Prince William SOUNDKEEPER®

Clean Water   Healthy Fisheries   Strong Communities

Ecosystems & Threats

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Today, the impacts of climate change, commercial and recreational boating, marine debris, fractured resource management and limited general public awareness of and affinity for water quality issues represent the greatest threats to Prince William Sound.

Climate Change

Perhaps no other state will be more effected by climate change than Alaska. It is already warming at twice the rate of the rest of the rest of United States and, significant warming will continue to occur across the state, especially during winter months. Precipitation is predicted to increase during summer and winter months. Atmospheric warming has affected sea surface temperatures, causing northward shifts of Pacific weather patterns.

Recent research indicates that the ocean’s chemical make up is less stable and more greatly affected by climate change than previously believed and marine organisms may be responding faster to climate change than land-based plants and animals. Climate change is affecting ocean temperatures, supply of nutrients, chemistry, food chains, shifts in wind systems, currents and extreme weather events. Already out pacing some predictions, scientists have found that warming of the Arctic current over the last 30 years has triggered the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from sediment beneath the seabed.
In the Prince William Sound region of southern Alaska, water temperatures in the Kenai Peninsula salmon streams are warming consistently above state-assigned levels set to protect spawning and migrating fish. Climate prediction models estimate a 10% decrease in precipitation and a 2-3°C temperature increase in 50 years, and 4-6°C increase in 100 years for Prince William Sound. This will cause a large influx of freshwater input from glaciers melting. The large volume of freshwater discharging into Prince William Sound drives the local and regional ocean circulation. The initial influx of freshwater causes a stronger current of nutrient rich water to flow along the coast. Once the glaciers completely recede the circulation patterns will change, affecting intertidal and subtidal organisms that are important to the surrounding ecosystem.

In addition to changing water temperature, ocean acidification is emerging as one of the greatest threats of climate change. Ocean acidity has increased 30% since the Industrial Revolution, and oceanic carbon dioxide may double again by the end of the century. The Gulf of Alaska region is considered particularly important because it is likely to be one of the first regions around the globe to feel the impacts of ocean acidification. The first buoy on the planet designed to monitor ocean acidification was launched in the Gulf of Alaska in 2007. Alaska’s  cold water can hold more gas than warmer water, absorbing more carbon dioxide; and the shallow waters of it’s continental shelves also retain more carbon dioxide because there is less mixing of seawater from deeper ocean waters.

Acidification has several known impacts, and very likely other impacts that haven’t yet been discovered. Acidification makes it harder for organisms to make shells or other protective structures -- they essentially dissolve in the more acidic water. This change poses new risks for a range of ocean life including clams, coral reefs, crabs, shrimp, lobsters, krill, sea urchins, sea snails and some kinds of plankton. At the base of the food chain, the tiny pteropod, also known as a sea butterfly or swimming sea snail, makes up nearly half of the pink salmon's diet. A 10 percent decrease in the population of pteropods could mean a 20 percent decrease in an adult salmon's body weight. Acidification can also affect the growth of marine plants and the potency of many marine toxins. It makes it harder for animals in general to breathe. It makes fish grow over-sized ear bones, called otoliths, potentially affecting their ability to orient themselves in the water. Additionally, it makes the oceans nosier by increasing the efficiency of sound transmission. 

Warming water temperatures and ocean acidification also threaten plankton populations. Plankton dominates estuarine and coastal marine food webs and gives life to most of what we see in the sea. Planktonic photosynthesis accounts for roughly half of the primary productivity on earth and plays an important role in the ocean's carbon cycle. If you live by the coast this means that some of the oxygen that you breathe has come from plankton. As photosynthesis occurs in phytoplankton, carbon dioxide is incorporated into the cells and taken out of the environment. During this process more than 100 million tons of inorganic carbon is fixed each day around the world, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon gets converted into sugars that are stored in cells that are eaten by zooplankton and filter feeders. Zooplankton are eaten by small fish species, which are eaten by salmon, seabirds, marine mammals and on throughout the food web. Phytoplankton is in such high demand that the entire phytoplankton biomass of the world's oceans is consumed by filter feeders, from barnacles to baleen whales, every 2 to 6 days! Historical evidence shows that plankton does not recover easily from catastrophes. When a population crash occurred across the oceans 65 million years ago, it took approximately 3 million years for the plankton to recover.
Researchers at northern latitudes have already documented that in the wake of warming water temperatures, low plankton densities and drastic decreases in plankton-eating fish populations have resulted in vacant seabird nest sites due to starving birds. Hundreds of Black Guillemots have been reduced to just a few. Thousands of Arctic Tern nests sit empty. In recent summers, the largest colony of Skuas had only a few chicks.
Ecological shifts in regards to climate change will also have drastic effects on human communities in the Sound. Many PWS community members rely on commercial and subsistence fisheries for their economic prosperity and livelihoods. In Cordova alone, 50% of jobs are directly related to commercial fishing, with an additional 25% indirectly dependent on the fishing industry.

