Study: Arctic lagoons “forgotten c

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image: WCS Technician Thomas House holds a goldfish – Aukulak Lagoon
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Credit: Kevin Fraley

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA (October 6, 2022, 2022) –A new scientific journal article led by WCS captures the unique and dynamic characteristics of coastal lagoon ecosystems in the Arctic region of Beringia and explains how the effects of climate change and human development could alter these habitats.

The lagoons make up 40% of Alaska’s Chukchi Sea coastline and are an integral part of ecologically protected areas such as Cape Krusenstern National Monument, Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, and Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Additionally, they are important wild food harvesting locations for the Iñupiat people, who rely on subsistence hunting and gathering to maintain their food security.

Fish species commonly encountered in the lagoons include important subsistence species such as sheefish, Dolly Varden char and saffron cod, commercially important chum salmon, and taxa endemic to Beringia such as the Bering cisco and the Alaskan black fish. Birds that nest and feed around the lagoons include Tundra Swans, Caspian Terns, Arctic Terns, Sandhill Cranes, Long-tailed Skuas and Glaucous Gulls. Mammal species that we commonly encounter along or near the lagoons include muskox, grizzly bear, bearded seal, beluga whale, caribou and beaver.

The review article was published in the September 2022 issue of Arctic, a scientific journal produced by the University of Calgary and the Arctic Institute of North America. Dr. Kevin Fraley, the lead author, is a fisheries ecologist for WCS’s Arctic Beringia program, based in Fairbanks, Alaska.

“This review is the culmination of a decade of fisheries monitoring and research efforts by WCS and its partners in these lagoons, and while there are still many aspects of these unique and important ecosystems to study , the paper represents the best understanding of Arctic coastal lagoon structure and ecology to date,” says Fraley.

To complement the article, the authors have synthesized the results of long-term fisheries monitoring and research efforts conducted in several lagoons of Bering Land Bridge National Reserve, Cape Krusenstern National Monument, and Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. from Alaska. In addition, traditional ecological knowledge relating to lagoon ecology and subsistence harvesting practices was entrusted to the authors by Iñupiat and other residents of northwest Alaska. Finally, relevant published literature was reviewed and incorporated into the effort.

One of the most important points made in the article was that the physical arrangement, water chemistry, invertebrate diversity, and fish ecology (abundance, species diversity, diet, behavior, and survival) in the lagoons are determined by the presence of seasonal channels connecting the lagoons with the Chukchi Sea. Since these channels are narrow and their layout and function are vulnerable to disturbances such as storms, coastal erosion and the restructuring of beach gravel by natural and man-made means, climate change and human development affecting canals could have disproportionate negative impacts on lagoon ecosystems.

Although this review represents a major reference in the process of studying the lagoons of the Arctic region of Beringia, WCS and its partners plan to continue to monitor these habitats in order to identify any ecological changes caused by natural and anthropogenic disturbances. Additionally, WCS will explore additional avenues of research to improve understanding of these unique ecosystems and advocate for their conservation.

Although WCS is the organization responsible for this publication, the article is a collaborative work that would not have been possible without the critical efforts of partner/funding organizations, including the US National Park Service and the Native Village of Kotzebue Environmental Schedule. Additional funding was provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

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Arctic Beringia Program

The Arctic region of Beringia is home to vast tundra landscapes and pristine seascapes with robust assemblages of free-ranging native species such as walrus and caribou, supports vibrant mixed economies for Indigenous communities, and is enjoyed by diverse parties stakeholders around the world. We use the best available scientific and Indigenous knowledge, as well as our cross-border policy expertise, to work with diverse communities, Indigenous groups, agencies and other partners to understand and protect wild places and wildlife, including their role in local food security.

WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society)

MISSION: WCS saves wildlife and wild places around the world through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. To accomplish our mission, WCS, based at the Bronx Zoo, harnesses the power of its global conservation program in nearly 60 countries and in every ocean of the world and its five wildlife parks in New York City, visited by 4 million people.


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