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Crab Collaboration: NOAA Supports Graduate Student’s Research on Mining Impacts to Red King Crab Habitat in Norton Sound

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Habitat Conservation Division of NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region

Meet Mabel

Mabel Baldwin-Schaeffer was born and raised in a small Alaskan Inupiaq Eskimo village called Kiana, a town with a population of 400 people. Her curiosity for the world outside of Kiana drove her to pursue high school outside of the small town.

In 1999, Mabel graduated from Project Education in Galena, Alaska. After that, she joined many other high school graduates in starting a career at the Red Dog Mine located in Northwest Alaska near Kotzebue. Working in their Environmental Department sparked her interest in resource management.

Mabel graduated from the Alaska Pacific University in 2013, with a Bachelor of Arts in Sustainability Studies. The latter half of obtaining her degree included raising three children while her husband continued to work at the Red Dog Mine.

The Norton Sound Red King Crab project was important to Mabel. Since she grew up in a small town, she has strong feelings regarding the importance of incorporating meaningful local participation in such big projects. She found this as an opportunity of balance scientific and community interests. She also saw this project as an opportunity to go home, considering the expensive nature of rural Alaska air travel; it’s cheaper to fly round trip to Honolulu!

Nome is close to her hometown, and she got to again experience the genuine smiles that come with rural Alaskan hospitality. She had the chance to see old friends, and make new ones in Nome.

Mabel currently lives in Wasilla, Alaska with her family. They love to take advantage of the abundance of Alaska by regularly fishing and camping in our great outdoors.

June 26, 2015

The prospect of finding gold continues to draw people to Alaska. A gold rush has recently struck in the Norton Sound area, where both recreational and larger scale offshore mining activities have increased exponentially due to higher gold prices and new mining techniques, such as those portrayed in popular reality TV shows. But it is unknown whether the mining boom in the marine environment may be harming habitat for red king crab – which provides a sustainable fishery and economic engine for the Alaskans who live and work along the West Coast of Alaska in the Norton Sound Area. The Habitat Conservation Division of NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region is researching marine mining impacts on red king crab habitat in Norton Sound.

Changing Landscapes

Norton Sound, located in the Bering Sea in western Alaska, has provided an abundant source of red king crab to the local residents for generations. Since 2009, the combined winter and summer commercial harvest has averaged 200 metric tons for an average ex-vessel value of $2.1 million.

Since 1996, the number of permitted offshore mining operations has grown from 3 to more than 200, and the total area designated for mining has increased from 320 to nearly 24,000 acres. One company is proposing the largest offshore marine mine project in Alaska’s history.

Under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, if a federally permitted or funded activity could adversely affect essential fish habitat, NOAA Fisheries must provide conservation recommendations to avoid or minimize those impacts. For over 20 years, the Alaska Region’s Habitat Conservation Division has provided conservation recommendations on potential impacts to Norton Sound red king crab stocks from offshore mining projects in Norton Sound.

Because environmental studies associated with offshore mining in Norton Sound indicate that habitat disturbances in water depths greater than 30’ are distinguishable and slow to recover, NOAA Fisheries has recommended that mining activities should be limited to water depths less than 30’ to prevent disturbance to habitats that support early life stages of juvenile crab and adult commercially-sized crab.

Understanding the Red King Crab 

Scientists and fishery managers from NOAA Fisheries and Alaska Pacific University want to know what effects both recreational and industrial mining have on crab habitat. The main barrier to answering that question has been a lack of site-specific information on crab habitat and mining effects in Norton Sound.

In 2013, NOAA Fisheries funded graduate student Mabel Baldwin-Schaeffer from Alaska Pacific University to gather information on marine gold placer mining in Nome. Mabel is from Kiana, a small Alaska Inupiaq Eskimo village in the Northwest Arctic Borough—northeast of Nome. She was crucial to establishing collaborative partnerships in Nome to support a mining impacts study. This step is critical in engaging Alaskan communities in research, particularly when addressing potential resource use conflicts.

“Resource use (i.e. fishing, hunting, mining, oil and gas, etc.) conflicts arise when areas are facing development pressure,” Mabel explained. “I was born and raised in a small, Inupiaq Eskimo village in Northwest Alaska and I have strong feelings with regard to the importance of incorporating meaningful local participation. I find this project as an opportunity to balance scientific and community interests.”

Mabel began the framework for the study by identifying a diverse background of participants to engage in data collection. This included the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, Kawerak Inc, and participants in the commercial crab fishery and mining industry. She also worked to identify the overlap of mining activities with subsistence crabbing activities, both in the summer and winter months.

A second research project was funded in 2013 for 2014 field work to investigate how to assess the effects of mining on marine habitat. One of the tools that is being used for that data collection is a device called an Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV). This machine is equipped with various sonars to collect seabed data in the shallow, turbid waters, and has not previously been used in the Norton Sound area. More than 70 kilometer of benthic habitat was surveyed in 2014.

What’s next for the team? They are currently completing the analysis of the data they collected with the USV in 2014. This summer they plan to re-survey the 2014 area to assess the persistence of benthic mining alterations, and also survey a new area that may be important for Norton Sound red king crab recruitment. This new research would involve tagging female crab to collect data by satellite, providing more detailed life history information for red king crab in Norton Sound.