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Upside Down Bioblitz in Ketchikan, Alaska

Alaska Sea Grant trains volunteers to identify invasive species

By Deborah Mercy and Sue Keller, Alaska Sea Grant

Nonnative marine species are beginning to show up along the Alaska coastline. While the quantity is small compared to California, where more than 200 marine invasive species are listed, there is reason for concern. As marine traffic increases, entry areas such as Ketchikan and Sitka are becoming home to unwanted marine species. In 2010 the tunicate Didemnum vexillum, also know as D. vex or rock vomit, was discovered near Sitka. It interferes with aquaculture operations and is destructive to native marine species.

D. vex was found during a bioblitz event. “A bioblitz is a very short, volunteer-led assessment of all the species living in an area,” explained Linda McCann, researcher with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC).

In September 2013 Smithsonian researchers partnered with Gary Freitag, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program agent in Ketchikan, to hold a different kind of bioblitz. “This time we turned the bioblitz concept upside down. We don’t want to look for everything. We only want to look for the marine invasives,” McCann said.

The researchers were also looking for volunteers from the Ketchikan community to help them in their search. For 15 years SERC researchers have been in Alaska cataloging what should not be living in these waters. Freitag works with the researchers to collect information for their marine invasive species database.

Alaska has 33,904 miles of coastline, longer than all the other U.S. states combined. “To survey this coast presents a challenge, due to the vast length of shoreline” said Greg Ruiz, a marine ecologist with SERC. “We’re very concerned and interested not only from a scientific point of view but also how management is working to reduce the likelihood of invasions occuring. What we’re exploring now is the opportunity to engage citizen scientists to help monitor and detect new invasions.”

During the Ketchikan bioblitz, the researchers spent several days cataloging what they found. At the end of their week, on a cool, rainy Saturday, about 30 people showed up for a public workshop to learn how to find the unwelcome marine species.  “We offered some lectures and hands-on lab experience in the morning to help people identify the species of concern. In the afternoon we took them out in the field and we said, ‘See what you can find,” McCann said.

Volunteers pulled up collecting devices—a flat plastic plate attached to a brick that had been set 3 months earlier. Research divers had also epoxied pennies beneath a city dock as a method of statistically evaluating the volunteers observing skills.

What did they see? Mostly native tunicates, anemones, segmented worms, bivalves, gastropods, bryozoans, decorator crabs, sea stars, and nudibranchs, as well as a few invasive tunicate species—and the pennies. “Every time I’ve gone out to a dock I didn’t realize how much is underneath me,” said volunteer Krystalee Gabbard. “It is exciting to be able to identify these things that have always been underfoot.”

McCann said, “When we engage the public, we hope they learn not only about invasive species but how they can make a difference. The more people we get out, the better. We can’t be here all the time, but those who live here can go out any day.”

While some volunteers limited their participation to one day, others will commit to repeatedly monitoring an area for marine invasive species. Julie Landwehr teaches marine biology and oceanography at Ketchikan High School. She plans to “adopt a dock” to monitor with her students.

“Invasions are just one element of change going on against a background of very dynamic coastal systems,” said Ruiz. “Are nonnative species good or bad? We don’t really make that distinction. What we try to do is understand what species are established and what effects they’re having on the ecology.”

As for the Ketchikan bioblitz, at the end of the day, scientists evaluated the quality of data obtained using the citizen scientists as a monitoring tool. The SERC researchers and Freitag were pleased.

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