Author Archives: Liza Hasan, 2019 AAUS Mitchell

About Liza Hasan, 2019 AAUS Mitchell

2019-2020 AAUS Mitchell

Keen for KEEN

Alaska never ceases to amaze me and the past few weeks on the Kenai Peninsula have been some of the best yet. The weather has been fantastic with sunny days and minimal wind. The salmon berries around the Kasitsna Bay Lab have been thriving and make for some very happy scientists that can grab a sweet treat with just a few steps. I have even had the chance to explore some of the incredible trails surrounding the laboratory and peppering the coastline of Kachemak Bay. The best part of hiking around Kachemak Bay is gaining a different perspective of the estuarine ecosystem. While the vast majority of the research I have helped with is on or in the water, the mountains and glaciers play a vital role in watershed and estuary dynamics, which connect to the big blue ocean.

The view of Tutka and Jakalof Bays while hiking Grace Ridge, which runs between them.

Happy hikers!

After 10 weeks, I am still in awe with the beauty of Alaska and that I get to be a part of research in such a diverse and productive ecosystem. One of the unique factors of research in Alaska is the high latitude. This makes Alaska a prime candidate for data contribution to studies along latitudinal gradients in order to measure how certain ecosystem functions vary, remain consistent, or are changing with latitude. One of these studies is the Kelp Ecosystem Ecology Network (KEEN) project lead by Jarrett Byrnes of University of Massachusetts, Amherst. At the start of my internship, there was talk of including KEEN in our array of projects this summer. I was especially excited because I was being trusted with going over protocol to make dive plans and creating a species list and guide for Alaska. I was anxious for the day that the good news would come of a window in our busy schedule to complete the KEEN sampling. Lucky for me, this day finally came on July 29th.

Studying kelp forests along a latitudinal gradient is an important component of assessing the health of kelp forest ecosystems in response to climate change. Kelp play a vital role in forming habitat for invertebrates and shelter for juvenile and adult fish. In order to assess the health of our kelp forests in Kachemak Bay, we conducted our first year of dive surveys to add to the KEEN global dataset. While Brenda Konar and her group consistently monitor kelp forests in Kachemak Bay, KEEN offers a unique approach for holistic sampling of each site and comparison to global kelp forests with an emphasis on public data access and sharing.

The KEEN protocol consists of four transects at each site. On each transect, we performed a fish swath, a target species swath, point counts, and quadrat surveys in order to document the kelp forest community structure and health at different levels of detail. For example, target species swaths are useful for documenting the number of Nereocystis (Bull Kelp) individuals exist along a transect, while quadrats are useful for counting the number of invertebrates in a square meter area. The fish swath diver records the number of each fish species that pass by while swimming the length of the transect, and the point count diver records the species directly under each side of a meter stick laid perpendicular to the transect tape at every meter.

En route to the KEEN site!

Brenda Konar, Katie McCabe, Tibor Dorsaz, and I surveyed Outside Beach, a kelp forest site located just outside of Seldovia Bay, home of the Village of Seldovia. Nereocystis can be seen as a bed on the surface, with fronds buoyed by a round gas-filled bulb. Beneath the surface, Saccharina (Sugar Kelp), mats the bed rock and makes a home for mobile and sessile invertebrates of vast colors and geometries.

Nereocystis studding the surface at Outside Beach KEEN site.

Nereocystis fronds are supported by a gas-filled bulb that floats at the surface. Photo by Brenda Konar.

Saccharina densely covers the bed rock, peppered with Nereocystis stipes. Photo by Brenda Konar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Each transect takes one dive to complete and each of the four divers took on one component of the protocol. Since there are four transect, I had the chance to help with all four survey types. This was an interesting opportunity to view the same site from a different lens on each dive. Fish swaths are a brief pass of the transect looking above the ground cover for fish swimming by, while a quadrat will have you engulfed in kelp and entering a whole different world of chitons, gastropods, bivalves, echinoderms, and more

A crab finding shelter (and probably food) within kelp blades. Photo by Brenda Konar.

A greenling hiding between rocks and Agarum (Sieve Kelp). Photo by Brenda Konar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Green Sea Urchin. Photo by Brenda Konar.

