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Scientists Study the Myriad Influences on Gulf of Alaska Marine Life

Young of the year rockfish. Scientists are trying to find out more about the early life stages of these fish. Credit: North Pacific Research Board.

NOAA Fisheries Biologist Wyatt Fournier explains lab procedures to scientists on board the Northwest Explorer. Credit: North Pacific Research Board.




The Gulf of Alaska Integrated Ecosystem Research Project is more than just a long-drawn-out title. This five-year study engages more than 40 scientists from a variety of disciplines—oceanographers, fisheries biologists, and modelers—to look at the naturally occurring factors influencing the survival of five commercially important groundfishes.

The communities on the Gulf of Alaska coast are tremendously reliant on these five commercially important fish populations for their economy. People living elsewhere in the United States are also dependent on this research, because so many of these fish are sold in restaurants and grocery stores.

 “It’s surprising how little we know about the early life stages of these fish, “ says Research Field Chief  and NOAA fisheries biologist Wyatt Fournier. “With salmon you can just walk up to a stream and watch their life cycle, but rockfish grow up way out at sea. To study them takes a large 160-foot, fully staffed research vessel and a whole research team.”

The North Pacific Research Board is spending $17.5 million on the study to examine walleye pollock, Pacific cod, Pacific Ocean perch, sablefish, and arrowtooth flounder. Scientists are looking at what they call “the gauntlet” of influences over the young of these fish. The gauntlet refers to all of the environmental factors that affect survival, including  habitat, predators, prey, ocean chemistry, and oceanography.  

The five-year study includes two years of field work aboard a number of research vessels. Scientists go out in a group, each looking at different but specific aspects of the ecosystem. The goal of the project is to better understand the key marine environmental factors that influence the abundance of these commercially important groundfish. The project also includes energetic studies to estimate the physiological and nutritional needs of fish. This research is helping us understand how fast fish grow and how much food they need under various conditions. Seabirds and marine mammals are also being studied. The project includes retrospective and computer modeling components as well—these studies shed light on historical trends and add confidence to predictions about future conditions in the Gulf of Alaska.

A better  understanding of what influences the survival of these young fish will inform management decisions affecting the larger fish to ensure their sustainability.