Third Annual Natural History Symposium
On May 24, we once again kicked off the summer season with a day-long symposium aimed at providing the public and the guiding community with the latest in science, culture, and land management news from Prince William Sound. The event was held online to an audience of nearly 300 people and featured 18 expert speakers, who discussed Alaska Native culture, marine mammals, climate change, ocean health, the Barry Arm landslide, oil spill impacts, and much more. The entire symposium is available today for viewing here.
Head of the Bay Clean-up Day
Also in May 2021, we joined forces with the City of Whittier to host our second annual Head of the Bay Clean-Up in Whittier. Thirty volunteers helped out on a Saturday morning and made pretty quick work of cleaning the beach and campground. We removed marine debris and day-use trash, and made the area shine ahead of the busy summer season. Look for this annual event to occur again next May and feel free to stop by on the way out to the Sound.
Tackling Marine Debris, 3,000 Pounds at a Time
Marine debris is a common sight on PWS beaches and presents a danger to fish, wildlife, and clean water. It also affects public enjoyment of our spectacular shores. Since our 2018 inception, we’ve made tackling the debris a key part of our work and have removed thousands of pounds of garbage from hundreds of miles of shoreline. This year, we worked on east Knight Island and the Elrington/Bainbridge areas, where we removed an estimated 3,000 pounds of trash along nearly 100 miles of shoreline.
Building a community approach to marine debris is at the heart of our work. In 2021, we collaborated with Gulf of Alaska Keeper, PWS Aquaculture Corporation (AFK Hatchery), Port Ashton Lodge, Prince William Sound Books, NOAA, and the Chugach National Forest on two clean-up missions in June and July. We were also joined by nearly 20 volunteers (including a wild herd of children) in their private vessels. By day, we pulled foam, rope, hundreds of plastic bottles, and other debris from beaches and shoreside meadows on Knight Island, Elrington Island, and Port Bainbridge. And at night we rafted our boats together, fished, camped, kayaked, and shared our stories over beach fires and roasting marshmallows.
Our marine debris program uses a 3-year rotational schedule that treats the hardest-hit beaches in the central and southwestern parts of Prince William Sound. Each year we consult with top experts in the field, including Gulf of Alaska Keeper, NOAA, and others, to ensure our efforts go where they’re most needed. We also reach out annually to communities, government agencies, Alaska Native interests, and tour operators to hear about their priorities and invite their participation. To track our progress, we use NOAA Marine Debris Tracker software, which enables us to enter reports on PWS conditions into a national database.
We’re grateful to everyone who helped us this year and especially to the Chugach National Forest, which for the third consecutive year provided a landing craft, captain, and crew to help on two clean-up trips. Gulf of Alaska Keeper has also been a huge supporter (and mentor) of our work.
Promoting Safe Shellfish Harvesting
To support local food security and protect access to traditional foods in Prince William Sound, this summer we partnered with the Alutiiq Pride Marine Institute in Seward to begin regular testing of blue mussels from three remote sites in the western Sound. Once each month, our volunteers, along with guides from Alaska Sea Kayakers, gathered mussels from the sites, which we then mailed to the lab in Seward to test for the toxins that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP).
As ocean waters around Alaska warm, PSP hazards have spread northward. It has led to increased testing of shellfish from Southeast Alaska to the Bering Strait. However, remote areas of Prince William Sound have been under-represented in the statewide effort. To close this gap, we worked with local communities, biologists, and others to identify useful sites for sampling in the Sound.
By initiating regular testing, we can inform the public of trends in the toxins that cause PSP, helping residents better understand the risks of shellfish harvesting. We believe this strengthens our communities and our ability to safely enjoy the foods people have harvested along these shores for thousands of years.
Leave It Better Campaign
In addition to our annual clean-up trips, we also steadily outreach to boaters and kayakers to work as a community to keep the Sound healthy and clean. We partner with outfitters, water taxis, and others in Whittier to distribute durable garbage bags that visitors can use to clean any beach they visit.
If visitors gather more trash than they can carry, they can “cache the trash” and report it to us or our partners for pick-up. Participants are just asked to leave the bags above the high tide line and GPS/photo the location. Partners such as Lazy Otter Charters or the Chugach National Forest can then retrieve and dispose of the trash, often within just a few days of a report.
This year, we heard from private boaters, National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) trip leaders, Alaska Sea Kayakers, guides, and others, who removed fishing nets, rope, fish totes, plastic bottles, buckets, and even a section of stray culvert from beaches across the Sound.
Thanks to this community effort, we were awarded the Alaskans for the Prevention of Litter and Recycling (ALPAR) Award for Volunteerism or Service!
