Arctic oil studies yield discoveries about sea life

Spurred by the rush to develop the Arctic's offshore oil and gas riches, scientists are unlocking some mysteries about the marine environment off Alaska's northern coast.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the icy Beaufort and Chukchi seas, resulting in major discoveries -- including the existence of commercial fish species such as Pacific cod and walleye pollock in places never before documented.

Two summers ago, Libby Logerwell and her colleagues from the National Marine Fisheries Service headed out in a trawler to survey fish populations in federal waters of the western Beaufort. This research project occurred the same year that the federal government leased large blocks of seafloor in both seas to major oil companies for exploration. It was the first offshore fish survey in the Beaufort in 30 years.

Logerwell said the main goal of the 2008 Beaufort survey -- recently compiled into a final report -- was to gather data to help evaluate the potential impacts of oil and gas development.

But her team's discoveries east of Barrow had other ripple effects.

For example, the team's find of commercial fish species more typically caught in the Bering and North Pacific informed federal fishery regulators' 2009 decision to ban commercial fishing in U.S. Arctic waters, to buy time before seafood companies could even think about moving boats there. The biggest fishery in Alaska targets Bering Sea pollock.

A larger concern is the potential for environmental disruption, either from increased shipping traffic as Arctic ice recedes amid global warming, or from catastrophic spills of future oil production or exploratory drilling. Scientists say it is difficult to calculate the damage if you don't know even know what is in the environment.

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