A Century of Ecosystem Science: Planning Long-Term Research in the Gulf of Alaska (2002)Polar Research Board
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This report was prepared in response to a request from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council to review the Gulf of Alaska Ecosystem Monitoring and Research Program (GEM). To ensure that the GEM program is based on a science plan that is robust, far-reaching, and scientifically sound, the Trustee Council asked the National Academies to serve as an independent advisor. The Academies appointed a special committee and charged it to review the scope and content of the program as it evolves. To meet this charge our committee reviewed Trustee Council planning documents and met with their representatives and with individuals representing various communities and user groups of the Gulf of Alaska region.
- A sound, long-term research plan must clearly define its conceptual foundation, scope, organizational structure, data management methods, and methods for periodic synthesis and review. The conceptual foundation presented in the draft science plan is adequate and with modest restatement as a hypothesis could be a useful focus for research. The science plan and research objectives need to be directly linked to this conceptual foundation.
- GEM is an important opportunity to do truly long-term research in a marine ecosystem, and this long-term approach is essential to distinguish natural variability from human impacts. The long-term nature of the program, intended to cover a period of many decades, is the flagship contribution of the plan. Long-term monitoring by definition must include sustained, consistent observations over a long period and thus requires a long-term commitment from the highest levels of decision makers.
- GEM or any large research program can organize its effort and funds in many ways and still be successful. The habitat approach described in the GEM science plan is one way of dividing attention and funds, and it has the advantage of being understandable to many of the program's key stakeholders. GEM planners need to be aware of its one critical disadvantage: a habitat approach can fail to address key linkages, flows, and processes between habitats, which is where many of the most interesting lessons of the long-term GEM program might be seen.
- GEM's primary goal should be to develop a comprehensive and eventually predictive understanding of the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem. The long-term nature of GEM will enable it to serve as a framework for marine research in the Gulf of Alaska.
- No program can be expected to meet the needs of all potential data users, and tradeoffs are inevitable between the intensity and spatial range of sampling.
- The GEM plan does not currently describe effective and meaningful ways to involve local communities. This involvement should occur at all stages, from planning (e.g., selecting the questions to be addressed and variables to be monitored) to oversight and review. Local knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge can be used to generate ecologically sound and socially relevant research ideas.
- The GEM research plan is being developed to carry out long-term research, short-term research, and synthesis and modeling of data sets. Soliciting proposals, evaluating proposals, and the time frame for the research effort and its funding will differ for these scientific activities.
- The organizational structure supporting GEM needs to ensure ongoing, independent scientific oversight and review. It should be easy for new researchers and local community members to be involved in planning and carrying out the research projects.
- The planning process for GEM has been difficult and costly, but the investment in planning is critical for success. Long-term measurements cannot begin until after the appropriate variables have been identified, and these must be based on the conceptual foundation and hypotheses.
- There will be significant costs associated with data and sample processing and with data archiving.