The Long-Range Effects on Locally Important Marine Resources

Kotzebue, Alaska, a tiny city perched on the Baldwin Peninsula, is thirty-three miles above the Arctic Circle. Kotzebue is bordered by the Kotzebue Sound to the west and the Hotham Sound to the east. These two bodies of water both join into the Chucki Sea.

Introduction: About Kotzebue

Kotzebue, Alaska, a tiny city perched on the Baldwin Peninsula, is thirty-three miles above the Arctic Circle. Kotzebue is bordered by the Kotzebue Sound to the west and the Hotham Sound to the east. These two bodies of water both join into the Chucki Sea. The water depths average nine to fifteen feet. These shallow depths are due to the sediment input from three rivers, the Noatak, the Kobuk and the Selawik. The Noatak, the largest of the three, enters the Kotzebue Sound north of Kotzebue. It discharges a large amount of silty sediment to the sea floor, creating sand bars and the shallow depths found in the sound. The other rivers contribute mainly to the sedimentation of Hotham Sound. Throughout the long winter months, starting in October and lasting seven to nine months, a thick layer of ice forms over the sea.

The predominately Native Alaskan community of Kotzebue, with a population of 3,500 residents, is a commercial and administrative hub for the nine surrounding villages of the Northwest Arctic Borough. Commercial food sources for the community are provided by cargo shipments that arrive by airplane or during the brief open water months by barge. Kotzebue is not connected to any road system; however motor traffic between villages does occur in the winter months on the ice roads. Kotzebue, as other areas in Alaska, relies heavily on a subsistence lifestyle to supplement dietary needs. A subsistence lifestyle is a traditionally important aspect of the Inupiaq culture. Annual harvestable resources include caribou, waterfowl, wild fruits and vegetables, fish, seals and the occasional whale. Foods harvested are preserved by traditional means such as drying, pickling and preserving in seal oil or the traditional method of making stink flipper, stinky fish, which they bury in the ground.

Plans for a New Barge Port/Facility

Under an Economic Development Administration Assistance Grant, Kotzebue city officials and KPFF Architecture Engineering Planning of Anchorage, Alaska, have investigated the potential creation of a deepwater port some distance from town. The port project study proposed that a mooring facility for ocean-going barges will be built at one of three sites: Cape Blossom, twelve miles south of town, Isthmus Point, twenty four miles south-east of Kotzebue, and the present docking site in town. Due to privately and corporately owned land issues, the preferred site would be Cape Blossom. The project, titled “Engineering Feasibility Study for an Industrial Park/Port Facility at Kotzebue, Alaska,” was written in 1977 and thoroughly investigates the possibility of a port facility construction. Another report, by Jeff Hadley titled “Feasibility Analysis of Kotzebue Deepwater Port/Airport” was written in 1983 and adds to the research conducted earlier. Recent interests in reviving the project have surfaced among the public.

Present Docking Area and Barge System

Kotzebue currently has a small docking area located in front of town. The dock consists of a two hundred and fifty foot long “tied back” bulkhead. The sheet pile structure is located on the towns waterfront, where the water depth is about eight feet. The new port couldn’t be built in town because of the limited amount of building space. During the summer, barges deliver vehicles, petroleum products, building supplies, and other items to the town, where they are then distributed to surrounding villages. The problem with this system is the Kotzebue Sound is too shallow for the barges to come up on the dock. Instead, barge tugs drive out to where the barge is anchored, some thirteen miles away from the town and supplies are then transferred from the tug on to the main dock. A large crane is stored on the barge, which is used to load goods and takes up a large amount of space. This is time consuming process can be delayed further by adverse weather conditions, drifting ice floes, in order to create a deepwater port facility, the sea floor would need to be dredged to create a deep channel, approximately twenty feet deep and thirteen miles long, along the shoreline from Cape Blossom outward, to deeper sea floor depths. The shifting channel would have to be re-marked and dredged each year.

