M/V Tiglax Sails for Science

Authors: Lisa Spitler and Jeff Williams | Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

Tiglax SketchThe M/V Tiglax (TEKH-lah – Aleut for eagle) is essential to managing the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The boat is 120 feet long and operates with a crew of 6. Fourteen scientists can live and work aboard. She has wet and dry labs and freezers for storing samples. Tiglax can deploy midwater and bottom trawls for sampling fish and plankton, and hosts bioacoustic transducers and data processors for sampling fish/plankton densities; and a SBE-21 thermosalinograph for diving seabird studies.

In a season, the Tiglax may sail to Forrester and St. Lazaria Islands in Southeast Alaska, or into Bering Sea as far as St. Matthew Island. Her main operations area is, however, the Aleutian Chain. Tiglax typically spends 120-160 days at sea covering as many as 20,000 nautical miles (at a top speed of 10 knots) traveling from the home port of Homer, Alaska out to Attu Island at the extreme west end of the Aleutian chain and back, several times a season.

The main role of the Tiglax is to transport service personnel, equipment, and supplies between work sites throughout the refuge. This year Tiglax departs Homer on May 17 to deploy FWS biologists and biological technicians at field camps in the Semidi Islands, on Aiktak, Buldir, Kiska, and Attu. These scientists focus on studying seabird colonies, but also work on reestablishing endangered habitats, they identify and monitor archaeological and historic sites, they monitor bird populations and human impacts on habitats, they maintain remote field facilities, and they patrol refuge waters.

 Tiglax also serves as a seagoing research platform and living quarters for scientists from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or other federal or state agencies and universities. This year’s FWS projects include removal of invasive foxes from islands to restore native bird populations, collecting background information on contaminants left over from World War II, and monitoring other contaminant cleanup efforts on Attu and Amchitka, studying Kasatochi Island as she recovers from an eruption in 2008, lichen research on Adak, and visiting remote bird nesting colonies.

Non FWS partners include the National Marine Fisheries Service for sea lion studies, the University of Alaska, Institute of Marine Sciences and School of Fisheries, The Alaska Volcano Observatory, and the US Navy.

Stay with us for the “Summer of the Tiglax” as we report in on monitoring and research activities supported and facilitated by the Tiglax and crew!



Addressing Climate Change in the Aleutians and Bering Sea

Author: Aaron Poe | Aleutian and Bering Sea Islands Landscape Conservation Cooperative

The Aleutians divide the Bering Sea from the rest of the North Pacific, and together with the Pribilof Islands and St. Lawrence Island, host nine of the most remote communities in the United States. The residents of these communities depend on the region’s rich biological productivity. Changes in temperature, sea ice extent, and storminess will likely affect many key species in this region and the people who rely on them. This begs the question, “What will tomorrow look like in the decades to come given climate change impacts in the region?”

In 2013 the Aleutian and Bering Sea Islands Landscape Conservation Cooperative (ABSI), together with the Alaska Climate Science Center, launched a partnership with the Alaska Ocean Observing System (AOOS) to assess climate impacts on key species and ecosystem services in the Aleutians and Bering Sea.  This project brought together a team of 30 scientists and managers from agencies, tribal organizations, and universities.  The team used results from two recent climate downscaling efforts by the University of Washington and NOAA’s Pacific Marine Ecology Lab, and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks to guide their assessment.

The scientists worked in five teams to assess potential climate change threats across a broad range of resources, evaluating everything from archeological sites to zooplankton. The largest team combined sociologists and anthropologists to evaluate climate vulnerabilities associated with socioeconomic and cultural resources vital to the region’s nine island communities. Other teams focused on seabirds; marine mammals; terrestrial vegetation; and species important to commercial fisheries of the region. Their combined efforts will help to identify collective future research priorities of ABSI, the Alaska Climate Science Center, and AOOS.

Museum of the Aleutians meeting.

Museum of the Aleutians meeting.

