Scientists Expect to Find New Species During First Chukchi Sea Trawl Survey

The first comprehensive survey of the Chukchi Sea ecosystem got underway last week. Scientists will spend the next month collecting samples and cataloguing life in the northern waters.

The 143-foot Alaska Knight is normally a commercial trawler, but for this month, it’s moonlighting as a scientific research vessel – with all of the accompanying baggage.

“There’s coolers upon coolers upon coolers and buckets upon buckets upon buckets all over this boat at the moment,” says Lyle Britt, a federal fisheries biologist.

He’s one of six scientists heading up to the Chukchi Sea aboard the Alaska Knight. His team is doing bottom trawl surveys – dragging a net along the seafloor to collect everything from plankton all the way up to large fish.

“Okay, so once the net comes up, the vessel crew will actually bring the catch on board, which is all in the back end of the net, the cod end, and hopefully in most cases, that catch will be around a ton.”

The ton of catch gets dumped onto a sorting table – a five by ten foot aluminium table in the middle of the back deck.

“A lot of the larger animals or more common things, everyone helps with. Things that are rare or harder to identify will get pushed off into another spot where our experts will work on them for those various taxa. So we have an invertebrate specialist and a fish specialist on the vessel at all times.”

Sorting through a ton of creatures takes a while. Britt says in the Bering Sea, it takes his team about two hours.

“On this survey the fauna is all so much smaller and kind of new, and we’re doing so much more collecting that we figure it could take four or more hours to work up these catches.”

This is the most extensive trawl survey ever in the Chukchi Sea and the only one in the last 20 years. The Alaska Knight and another vessel will each sample every 30 nautical miles in a grid that covers all the U.S. waters in the Chukchi. The goal is to gather detailed information about the relatively unstudied ecosystem.

“This is kind of an unprecedented times. We’re starting to do much more exploration in the Arctic than we’ve ever done before, there are changes going on in the Arctic that are unprecedented. The more data we can get now, the better off we are at seeing what’s going on right now and making predictions and projections for the future.”

To that end, the animals collected during the survey won’t just get tossed back overboard after they’re catalogued. They’ll have samples taken for genetic information, their stomach contents will be preserved for analysis and some of them will be saved whole.

“You take one Arctic cod, which is a species of fish that we’ll see a lot of up there, and realize that for everyone  one of them that we bring up, there will be as many as eight different projects that are going to be receiving pieces of that animal that will go off to world renowned experts in a number of different areas. It’s quite astounding the amount of information about the environment that one fish gives us.”

Britt says there’s still a lot to learn about the Chukchi Sea ecosystem.

“I’d be shocked if we don’t have a laundry list of new-to-science animals that come out of this trip.”

And he says they probably won’t be the drab creatures that many people think live in the far north.

“The animals are actually very vivid and are quite beautiful and it’s very exciting to see. Particularly when you’re in shallower waters, where there’s more light penetration that tends to kind of up the ante for animals to have more colorful markings and whatnot. So we expect to see very interesting and colorful animals in the Chukchi Sea.”

The scientists will be sending daily text updates of their progress, but the photos will have to wait until they get back in September.

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