Small algal species, like this Opuntiella, are revealed after moving kelp fronds aside during detailed quadrat surveying. Photo by Brenda Konar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was equally as exciting as rewarding to dive in this beautiful kelp forest to contribute to the KEEN project. After soaking up the sun between four dives, a lot of underwater paper, and some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we successfully completed all four transects at Outside Beach. My next steps moving forward with KEEN are entering the data into the KEEN database. My first week in Alaska, I created a species list and field guide, including the species codes that the data are entered using. This way, anyone interested in viewing or using the data we collected will have an understanding of what codes refer to and what each species looks like through photos and species descriptions. It is a great feeling to be a part of a large, collaborative project. The addition of data from Alaska to this project was very desirable to establish a latitudinal gradient, and I am humbled to have been a part of contributing the first data set. Shortly, our data will be accessible through the KEEN website for viewing and use (www.kelpecosystems.org and Kelp Ecosystem Ecology Network Github). I’m very excited to have been a part of monitoring kelp forest health in order to preserve these incredibly important and beautiful ecosystems that are vulnerable to impacts of climate change. It is a global effort to monitor and manage these effects and projects like KEEN are harnessing the abilities of collaborators and citizen scientists worldwide.

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EPSCoR Galore

It is humbling to be a part of something big and help work towards answering the many questions there are about how the world works and our role within it. This summer I have had the opportunity to do that as a part of the Alaska NSF EPSCoR Fire and Ice project. EPSCoR Fire and Ice aims to study climate-driven changes in wildfires and coastal ecosystems in Alaska. Brenda Konar and her crew, which I am lucky to be a part of, conducts research as part of the Coastal Margins team. My amazement of this project stems from the vast range of topics integrated into one larger scheme of how coastal environments change along glacial gradients in Alaska. These questions are studied across two regions: Kachemak Bay in the northern Gulf of Alaska and Lynne Canal in Southeast Alaska, each containing five sites. In order to capture a full picture of how climate-driven glacial melt is affecting Alaska’s coastal environment, the Coastal Margins team studies estuarine geology, intertidal community ecology, fish biology, oceanography, and ocean acidification and other water characteristics (sedimentation, light, salinity, temperature, etc).

Our crew conducts intertidal sampling once a month at the beginning of the month. Over my 8 weeks in Alaska, I will be assisting with two of these sampling events. The timing of these sampling events is crucial because intertidal work relies heavily on low tides. One of the main components of our sampling is in the rocky intertidal where you can find mussels, barnacles, and the alga, Fucus sp., as dominant species. The sampling consists of clearing quadrats for species composition and biomass, assessing percent cover, and collecting and replacing larval recruitment plates and tuffies.

The line where oceanic water and water containing glacial till mix near the Grewingk Glacier sampling site.

While our group specializes in intertidal ecology, we help out with other components then send off the samples and data to where other team members are stationed. One of the other components to the project is fish seining. At each site, we beach seine and count, identify, and measure all fish that are caught. In addition to learning how to properly beach seine, this gave me the chance to learn a few of the fish species in Alaska.

Fish seining!

Another component of the project our group helps with is taking water quality samples and conducting zooplankton tows. While water quality data collection was as simple as filling containers and taking YSI measurements, zooplankton tows required a bit more equipment. Zooplankton collection required using both ring nets and tucker trawls in order to collect zooplankton from different layers in the water column and using a CastAway to examine water characteristics.

To complement biological oceanography with physical oceanography, we launched drifter buoys into Kachemak Bay. Drifter buoys are essentially buoys equipped with GPS and temperature sensors that are attached to underwater sails that are caught by ocean currents. These drifters allow for the oceanographic modelling portion of the EPSCoR project. We launched four buoys a handful of times and could track their movements across the launch timeframe in order to see how currents circulate within Kachemak Bay.

Drifter buoys floating in the bay post-launch.

Launching drifter buoys also means finding drifter buoys at the end of each launch cycle. Searching for these buoys was like playing “Where’s Waldo” in a bay full of orange buoys. It is safe to say that all of the buoys were successfully found after every launch.

It was an exciting feat to find each and every drifter buoy.

