Students gain experience in collaboration with Apache Corp.


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Apache Corp. and Alaska Pacific University are collaborating on Cook Inlet research to map the marine environment, particularly the habitat and movements of mammals such as the endangered beluga whale. The data aids Apache as it conducts seismic exploration for oil and gas and provides real-world experience for APU students.

Photo/File/AP

Alaska Pacific University fisheries students are getting hands-on experience in fisheries research through a collaboration with Apache Corp.

Apache has been conducting seismic work as part of its exploration for oil and gas in Cook Inlet. The Houston-based company began a multi-year effort to write the subsurface book on Cook Inlet in 2012, with work planned to conduct marine and land-based seismic tests.

APU researcher Brad Harris has gotten his students involved in the research to give them a better portrayal of what real world collaboration and research can look like.

“You learn by getting into the mix,” said Harris, who runs APU’s Fisheries, Aquatic Science and Technology Lab in addition to teaching.

For APU senior Natalie Opinsky, mapping marine mammals in Cook Inlet helped expand her view of the interplay between resource exploration and the ocean habitat.

When she started learning about seismic work in Harris’ class, her interest was to “save the whales,” she said.

Learning about the research, and engaging in it, changed her perspective.

Ultimately, the exploration efforts need to protect endangered Cook Inlet belugas, but the work also needs to move forward to keep the money in Alaska, and produce needed oil and gas here, Opinsky said.

“I would love to see a balance with gas and oil and marine mammals,” Opinsky said.

Part of the Apache exploration program includes marine seismic work, said Lisa Parker, the company’s government relations manager.

One of the permits required the company to have marine mammal observers active in the area. Apache had observers on land and conducting aerial surveys to record where marine mammals were seen. Eventually, the data was submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

But the company realized that it would be helpful to have maps of that information to gauge general trends, Parker said, and discussed it with Harris during a 2012 meeting.

At the time, Opinsky was taking a survey of marine biology course, which typically has an applied component, Harris said. She had expressed an interest in seismic testing, so he invited her to get involved in the project.

Opinsky took the 2012 data and was able to map it, so that Apache had a visual representation of locations for beluga whales, gray whales, porpoise, sea lions and harbor seals.

That gave Apache a pretty good idea of where marine mammals were — and where it didn’t want to explore at any given time, Parker said.

The first round of mapping had some challenges — the data was in Excel spreadsheets, and had to pulled out and mapped. Harris and Opinsky worked on writing a script that automated the task. Opinsky had to learn mapping and other components as she worked on the project.

Harris estimated that she spent at least 100 hours on the project.

“Everything I’ve learned Brad Harris showed me, and then I was pretty much self-taught from there on out,” Opinsky said.

In 2013, Apache paused its seismic program, but continued the marine mammal observations, learning from the past collaboration, Parker said.

Instead of having an observer record data in a spreadsheet, and someone else map it later on, Apache contracted to use the Mysticetus Observation System.

“An hour after they get back from flying they are emailing us a report that includes the map,” Parker said.

Harris said the MOS system provides better quality data, and is more useful because it’s available immediately. When Apache resumes its work, the company can make decisions one day based on where it sees marine mammals the day before.

Opinsky’s project is not the only way APU students have gotten involved in Apache’s efforts.

Harris also has had more than 30 students work on razor clam research in Cook Inlet, including a baseline so that they can later see what impacts, if any, seismic testing has on them. He and his students have also helped map the gravel boundary that determines the line between the ocean and the shore. That’s necessary for Apache to track as it plans its seismic activity, and decides where to work.

Each year, Harris sits down with Apache to determine what research the two entities can collaborate on. He grew up in Homer, and Apache Alaska Corp. General Manager John Hendrix was his peewee wrestling coach.

Now, the two talk fish, and each year come up with a memorandum of understanding that spells out what research the FAST Lab will conduct. Apache makes a donation to the lab, which primarily provides funding for the students involved and necessary equipment, Harris said.

The collaborations have also led to ideas of more work that is needed.

Harris and Parker both noted that Apache’s seismic work has led to significant research efforts in Cook Inlet. Much of that data must be turned in to agencies, but not all of it is available for others to see.

While some data must remain confidential to protect proprietary business interests, Harris and Parker said they’d like to see more of it available to a wider range of people, so that the research being done is more useful.

“Our aim ultimately is to turn these data products into published, peer reviewed investigations,” Harris said.

Parker said that Apache also benefits from the collaborations, and has been able to do so in other regions where it works, too.

Harris said the collaborations benefit both the students and the oil and gas exploration efforts.

Apache gets information it needs, that is independent and stands up to scrutiny. APU students get tangible work products, and experience in the field.

Opinsky’s work has helped give her the chance to participate in two conferences, Harris said. In January, she will present a paper at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage. In April, she’ll present at a NMFS beluga conference.

Opinsky said she’ll also be able to design efficient data collection programs in the future.

“Natalie can pull up one of these maps and tell that story,” Harris said.

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