A team of scientists is traveling a 600-mile stretch of the Inside Passage this month to study the effects of cruise ship waste and other contaminants in Southeast Alaska waters.
The $450,000 project is part of a nationwide look at the environmental health of coastal waters.
During the 35-day trip, the scientists are traveling by trawler and testing the water between Dixon Entrance and Icy Bay. They are collecting sediment, groundfish, invertebrates and water samples that later will be analyzed in federal laboratories for the presence of metals, organic chemicals and other pollutants.
"We've run into a lot of challenges," researcher Sue Saupe said during a stop in Juneau.
For example, most of the testing locations were generated randomly by computer, and researchers frequently arrive to find their sample site is on the side of a fjord, said Saupe, a chemical oceanographer who is leading the team assembled by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Similar research is under way from the Gulf of Mexico to Maine, all with funding through the federal Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program.
Just the beginning
The program was created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a decade ago and hundreds of scientific projects have resulted. Alaska is just at the beginning of its work, Saupe said.
In 2002, environmental regulators sampled Southcentral Alaska waters and that data is still being processed, Saupe said.
Scott Sloane, an environmental specialist with DEC, said the survey is not targeting potential hot spots for pollution. The point is to determine the general health of Southeast waters.
But there is one notable exception. The agency is targeting at least 13 locations that are affected by cruise ship traffic, downtown Juneau, Auke Bay, Haines, Skagway and Tracy Arm, said Denise Koch with the DEC's water division.
The agency has never gathered bacteriological or nutrient samples from the water at those sites. It has previously collected only "end of pipe" samples from the cruise ships' treated wastewater effluent, Koch said.
Eventually, findings will be presented to the public, said Doug Dasher, a DEC section manager in charge of the federal projects. He said a preliminary report on Southeast could be completed by early fall 2005.