Citizen network monitors for aquatic invasive species

Sarah Hoepfner has volunteered to monitor the Cordova area for invasive green crabs.
Sarah Hoepfner has volunteered to monitor the Cordova area for invasive green crabs.

With support from the council, a network of citizens monitor our region for invasive species, particularly European green crab and tunicates. This program was initiated by the council in 2000, and has evolved into a self-sustaining grassroots system. Many communities such as Homer and Seward now run their own operations through local science centers. The council supports participation in some of the smaller communities.

The council is particularly concerned about the European green crab. This crab, known to travel in the ballast water of ships at seas, is an efficient and voracious predator that has invaded the West Coast from San Francisco to Vancouver Island. It is feared that the green crab will find its way to Alaska waters. Fortunately, no green crabs were captured in the communities of Chenega, Seward, Homer, Kodiak or Valdez in 2012.

All photos by Janice Banta.

Council staffer Joe Banta recently visited Cordova to help train Sarah Hoepfner, a Cordova high school student who has volunteered to monitor the Cordova area for green crabs. Left to right: Sarah Hoepfner, Jonas Banta, and Alan Marquette. Marquette is the previous green crab monitor for Cordova.
Council staffer Joe Banta recently visited Cordova to help train Sarah Hoepfner, a Cordova high school student who has volunteered to monitor the Cordova area for green crabs. Left to right: Sarah Hoepfner, Jonas Banta, and Alan Marquette. Marquette is the previous green crab monitor for Cordova.
Traps are staked into place.
Traps are staked into place.
Crab traps are set out at low tide.
Crab traps are set out at low tide.



Council representatives head to Washington

By Steve Rothchild, Assistant Deputy Director

Council representatives visited Washington, D.C. in May. Left to right: Mark Swanson, Dorothy Moore, Steve Rothchild, and Patience Andersen Faulkner. Photo by Roy Jones.
Council representatives visited Washington, D.C. in May. Left to right: Mark Swanson, Dorothy Moore, Steve Rothchild, and Patience Andersen Faulkner. Photo by Roy Jones.

For two days in May, council board members Dorothy Moore and Patience Andersen Faulkner, accompanied by staff members Mark Swanson and Steve Rothchild, visited our nation’s capital in an effort to highlight some of the council’s major concerns to the Alaska congressional delegation and several others.

The trip was facilitated by the council’s Washington, D.C. based legislative affairs monitor, Roy Jones.
The purpose of this trip was to continue the general practice of the council of meeting with, briefing, and obtaining guidance from members of the Alaska delegation and others in the federal government on council activities and stakeholder concerns from throughout the Exxon Valdez oil spill region.

The council group met with senior representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Senate and House committees with jurisdiction relevant to the Prince William Sound oil industry, and the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research. The group also met with Alyeska representatives Kim Harb, based in Washington, D.C., and Valdez-based Kate Dugan.

The issues raised were positively received and there were productive discussions on what could be done about them, especially in the new era of federal budget austerity.

Ice detection radar system upgrades

In 2002, the council worked with the U.S. Coast Guard, Alyeska, Prince William Sound tanker operators and other stakeholders to install an ice detection radar system on Reef Island in Prince William Sound to help monitor icebergs in the area. Ice calves from Columbia Glacier and sometimes drifts into the oil tanker lanes, and was a contributing factor in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The current Reef Island radar is Coast Guard owned and operated, however the council owns a processor which uses raw Coast Guard radar data to display an ice picture in the Ship Escort Vessel Traffic System’s duty office. The council has been interested in upgrading this processor to newer technology for some time.

Shortly after the group’s return to Alaska, the U.S. Coast Guard approved a request for proposals drafted by the council for purchase and installation of an upgrade to the council’s ice detection signal processor at Reef Island. The council is working with Alyeska and the U.S. Coast Guard to ensure that the new processor will match the technical specifications of the current system and meets approval requirements for installation.

Weather buoy system concerns

The council has become increasingly concerned with the operation and deferred maintenance of several weather monitoring buoys in Prince William Sound. Meteorologists depend on the information from these weather buoys for fine tuning satellite marine forecasts with surface wind and wave information.

Prince William Sound and surrounding coastal waters are known for unique and powerful, localized wind events called “barrier jets” and “williwaws.” These wind events are strong enough to flip smaller boats and to damage or potentially push larger ones, including tankers, onto shore, rocks and reefs. Weather just outside of Prince William Sound can be quite severe causing sea states that can cause harm to tankers and other vessels entering or leaving the Sound.

The primary concern about the weather buoys is that disruptions in service take a long time to repair due to the lack of availability of both ships and personnel to conduct the repairs. Recent examples include a buoy adrift in the middle of the Sound that took six months to replace, and a buoy at Hinchinbrook Entrance which has been operating sporadically since late August of 2012. The council also mentioned their concerns in Prince William Sound are indicative of the overall health of the system throughout Alaska. Currently, only eight of the 20 weather buoys within Alaska are fully operational.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, official assigned to the Alaska delegation staff reached out to the council upon our return to Alaska to gather more information about our weather buoy concerns. The council representatives were encouraged by this meaningful dialog following our visit to Washington, D.C. as a great first step in working with NOAA and the delegation towards possible solutions affecting the health of the weather buoy system and the safety of Alaskan maritime transportation in Prince William Sound.

