Habitat and Ecological Processes Research Program

The Habitat and Ecological Processes Research Program develops scientific research that supports implementation of an ecosystem approach to fishery management.

Habitat and Ecological Processes Research Program

The Habitat and Ecological Processes Research Program focuses on integrated studies that combine scientific capabilities and create comprehensive research on habitat and ecological processes. The HEPR Program focuses on four main research areas.

Loss of Sea Ice

Climate change is causing loss of sea ice in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Addressing ecosystem-related shifts is critical for fisheries management, because nationally important Bering Sea commercial fisheries are located primarily within the southeastern Bering Sea, and for successful co-management of marine mammals, which at least thirty Alaska Native communities depend on.

Essential Fish Habitat

Alaska has more than 50% of the U.S. coastline and leads the Nation in fish habitat area and value of fish harvested, yet large gaps exist in our knowledge of Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) in Alaska.

Major research needs are 1) to identify habitats that contribute most to the survival, growth, and productivity of managed fish and shellfish species; and 2) to determine how to best manage and protect these habitats from human disturbance and environmental change.

Project selection for EFH research is based on research priorities from the EFH Research Implementation Plan for Alaska. Around $300,000 is spent on about six EFH research projects each year. Project results are described in annual reports and the peer-reviewed literature. Study results contribute to existing Essential Fish Habitat data sets.

Ocean Acidification

Ocean Acidification
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The North Pacific Ocean is a sentinel region for signs of ocean acid­ification. Approximately 30%-50% of global anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are absorbed by the world’s oceans. Dissolving CO2 increases the hydrogen ion (H+) concentration in the ocean, and thus reduces ocean pH. Corrosive waters reach shallower depths more so there than in other ocean basins, especially in Alaska, and so biological impacts will likely occur earlier than in many other places. Ocean acidification reduces the calcium carbonate (CaCO3) saturation point, which may stress calcifying organisms by making calcification more difficult.

The Alaska Fisheries Science Center (AFSC) research focuses on commercially important fish and shellfish species and coldwater corals. Ocean acidification will likely impact the ability of marine calcifiers, such as corals and shellfish, to make shells and skeletons from CaCO3. Species-specific studies of shell­fish and fish are conducted to understand physiological effects (growth and survival). The CaCO3 content of calcareous organisms is not well known and a survey of corals is being conducted to assess species vulnerabilities to ocean acidification. Bioeconomic models of Alaskan crab fisheries are being used to forecast fishery performance for a range of climate and ocean acidification scenarios.

The Alaska Fisheries Science Center conducts studies on king and tanner crabs, coldwater corals, pollock, cod and northern rock sole. These experiments are conducted in Kodiak, Alaska, and Newport, Oregon, where species-specific culture facilities and experience are available. The Alaska Fisheries Science Center collaborates with the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, which monitors ocean conditions.

Bering Sea Project

The Bering Sea Project Overview Poster

The Bering Sea Project, a partnership between the North Pacific Research Board (NPRB) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), sought to understand the impacts of climate change and dynamic sea ice cover on the eastern Bering Sea ecosystem. NOAA also committed major in-kind resources (~$11 M) of personnel, equipment, and ship time as well program leadership (e.g., half of steering committee membership).

More than one hundred scientists engaged in field research and ecosystem modeling to link climate, physical oceanography, plankton, fishes, seabirds, marine mammals, humans, traditional knowledge and economic outcomes to better understand the mechanisms that sustain this highly productive region.

Field research began in 2007 and concluded in 2010. Synthesis and reporting concluded during 2016. Major program results were reported at the 2014 Alaska Marine Science Symposium and to NPRB and NSF.

Additional Resources