Regional Overview & Fact Sheet
The Alaskan/Fjordland Pacific Region is a binational region, home to abundant plant and wildlife. The region encompasses a multitude of islands, deep fjords, sheltered straits and 5 percent of the world’s gazetted seamounts. Its adjacent rivers give way to a tremendous amount of freshwater runoff and nutrients, while upwelling in the center of the Alaska gyre pushes nutrients, phytoplankton and zooplankton production onto its shelf. The region straddles the east and west coast of Vancouver Island, starting at Cape Cook on the west side, and the Strait of Georgia on the east side of the island. It continues north through the Gulf of Alaska and extends to the end of the Aleutian Archipelago Region, running south and west of that region. The Region includes eight B2B Marine Priority Conservatiton Areas (PCAs): PCA 5-Western Kodiak Island/Shelikof Strait; PCA 6-Lower Cook Inlet/Eastern Kodiak Island; PCA 7-Prince William Sound/Copper River Delta; PCA 8-Patton Seamounts; PCA 9-Glacier Bay/Sitka Sound/Fredrick Sound; PCA 10-Dixon Entrance/Langara Island/Forrester Island; PCA 11-Northern Queen Charlotte Sound/Hecate Strait/Gwaii Haanas; and PCA 12-Scott Islands/Queen Charlotte Strait (Morgan et al. 2005).
Separated from the Columbian Region by the bifurcation of the North Pacific Current to form the cooler Alaska Current.
1–9°C (winter) and 10–16°C (summer) and reaching 20°C in sheltered areas during the warmest months
Alaskan Current/Stream, Alaska Coastal Current, North Pacific Current.
Rocky coastlines, numerous islands, fjords and embayments, narrow continental shelf, large number of seamounts rise from the deeper waters offshore.
shelf (roughly 0–200 m): 18%;
slope (roughly 200–2,500/3,000 m): 22%
abyssal plain (roughly 3,000+ m): 60%
Mainly rock and mud inshore with sand, rock and gravel offshore.
Mud flats, tidal marshes, rocky reefs, rocky shorelines, kelp beds, eelgrass beds, seamounts, and hydrothermal vents.
Moderately high productivity ecosystem (150-300 gCm-2yr-1).
None known, however seamount fauna has not been well studied.
Bowhead, minke, sperm, sei, beluga, North Pacific right, humpback, gray, killer and blue whales; Steller sea lion; sea otter; chum salmon, coho salmon, steelhead salmon
At least seventeen non-indigenous species identified in south-central Alaska, including Norway rat, Arctic fox, Atlantic salmon, European green crab, purple loosestrife, and Japanese knotweed.
Fishing, marine recreation, tourism, oil and gas exploration and recovery.
Physical and Oceanographic Setting
The Alaskan/Fjordland Region encompasses all of the fjord-dominated west coast of British Columbia and the Alaska Panhandle, and runs out to sea over the North Pacific Slope and Basin. Its numerous islands, deep fjords, and sheltered straits, as well as the great amount of freshwater runoff from its numerous rivers, distinguish the southern portion of the region. The shelf of the Fjordland varies, but is generally narrow throughout—it extends about 20 km at the north end of Vancouver Island, is almost imperceptible at the southern end of Queen Charlotte Islands, and broadens again as it moves north into the Gulf of Alaska, where it is about 160 km wide. The deeper waters of the region include over 5 percent of the world’s gazetted seamounts.
The major oceanographic influence on the region is the counterclockwise Alaska Current, which is formed when the westerly North Pacific Current (West Wind Drift) bifurcates at Vancouver Island, splitting into the northerly Alaska Current and the southerly California Current. The Alaska Current continues along the southern edge of the Aleutian Islands as the Alaska Stream, and a parallel, low-salinity Alaska Coastal Current flows close to the coast from British Colombia to Unimak Pass. Based on its stable temperatures, the Alaskan/Fjordland Region may be considered a transition zone between the polar Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean, and the temperate waters of the mid-latitude Pacific Ocean.
Sea ice is generally absent from this region. The land barrier imposed by the Alaskan Peninsula prevents much of the cold Arctic currents from flowing down the west coast, so there is little oceanic water exchanged between the Arctic and lower Pacific regions. Ice occurs only seasonally at the northern boundary near the Bering Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, and in northern bays and inlets where glaciers may feed into the ocean.
