• Examining the Role of Marine Mammals and Seabirds in Southeast Alaska’s Marine Ecosystem Dynamics

      Rhodes-Reese, Melissa; Clay, David; Cunningham, Curry; Moriles-Miller, Janet; Reese, Cheryl; Roman, Joe; Warren, Joseph D.; Pearson, Heidi C. (Frontiers Research Foundation, 2021-12-22)
      Primary producers are the foundation of marine food webs and require reliable nutrient sources to maintain their important role with ecosystems. While marine mammals and seabirds can play critical roles in marine nutrient cycling, their contributions are often overlooked. The fjord systems of Southeast Alaska support a high diversity of marine mammals and seabirds in addition to some of the most valuable fisheries in the US. Nonetheless, there is still relatively little known about nutrient sources and fluxes in this region which is a critical component of fisheries management. The goal of our study was to advance knowledge of the role of mammals and seabirds in marine nutrient cycling and to understand how changing marine mammal and seabird populations may alter ecosystem dynamics. We analyzed nutrient levels in marine mammal scat, seabird guano, and seawater samples collected in Berners Bay, Southeast Alaska, to determine the influence of marine mammals and seabirds on nearshore nutrient concentrations. Utilizing qualitative network models (QNMs), we then examined how a simulated Berners Bay ecosystem would respond to an increase in marine mammals, seabirds, and nutrients. Researchers are increasingly utilizing QNMs as a first step in the development of ecosystem-based fisheries management plans as their adaptable nature is well suited to address rapidly changing climatic conditions. Our direct nutrient measurements and QNM results indicate that marine mammals and seabirds have the potential to provide substantial contributions to marine nutrient concentrations in the region and that these valuable ecosystem services should not be overlooked.