Researchers roll out new erosion tracking tech in Bristol Bay

A man in a winter jacket and boots stands on a muddy patch of a swampy lagoon.
Gabe Dunham with UAF and Alaska Sea Grant at Dillingham’s erosion monitoring site by the sewage lagoon, fall 2019. Dunham was part of the initial Stakes for Stakeholders project in 2016 and continues to support erosion research in the region. (Tyler Thompson/KDLG)

Researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks will travel to Dillingham this week to continue erosion research in Bristol Bay’s coastal communities.

An ongoing project that started in 2016 as Stakes for Stakeholders, it aims to help residents monitor erosion with affordable time-lapse cameras and survey equipment on wooden stakes in 10 communities.

In Ekuk, Environmental Coordinator Jennifer Robinette has observed the dangers of an eroding coastline in the village. She started tracking erosion on her own before joining the “Stakes for Stakeholders” effort with UAF.

According to Robinette, Ekuk is losing about five feet of coastline per year. That rate has more than doubled in the last century, from 1921 to the present. Before the erosion project began, the last recorded studies were done in 2007. She says erosion is narrowing the beach and causing issues for set-net fishers.

“The erosion actually takes away the top layer of gravel, so then fishermen are just driving on mud,” Robinette said. “That causes a problem with weight and getting big catches back to the processor from down the beach. So that beach is natural infrastructure for our fishing.”

Fishers in Ekuk are able to set nets by truck, and the local processor is set up to collect catches from truck beds rather than skiffs, like a tender would. Robinette says land lost from erosion is also causing a buildup of material near the dock, making it difficult for the barge to come and go.

“The processor has to actually dig out some every year to be able to process,” she said. “Just to get their equipment in for the summer and catch out for the end of the season.”

Robinette and the researchers will get feedback from residents about their experiences with erosion and flooding. She adds that the partnership with UAF and the state gave the village council better tools and data to apply for grants.

Ekuk’s Village Council recently applied for a climate change and resiliency grant from the Bureaus of Indian Affairs to come up with solutions for the eroding coastline.

The University is partnered with the Bristol Bay Native Association, Alaska Sea Grant and Alaska Department of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, with funding from the state, Alaska Sea Grant and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

A map shows the erosion changes to a curved shoreline, much of it yellow and red, the highest levels of shoreline change rate.
Courtesy of Chris Maio

In Dillingham, the erosion monitoring site is by the sewage lagoon near Wood River. The city loses up to 20 feet of coastline per year.

Chris Maio, with UAF, said they are expanding the research area from the harbor to Kananak Hospital.

“So we’ll be out there measuring the slope of the beach, we call this cross shore profiles,” Maio said. “We’ll measure the bottom of the bluff there. So once we collect that information, then when we go back to repeat those surveys, we’ll have a real good idea how that beach is changing. So we can more accurately project when infrastructure like the houses and things like that are actually going to be impacted by those changes.”

The researchers will ask residents how they can make their findings more digestible on the local level. Maio and others will also introduce new products for tracking erosion, like a high resolution real time kinematic GPS system that can measure loss to the coastline within centimeters of accuracy.

Maio says they will also deploy a yellow wave buoy, acquired by the Alaska Sea Grant right outside the harbor in Dillingham to measure waves, wind speeds and temperatures in real time via satellite.

“As scientists, we’ll use that to assess storm surge heights and be able to model flooding events in that area,” Maio said. “For the local fishermen and other community members, it will be a place where they can sign on to a website and see the real time conditions right outside the harbor there.”

Storm events can accelerate erosion at an alarming rate. Three years ago, a storm in Dillingham tore off 10 to 15 feet of coastline by the sewage lagoon. Maio and others will spend five days in Dillingham surveying coastline and will travel to Ekuk, Pilot Point, Chignik Bay and Ivanoff Bay.

Ivanoff Bay will be a new monitoring site for the erosion researchers. Earlier this spring, they traveled to Port Heiden and Levelock to gather data at existing sites. In 2019, Port Heiden’s Goldfish Lake breached and dumped into the Bay.

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