Submitted by Friday Harbor Laboratories.
The Pelagic Ecosystem Function (PEF) apprenticeship gives students the unique opportunity to do independent scientific field research within an academic quarter. Apprentices engage in real science that contributes to our understanding of the workings and conservation needs of the San Juan Islands’ marine environment. Using the Labs’ research vessels, PEF research encompasses the pelagic (open water) ecosystem, spanning oceanography, plankton, fish, marine mammals, and seabirds. Offered at Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL) during fall quarter since 2004, the now 18-year database facilitates inquiry into ecosystem dynamics not only during a given quarter but also across time – allowing research into interannual patterns and how climate conditions affect ecosystem processes. Each year students make new discoveries and build on the work of previous apprentices.
Here, in their words, are stories from three Fall 2021 PEF apprentices about their research and experience at FHL. Dylan Greenwald studied phytoplankton abundance and diversity, Kennadie Selden studied microplastics in fish, and Aidan Cox identified ecologically important areas for several common species of marine mammals and seabirds.
My project focused on quantification of phytoplankton (microscopic single-celled algae) abundance and identification of common phytoplankton genera at two stations within the San Juan Channel. I analyzed chlorophyll as a proxy for phytoplankton abundance in water samples (Figure 1) and identified and counted phytoplankton from net-tow samples to the genus level using a microscope. I also analyzed these results along with environmental variables important to phytoplankton growth, such as photosynthetically active radiation (PAR, i.e., sunlight) and nutrients (nitrate, phosphate, silicate, and ammonium) collected over fall quarter.
As we have typically seen in the PEF record, phytoplankton abundance in San Juan Channel showed a gradual decline as the fall quarter progressed and the available light diminished. I was able to quantitatively identify the environmental factors, like nutrients and PAR, that correlated with the abundance of particular genera. In terms of phytoplankton diversity, while the top ten most-abundant genera were largely the same as seen previously in the PEF record, there were two exceptions. For the second year in a row a dinoflagellate, Alexandrium spp., was in the top seven, and also for the second year in a row, a previously common diatom, Skeletonema spp., was absent. This may indicate competitive exclusion between the two phytoplankton types.
In one word, my experience at FHL was unforgettable. This apprenticeship introduced me to authentic academic research while staying at one of the most uniquely beautiful campuses in the world. Within the stunning island atmosphere, a huge bonus was meeting like-minded individuals who left me with both incredible inspiration and meaningful friendships. With such a small instructor-to-student ratio, I’m certain the quality of mentorship is unsurpassed by any other program. If you want a fantastic window into the graduate work and world of research by a marine scientist, the Pelagic Ecosystem Function apprenticeship at FHL feels truly authentic and extremely impactful. Oh, and the vessel cruises aboard the R/V Kittiwake were definitely a big plus for those who enjoy and/or are seeking experience at sea.
For my project I decided to build off previous PEF work with microplastics in sediment, and look at microplastics in the stomachs of planktivorous (plankton-eating) and piscivorous (fish-eating) fish species. I compared microplastic abundance in the fish stomachs obtained at several locations within the San Juan Archipelago, looked for evidence of biomagnification (concentration of particles at higher levels in the food web), and compared plastic concentration with fish age. I found more microplastics at protected beaches and more microplastics in salmon than in any other species of fish, indicating that biomagnification could be happening.
My project contributed to the investigation of microplastics in the San Juan Archipelago, something relatively new for PEF. The methods used were straightforward and can be replicated by future students, and it will be interesting to look at how microplastic concentrations change as years pass, and to compare the amount present with physical conditions to further learn how plastics disperse through the system.
During my free time I went down to the beach and collected sea glass and plastic pieces. I decided to create a mosaic (Figure 2) using the plastics that I found as a complement to my project. It is concerning to me that I was able to find this many plastics (and more) over the course of a few hours on a marine preserve.
When I came home and told my mom about my stories from FHL, she told me that it truly seemed like I was in my element. I have never had the opportunity to work closely yet independently with so many like-minded individuals, and one of my favorite parts of this quarter was the teamwork required to capture, process, and analyze samples. When I wasn’t in the lab or on the boat, I spent lots of time exploring the trails and beaches on campus.
As a researcher, I’m interested in identifying how the natural environment shapes habitat suitability for different species, particularly for marine predators (organisms at or near the top of their respective food chains). While participating in the PEF research apprenticeship, I built statistical models to describe how environmental conditions influence the locations of core habitat for several common species of marine mammals and seabirds across the San Juan islands. I found that despite each predator species’ reliance on different environmental conditions, the core habitats of multiple species overlapped in the area within 1 kilometer from shore (Figure 3). These results suggest that the nearshore environments of the San Juan Islands are ecologically important regions and that efforts aimed at preserving the health of these areas would aid conservation of marine mammals and seabirds in the San Juan Archipelago.
My project would not have been possible without the long-term dataset of marine bird and mammal abundance maintained by students in our apprenticeship. When starting my research, I noticed patterns of species distribution that were persistent across more than a decade of data. It was these patterns which inspired my research, and I could only identify them because the PEF dataset spans many years. By continuing to add to this dataset, future students may be able to use the models I constructed to identify differences from previous years in bird and mammal abundances, which may highlight shifts or disturbances within the ecosystem of the San Juan islands.
My time at Friday Harbor Labs has profoundly altered the course of my career as a marine scientist. Although I’ve been interested in the ocean for most of my life, it wasn’t until my first trip to Friday Harbor two years ago that I met career scientists for the first time, and the dream of becoming a marine biologist became realistic. As a PEF apprentice, my homecoming to the Labs has only reaffirmed that dream and set me on a clearer research path as I continue to pursue research in ecological modeling.
We, the teaching faculty of PEF, were inspired by the opportunity to facilitate the research of all twelve of our apprentices during Fall 2021. The ability to conduct research and discover new facets of the San Juan Archipelago pelagic ecosystem has drawn us (and our former faculty partners) back each year. We thank the University of Washington, Friday Harbor Labs, the Mary Gates Foundation, and other donors who have made this possible. It really does make a difference, as these stories attest!
Fall 2021 PEF faculty: Jan Newton (UW APL and UW School of Oceanography), Matt Baker (North Pacific Research Board and UW School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences), Mike Sigler (Shoals Marine Laboratory and University of Alaska Fairbanks), and Roxanne Carini (UW APL).