State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

, ,

Plankton Fishing in the Bering Sea

I arrived in Kodiak, Alaska, two days ago with research technician Kali McKee. We are about to join scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory aboard the R/V Dyson for a two-week cruise. Our colleagues will be working on long-term monitoring of the ocean’s physics and chemistry and identifying larval fish in this important fishery. The target of our two-person team from Lamont is much tinier: plankton!

Flying into Anchorage, Alaska.
The R/V Oscar Dyson, tied up at the US Coast Guard dock in Kodiak, Alaska.

The word “plankton” comes from the Latin term for “wanderer.” They are the microscopic plants and animals in the ocean that form the base of all marine food webs. Most plankton are unable to swim, so they drift wherever the currents take them. Phytoplankton harness energy from the sun and “fix” it into carbon. They play a fundamental role in the carbon cycle, as well as in the cycling of oxygen (one of the by-products of photosynthesis), and various nutrients (e.g. nitrogen, phosphorus) in the world’s ocean. It is estimated that about 50 percent of the oxygen in the air that we breathe originated from phytoplankton! The way in which these tiny plants sink out of the surface ocean after they’ve reach high numbers represents a large removal of carbon that could otherwise return to the Earth’s atmosphere, and it makes sense that a lot of research is currently investigating the dynamics of these fascinating creatures.

A microscopic view of plankton in a variety of shapes and sizes (D.A. Caron)

Our goal in the Bering Sea is to see how much phytoplankton is here, and how the timing of the spring bloom is tied to the retreat of sea ice. Since 1997, the sea-ice coverage in the southeastern Bering Sea has been significantly reduced, due to warmer winter air temperatures. The downstream effect seems to be later phytoplankton blooms in years where little to no sea ice remains as the ocean warms in the spring. On top of that, the types of phytoplankton in those blooms appear to be different than in cooler years. Together, the timing of the spring phytoplankton blooms and the types of phytoplankton present can have significant effects on carbon cycling (which is important for understanding further climate change) and the food web. Zooplankton are the animal-like plankton which feed on phytoplankton and are themselves then eaten by everything ranging from fish to crabs to whales! As Discovery Channel fans know, the Bering Sea supports one of the world’s most productive fisheries, accounting for more than 50 percent of U.S. fish and shellfish catches. The goal of our study is to understand how climate change is impacting phytoplankton, and ultimately the Bering Sea ecosystem.

Fishing boats in Kodiak harbor

To understand these dynamics, we will spend the next two weeks taking water samples and looking at how much and what types of phytoplankton are present. We have a number of tools to help us make those determinations, and I will introduce you to some of those gadgets as we cruise along.

In the meantime, it has been a busy two days and a little rest is in order. The flights from New York took about 16 hours in total, and we have been busy setting up and securing loads of equipment (it can get rough out here!), conferring with our colleagues, and enjoying the phenomenal weather and long days in the 49th state. I spotted several of our national birds, the majestic bald eagle, while running errands in Kodiak, and this afternoon many happy sea otters lolled on their backs as we made our way through Kupreanof Strait. Whales, birds, and more fine weather hopefully await us, as do the plankton and the Bering Sea.

Our lab space on the Oscar Dyson. Kali is doing a last round of checks on one of our instruments.
Sea otters in Kupreanof Strait
Breathtaking Alaskan scenery on our way to Shelikof Strait

(unless otherwise noted, all photos: B. Stauffer)

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Patrick Cooney
Patrick Cooney
12 years ago

Excellent work! I look forward to hearing more. Are there phytoplankton samples from before 1997, when ice levels were greater, so that you can compare for differences? Keep up the amazing work and incredible photos.

Rob Mutch Photography
12 years ago

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

12 years ago

Good luck! We will be reading every word!

12 years ago


12 years ago

Fascinating work Beth, very interesting.

Lois Hepler
Lois Hepler
12 years ago

Hi Beth, How exciting! Looks interesting. God’s Blessings on your project.

Kayak Angler
12 years ago

As Patrick said it would be very interesting comparing older samples. I would also speculate that this also correlates to the biodiversity of all the native fish species in the area. As a kayak fisherman this is very important to us because we can’t travel the distances normal anglers in a power boat can. Thanks and keep up the great work!

11 years ago

This reminds me of when I went fishing with a few of my colleges. We just got brand new fly tying supplies and that made things a lot easier for us. Thanks for sharing this article. Great insights 🙂