Genetic testing reveals no new marine invasive species

Photo of settling plate

By Austin Love
Council Project Manager

Council testing plankton genes to supplement existing processes

The Council funds monitoring for marine species that could be introduced into Prince William Sound as a result of the operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and associated oil tankers. If an invasive species, such as the European green crab, becomes established in Prince William Sound, they could cause serious economic and ecological harm.

Photo of staff member holding a settling plate from a visual monitoring trip.
Council staff member Nelli Vanderberg holds up a plate during a visual monitoring trip in 2019. A series of these plates that are placed in the water in various locations. A closeup of a plate used in visual monitoring is in the header of this page.

To detect potential invasions early, the Council now uses both visual and genetic methods to monitor for potentially damaging species. The Council recently received the final results of the genetic invasive species monitoring conducted in 2017. The DNA of plankton samples analyzed for an extensive list of marine species including but not limited to crustaceans (crabs), mollusks (clams), and annelids (worms). In 2017, using the genetic plankton analysis technique, Council scientists identified 52 marine species in samples from Port Valdez and central Prince William Sound, and none of those were invasive non-native species. However, 2016 genetic monitoring revealed some non-native species in Prince William Sound, the soft-shell clam (Mya arenaria) and a sea squirt (Botrylloides leachii), but those two species were not found in 2017.

The genetic invasive species monitoring method has several advantages over traditional visual identification. Visual species identification is more labor and time intensive; often requiring expert taxonomists for identification and significant time and manual work collecting field samples from the shoreline, seafloor, and water column. Additionally, the costs of visual monitoring can be higher when factoring in travel costs such as airfare and charter boats and paying for personnel to collect and analyze the samples. In contrast, the genetic method does not require expert taxonomists and collecting and analyzing plankton samples is less expensive and labor intensive, compared to collecting samples from various marine microcosms. Another advantage of genetically analyzing plankton samples is that it can simultaneously detect species that live on the seafloor, water column, or intertidal areas because many species have a planktonic larval stage. However, visual species identification is still needed and is used to complement and fill in knowledge gaps left by genetic invasive species monitoring. For example, visual identification would be needed to determine if an invasive species has established a reproductive adult population in a region.

Detailed results of the Council’s 2017 genetic invasive species monitoring can be found in the report:

Metagenetic Analysis of 2017 Plankton Samples from Prince William Sound, Alaska (0.4 MB)

Community Corner: Citizen scientists help the Council monitor our region

By Lisa Matlock, Outreach Coordinator

Lisa Matlock

One of the Council’s federal mandates involves environmental monitoring. With a small staff and vast geographic area, this monitoring takes many forms. Monitoring is often done by staff or contractors, but some monitoring takes place thanks to the Council’s volunteers and interns – all citizen scientists.

Since 2014, the Council has had high school interns in the community of Cordova who help monitor for aquatic invasive species. Three interns, Sarah Hoepfner, Cadi Moffitt, and currently Cori Pegau, have volunteered to hang sturdy plastic “settling plates” in the Cordova harbor each spring, to be picked up in the fall. The interns check the organisms that accumulate on the plate for critters such as invasive tunicates and bryozoans.

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Smithsonian partners with council to search for marine invasive species

Citizen scientists, the Prince William Sound College, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and the council partner for invasive species event in Prince William Sound

Linda McCann
Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

An opalescent nudibranch is a native species common in Prince William Sound. This one was found during the September bioblitz. Photo by Nelli Vanderburg.
An opalescent nudibranch is a native species common in Prince William Sound. This one was found during the September bioblitz.

A crew of marine biologists ventured to Prince William Sound this September for the third Smithsonian-led “bioblitz” in Alaska, this time in Valdez. During a bioblitz, volunteer citizen scientists team up with professional scientists to search for invasive marine invertebrates. This year, the Smithsonian partnered with the council and Prince William Sound College for a week of scientific sampling.

Three months before the bioblitz, council staff placed “settlement plates,” sheets of sanded PVC that the invertebrates attach to over time. During the bioblitz, volunteers and staff collected the plates, towed plankton nets, set crab traps, and went scuba diving, to look for various nonnative species.

The study helped establish critical baseline data for future research, invasive species management, and conservation initiatives. Fortunately, no new non-native species were found during the bioblitz or the scientific sampling.

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Homer teens use technology to monitor Kachemak Bay for aquatic invasions

By Beth Trowbridge
Executive Director for the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies

Students put together the drones prior to a test drive.

Four Homer high school students, a project leader, and lots of volunteers took part in the center’s “Creating Teen Leaders through Marine Technology and Research” program this summer, helping monitor for aquatic invasive species throughout Kachemak Bay.

The students built an underwater remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, from a kit, which they used to explore the Homer and Seldovia harbors for aquatic invasive species. “We all had various skills that we could contribute but it took all of our expertise to organize, create, and improvise the structure,” said Landon Bunting, one of the students, describing the teamwork that developed between the students during the project.

The students also used drones to help learn to navigate the underwater ROV. “Flying the drones and watching them be flown allowed for a better understanding of operating ROVs through a ‘fluid’ such as air or water,” added Bunting. “This experiment allowed each of us to learn from our mistakes and to learn the benefit of different types of remote operated vehicles.”

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