From the Executive Director: Dispersant use in spill response a concern for many

By Mark Swanson
Executive Director
Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council.

The council has long been skeptical about the use of dispersants in responding to oil spills in our local waters. Until they can be shown to be effective and environmentally beneficial, the council does not recommend their use and advocates for mechanical clean-up options with booms and skimmers that physically remove the spilled oil from the environment.

How do dispersants work?

The theory behind dispersants is that in some situations it may be environmentally preferential to chemically disperse spilled oil into the water column rather than allow spilled oil to hit a beach or shoreline. In theory, this would dilute the oil throughout the water column, reducing the acute concentrations and toxic effects of oil on the water’s surface. The increased surface area and smaller oil droplet size then helps expedite biodegradation from oil degrading bacteria.

Why is the council concerned about dispersants?

Council research has shown that dispersant effectiveness is significantly decreased in the cold and low salinity waters of Prince William Sound. Our research indicates that the underwater mixing depth available for dispersion in deep coastal Alaskan waters is reduced, in warmer months, to a shallow freshwater lens of glacial runoff and snow melt water sitting atop the denser saltwater. Council-funded laboratory studies have also shown that chemically dispersed oil is more toxic than naturally dispersed oil. These studies have demonstrated that key local species like herring, salmon and cod are adversely affected when exposed to far lower hydrocarbon concentrations than previously suspected, in the parts per billion realm rather than parts per million. Actual experience with dispersed oil in Alaskan waters is relatively limited and includes only small dispersant applications trialed during the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s listing of dispersants as an approved response product in the National Contingency Plan is currently based on manufacturer-supplied effectiveness and toxicity data. The agency is in the process of updating this part of the plan, but the process has been slow. As of July 2013, the updated rule is with Office of Management and Budget and will next go out for public comment. There are many shortcomings with the current “approved product schedule” that need to be addressed, including:

  • The toxicity data provided by the manufacturers is based on short term exposure mortality results for two species that don’t even exist in Alaskan waters: mysid shrimp and silverside minnows.
  • There is no consideration of human exposures.
  • There is no consideration of dispersed oil impacts to other locally important or endangered species, unless local response teams decide to require toxicity testing.

The council is conducting limited research on one whale species but the impacts of chemically dispersed oil on other endangered species present in Alaska is largely unknown.

In summary, due to our cold and highly stratified water column and the lack of research on local species in regards to dispersant impacts, dispersants simply do not seem like the best option for our local waters.

The BP spill focused public attention on dispersants

Due to the unprecedented extensive application of dispersants both at the surface and at the ocean floor well head during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, significant additional public attention and research has been focused on dispersants. Whether it was dispersants or other factors, it appears that much of the oil stayed in the water column instead of collecting on the surface and impacting beaches and life on the surface. The short and long term environmental impacts of dispersant use in the Gulf of Mexico are still being studied but initial reports generally appear less than positive.

Diverse views on dispersants

Following the Deepwater Horizon spill, the scientific community and a wide swath of environmental organizations seem to have increased their anecdotal and research-backed reasons for questioning the use of dispersants. At the same time, some federal oil spill response managers appear to see dispersants as a far more effective oil spill response tool than mechanical recovery. These agencies are pushing to ensure that dispersants are pre-approved for use in every state and region. The ongoing update of the Alaska Regional Response Team’s Dispersant Usage Guidelines is part of that larger national process, and the council has provided comments. These comments support the idea of basing dispersant use decisions on the clarification of critically important local effectiveness and environmental impact-benefit questions. This can in part be achieved by directing spill response coordinators to appropriate incident specific consultations with resource trustee agencies.

Other groups are becoming galvanized around the issue of dispersants. Dozens of coastal Alaska Native tribal councils have signed resolutions opposing the use of dispersants in their subsistence waters. In May, three environmental organizations won a lawsuit requiring the federal agencies in charge of oil spill response in the San Francisco area to establish the impact on their local endangered species prior to pre-approval of dispersants. Three other organizations coordinated a national day of action to ban dispersants on June 18th.

The bottom line is that dispersant use is a concern to many. With national public response policy running in apparent opposition to gathering public environmental and human health concerns, the need for stakeholder engagement on this issue is great.

For a summary and links to key council research on this issue please visit our website:

Orson Smith: Engineering expert motivated by intellectual challenges

Orson Smith
Orson Smith

Orson Smith, the newest member of the council’s Port Operations and Vessel Traffic System committee, loves a good mental challenge.

Smith was recruited by council project manager Alan Sorum to the committee a little over a year ago. Working with the committee has given him a chance to understand the terminal and the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic System better.

“Port operations in the Valdez Arm represent truly challenging port and coastal engineering issues with the extreme weather,” Smith said, “The risk of an accident, even at a low probability, has a high cost.”

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