A road could be built from Kotzebue to Cape Blossom where maintenance and storage buildings could also be constructed. Electricity lines, water and sewer systems would also need to be built. The supplies could then be delivered directly to the present dock on front of Kotzebue by a gravel road system. The barges could return to their port facility afterwards. In addition, if an airstrip and hanger were constructed near Cape Blossom, supplies could be transferred to Kotzebue twice as fast.

Overall, the plan to build the port facility would be more effective for transferring supplies and may reduce current high costs of shipping. However, a large amount of the sea floor near Cape Blossom would have to be altered to create a channel adequate for the barge. A brief study was made on the long-range effects on locally important marine resources of the proposed deepwater port near Kotzebue.

An Overview of the Marine Biodiversity Near Kotzebue

Marine Plant Life

Marine biodiversity is rich and abundant in the Kotzebue, Alaska area. The plant life of Kotzebue Sound consists of an abundant and diverse population of seaweed and algae. The extended daylight hours during the summer months in the region, allows growth in benthic biomes that other wise would be void of life, to flourish.

The cold Arctic waters of the region provide an ideal environment for phytoplankton. Phytoplankton is a mass of photosynthetic organic matter found in the pelagic region of the ocean. Phytoplankton is especially abundant in cold water, which makes the Arctic waters of Kotzebue an ideal place for phytoplankton to flourish. The phytoplankton are able to survive year-round despite thick ice and the little amount of daylight present during the winter. The phytoplankton population simply stays in check, during the winter until the sunlight can penetrate the water again. Phytoplankton blooms provide food for zooplankton, which in turn feeds fish and supports higher animals in the marine food web.

The deepwater port project would exterminate plant life in the disturbed area. When the dredging starts it will in turn kick up clouds of sea floor sediments which would make it harder for the sun to penetrate the area for a certain period of time.

Marine Fish Species

Fish would need to migrate to different areas if dredging started. Fish regularly swim near and in front of town. Summer herring runs attract large amounts of people to the shoreline with buckets, nets and fishing rods. During the winter, the thick layer of ice supports snow-machines with sleds full of people and equipment for hunting and ice fishing. Ice fishing is a popular method of harvesting fish. People catch all kinds of fish, including bullheads, tomcod, smelts, sheefish, salmon and mud sharks. Each fish has its different use. For example, sheefish, tomcod and smelts are good for eating, especially in stews. Tomcod and sheefish are also used for feeding sled dogs and other pets. The fish bones can be used for fishhooks, decoration, earrings and other jewelry. Digging up the silty substrate would make the water too cloudy to support fish life.

Marine Mammals

The marine mammals that inhabit the Kotzebue area include different types of seals. There are also species of whale (white beluga, gray, and Minke) and walrus that can be found 45 miles outside of town near Sealing Point. Polar bears also wander far out on the ice; the last sighting of polar bears near Kotzebue took place during February of 1999, when a mother and her cub passed through town.

During the summer, one of the biggest tourist attractions of Kotzebue is being able to spot seals from Shore Avenue. The seals come to eat groups of herring that pass through town. Seals along with small herds of beluga whales normally pass through the proposed dredging area; the noise of the dredging along with the silty water may cause them to avoid Kotzebue Sound. The seals may skip their usual visit up the Noatak River taking away from summer harvests.

Marine Shore Birds

Eider and Merganser ducks are only a few of the several species of waterfowl that come to Kotzebue during the summer months. They land in saltwater marsh areas and at the seashore to eat insects and other small organisms near muddy banks. Marine shore birds, such as seagulls, are regularly sighted on beaches and in the Kotzebue Sound. The seagulls are most common in the summertime, when flocks come to Kotzebue and Cape Blossom to nest in secluded areas. Marine shore birds are unique to marine life because they help keep the populations of fish, sea urchins and mollusks in check. Without such predators, mollusks and sea urchins are some of the organisms that would over populate the beaches and kill the algal growth.

Nesting grounds located along the shoreline from Kotzebue to Cape Blossom (and perhaps beyond) are subject to disturbances relating to the port project. Major nesting grounds for seagulls, eider ducks and other waterfowl would be abandoned. Over time, the birds near Cape Blossom may be driven from their nesting areas because of loud machinery noise. Thus would take away from the amount of subsistence hunting of migratory birds during each season.

