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Maps Based on Satellite Telemetry Help Russian Tanker Avoid Threatened Sea Ducks During First Maritime Fuel Delivery to Western Alaska Through Sea Ice
On January 16–19, 2012, the 370-ft Russian tanker Renda offloaded 1.3 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel to Nome, Alaska, completing the first-ever delivery of petroleum products to a western Alaska community through ice-covered waters. The Renda had help from the 420-ft U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a polar icebreaker, for hundreds of miles of its journey through thick sea ice in the Bering Sea and Norton Sound.
The two ships also had help from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to ensure that their mission would not disturb Spectacled Eiders (Somateria fischeri), a sea duck that winters in the Bering Sea. In 1993, Spectacled Eiders were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Resource managers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and navigators from the U.S. Coast Guard used USGS maps showing likely areas of Spectacled Eider concentrations to identify routes for the tanker and icebreaker that would minimize impacts to this species and its habitat. The maps were based on satellite-telemetry data.
“Nearly 20 years ago, USGS biologists used the latest satellite-tracking technology available at the time to uncover the mysterious wintering behavior of the Spectacled Eider, now a threatened species,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “Little did these scientists know at the time that their information would be critical in allowing a Russian tanker decades later to thread the needle to Nome in order to deliver life-saving fuel oil without taking a toll on these elusive sea ducks.”
The arctic-nesting sea ducks are wintering south of St. Lawrence Island in the northern Bering Sea, where sea ice abounds and the birds have access to abundant prey, in the form of clams and other invertebrates, that appears to be crucial for their winter survival.
Ordinarily, the ducks would not be affected by the delivery of Nome’s winter fuel, which usually takes place in early fall before sea ice hardens over the Bering Sea and the Spectacled Eiders gather in their wintering grounds. But shipping delays and a major storm prevented last fall’s shipment, and it was decided to use the Renda, a Russian tanker with an ice-hardened hull, to attempt a winter delivery. The Renda left Russia on December 17, 2011, picked up petroleum products in South Korea and Dutch Harbor, Alaska, and then made its way to Nome with an escort from the Healy, an icebreaker designed not only to conduct such Coast Guard missions as ship escort and search and rescue but also to support a wide range of scientific activities, such as the Arctic mapping described in last month’s issue (“Arctic Expedition Reaches 88.5 Degrees North Latitude…”).
The USGS provided the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Coast Guard with maps of probable Spectacled Eider concentrations based on the past 4 years of satellite-telemetry data. “As stewards of the environment, we found the data invaluable to our mission planning and execution while protecting our nation’s critical Spectacled Eider habitat,” said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Craig Lloyd, District 17 Chief of Response.
Satellite telemetry provides a way to track animals regardless of location, time of day, or weather. Transmitters send information to orbiting satellites, which relay the data to land-based receivers. Implantable satellite transmitters were first used by USGS Alaska Science Center biologists in 1993 to discover the distribution of Spectacled Eiders during molting (when birds shed old feathers and grow new ones) and wintering. At that time, no one knew where the species lived during the many nonbreeding months. USGS tracking data and subsequent aerial surveys revealed that Spectacled Eiders wintered in the northern Bering Sea, within the pack ice.
“Not only was this a surprise, but we’ve learned that about 380,000 Spectacled Eiders, or almost the entire population of this species, use this area every winter for 5 to 6 months; an amazing natural phenomenon in an incredibly harsh environment,” said Matthew Sexson, USGS biologist.
In 2008, USGS biologists began marking Spectacled Eiders with improved transmitters with longer life cycles to learn more about the species and to help resource managers plan conservation actions and strategies. Each transmitter can last as much as 2 years, providing an opportunity to learn more about year-round migratory patterns and habitat use of this unique species, Sexson said. Between 2008 and 2011, 129 transmitters were deployed at nesting areas in coastal Alaska. The project is expected to produce continuous tracking data from 2008 through 2013.
“Our involvement in the fuel delivery is a great example of cutting-edge science informing policy makers and industry,” said Sexson. “The Coast Guard and the Renda had an interest in avoiding the Spectacled Eiders, and we were fortunate enough to have the information to help them do so. In the end, we played a small role in a very large project. Sea-ice scientists and meteorologists also contributed through modern satellite imagery and unmanned aerial vehicles. Our involvement shows that science can inform sound decisions that minimize risk and maximize industry success.”
Ellen Lance, Endangered Species Branch Chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alaska Region, praised the cooperative effort. “Protecting America’s fish and wildlife resources is a shared responsibility,” she said. “It is satisfying to see agencies working together to protect threatened and endangered species, while meeting the needs of our communities.”
For more information about USGS Spectacled Eider research, visit the USGS Alaska Science Center Web page at http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/seaducks/spei/. One can also follow the research by subscribing to the research Twitter feed at http://twitter.com/USGS_SpecEider.
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