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Oceans are warming and it's having far-reaching consequences on marine ecosystems, worldwide.

AWF’s Ocean Health Program aims to safeguard our oceans for future generations by studying the impacts of changing oceans on marine ecosystems, providing data for guiding management decisions, fostering widespread support for ocean conservation initiatives, and ensuring long-term research capacity.

In 2016, nine of the world’s fourteen humpback whale populations were removed from the US Endangered Species List. Unfortunately, the celebration was short-lived. Soon after, researchers began observing alarming declines in humpback numbers and reproductive output, together with an increase in emaciated whales.


These observations coincided with an unprecedented marine heatwave in the North Pacific, known as “the Blob”, that negatively impacted key forage species, such as krill and herring, as well as commercially important fish stocks, seabirds and marine mammals. 


Although the North Pacific eventually cooled, a troubling reality emerged: without substantial measures to combat planetary warming, marine heatwaves will become more frequent and persistent. This poses a significant threat to not only marine ecosystems, but to humans as well. Warm waters, like those observed in the North Pacific, are nutrient and oxygen poor and therefore support fewer phytoplankton. Phytoplankton play a crucial role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so their decline leads to higher CO2 levels, further intensifying planetary warming. As well, changes in ocean productivity directly impact fisheries and aquaculture, which provide animal protein and livelihoods for millions worldwide.

Below: A temperature timeline for Southeast Alaska

The solution to ocean warming is complex. It will require broad international government and industry coalitions and a global shift towards renewable energy resources. It will require resource managers and policy makers to make difficult and often unpopular decisions. It will require the support from the public, whose actions as voters and consumers play both an indirect and direct role in the health of our oceans.  Critical to all of these are robust scientific data and evidence-based examples of the impacts of planetary warming on our planets ecosystems. AWF’s Ocean Health Program is a comprehensive research and monitoring program that rises to these challenges by ensuring that those data are available where and when they are needed.  

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. 

Components of AWF's
Ocean Health Program:

AWFs Ocean Health Program is a comprehensive initiative that focuses on the Alaskan marine food web from the bottom to the top.   

Ocean Conditions

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: Plants-of-the-sea

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
our 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.

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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.

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