Opening the Way to Shrode Lake
The Shrode Lake Trail is among the most popular hikes in the Wilderness Study Area of western Prince William Sound. It runs approximately three miles from Three Finger Cove (Cochrane Bay) to Long Bay (Culross Passage), providing a rare connector route between two distinct PWS waterways. It provides access to Shrode Lake, Shrode Creek, and the Forest Service’s Shrode Lake public use cabin. Along the way, the trail passes through ancient spruce-hemlock rainforest, open bogs, and subalpine meadows full of wildflowers. In short, the Shrode Trail is a jewel of the national forest trail system in PWS.
But, in recent years, overgrown brush, fallen trees, erosion, and damage to boardwalk and bridges have taken away from enjoyment of the trail. Thick overgrowth consisting of salmonberry, blueberry, ferns, and alder have made it to navigate, and during wet weather it can feel like hiking through a carwash. Additionally, the damage to boardwalks and bridges lead to streamside erosion and impacts to sensitive wetland vegetation.
Unfortunately, Chugach National Forest trail managers have been unable to keep up with maintenance on the Shrode Lake Trail. So, beginning in 2020, we teamed up with the Forest Service to restore the trail using our growing volunteer network. We’ve cleared brush, restored eroded tread, repaired boardwalk, and recovered the route where it passes through dense vegetation and meadows. In 2022, we plan to continue the work; find out more about volunteering on this and other summer projects here.
Battling Invasive Species in PWS
In June 2021, our volunteers shipped out to Hobo Bay in Port Wells to pull non-native dandelions from popular beaches. In this partnership with the Chugach National Forest, two sets of volunteers camped at Hobo over the course of a week, just as the weeds flowered but before they went to seed. They uprooted the plants and removed them from the site. Botanists believe doing this for multiple years will exhaust the seed bed and eradicate the weeds. The dandelions likely arrived at Hobo via tents or other recreational gear and have since spread to other popular beaches in Harriman Fiord and Barry Arm. We’re committed to working with the Forest Service to pull the weeds so they don’t spread to more beaches.
In September we also worked with the Whittier School, City of Whittier, and Kenai Watershed Forum to provide an invasive species education day to local students. It included a walk down to Smitty’s Cove, where students removed invasive European black slugs. The ecological impact of slugs is unknown, but they are a nuisance species that is highly transportable and can become established in very high numbers. Since we began treating the slugs three years ago, their numbers at Smitty’s Cove have plummeted from the thousands to just a couple hundred each year. Collecting the slugs helps prevent their spread further into the Sound or other communities such as Girdwood, where they were documented in 2019 and 2020.
Whittier is also home to a number of other harmful invasive species, including Canada thistle and reed canary grass, among others. We look forward to continuing to work with our partners to raise awareness about invasives and prevent their further spread.
Campsite Restoration in Blackstone Bay Continues!
Seventeen Mile Beach in Blackstone Bay might be the most popular spot to camp in western Prince William Sound. And with good reason. The beach provides spectacular views of the three closest tidewater glaciers to Whittier and is surrounded by mountains, ancient rainforest, and abundant birdlife and marine mammals. But with the popularity has come some common problems, including loss of vegetation, litter, felled trees, erosion, and improperly disposed human waste.
In recent years, the Chugach National Forest has worked to improve the site by hardening campsites, restoring soils and vegetation, and installing an outhouse. In 2021, we contributed volunteer help with Alaska Geographic. It was our third year working at the site and we’re excited about the progress. The new campsites are private, dry, and comfortable and help preserve the natural surroundings, while the outhouse is sure to improve sanitation at an area where a lot of people like to…go.
The Problem at Perry
The narrow spit near the head of West Twin Bay on Perry Island is another popular spot in the western Sound that has seen some hard times. In recent years visitors have left trash, cut down trees, and created unsanitary and overflowing “bucket latrines.” And in 2019, a campfire was left unattended that then smoldered in the duff for over a month. It destroyed the roots of over 10 mature trees, which have since toppled, causing significant erosion and blocking access to part of the site.
West Twin Bay is State of Alaska land administered by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR). It is not part of the Alaska State Parks system or Chugach National Forest.
In September, our board members visited the site with State of Alaska officials to assess the damage and discuss ways the Stewardship Foundation can restore the site. No firm plans are in place yet, but we look forward to further discussions and hope that in the near future we can put our volunteer force to work restoring Perry to its original beauty, maybe with hardened campsites and a simple access trail. The project would be a good example of the service we like to provide: filling in the gaps where agencies are in need while serving the public interest and supporting recreation and tourism in the Sound.
In the meantime, we encourage visitors to Perry and all the other PWS beaches to help us take care of our backyard by camping on durable surfaces, properly disposing of human waste, picking up litter, and extinguishing all campfires after their use.
