I am an aquatic ecologist focused on filling key information gaps about the structure, function, and drivers of aquatic ecosystems in the subarctic and Arctic to better inform management of public lands and resources.
My research program seeks to understand current limitations on the production of fishes and aquatic ecosystems to inform Federal and State agencies, Tribal entities, non-profits organizations, and the public given the importance of fish and aquatic species to economies, wellbeing, and culture. For example, the annual subsistence harvest per rural resident is 295 pounds of wild food of which 56% is fish. Access to my study areas is difficult because most of Alaska is not connected by road and requires complex logistics with boats and aircraft. I make research progress by leading teams that use a diverse set of tools that allow us to gain as much information as possible from each field trip and each fish: otolith growth, calorimetry, stable isotopes, heat shock proteins, and gene expression/mRNA.
2011- Present Research Fishery Biologist, USGS Alaska Science Center, Anchorage, Alaska
2007 - 2010 Fishery Biologist, USGS Alaska Science Center, Anchorage, Alaska
2005 - 2007 Research Assistant, University of Alaska Anchorage
2007 Marine Mammal and Bird Observer, USFWS
2006 Marine Mammal Observer, LGL Alaska Research
2004 - 2005 Teaching Assistant, University of Alaska Anchorage
2003 - 2004 Rehabilitation Supervisor, Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center
2003 - 2004 Hearst Scholar, Santa Barbara Natural History Museum
Education and Certifications
Ph.D. 2015 University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AK Fisheries
M.S. 2007 University of Alaska, Anchorage, AK Biological Sciences
B.S. 2004 University of California, Santa Barbara, CA Zoology
Affiliations and Memberships*
Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology
American Fisheries Society
Society of Marine Mammalogy
The Wildlife Society
2005-2006 Student Representative, UAA Graduate Academic Board
2005-2007 Chair, UAA Graduate Student Association
Honors and Awards
2009 Star (Special Thanks for Achievement) Award from USGS Biology Chief
2008 USGS Performance Award
2007 Graduate Hooding Ceremony invited speaker
2006 NSF EPSCoR Student Travel Award
2006 Kodiak Whalefest invited speaker
2005 NSF EPSCoR Student Travel Award
Science and Products
Does fish prey influence red-throated loon productivity?
Tracing Mercury Through Lake Food Webs
Condition of Forage Fish in Prince William Sound During the Marine Heatwave
Winter Habitat of Juvenile Dolly Varden in the Canning River
Ecosystem Shifts in Arctic Seas
Lake Trout Biochronologies as Long-term Climate and Productivity Indicators in Alaska Lake Ecosystems
Nearshore Fish Surveys in the Beaufort Sea
Assessing heat stress in migrating Yukon River Chinook Salmon
Fish and Aquatic Ecology
Nearshore Fish Isotope Values, Beaufort Sea, Alaska, 2017-2019
Bivalve Shell Growth Indices, Chukchi Sea, Alaska, 1867-2015
Fish Communities of the Nearshore Beaufort Sea, Alaska, Across Three Decades, 1988-2019
Observations Documenting Premature Mortality Among Alaska's Pacific Salmon in 2019
Water Temperature and Dissolved Oxygen Measured During a Manipulative Thermal Challenge Experiment for Adult Salmonids, Yukon River, Alaska, 2018
Gene Transcription and Heat Shock Protein 70 Abundance Results from Migrating Adult Chinook Salmon, Yukon Watershed, 2016-2017
Lake Trout Otolith Growth Increment Measurements, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska, 1979-2012
Pacific Sand Lance Energy Density, Length, and Age, Prince William Sound, Alaska, 2012-2016
Kuskokwim Bay chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) energy density, distribution, and stomach data, 2004
Kings of the North: Bridging disciplines to understand the effects of changing climate on Chinook salmon in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Region
Reduction in overwinter body condition and size of Pacific sand lance has implications for piscivorous predators during marine heatwaves
Adult spawners: A critical period for subarctic Chinook salmon in a changing climate
Borealization of nearshore fishes on an interior Arctic shelf over multiple decades
Barrier islands influence the assimilation of terrestrial energy in nearshore fishes
Sclerochronological records of environmental variability and bivalve growth in the Pacific Arctic
Fish ear stones offer climate change clues in Alaska's lakes
First juvenile Chum Salmon confirms successful reproduction for Pacific salmon in the North American Arctic
Premature mortality observations among Alaska’s Pacific salmon during record heat and drought in 2019
Migration strategies supporting salmonids in Arctic Rivers: A case study of Arctic Cisco and Dolly Varden
Egg retention of high-latitude sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) in the Pilgrim River, Alaska, during the Pacific marine heatwave of 2014–2016
Reduced quality and synchronous collapse of forage species disrupts trophic transfer during a prolonged marine heatwave
Science and Products
Does fish prey influence red-throated loon productivity?This study will evaluate the nearshore marine feeding areas of breeding adult red-throated loons and assess the response of loon reproductive success to differences in the relative abundance, composition, and nutritional content of nearshore fish communities that vary in space and time.