The Environmental Dangers: How Added Pressure from the Project Would Affect Marine Life

Dangers to Marine Biodiversity in the vicinity of Kotzebue include overexploitation, air pollution and global warming. Global warming and air pollution, two of the biggest concerns, are intertwined factors that would have profound changes on marine life today.

Air Pollution

Air pollution is a hazard to Kotzebue marine biodiversity because sooner or later, through the water cycle, it reaches the ocean and freshwater sources that animals depend on. Air pollution also destroys the lungs of animals, such as marine birds. As an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) article relates, “Carbon dioxide emissions from motor vehicles are one of the biggest contributors to air pollution” (EPA, online global warming article). With the new port facility and barge system, an influx of cars and other motor vehicles to Kotzebue will no doubt contribute to the air pollution, which in turn adds to global warming.

Climatic Changes: Global Warming

Global warming is the effect of atmospheric gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, to trap heat from the sun in earth’s atmosphere like greenhouse windowpanes. One of the most significant impacts, global warming would create problems for both humans and animals. The EPA predicts weather changes such as increased evaporation as climates warm, which in turn will “increase average global precipitation. Soil moisture is likely to decline in many regions, and intense rainstorms are likely to become more frequent. Sea level is likely to rise two feet along most of the U.S. coast” (EPA, online global warming article).

Besides a substantial rise in temperature, rising sea levels are another problematic effect of global warming. Higher sea levels are mainly a result of a gradual melting of ice glaciers and the polar ice mass.

Increased sea levels mean more coastal flooding, erosion and an increase in salinity for bay water, river water and ground water (EPA, online global warming article). As water levels increase, more efforts to preserve eroding land will be noticeable.

The city of Kotzebue is located on a gravelly, silty peninsula. Throughout the fall season, we’ve had a horrendous rain and windstorm that caused flooding and massive erosion on Shore Avenue. Besides destroying streets and flooding homes, the rainstorm eroded beaches and flooded salt marshes, home to marine birds. Our annual snowfall came late and was melted by unexpected rain showers. The Kotzebue Sound was also late to freeze, another sign of global warming. Adverse influences of global warming on animals and plants are also described by the EPA. “Plants and animals generally react to consistently warmer temperatures by moving to higher latitudes and elevations. Recent studies reveal that some species have already started to shift their ranges, consistent with warming trends. Many populations and species may become more vulnerable to declining numbers or extinction if warming occurs faster than they can respond or if human development presents barriers to their migrations” (Harbingers, global warming article). As we adjust to these gradual changes, so will marine life. However, there is no accounting for the number of species that will lose homes if global warming goes unchecked.


Marine life, one of the major resources we use in the Kotzebue area, affects most everyone. During the summer, fishing and seal hunting are a big part of life. People visit our coastal beaches to have picnics and enjoy the view. Families travel to camps they have on private land where they dedicate portions of the summer only to harvesting and storing fish. Seal hunting trips are common and waterfowl is another marine resource we use.

Without the large amount of biodiversity near Kotzebue, our environment wouldn’t be the same. As Encarta Encyclopedia states, “A diversity of species is generally important to the natural functioning of ecosystems, and biodiversity is therefore considered an indication of the health of an environment,” (Encarta Encyclopedia, Biodiversity article) and Kotzebue would fail to portray a complete ecosystem for plants, animals and humans. Overall, the proposed port facility project would have small impacts on marine biodiversity, as most of the animals will change their migration patterns to avoid the dredging site. However, the long term effects of increased carbon dioxide emissions and accidental oil spills (from barges or delivery truck collisions) would slowly change the atmosphere and alter the fragile ecosystems in the area.


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The Long-Range Effects on Locally Important Marine Resources

Kotzebue, Alaska, a tiny city perched on the Baldwin Peninsula, is thirty-three miles above the Arctic Circle. Kotzebue is bordered by the Kotzebue Sound to the west and the Hotham Sound to the east. These two bodies of water both join into the Chucki Sea.

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