North of Bering Strait and west of Point Barrow, Alaska, lies the Chukchi Sea - home to a mix of north and west Pacific, circumboreal and Arctic marine fauna. Offshore are areas designated as possible oil lease areas, and the shallow, epicontinental sea is home to ice-dependent marine mammals, migratory whales, and birds including shearwaters, fulomars, and eiders. Small Inupiat communities depend on these resources for food and cultural identity. In August I was invited to participate in sampling to support environmental assessment of the nearshore habitats between Point Hope and Point Lay.
The jumping off point for this expedition to the Chukchi Sea is Nome on the Seward Peninsula. Getting there from Fairbanks in the Alaskan interior requires a flight first south to Anchorage then north and west to Nome. At the small crowded Nome airport, I joined the scientific party, and loaded supplies and personal gear onto a couple pickups, then we drove off through fog and drizzle to the small harbor. We met the crew of the Noresman II and settled in. During the 30 hour transit from Nome to the first sampling station, our scientific party of 10 and crew of six got acquainted, ran through drills, and refined our sampling protocols, for physical oceanographic conditions and water quality, plankton, fishes, and benthic invertebrates. My role, along with Roger Clark, was to identify benthic invertebrates, to count and weigh the catch from the beam trawl sampling.
We were favored by relatively mild temperatures and calm seas. Because of these favorable conditions, we completed three sampling stations in a 10- 12 hour day before steaming to the next day’s starting point.
The benthic invertebrate life a mix of species at their northernmost geographical range, species best known form the west Pacific, and Arctic fauna. We sorted large catches of seastars, shrimps, and ascidians as well as numerous gastropods. The Beringian area of which the Chukchi is the northwestern extent, is possibly the center for the evolution and dispersal of north Pacific Conidae- all those confusing Oenopota etc., also Buccinidae: Buccinum, Colus, Neptunea, Plicifusus, and so on. Velutina and Onchidiopsis, which are generally poorly known were encountered. In addition, we found five nudibranchs, a large red-mottled Dendronotus, a Flabellina, two Arctic species Calycidoris guentheri, and Acanthodoris pilosa. I was working with the epifauna, so bivalves seldom showed up in the catch from the beam trawl. Bivalves are mainly collected as infauna samples taken with a van veen grab.
Next year the project will continue exploring the Arctic nearshore as for as Point Barrow. Meanwhile, I’m identifying voucher specimens of rare or problematic species.