Scientists hope to find what Alaska’s water quality is like without cruise ships

The cruise ship Noordam brought close to 2,000 passengers to Haines on Sept. 20, 2017. It and other ships carried more than 1 million passengers this summer, helping increase the region's tourism economy. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska News)
The cruise ship Noordam brought close to 2,000 passengers to Haines on Sept. 20, 2017. It and other ships carried more than 1 million passengers this summer, helping increase the region’s tourism economy. (Ed Schoenfeld/CoastAlaska

It’s a relatively quiet summer on Alaska waters, since COVID-19 mostly cancelled the cruise ship season and limited tourism. But this hiatus is an opening for scientists to gather water quality data in harbors across the state.

It’s flat calm on Portage Cove in Haines, Alaska, as a small charter boat comes into the harbor.

“I was a science teacher for 22 years,” said Patty Brown, “So now I’m just a freelance scientist, it turns out.”

Brown is a Haines resident with a degree in Natural Resources Management. She was contracted to sample water for Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation. She and other “freelance scientists” from Ketchikan to Nome are working for DEC’s Ambient Harbor Monitoring project for the next two years.

A woman standing on the deck of a boat
Patty Brown in the Haines Harbor on July 7, 2020. (Photo by Claire Stremple / KHNS)

She puts on gloves and uses a syringe to pull water from a handful of testing sites around the harbors in Haines and Skagway, which would usually be packed with cruise ships and other boat traffic. But this year, the water is quiet. No commuter ferry, no tours, no ten-story cruise ships towering over the tiny coastal towns.

“We’re seizing the moment to get a baseline data for years when there’s not cruise ships and not little tour boats,” she said.

“So we’re finding out what what’s here in spite of them and then next year, they get a measurement of saying ‘Hmm, what’s changed because of them.’”

DEC planned this project before COVID-19, so this opportunity for baseline water data came as a surprise.

“We went from having a period where we’ve got, you know, over a million visitors and tons of voyages going on to different communities. And now we suddenly have this, this pause, essentially in, in cruise ship activity,” said Brock Tabor, who manages the project for DEC. He said it will be a useful tool in understanding the impacts of cruise ships and shipping traffic.

The agency has been testing some local waters for years, but last year the state legislature funded an expanded project—multiple test sites at 18 harbors along the coast. It’s a response to community concerns about cruise ship activity. And there are yearly beach closures in Southeast Alaska due to bacteria in the water.

Related: During summer without cruise ships, researchers will study fecal bacteria on Southeast Alaska beaches

He said they’re testing for things associated with wastewater discharges: bacteria, pH, certain dissolved metals, and conductivity ammonia, which is a pollutant that’s often associated with wastewater. They’re also measuring dissolved oxygen and water temperature.

For the next couple of years, Tabor will receive this data from people like Brown in harbors across the state that usually see a lot of cruise ships and activity on the water.

Back in Haines, Patty Brown hustles up the harbor ramp to the parking lot. Her samples are stowed in a small cooler for the plane ride to a Juneau lab.

“We leave early on Thursday and go to Skagway first and then Haines and try to catch the same flight to put this stuff on,” she explained.

By this winter, the data set from this summer will be in Brock Tabor’s Juneau office. He says numbers should tell a story about what is and isn’t happening in Alaska’s coastal waters.