The island communities in this region are a key focus of this assessment. During one community forum in the region’s largest town of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, our team heard about changes residents already see that they attribute to climate change. Changing weather conditions and warmer ocean waters threaten the viability of traditional harvest practices that island tribes have used for generations to survive in this remote region. Residents expressed concerns about climate change interacting with possible impacts from the complex and sophisticated fishing industry that is so vital to the region’s economy—which also accounts for 50% of the total annual U.S. seafood harvest. We hope this session can be the first in a series of discussions about climate change in this region and our team is looking for opportunities to further engage with these nine island communities on this topic.

The final report from this project will be released in spring of 2015 and will include collective future research priorities of ABSI, the Alaska Climate Science Center, and AOOS as we aim to help communities and managers adapt to climate change. More information on this collaboration funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and NOAA is available at www.absilcc.org or by contacting Aaron Poe aaron_poe@fws.gov.

Unalaska_city_centerHeader image: Unalaska city center.

Modern Shipwrecks on Shemya Island

Author: Jason Rogers, PhD: Northern Land Use Research Alaska, LLC, Senior Project Archaeologist

The Aleutian chain is the final resting place for literally hundreds of wrecked vessels (over 180 wrecks are listed in a compilation prepared by staff of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge). The earliest recorded shipwreck in the Aleutians is that of Vitus Bering’s vessel Sv. Petr, returning to Kamchatka on his initial voyage of exploration. The Sv. Petr wrecked on the island that would later bear Bering’s name, and where the explorer himself died. In modern times, the Aleutian chain is frequented by numerous fishing vessels, and transited by thousands of cargo ships every year on the ‘Great Circle’ route between Asia and North America. Grounding, stranding, and wrecking are still all too common events, occasionally with disastrous consequences- a recent example is that of the Malaysian freighter Selandang Ayu, which lost power and was driven aground at Skan Bay on the northwest coast of Unalaska Island in 2004. Six crewmembers died during the event, and 350,000 gallons of diesel and bunker oil were released, requiring a major clean-up along many miles of remote oiled coastline.

In June 2014, historical background and field investigations of two modern period shipwrecks at Eareckson Air Station on Shemya Island were undertaken at the request of the U.S. Air Force (Rogers 2014). Although no removal or salvage is currently contemplated, the USAF PACAF Regional Support Center Cultural Resources Program Manager requested the inventory and evaluation for responsibilities under section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act. The vessels investigated are Barge No. 18, a tank barge situated above the high-tide line on a sand and gravel beach on the north side of the island; and F/V Opty, a commercial fishing vessel lodged on a rocky point at the northwest end of the island.

Barge No. 18.

Barge No. 18.

Barge No. 18 is a 275-foot long steel-hulled tank barge built in Alameda, California, in 1957. The barge was in tow by the tug Wando in 1958, bringing a cargo of petroleum fuel to supply the Northwest Orient Airlines refueling and operations base on Shemya (1956 – 1961), when she broke loose and grounded. Over the years she was used as a source of scrap metal for various projects on the island, and large amounts of steel were cut and salvaged. As her condition worsened, however, military authorities placed her off limits. The vessel’s current condition is poor, as salvage and corrosion have taken their toll. The physical environment of the cove and beach has changed greatly since the grounding in 1958. Historic photos show the vessel’s stern completely exposed and resting on a rocky substrate. Over the past 56 years, sand accumulation has buried the entire starboard side to the deck level, and the stern is exposed for only two feet above the level of the sand. The landform on the vessel’s port (landward) side appears stabilized by thick vegetation growth, although the starboard (seaward) side is still active and impacted by wave action. Despite salvage and exposure Barge No. 18 is for the most part stable and not in danger of structural collapse.

F/V Opty.

F/V Opty.