In another partnership with the Chugach National Forest, we also grew a garden in 2021. We bought soil and helped build garden beds on a sunny patch of lawn beside the Forest Service office in Girdwood. When cold temps arrived in late September, we harvested about 20 pounds of potatoes for the Girdwood Food Pantry, which serves communities in Turnagain Arm and Whittier.
We’re also working in the community to do a food drive centered around the Foundation’s harvest.
We planted Yukon golds, purple Vikings, and Haida potatoes. The Haida is a strain grown by Indigenous people all along the NW Coast for centuries, possibly pre-dating the arrival of fur traders. It’s related to a potato likely grown on beach-side patches in PWS. It would be left to grow wild in spring and then collected in fall as groups moved back to winter villages. If any of our potatoes move between Girdwood and Whittier, they’ll be following ancient trade routes to/from the Sound that possibly also carried potatoes.
First Annual PWS Natural History Symposium in Whittier
In May we sponsored a new symposium on Prince William Sound history and ecology, held in Whittier. During the day-long event, fifteen expert speakers discussed Prince William Sound’s history, weather, wildlife, changing climate, and much more. As a new training opportunity for the Sound’s growing community of professional guides, who bring thousands of visitors to the area each year, the symposium was an investment in the Prince William Sound recreation and tourism economy. It was also free and open to the public. The audience ranged from 80 to 100 people throughout the day, plenty enough to convince us to coordinate the event again next spring. Thanks to the Chugach National Forest, City of Whittier, and Prince William Sound Regional Citizens Advisory Council for co-sponsoring.
Taking out the Trash in 2019
For a second year in row, we worked with the U.S. Forest Service and others to clean beaches in Prince William Sound. This year we removed hundreds of pounds of marine debris and other garbage from Knight Island and Perry Island, in the central part of the Sound. Private boaters and a crew from U.S. Coast Guard Sector Valdez joined in this year, and we coordinated with long-time marine debris experts at Gulf of Alaska Keeper. We plan to continue these citizen-based trips as long marine debris finds its way into Prince William Sound.
Restoring Campsites in Blackstone Bay
Following up on our work in 2018, our volunteers again worked with the Chugach National Forest to restore damaged resources and improve public camping in Blackstone Bay. With guidance from Forest Service specialists, we closed excess trails, repaired erosion, restored vegetation, and created new and comfortable campsites at the popular Seventeen Mile Beach. The improvements are good for the land but also benefit the recreation and tourism economy by ensuring high-quality visitor experiences in the remote lands accessible from Whittier. The Forest Service is currently seeking public comment on the 2020 phase of the project, which we will also assist through our growing community of volunteers.
Coordinating the Voices of the Wilderness Artist Residency
We help administer the Voices of the Wilderness Artist Residency. For ten years this program has brought artists to wilderness areas across Alaska, and the artists have helped the agencies connect the public to these special lands. In 2019 we played a particularly active role in the program during the federal government shutdown. We're proud of our contribution, which helped bring Seldovia artist Valisa Higman to work in the Wilderness Study Area of western Prince William Sound this year. Each year's artist volunteers their time for conservation projects while on their residency.
Citizen Science in PWS
We are working with the Chugach National Forest to offer citizen science opportunities in the Wilderness Study Area portion of western Prince William Sound. This year two of our volunteers gathered data on resource conditions at specific sites while on a week-long kayak trip in Port Nellie Juan and Perry Passage. The pair used a smart phone app to record their observations and were provided transportation to the sound on a Forest Service vessel. Citizen science is an important part of taking care of Prince William Sound and we plan to offer more opportunities in 2020.
The Prince William Sound Forum comes to Facebook
In July we launched the Prince William Sound Forum community page on Facebook. You can now request to join the page’s nearly 500 members to read or post about latest observations, photos, fun facts, or sites that need clean-up around the Sound. The Facebook page aligns with our goal to build a greater sense of community among the people who visit Prince William Sound. We believe if visitors feel part of a community of people who enjoy the area, they will be more likely to help care for it.
Other Happenings in 2019
The Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation occupies the gap between resource issues and the limited capacity of management agencies and others tasked with protecting Prince William Sound. This year we also:
Helped remove invasive European black slugs at popular recreation sites in Whittier, which can prevent their further spread.
Hosted speakers on a variety of Prince William Sound topics in Anchorage and Girdwood. This spring we’ll host a weekly speaker series in February and March.
Began an Adopt a Beach program where boaters, kayakers, and others commit to cleaning one beach during their trip into the Sound.
Launched our new website packed with resources to help people enjoy and take care of Prince William Sound.