The Alaskan/Fjordland Shelf hosts one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the Northern Pacific. Upwelling in the center of the Alaska Gyre pushes nutrients, phytoplankton and zooplankton production onto the shelf along the edge of the gulf. The region is home to about 3,800 species of invertebrates, representing 3.5 percent of all marine invertebrates in the world. These populations include a rich mixture of oceanic, subpolar, neritic (living in the tide waters and landwashes) and benthic plankton.
The large invertebrate populations provide rich food sources for the 306 species of fishes living in the region. The Pacific herring is the most abundant, while steelhead, dolly varden, Pacific cod, walleye pollock, Pacific halibut, arrowtooth flounder, and five species of salmon—coho, chinook, chum, pink and sockeye—are also abundant. Shellfishes such as clam, crab, scallop, shrimp, prawn, and squid are common. Over the years, salmon and herring stocks have been overfished, and although herring stocks are rebounding, the health of salmon stocks remains precarious. Climate and current changes in the 1970s associated with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation caused population shifts in commercially important fish and shellfish species and subsequent declines in populations of sea lions and puffins. The Kodiak Archipelago is home to the Kodiak bear, the region’s terrestrial apex predator and a species that has been genetically isolated from other bear populations for some 12,000 years.
The region is important for a large proportions of the world’s populations of Cassin’s auklet (70 percent—particularly the Scott Islands, which includes 55 percent of the world population), ancient murrelet (40 percent), as well as some 75 percent of Canada’s tufted puffins. The region also provides feeding and resting areas for large numbers of migrating and wintering ducks, geese (Anser and Branta spp.), swans, loons, and shorebirds.
Marine mammals common to the region are: gray, minke, humpback and killer whales; harbor and Dall’s porpoise; Pacific white-sided dolphin; and sea otter. Although the sea otter’s range is vast, the greater part of the world’s population can be found in Alaskan waters. Major adult concentrations of the sea otter can be found within this region at the Alexander Archipelago, Prince William Sound, and Kodiak Island. The North Pacific right whale has major adult concentrations off Kodiak Island and the Alaska Penninsula, and major adult feeding concentrations of humpback whales occur from Kodiak Island to Unimak Pass, in Prince William Sound and the Alexander Archipelago. The Cook Inlet stock of beluga whale declined by nearly 50 percent between 1994 and 1998 and has been listed as depleted under the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. The northern fur seal is the most abundant seal in the region, and harbor seals are also common. Steller sea lions, which have major rookery areas in the Alexander Archipelago and the Alaska Peninsula, have declined since the 1970s.
Through the continental portion of the region (and adjacent areas), freshwater discharges from the Fraser, Skeena, Nass, Stikine, Susitna and other rivers carry vast amounts of nutrients to the ocean, stimulating the growth of phytoplankton, algae, and other marine plant life. Along the water's edge, coastal salt marshes and mud flats contain large beds of eelgrass, important spawning sites for Pacific herring schools and nursery areas for some salmon. In the subtidal zones lie vast forests of giant kelp and bull kelp. Recent explortion of seamounts in the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands have revealed rich faunas of deepwater stony corals and gorgonians (especially of the Families Paragorgiidae, Primnoidae)—unique deepwater ecosystems.
Human Activities and Impacts
The region ranges from the coastal urban areas of just north of southwest British Columbia (with one of the fastest growing human populations in North America), to sparsely inhabited areas further north. Throughout the region, fishing, shipping, tourism and marine recreation are the main human activities. But with these lucrative and popular activities have come pollution from ship traffic, urban runoff, degradation of shoreline and bottom habitat, overfishing, and industrial pollution—the main sources of ecological stress to the region. Development in major estuaries and deltas has altered and reduced habitats, while overfishing has seriously impacted a variety of fish and shellfish populations and other organisms that depend on them. One of the latest activities being developed is aquaculture−for finfish (salmon) and shellfish (mussels, oysters, scallops), in particular—much of which relies on introduced species. The spread of diseases and parasites are also a concern with aquaculture. In this region, as in the Atlantic, the consequences of the industry are still being debated, but there are suggestions that it will have negative effects on marine ecosystems. Ecological conditions of the coastal resources in Alaska are poorly known. Alaska has assessed less than 0.1 percent of its coastal estuaries (EPA 2005). While most coastal areas are relatively unspoiled, there are pockets of contamination. In the US northern Pacific and western Arctic ecoregions (1, 2, 22 and 23), two out of 35 federally fished stocks are overfished (NMFS 2007).