In 2016, ten of the world's fourteen distinct humpback whale populations, including those that migrate between Hawaii and Southeast Alaska each year, were removed from the US Endangered Species List. After decades of protection from whaling, it appeared that these populations had recovered enough to no longer warrant inclusion on the list. This, of course, was cause for celebration.
However, in the years that followed AWF began observing troubling declines in whale numbers, record-low calf sightings, and an increase in the number of whales in poor body condition. Around the same time, researchers working throughout the North Pacific began detecting warmer than average waters.
This ‘marine heatwave’ – termed the ‘Blob’ - continued for several years and was unprecedented in both its magnitude and persistence. Its impacts were pervasive, leading to not only declines in Alaskan humpbacks, but in important forage species, such as Pacific herring and krill, as well as widespread seabird and marine mammal mortality throughout the North Pacific. All these observations were clear evidence that marine ecosystems were being negatively impacted by changing ocean conditions.
Below: A temperature timeline for the Gulf of Alaska
Although the North Pacific eventually cooled, without major curbs on planetary warming marine heatwaves will become increasingly common. This is a major concern. Warm waters, such as those observed in the North Pacific, are typically nutrient and oxygen poor. As a result, they support fewer phytoplankton - the microscopic ‘plants’ at the base of marine food webs – and thus fewer zooplankton, fish, seabirds and marine mammals. As well, phytoplankton are major drivers of carbon dioxide (CO2) removal from the atmosphere, so declines in their abundance can lead to higher atmospheric CO2 levels, which will further exacerbate the warming trend.
It will also directly impact humans. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that fisheries and aquaculture provide over 4 billion people with ~15% of their animal protein and are a source of income for millions of people worldwide. By altering distributions of fish stocks and increasing the vulnerability of fish species to diseases, ocean warming is a serious risk to food security and people’s livelihoods globally.
Below: Fisheries and aquaculture provide over 4 billion people with ~15% of their animal protein and are a source of income for millions of people worldwide. In Southeast Alaska, commercial fishing is one of largest industries in the region, and many people rely on subsistence fish as well for food for their families.
So, what can be done?
Unfortunately, there is no single solution to curbing planetary warming. It will require policy makers and resource managers to make difficult and unpopular decisions. This, in turn, will require support from the public whose actions as both voters and consumers directly and indirectly impact planetary warming. Collectively, these rely on scientific data upon which managers and policy makers can base their decisions and persuasive evidence-based examples of the impacts of planetary warming that can help win public support.
These are the challenges that AWF’s Ocean Health Program will address by i) identifying how changing oceans are impacting marine ecosystems, ii) providing data for guiding management decisions, iii) eliciting broad support for ocean conservation initiatives, and iv) ensuring enduring research capacity.
Components of AWFs Ocean Health Program
AWFs Ocean Health Program is a comprehensive initiative that aims to track all aspects of the Alaskan marine food web.
It is the physical and chemical properties of the ocean, such as temperature, salinity, and nutrient concentrations, that are directly impacted by climate change and, in turn, drive the biological processes we observe in marine ecosystems. Tracking these oceanographic properties is critical to understanding how climate change affects marine ecosystems.
Phytoplankton are free-floating microscopic algae that turn Alaska’s rich waters green each spring. As the base of marine food webs, changes in their abundance and species composition can have cascading effects throughout the entire ecosystem.
Zooplankton: a critical link in marine food webs
Zooplankton are the tiny, drifting organisms that feed on phytoplankton and are themselves preyed upon by virtually every other ocean consumer, from the smallest fish to the largest whales. Like phytoplankton, changes in their abundance and species composition, as well as their energy content, can have major impacts on marine ecosystems.
Whales: indicators of ocean health
Whales have been the focus of AWF’s research program for over two decades. It was concern over declines in their health and abundance linked to the North Pacific ‘Blob’ that led us to launch our Ocean Health Program. Now, with new tools and techniques, we’re taking a very comprehensive and nuanced approach to studying the health of Alaska’s whales.
The five principles that guide the Ocean Health Program:
The OHP will focus on all aspects of the marine ecosystem, from the physical and chemical properties of the water upon which everything depends to the ‘apex’ predators that sit at the top of the food web.
Planetary warming and ocean health are concerns that will persist beyond the lifespan of typical research projects. The OHP is not a typical project - it is a long-term research and monitoring initiative that reflects AWF’s refocused mission towards ocean conservation.
Through a dedicated communication and outreach strategy, AWF is ensuring that information is available where it is needed: in the hands of researchers, resource managers, and, perhaps most importantly, the public whose support is critical to conservation.
Research benefits from collaboration. This is especially true for multifaceted programs like the OHP. AWF has developed key partnerships with researchers who bring a diversity of experience, expertise and resources to help ensure the program’s success.
Today’s students are tomorrow’s marine stewards. The OHP continues AWF’s longstanding tradition of providing opportunities for graduate and undergraduate student mentorship, training and participation in field work to prepare those students for future careers in marine conservation.