When you look at an extremely zoomed in picture and you see a blurry, orange color, what is it a picture of? Is it an orangutan? A flower? Maybe it’s a tiger?

Sometimes when you look at a picture too close up, you can’t actually tell what the big picture is. The same is true with research. Sometimes when you are so focused and nailed down on some small details in a project, you forget the whole purpose of the research and your project can become quite daunting. The same is also true with conferences as I found out last week when I attended the Alaska Marine Science Symposium (AMSS). At AMSS, I quickly learned how much astonishing research is being done in Alaska and I went into information overload. After looking back at the many, many notes that I took, and digesting all of the information as best as I could, I’m going to paint you the big picture of AMSS 2020.

Let’s start with the canvas:

We are living in a changing ecosystem. It has been a rough decade for Alaska, particularly in the past few years. First there was the “blob”.  That was followed by the intensely hot 2019 summer. The wildfires that accompanied that hot summer. The marine heat waves. The unusual mortality events. The lowest sea ice extent in recorded history.


Alaska’s “canvas” is changing and with that changing ecosystem the research that is being done needs to be changing as well. As Dr. Vanessa von Biela, USGS research fish biologist, said at the conference we cannot make assumptions about any species anymore and we need to reevaluate the proper baselines for these species.

Species have been adapting to the changes on earth for centuries, but their ecosystems are changing too fast and they do not have enough time to adapt to these changes. I think that Dr. Cisco Werner, Chief Science Advisor for NOAA Fisheries, nailed this concept perfectly during his keynote presentation when he said that we need to start “managing variability, not stability”. This variability is our new canvas and we have to find a way to paint on it. New questions need to be asked and new information will lead to advantageous answers. With these questions being addressed one of the most important parts of this process will be sharing that information with all Alaskans.

Image Credit: Alaska Marine Science Symposium

So how do we find the picture on this new canvas?

Indigenous people of Alaska are directly affected by the status of our ecosystems. Scientists need to start efficiently communicating with the indigenous people who are a part of the ecosystem that they are trying to protect. These people, who have relied on the sustenance of Alaska’s resources for centuries, are running on a short supply. They cannot cross the thinning ice, hunt for seals, or continue traditions passed on through generations without risking their lives. These Alaskans have seen the land and ocean change over their lifetimes and they should be a part of the team that is trying to protect it. We need to make sure we are communicating with indigenous people so we can learn more about the ecosystems and find a solution together.

We also are getting new details from technology. Technology is being developed and many processes are being used in ways that they have never been before. Saildrones are redefining the way in which we see and interact with the ocean. Acoustic telemetry devices, stable isotope analysis, citizen science, environmental DNA analysis, and satellite tags are just some of the methods scientists around Alaska, and at the ASLC are using to enhance our understanding of the marine ecosystem.

Image Credit: Hays Research Group LLC

And now for the final touches:

There is still hope. Knowledge of what is happening and working with local communities and indigenous people who know the areas can help us develop answers and come up with better solutions to refine Alaska and make sure that its wildlife, landscapes, and people stay intact for generations more to come. There is hope that when all Alaskans…fishermen, hunters, locals, indigenous peoples, researchers, scientists, legislatures, and politicians…come together there can be a widespread understanding of the life source that is Alaska and therefore a better chance of protecting it. There is hope in over 700 scientists, researchers, managers, students, and citizens coming together for AMSS in order to better understand our ecosystem and how it is changing. The way these conference attendees challenge each other to form enhanced questions and concrete solutions is inspiring. We need more of that in our society in order to understand the big picture.

Written by: Mary Keenan, ASLC Science Communication Intern 2020

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