Science camp in Pribilofs honors Michelle Ridgway

Every summer, the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Ecosystem Conservation Office (ECO), with support from the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association and the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, hosts a week-long summer science camp on St. Paul Island for youth ages six to 15. The kids come from St. Paul and St. George Islands. Students are involved in a variety of hands-on classroom and outdoor activities focused on one to two central themes, chosen by ECO staff and invited educators. The involvement of special instructors brings in outside knowledge and provides diversity and focus to each year’s camp.

photo of students at St. Paul Science Camp

Marine Advisory Program agent Melissa Good guides students in organizing marine organisms collected from the St. Paul harbor into taxonomic groups.

The camp theme for 2018 (the 9th year of the camp) recognized marine scientist and Pribilof Islands past camp instructor Michelle Ridgway, who passed away January 2018. Michelle was highly influential in connecting Pribilof Islands research to local community members and ensuring that Native Pribilofs youth voices were heard far and wide, including all the way to Washington D.C. Michelle was known for her passion as an ocean conservationist, her continuous dedication to the Pribilof Islands and its residents, and her energy for education and outreach. She was instrumental in starting the Pribilofs Student Marine Research Team, comprised of more than 20 students and researchers, who were later rewarded for their efforts and contributions to monitoring rare kelp and crab species around the Pribilof Islands. This included discovering a second sample of an extremely rare species of kelp originally discovered in the Aleutian Islands. For their dedication and enthusiasm, the group was honored with a youth leadership award at the Alaska Marine Gala in February 2014.

instructors helping students pull in collector bags. St. Paul harbor.

Camp instructors Veronica Padula and Melissa Good help students pull glaucothoe collector bags from the St. Paul harbor.

Michelle had a big impact on the local communities of St. Paul and St. George and ECO directors wanted to host this year’s camp in honor of her extensive research and dedication to the Pribilof Islands. Camp instructors included Lauren Divine and Veronica Padula, ECO staff, renowned crab researcher Gordon Kruse, his wife Micky Kruse, graduate student Jared Weems, Jared’s dive technician and University of Washington undergraduate student Jenny Renee, and Unalaska Marine Advisory Program agent Melissa Good from Alaska Sea Grant. Instructors focused this year’s camp around some of Michelle’s professional passions: king crab, underwater exploration via submersibles and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), marine mammals, and nature-inspired art.

To learn about crabs, students walked to the St. Paul dock to gather glaucothoe collector bags previously deployed by Weems. Collectors were rinsed into buckets on the docks and students returned to the school science lab to sort and identify the collected organisms. Students then played a game to learn about blue, golden, and red king crab population shifts around the Pribilof Islands. Using historical Alaska Department of Fish and Game and NOAA trawl survey data, students played a mapping game that helped them visualize areas of important habitat for king crabs and how their populations have fluctuated over time. Student Courtney Lestenkof said, “My favorite lesson was learning the different types of crab.“

Students play king crab habitat mapping game

Students play a mapping game to helped visualize areas of important habitat for king crabs and how their populations have fluctuated over time.

Survey data provides essential population data, but how do you observe organisms in their natural habitat? Michelle became renowned for her submersible work with Greenpeace documenting the world’s largest ocean canyon by volume: Zhemchug Canyon, located northwest of St. Paul Island. She piloted a single-person submersible through the deep-sea canyons, exploring the understudied marine life thriving in what seems like another world. Students during camp were introduced to two methods of exploring underwater nearshore ecosystems: the use of a ROV and SCUBA. After watching a Bering Sea Canyons Greenpeace documentary short film and discussing the use of technology to aide in research and discovery, students traveled on foot to a local dock to use an ROV to observe camp instructors on SCUBA collecting marine species from underwater. Organisms were then brought to the surface where students organized the marine life using taxonomic methods and guides. Instructors also collected algal samples for students to create seaweed art by pressing and drying species to herbarium paper.

student creating art from seawater and algae

A student uses a dropper of seawater to carefully coax a blade of algae into place for a marine inspired art piece.

To learn about offshore survey work, students were able to tour a Bering Sea trawl vessel that was chartered by the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct the eastern Bering Sea (EBS) trawl survey. During a stop in St. Paul for a crew change, students were able to board the vessel to learn about EBS survey and scientific methods used to document the marine life. Back in the school lab, students studied the external and internal anatomy of Bering Sea flatfish, donated by scientists on the EBS survey, and then separated stomachs for sorting and further examination of fish diets. Using samples from the trawl survey, students also created nature-inspired art using Bering Sea fish and invertebrates to make prints on canvas totes.

The week wrapped up with students learning about local marine mammals. Students participated in a weekly marine mammal survey lead by ECO Co-Director Lauren Divine and participated in mock marine mammal strandings. Groups of students “found” stranded marine mammals in the classroom, filled out Level A marine mammal stranding reports, took morphometric measurements, and dissected jello models of brains and hearts. Dissection skills were further honed by students being required to remove and document the parasites (apples and raisins) that were found in the jello organs.

student observes "stranded" life-size sea lion

A student makes observations of “stranded” life-size steller sea lion during the 2018 St. Paul Summer Science camp.

While much of these activities are designed to be fun and entertaining (the fun of dissecting jello mold organs and then eating the jello), the goal of camp is to encourage youth to expand and utilize their local and traditional knowledge and impassion youth to become effective advocates for their local environments. The annual science camp is designed to mentor and encourage Pribilof Islands youth to strive to become advocates for healthy and sustainable marine ecosystems and voices for their region, just as Michelle was for the Pribilof Islands and canyon ecosystems.

—Written by Melissa Good




plaque honoring Michelle Ridgeway

This plaque honoring Michelle Ridgway is located at the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Offices.