The final portion of EPSCoR that we conducted was diving on the sensors at each of the five sites and collecting subtidal community ecology samples. At each site, there are sediment traps; temperature, dissolved oxygen, depth, and salinity sensors; and a tilt meter (for current speed and direction). Each month, these sensors are switched out in order to download data collected over the previous month. Typically, this requires diving in order to access the sensors. However, Kachemak Bay has almost a 10 meter tidal exchange making it possible to access some sensors from the shore at low tide.

Sediment tubes connected to sensors peeking out of the water at low tide.

In addition to switching out sensors, we also collected subtidal community samples by clearing contents within quadrats. Even if sensors were accessible at low tide, clearing quadrats for samples often required diving in order to collect a proper sample. This has been an especially exciting portion of the project for me because I will be working with these data and presenting a poster at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium in January on variation in subtidal community ecology along a glacial gradient. Specifically, my project aims to identify patterns in subtidal communities associated with the glacial gradient.

Diving in a kelp forest near Hesketh Island.

Lots of sampling also means lots of samples to work through in the lab. The past few weeks have been full of sieving and sorting through intertidal biomass samples and hours at the dissecting microscope identifying larval recruits.

I had the opportunity to change modes from intertidal community ecology to marine birds and mammals for a few days while assisting USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) with work for Gulf Watch Alaska. Marine bird and mammal surveys are conducted each year along much of the Kachemak Bay coastline. It was a great chance to see another side to marine ecology as well as coves and bays in Kachemak Bay that I had not seen before. To round out these surveys and encompass different taxa, there was also a fish component that required hook and line fishing. Catching my first fish, seeing a pod of orca whales, and spotting an otter eating a huge octopus were highlights of the week!

It is hard to put into words how incredible my time in Alaska has been so far. I have learned so much about intertidal and subtidal ecology and a wealth of new field sampling techniques. I can’t wait to keep learning and get back into the water as we delve into the next month of EPSCoR sampling next week! Just to make sure we still need dry suits up here in Alaska, we all jumped in to test the water. Although summer is in full swing in Alaska, I am confident in saying that we will be bundling up in suits, gloves, and hoods next week!

Celebrating the end of a successful field season of some colleagues with a jump in the water.

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From the Intertidal to the Kelp Forests

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to assist with a plethora of different projects. Two of these projects are Gulf Watch Alaska and NaGISA. Gulf Watch Alaska aims to provide scientific data on the status of the marine environment since the Exxon Valdez oil spill and informs environmental management in the Gulf of Alaska (https://gulfwatchalaska.org/). Many groups have teamed up to collect data throughout the Gulf of Alaska, and the Konar group contributes to this effort by sampling in Kachemak Bay.

Our sampling consisted of surveys conducted on mussels, the low, mid, and high intertidal community, clams, and seagrass beds. We surveyed sites all across Kachemak Bay from the oceanic Port Graham at the base of the bay to the glacially influence estuarine site of Bear Cove at the head of the bay. This made for a week of experiencing the great variety of marine habitats in Kachemak Bay, learning various different sampling protocol, and sampling at many beautiful locations.

View from Bishops Beach rocky intertidal sampling site near Homer, AK.

While intertidal sampling meant time out of the water, it allowed me to gain a better understanding of rocky and soft intertidal ecosystems. Through percent cover surveys and sorting samples in the lab, I’ve become familiar with my intertidal algae and invertebrate species. It’s amazing how many different species of algae there are and how much the community can change throughout the intertidal zone.

Rocky intertidal sampling for percent cover at Cohen Island.

The seagrass beds required trips to different sites since they are part of soft sediment habitats. Lucky for me, this meant more boat rides with fantastic views of Kachemak Bay. Not to mention the beauty of the sampling sites themselves! At the seagrass beds, we measured percent cover and the dimensions of the bed. Where the dimensions were far too large to be measured with a transect tape, we marked coordinates of the bounding corners. The seagrass bed at the site aptly named Mud Flat was so large that I made it out to the low tide mark; it felt like I was walking out to sea! I might have gotten a bit stuck in the mud, but that just meant more time to appreciate the seagrass and mountain views.

Coming back from measuring the seagrass bed width. Photo by Brenda Konar

With the efforts of a great team, we successfully completed the Gulf Watch Alaska sampling. The week was full of learning and fun with a big group of amazing individuals!