The 139-foot F/V Opty was built as on offshore supply vessel (OSV) in 1970, in Jennings, Louisiana. She was christened Flying Diamond 2, and used to support the offshore oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico. In the mid-1980s she was converted to a commercial fishing vessel and renamed Opty. In December 1988, she was fishing in the Bering Sea, and had anchored offshore of Shemya Island for the night. Early on a snowy and windy morning their anchor dragged, and the vessel was blown ashore. The vessel took on water, and the crew had to abandon ship. They were hauled onshore by hand lines by fire and security personnel, as Shemya had no water rescue capabilities. All crew members were successfully brought to shore with only minor hypothermia. Approximately 15,000 gallons of fuel was spilled into the ocean. The vessel was driven onto a steep rocky point of land, completely exposed to northerly swells. F/V Opty’s current condition is calamitous – the vessel has been seriously damaged by marine processes, and is approaching the point of total structural collapse. The entire bottom hull is torn out from midships forward, the aft deck has buckled, and much of the vessel’s starboard side is gone as well. F/V Opty’s further disintegration is inevitable as the vessel is further impacted by storms and wave action.

F/V Opty.

F/V Opty.

The disparate rates of vessel disintegration can be directly attributed to their differential exposure to marine processes. Barge No. 18, in a relatively protected cove (and increasingly buried in sandy sediment), shows much slower rates of breakdown than F/V Opty. The total exposure of Opty’s starboard side, as well as the rocky substrate, has resulted in accelerated rates of fragmentation and collapse.

Fig 2 barge


October header image: Barge No. 18 |  Jason Rogers |  Shemya | 2014.



Marine Vessel Traffic in the Aleutians

Authors: Douglas Burn and Aaron Poe | Aleutian and Bering Sea Islands Landscape Conservation Cooperative (ABSI LCC)

The shortest distance between any two points on a spherical object (such as the Earth) is known as a “Great Circle Route.” The North Pacific Great Circle Route that connects the west coast of the United States with major ports in Asia transits directly through the Aleutian archipelago. Each year, several thousand large, deep-draft vessels make this voyage, sailing through Unimak Pass on the eastern end of the Aleutians, and using one of several different passes to the west.

For the most part, this vessel traffic occurs without incident. In early December 2004 however, the cargo vessel Selendang Ayu lost power in the eastern Bering Sea and driven by high winds and rough seas, drifted southward before running aground on Unalaska Island. This incident, which resulted in the loss of the vessel, cargo, fuel, and the lives of six crew members, represents the worst-case scenario for vessels transiting through the Aleutians.

Over the past decade, the Marine Exchange of Alaska (MXAK) has developed a land-based network of receivers that monitor signals broadcast by AIS (Automatic Identification System) transponders. AIS is required for most vessels greater than 300 tons and are becoming more common on other types vessels. At present, the westernmost AIS receiver in the Aleutians is located at Adak Island, and is incapable of monitoring vessel traffic at the western ends of these routes. More recently, satellites have been launched that can receive AIS data. These satellite systems typically do not receive vessel locations with the same temporal frequency as AIS receivers on the Earth’s surface. Instead, they offer broader spatial coverage that is not limited by the fixed location of land-based receivers.

Analysis of data collected by the MXAK network indicates that there were 4,615 transits by deep-draft vessels through Unimak Pass in 2012. The routes used by these vessels at the western end of the Aleutian archipelago remains a mystery. In 2013, the Aleutian and Bering Sea Islands Landscape Conservation Cooperative (ABSI LCC) partnered with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning (SNAP) to purchase and analyze a three-year archive of satellite AIS data. Preliminary results indicate that vessels transiting through Unimak Pass primarily enter/exit the Bering Sea on one of three routes (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Two of these routes pass close to islands in the Near Island group at the western end of the archipelago. In addition to the three main routes that transit through the Bering Sea, there is also a fourth route south of the Aleutians that makes its closest approach near the center of the archipelago near the Delarof islands. Field Biologists frequently observe large container ships passing within a few miles of shore in the Aleutians (Photo).

Figure 2

Results of this study will have a number of applications, including the formulation of vessel routing recommendations that provide greater distance and safety from possible vessel groundings like the Selendang Ayu.

For more information about this project, visit the ABSI LCC web site.



Header Image:Japanese steamship Borneo Maru in Gertrude Cove. Photo by C. Funk. 6/13/2014.