Tracing Mercury Through Lake Food WebsMercury concentrations in fish likely reflect different energy sources in lake food webs. Species, populations, or individuals may contain higher and variable concentrations of mercury, which may relate directly to prey mercury content, diets of fish, and fish foraging strategies.
Condition of Forage Fish in Prince William Sound During the Marine HeatwaveChanges in the body condition of a key forage fish species, Pacific sand lance (Ammodytes personatus), are examined to understand how energy transfer to predators may have been disrupted during the recent marine heatwave in the North Pacific (late 2013 to mid 2016).
Winter Habitat of Juvenile Dolly Varden in the Canning RiverIn the Arctic, rivers often freeze all the way to the bottom each winter leaving fish with limited habitat where they can survive.
Ecosystem Shifts in Arctic SeasIn addition to the direct effects of sea ice loss on walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) and polar bears (Ursus maritimus) that use ice as a platform, the decline of Arctic sea ice is predicted to promote a fundamental ecosystem shift from benthic animals that forage on the sea floor to pelagic animals that forage near the sea surface.
Lake Trout Biochronologies as Long-term Climate and Productivity Indicators in Alaska Lake EcosystemsHigh latitude ecosystems are among the most vulnerable to long-term climate change, yet continuous, multidecadal indicators by which to gauge effects on biology are scarce, especially in freshwater environments.
Nearshore Fish Surveys in the Beaufort SeaNearshore systems provide habitat to a unique community of marine and diadromous (lives in both fresh and saltwater) fish and support high fish abundance.
Assessing heat stress in migrating Yukon River Chinook SalmonWe will examine evidence of heat stress in Yukon River Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) using heat shock proteins and gene expression.
Fish and Aquatic EcologyFish and aquatic habitats in Alaska support important commercial, sport, and subsistence fisheries and provide forage fish that support wildlife populations. The USGS Alaska Science Center conducts interdisciplinary research to inform local, state, federal, and international policy makers regarding conservation of fish, aquatic species, and their habitats. We work collaboratively with hydrologists...
Nearshore Fish Isotope Values, Beaufort Sea, Alaska, 2017-2019This dataset contains isotope values of muscle tissue from fish collected in the nearshore Beaufort Sea, Alaska in summers 2017-2019.
Bivalve Shell Growth Indices, Chukchi Sea, Alaska, 1867-2015This dataset contains the growth index from annual growth bands in the shells of two bivalve clam species (Astarte borealis and Liocyma fluctuosa) captured in the Chukchi Sea, Alaska. The growth index is based on a measurement of the annual growth increment width that has been detrended for age-related differences in growth.
