NSF-owned research vessel to embark on limited cruise in Gulf of Alaska

Sikuliaq (Photo: University of Alaska Fairbanks/Mark Teckenbrock)

Scientific operations have resumed on University of Alaska Fairbanks’ (UAF) research vessel Sikuliaq after special permission was granted for a small team of researchers from the university’s College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences (CFOS) to collect water samples in the northern Gulf of Alaska.

The scientists self-quarantined for two weeks prior to boarding the vessel on Monday, May 4. All personnel are adhering to health mandates while conducting their research.

This is the first time a vessel in the US Academic Research Fleet has been allowed to engage in research activities since the imposition of measures to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sikuliaq will provide science support for the Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research programme. This ocean region supports one of the largest fisheries in the US, as well as many important crab, seabird, and marine mammal populations.

UAF operates Sikuliaq on behalf of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the vessel.

The cruise was originally scheduled for two weeks in April with 24 scientists and two technicians, in addition to the vessel’s full-time crew.

The plan was to travel from Seward for 273 kilometres south of Resurrection Bay along a series of sample sites called the Seward Line. Researchers have been recording observations in this area twice a year since 1997, making it the longest data set of this type in Alaska waters.

Leaders at NSF, the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), and UAF have agreed that this research was sufficiently important to consider alterations to the cruise plan that would be compatible with Covid-19 safety precautions. A detailed mitigation and response plan was thus created with guidance from the US Coast Guard, UNOLS, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and health mandates issued by Alaska’s governor.

The researchers will focus on measurements that are part of the two-decade time series. They will collect phytoplankton and zooplankton and take water column measurements showing the ocean’s temperature, salinity, oxygen, chlorophyll, and nutrients.

The health safety plans for this cruise have been shared with other research fleet vessel operators to assist with future seagoing research operations as they adapt to the pandemic.

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