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Making Waves: Episode 82 (September 1, 2011)

You're listening to Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. I'm Troy Kitch.

(NOAA to Collect Baseline Environmental Data in Alaska's Chukchi Sea)

If you're a regular listener, you'll recall our interview with the commander of the NOAA Ship Fairweather two episodes ago about an expedition to map Kotzbue Sound in Alaska -- a place where ocean depths haven't been measured since the 19th century.

This survey was part of a long-term NOAA push to make navigation safer in remote regions of the Arctic Ocean. And the reason this is necessary is because the Arctic is seeing more and more ship traffic each year as sea ice continues to retreat.

Less ice doesn't only mean more ships -- it also means oil and gas development is likely on the horizon in the near future.
While NOAA and other agencies are working to make the Arctic region safer for navigation ... here's another consideration: what impact might future offshore oil and gas development have on this fragile environment?

One of the things scientists learned during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is that it's critical to know the state of a given ecosystem before something happens. After all, how can we weigh the impact of a spill if we don't know what the environment was like before the spill happened?

That's the idea behind a mission now underway in the Chukchi Sea -- that's a vast chunk of the Arctic Ocean that includes Kotzbue Sound. Researchers are capturing a snapshot of the Arctic Ocean before any development happens.

The National Status and Trends BioEffects Program -- part of NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science -- along with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, are in the midst of collecting what is known as "baseline environmental data" along a 150-mile length of the nearshore area of the Chukchi Sea. This is one area that's being eyed by oil and gas interests for development activities in the near future.

The two-week research cruise is led by Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation in partnership with NOAA. The survey area will extend from Alaska's Point Barrow to Point Lay. It will include assessment of bottom-dwelling communities, fish that live near the sea floor, sediment chemistry, and water quality.

The study is part of a larger research effort headed up by the State of Alaska. This data will ultimately be combined with assessments from different areas off the coast of Alaska to help paint a picture of the intricate interplay of oil exploration, climate change, ocean acidification, and pollution on the ecosystem of the Chukchi Sea. Environmental managers will use this information to support water quality evaluations, permitting actions, baseline assessments, and environmental trends over time. Results of the current study will be available in about a year on NOAA's National Status and Trends website.

We'll have a link on our website for you to learn more about this unique nationwide program -- it's been up and running since 1984, and it's the only long-term coastal and estuarine contaminant monitoring effort in the country.

(NOAA, France new agreement)

NOAA and France's Protected Areas Agency have signed a "sister sanctuary" agreement to support the protection of endangered humpback whales.

Every year, humpbacks migrate more than 3,000 miles between NOAA's Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the Massachusetts coast and Agoa Marine Mammal Sanctuary in the Caribbean's French Antilles.

Both sanctuaries provide critical support for the same population of whales, which spend spring and summer in the rich feeding grounds of Stellwagen Bank before heading south to the warmer waters of the Caribbean Sea in late fall to mate and give birth to their young. The French Antilles islands are at the Caribbean's eastern edge.

As sister sanctuaries, the two sites are exploring new avenues for collaborative education, scientific and management efforts, including joint-research and monitoring programs. NOAA leadership anticipates the relationship will be crucial to the long-term conservation of the North Atlantic humpback whale population, as well as to the development of future cooperative agreements with other countries.

This new agreement builds on an effort begun in 2006 when the world's first sister sanctuary initiative focused on trans-boundary humpback whales and their critical habitats was launched between the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary and the Dominican Republic. Another agreement signed in July between Stellwagen Bank and the government of Bermuda also strives to help protect the species along its migration route from the Gulf of Maine to the Caribbean Sea through cooperation on scientific and educational programs.

A little bit about Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary: it encompasses 842 square miles of ocean, stretching between Cape Ann and Cape Cod. It supports a rich diversity of marine life, including 22 species of marine mammals, more than 53 species of seabirds, in excess of 80 species of fish, and hundreds of marine invertebrates. Stellwagen is a pretty big Sanctuary, but it's not the biggest.

(Ocean Fact)

And that leads us to today's Ocean Fact .... Where is the largest protected area in the National Marine Sanctuary System?

The answer (say it with me now) is Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. This monument is not only the largest conservation area in the U.S., it's one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. It's larger than all of America's national parks combined! This vast region preserves many of Hawaii's Northwestern Islands and is made up of 139,797 square miles of reefs, atolls, shallow waters, and deep seas.

The monument contains a wide variety of critically important habitats that harbor over 7,000 marine species, several of which are only found in this region. It is also home to many rare and endangered species such as the green sea turtle and the Hawaiian monk seal. The goal of this system is to conserve, protect, and enhance the biodiversity, ecological integrity, and cultural legacy of marine areas totaling 150,000 square miles.

The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is one of fourteen marine protected areas that form NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary system.


And that's all for this episode. If you have any questions about this week's podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean, send us an email at

This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. See you in two weeks.