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Nearshore and benthic (bottom-dwelling) organisms are good gauges of change in the environment. Many are sedentary, sensitive to change, and easy to access for study. Scientists are usually more able to discover the source of change in this kind of habitat. Once those sources are found, they can identify and compare changes that are natural from those that are man-made. Click the image below to discover the different zones of the nearshore ecosystem.

The Nearshore Ecosystems team collects data in the tidal areas. Researchers are focused on learning about the variety and abundance of the species living at sites in Prince William Sound, the outer Kenai Peninsula, and Lower Cook Inlet.

This data will help scientists find answers for questions like:

• Is the nearshore environment changing significantly from year to year?

• Have resources in this environment recovered from the 1989 oil spill? If not, are there reasons other than the oil spill?

• Are changes in offshore conditions also causing changes in the nearshore habitats?

This project focuses on organisms that are considered crucial to the nearshore ecosystem’s health. One such key species is the black oystercatcher. These shorebirds are good candidates for monitoring projects because they have a long lifespan.

Over that lifetime, the oystercatcher lives in and depends upon intertidal habitats. This is where they mate, nest, and raise their young. Even though black oystercatchers aren’t benthic animals, they eat a diet of creatures that are. Their menu of mussels, limpets, and chitons are easily effected by changes in the environment. If oystercatchers aren’t healthy, it probably means that something significant has happened to the shellfish that they eat.

Click on the image below to learn more about the black oystercatcher, a critical species of the Nearshore Benthic Systems in the Gulf of Alaska project.

Black Oystercatcher audio clip Click the audio icon to hear the call of the black oystercatcher.

Scientists, like the National Park Service’s Heather Coletti, are trying to address the following questions:

• Are the numbers of black oystercatcher nests changing from year to year?

• Is the number of eggs or chicks in each nest changing?

• Are chicks supplied with the same variety and amount of food each year?

• Does this data change from one location to another?

Heather and her team monitor the habitat of black oystercatchers using a variety of methods, including the use of shoreline transects to survey nest sites and sample prey remains at oystercatcher nesting sites.

VIDEO: Monitoring Nearshore Systems

Heather Coletti describes her work studying black oystercatchers for the nearshore systems component of Gulf Watch Alaska. (1:50)

Video Transcript




Who is watching the Gulf?

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Meet Heather

Study area map

  Abundance (n): the quantity or amount of something
  Benthic (adj): pertaining to the seafloor and the organisms that live there
  Data (n): values for something measured
  Density (n): the number of inhabitants per unit of area
  Distribution (n): the way in which something is spread over an area
  Intertidal (n): the benthic shore area between the extreme reaches of high and low tides
  Nearshore (n): the marine zone that extends from the high tide line to depths of about 20 meters
  Organism (n): an individual life form
  Prey (n): an animal taken by predators as food
  Riparian zone (n): the area of land next to a lake, river, stream, or wetland
  Subtidal (n): the benthic area below low tide that is covered by water most of the time and exposed briefly during extreme low tides
  Tide (n): the alternate rising and falling of the sea at a particular place, due to the gravitional attraction of the moon and sun
  Transect (n): a path along which scientists count animal populations and plant distributions