The Sikuliaq is seen in Resurrection Bay in May 2018. Photo by Sarah Spanos/Courtesy Doug Baird UAF

An icebreaker operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks is the first vessel in the U.S. Academic Research Fleet to be granted permission to conduct research activities since all ships were berthed in light of the ongoing pandemic.

The University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System, or UNOLS, which coordinates the research fleet, previously recommended that the entire fleet stand down through July 1.

Scientific endeavors will resume aboard the Sikuliaq on Monday, when a small team of researchers will embark on a trip to the Gulf of Alaska. The team, which comes from the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, has now been granted permission to resume operations for one week in order to continue what has been 22 years of ecological data collection in the Gulf, according to a UAF news release. Scientists self-quarantined for two weeks prior to boarding and will adhere to health mandates while conducting their research.

Rose Dufour, ship operations program director at the National Science Foundation, said in the news release that, “NSF recognizes the difficult decision to move forward with science operations in these uncertain times, but we feel UAF has done an excellent job in assessing and mitigating the risks.”

The ship will be providing science support for the Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research program. The research is part of a two-decade time series and the scientists will be collecting both phytoplankton and zooplankton from the area. They will further measure the ocean’s temperature, salinity, oxygen, chlorophyll and nutrients.

The trip was originally scheduled for two weeks in April with 24 scientists and two technicians in addition to the full-time crew. The plan was to travel from Seward for 170 miles south of Resurrection Bay along a series of sample sites called the Seward Line, where observations have been recorded twice yearly since 1997. It is the longest data set of this type in Alaska waters, according to the news release.

Leaders at the National Science Foundation, UNOLS and UAF agreed that this research was sufficiently important to consider alterations to the cruise plan that would make it compatible with COVID-19 safety precautions. According to the news release, a detailed mitigation and response plan was created with guidance from the U.S. Coast Guard, UNOLS, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health mandates issued by Alaska’s governor.

“We have reduced our planned two-week cruise to one week, and we will never be more than a day away from home port,” said Russ Hopcroft, lead principal investigator of the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences research for the program, in the release. “We think that with three scientists we can cover all of the core measurements that we have been taking for the last two decades.”

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