Gulf Watch Alaska 2019 Kachemak Bay team.

Now back to the water with NaGISA! NaGISA is the Natural Geography in Shore Areas project that aimed to measure biodiversity in near-shore habitats and how they change over time. From 2000-2010, this project was conducted across a longitudinal and latitudinal gradient to capture changes in biodiversity around the world. Although the project has ended, the Konar Lab continues to sample high latitude macroalgal habitats for long-term monitoring. This was an extremely exciting experience for me because I was able to dive my first kelp forest! Then I was able to dive another four kelp forests to make our five sampling sites.

Preparing for a dive at Outside Beach near Seldovia, AK. Photo by Emily Williamson

These dives were both interesting and challenging in that sampling required being surrounded by kelp. Sampling consisted of clearing the kelp and invertebrates within 50 by 50 centimeter quadrats, which meant that we had to get to the holdfast of the kelp in order to remove it. Now I can add “how to remove a branching holdfast” and “the best way to remove a chiton” to my research diving skill set! Visibility was also a challenge that varied based on the site. At more glaciated sites, the visibility decreases due to glacial sediment entering the water.

Practicing drysuit buoyancy skills before sampling. Photo by Brenda Konar

I have learned countless skills over the past few weeks and worked at sites from seagrass to under the sea. Being a part of various projects has kept me busy with field and lab work, but I always remember to take the time to soak in the beauty of working in Alaska and how much I have grown as a scientist. Each and every site I have been to have been incredibly beautiful in their own way from booming mountains to adorable baby sea stars hiding between the rocks. I find it import in life and ecology to appreciate the little things, like watching a tiny barnacle filter food from the big bad ocean. At the end of each day, I make sure to look at the sunset and take a few breaths thinking about how grateful I am to be spending this summer at the Kasitsna Bay Lab. Thank you to OWUSS and Brenda Konar for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime!

One of many amazing sunsets around 11pm. So much daylight!

The resident otter in Kasitsna Bay snacking on a clam. Photo by Emily Williamson

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The Beginning

As of five days ago, I had never been to Alaska, let alone a research station tucked into the Kachemak Bay on the Kenai Peninsula. The AAUS Mitchell Internship has given me the opportunity to join Brenda Konar and her group at the Kasitsna Bay Laboratory studying various aspects of intertidal and subtidal community ecology along a glacial gradient in the Kachemak Bay, Alaska.

Although Alaska is still part of the US, it feels a world away from Colorado. The trip up north took 12 hours across three flights and a water taxi. The views from the plane from Anchorage to Homer and the water taxi were unbelievable! The sights of crisp water, islands and bays, sea otters playing, and looming snow-capped mountains made the nerves of diving in the cold Alaskan waters slip away.

View from the plane from Anchorage to Homer.

My first few days at the research station consisted of processing samples in the lab for species composition, biomass, and reproductive effort. This allowed me to jump right into learning my Alaskan intertidal species. To further my species identification knowledge, I have been putting together a target species list for dive sampling- sea stars, kelp, nudibranchs, oh my!

After these first few days of diving into processing samples, I got to dive into the water. I learned how to properly don a dry suit, the beauty of corn starch on seals, and that the nerves of dry suit diving will immediately disappear once you’re weighted down and overheating. I can now officially say I have dove in a dry suit, and in just a few days we will go to work on dive sampling! I’m thrilled about this opportunity to expand my research diving techniques and experience in order to explore a whole new environment. I have already seen so many organisms, like sea stars and nudibranchs, that I had not often seen in warm water. The ocean is such a vast and incredible world, and I can’t wait to experience the wonders of cold water ecosystems while contributing to research.

First dry suit dive!

Lucky for me, the Konar group’s research covers both the intertidal and subtidal. This means that in addition to dive sampling, I get to help the team with intertidal sampling of mussels, clams, algae, and other critters. Today, I had the opportunity to assist with sea otter surveys where we set up a telescope at a look out point and recorded sea otter feeding behavior.

View from sea otter observation look out point.

I have already learned so much, and I know I will continue to absorb boatloads of knowledge and skills throughout the course of this summer. I have even gained some skills I didn’t expect, like learning how to don a survival suit!

Testing out survival suits!

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