Opportunities to address climate change exist. Developing and implementing strategies on the scale needed and at the pace needed to meet targets will require public awareness and a major commitment to change. Agencies such as the The Alaska Department of Fish & Game need to be encouraged to incorporate climate change into a long-term resource management strategy - now. Local and tribal governments in the Sound need to discuss and develop comprehensive climate change strategies for things such as energy management, transportation, purchasing and waste reduction and outreach and education.

PWSK believes that action at the local level is imperative for increasing public awareness and understanding of climate change issues and creating grassroots pressure for meaningful action.

Marine Debris
The presence of marine debris is not new in Alaska, nor is the awareness that marine debris is harmful to the marine environment and its inhabitants.The amount of debris, its persistence, and its insidious presence in our communities and on even the most remote beaches have brought to the forefront the need for addressing the issue to maintain a healthy marine ecosystem. It is clear that marine debris is a source of preventable human-caused injury and mortality for marine fish and wildlife.

For years, the problem of marine debris was out of site as metal, glass, and garbage sank, and paper and cloth decayed. However as the use of plastics developed and expanded, the unique characteristics that made plastics so successful - lightweight, strength and durability - made them a visible problem in the ocean. Perhaps among the earliest documented marine debris reports, in the 1930’s researchers reported the occasional entanglement of northern fur seals on the Pribilof Islands. Plastics applications became widespread in the 1950’s and reports of entanglements were noted with greater frequency by the 1960’s. In one recent survey, 86 percent of the trash observed in the North Pacific Ocean was plastic. There is a growing concern that plastics, particularly micro plastics, are able to absorb, concentrate, and deliver toxic compounds to organisms that ingest them, thus causing delayed health issues to those organisms and marine mammals. Plastics in the Great  Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating “plastic soup” in the northern Pacific with a sprawl covering an area estimated to equal one and half times the size of the United Sates, and having a depth of 100 feet, outweigh surface zooplankton by a factor of 6 to 1. Plastic debris releases chemical additives and plasticizers into the ocean and also also adsorbs hydrophobic pollutants like PCBs and pesticides like DDT. These pollutants bioaccumulate in the tissues of marine organisms, biomagnify up the food chain, and find their way into the foods we eat. At least 99 percent of the world’s 312 species of seabirds are reported to ingest small pieces of floating plastic, mistaking it for food such as plankton or fish eggs that also float to the surface. Plastic bags and wrap, which can resemble prey such as jellyfish in shape, color, size and motion, are ingested by animals, blocking digestive tracts. Marine debris can also act as a vector for the accelerated introduction of invasive species. Floating and drifting debris is often reported to be encrusted with marine organisms, often thought to have originated at great distances from where it was found.

Commercial & Recreational Boating
Marine debris and other contaminants introduced to Prince William Sound via harbors and commercial and recreational boat traffic are currently major stressors on the health of the ecosystem and its ability to resist and recover from changes.  Environmental impacts associated with commercial and recreational boating include chronic, cumulative small oil and fuel spills, improper disposal of trash and sewage, improper disposal of antifreeze and batteries, general boat maintenance issues and the use of toxic solvents, paints and cleaners. Outdated and inadequate harbor facilities, skeletal staffing, and a lack of boater awareness of and compliance with clean and safe boating practices are insidious factors affecting the environment throughout Prince William Sound.
Between 2003 and 2004, the number of boats coming into the port of Whittier alone increased by 36%. Moorage in the harbor is at full capacity with 550 slips and a waiting list of 550. The Whittier harbor estimates that personal fishing and hunting trips currently account for as much as 30,000 annual uses of the harbor. In Valdez, the harbor is also at full capacity with 511 slips and a waiting list of 200. The Valdez harbor is heavily utilized by residents of interior Alaska including Fairbanks and the Northstar borough. It has the smallest staff of the three larger harbors, a team that is completely inadequate for dealing with the volume of harbor activity. Debris clean-up and vandalism issues are chronic and as a result oil recycling and other facilities are now locked and only accessible by obtaining a key from the harbor office during office hours.

For the small isolated communities such as Tatitlek and Chenega, the environmental and economic burdens of having inadequate public harbor facilities with exponentially increased visitation from non-resident user groups is compounded further. Between 2001 and 2006, out-of-state visitation to the Sound increased by 36 %, which resulted in an unprecedented 405,000 travelers to Prince William Sound. Not surprisingly, more visitors have led to greater development and use pressures.

Fractured Resource Management

Management of resources in Prince William Sound is complicated due to the region’s vast and remote wilderness landscape and history. A complex array of tribes, government agencies and landowners often operate individually, in isolation and with competing or inconsistent priorities. The absence of centralized management coupled with insufficient manpower results in failed or inadequate attempts to enforce existing regulations or attention to root causes.

Prince William Soundkeeper, PO Box 1368, Cordova, Alaska, 99574  tel: 907-424-5701  a 501c(3) non-profit organization.
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