‘Bioblitz’ turns up no new non-native aquatics
WHITTIER — When on the hunt for invaders, no news is usually good news.
That’s exactly the kind of good news Smithsonian Environmental Research Center scientists were able to report to the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council after a summer-long search in 2016 for non-indigenous species in the waters around Valdez.
Smithsonian Center Research Technician Linda McCann told the council’s board of directors during its September meeting in Whittier that the “bioblitz” the organization led in the Valdez harbor and other species surveys done in Prince William Sound over the summer turned up no new reports of ocean creatures not native to the sound.
The Annapolis, Md.-area Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is an arm of the larger Smithsonian Institution focused on studying coastal ecosystems worldwide.
McCann said the quick but intense bioblitz built on similar non-native species surveys the council had led. It was also a way to train “citizen scientists” on what to look for when out and about in the Sound.
“We wanted to expand our methodology to include the general public,” McCann said. “That gives us an opportunity to not only get to some additional places to survey, but we’ve got some additional eyes out there to look for us.”
The daylong bioblitz surveyed every slip in the Valdez harbor via plankton tows, fouling plates and crab traps.
It followed two days of training to bring volunteers up to speed on what to look for.
“We did a rapid assessment of all the structures (in the harbor) and we pulled up the traps and it also provided an opportunity for us to refresh some of our plate watch monitoring techniques,” McCann described.
Plankton tows are done with ultra-fine mesh nets capable of capturing the often-microscopic organisms. The fouling plates used in the surveys were small PVC squares left in the water to be covered by all types of marine invertebrates.
“(The plates) are colonized by all kinds of organisms in the water column, so this is a way for us to be able to monitor these organisms under the microscope,” McCann said.
Prince William Sound RCAC staff were also trained to identify non-native zooplankton the researchers think could be on their way to Southcentral Alaska waters.
Crab traps targeting European green crab were dropped around Valdez as well.
European green crab were found in San Francisco Bay in the late 1990s and their movement northward has been tracked since. They were last identified about 60 miles south of Alaska waters and heavy trapping is being done in British Columbia to at least slow their spread, according to McCann.
The only species caught in the traps were native crabs and fish, she added.
In addition to the bioblitz in the Valdez harbor, Smithsonian researchers also led plankton tows at the city’s ferry terminal and the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. oil tanker terminal. Fouling plates were also set at the tanker terminal and in the Cordova marina to expand the study beyond Valdez.
Finally, dive surveys were conducted in Valdez and the nearby village of Tatitlek.
The dives were in search of a non-native species of tunicates, McCann said.
“The only thing we found in the dive surveys was a nonnative bryozoan, an encrusting moss-like animal that we know is all over Alaska and we had seen previously, so all good. The results of all of the surveys was great news,” she said.
McCann recommended the Prince William Sound Council continue the “citizen scientist” monitoring and training and conducting comprehensive surveys similar to the bioblitz every two to five years.
She also said Smithsonian staff learned that the training to identify particularly small non-natives is a must and that the training is most effective when focusing on fewer species. But it’s certainly something that could be expanded statewide by other organizations as well, she suggested.
Council spokeswoman Brooke Taylor said the citizens’ organization is looking at conducting the larger surveys but hasn’t made any decisions yet.
Taylor also noted the council does its own invasive species monitoring and sets traps for green crab.
“What we do is kind of spot checking in a few communities and this bioblitz — it was basically a full-on check for invasive species in the port of Valdez versus the sampling that we do, which is kind of a snapshot of a couple specific locations throughout the year,” Taylor said.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].