being one of the most pristine regions in North America, Southeast Alaska is subject to increased human perturbations, including climate change, rising anthropogenic noise, invasive species and increasing detrimental human/marine mammal interactions. As well, it has become clear we remain profoundly ignorant of the oceanography, biogeography and marine biology of Southeast Alaska and lack the information and tools to mitigate these human impacts.
Research focused on these conservation issues is needed, as are increased opportunities for up-and-coming scientists – undergraduate and graduate students – to develop the skills necessary to address these concerns. As well, it is essential to raise awareness among the general public concerning these complex environmental issues. To address these needs the Alaska Whale Foundation (AWF) is developing the Center for Coastal Conservation (CCC), a multi-use facility commited to conservation in Southeast Alaska.
LONG-TERM ECOLOGICAL MONITORING
Long-term ecological monitoring projects are critical for monitoring the health of Alaska’s coastal resources in the face of growing environmental concerns. The CCC is working both independently and in collaboration with other organizations to identify areas of concern and establish on-going marine and terrestrial monitoring programs from the center. Student volunteers housed at the CCC are integral to these programs.
The CCC facilitates multidisciplinary and collaborative research by providing lab space, research equipment and housing for scientists working on important conservation issues. Participating researchers also benefit from the technical and logistical assistance provided by AWF’s team of biologists who have been working in the region for over 20 years. Graduate student involvement in developing research programs, grant writing and field work is a fundamental component of this vision, as is the participation of undergraduate student volunteers.
DIRECT CONSERVATION ACTIONS
Entanglement in fishing gear is a substantive source of injury and mortality for marine mammals in Alaska. AWF, together with the US Coast Guard, the National Marine Fisheries Service and other regional organizations, is an active member of the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding and Disentanglement Network. This network of highly-trained individuals uses specialized tools and equipment to respond to incidents of entangled and distressed marine mammals. The CCC houses AWF's team of responders, response vessels and tools in a strategic location that is presently under-served by the network.
Experiencing nature firsthand evokes a deeper appreciation for conservation and environmental stewardship, and this is especially true of the vast wilderness of Southeast Alaska. The CCC takes advantage of its proximity to a diversity of habitats by offering a range of immersive educational programs. Participating students can learn important ecological concepts and develop the practical tools necessary for field research in its remote and inspirational setting. The center welcomes outside educators to participate in CCC’s programs and can assist them in designing curricula that take advantage of the many opportunities offered by the center’s wilderness location.
EDUCATION AND OUTREACH – Education is necessary to ensure that people make conservation-minded decisions in their everyday lives. The CCC will serve as an education and outreach center for the thousands of individuals that visit Warm Springs Bay annually in an effort to raise awareness of the conservation concerns facing the region.