Fish Communities of the Nearshore Beaufort Sea, Alaska, Across Three Decades, 1988-2019This dataset contains two tables comprising catch per unit effort (CPUE) data and length measurements from fish surveys conducted in the nearshore Beaufort Sea, Alaska, between 1988 and 2019. Historical data collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) includes fish catch and fish length data (measured from a subset of the total catch) from two eras, 1988-1991 and 2003-2005, in the east
Observations Documenting Premature Mortality Among Alaska's Pacific Salmon in 2019These data are a compilation of geographically widespread observations of premature mortality in Pacific salmon across their range in Alaska in 2019. Premature mortality observations primarily spanned an area of western and southcentral Alaska that is approximately one million km2 and included all five species of Pacific salmon. Observations were obtained and compiled in a single database from fou
Water Temperature and Dissolved Oxygen Measured During a Manipulative Thermal Challenge Experiment for Adult Salmonids, Yukon River, Alaska, 2018This data set documents the temperature and dissolved oxygen of water during the implementation of a new experimental thermal challenge protocol for migrating adult Pacific salmon in remote settings. This experiment was conducted with migrating adult Chinook salmon near Pilot Station, Alaska, along the Yukon River in a location without access to utilities. The analysis of this data was published i
Gene Transcription and Heat Shock Protein 70 Abundance Results from Migrating Adult Chinook Salmon, Yukon Watershed, 2016-2017This data set documents the gene transcription levels for a panel of 12 selected genes and the heat shock protein 70 (HSP70) protein abundance measured in the muscle tissue of individual wild Chinook salmon captured from locations within the U.S. portion of the Yukon River watershed. Chinook salmon were primarily captured in 2016 and 2017 from existing field efforts (n = 477). A small number of ad
Lake Trout Otolith Growth Increment Measurements, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska, 1979-2012This data set documents the width of annual otolith growth increments from Lake Trout collected in lakes within Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska. The analysis of this data was published in von Biela et al. 2020 (DOI: 10.1111/eff.12566)
Pacific Sand Lance Energy Density, Length, and Age, Prince William Sound, Alaska, 2012-2016This data set documents the age, length, dry mass energy density, and dry mass of age-0 and age-1 Pacific sand lance captured in Prince William Sound Alaska each July from 2012 to 2016. The analysis of this data was published in von Biela et al. 2019 (doi:10.3354/meps12891).
Kuskokwim Bay chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) energy density, distribution, and stomach data, 2004This data set documents the dry mass energy density, distribution, and stomach contents of age-0 chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) captured in the Kuskokwim Bay estuary in May and June 2004. The analysis of this data was published in Burrill et al. 2018 (DOI :10.1007/s00300-018-2297-2.).
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Kings of the North: Bridging disciplines to understand the effects of changing climate on Chinook salmon in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim RegionUnderstanding how species are responding to environmental change is a central challenge for stewards and managers of fish and wildlife who seek to maintain harvest opportunities for communities and Indigenous peoples. This is a particularly daunting but increasingly important task in remote, high-latitude regions where environmental conditions are changing rapidly and data collection is logisticalAuthorsMegan L. Feddern, Erik R. Schoen, Rebecca Shaftel, Curry J. Cunningham, Craig Chythlook, Brendan M. Connors, Alyssa D. Murdoch, Vanessa R. von Biela, Brooke Woods
Reduction in overwinter body condition and size of Pacific sand lance has implications for piscivorous predators during marine heatwavesAcute anomalous ocean warming events, including marine heatwaves (MHWs), have significant effects on reproduction and survival of piscivorous seabirds. Additionally, MHWs have negative effects on seabird fish prey, exacerbating these consequences and resulting in population implications for seabirds. We evaluated the relative body condition of Pacific sand lance Ammodytes personatus, an importantAuthorsClifford LK Robinson, Douglas F Bertram, Hayleigh Shannon, Vanessa R. von Biela, Wesley Greentree, William Duguird, Mayumi L. Arimitsu
Adult spawners: A critical period for subarctic Chinook salmon in a changing climateConcurrent, distribution-wide abundance declines of some Pacific salmon species, including Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), highlights the need to understand how vulnerability at different life stages to climate stressors affects population dynamics and fisheries sustainability. Yukon River Chinook salmon stocks are among the largest subarctic populations, near the northernmost extent ofAuthorsKathrine G. Howard, Vanessa R. von Biela
Borealization of nearshore fishes on an interior Arctic shelf over multiple decadesBorealization is a type of community reorganization where Arctic specialists are replaced by species with more boreal distributions in response to climatic warming. The process of borealization is often exemplified by the northward range expansions and subsequent proliferation of boreal species on the Pacific and Atlantic inflow Arctic shelves (i.e., Bering/Chukchi and Barents seas, respectively).AuthorsVanessa R. von Biela, Sarah M. Laske, Ashley E. Stanek, Randy J Brown, Kenneth H. Dunton
Barrier islands influence the assimilation of terrestrial energy in nearshore fishesWe examined the relative importance of landscape features on estuarine fish trophic structure and dependence on terrestrial organic matter (OMterr) in four barrier island lagoon systems along the Alaskan Beaufort Sea coast. Our study compared two relatively large lagoon systems characterized by high river discharge and relatively free ocean water exchanges (central region near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska)AuthorsAshley E. Stanek, Vanessa R. von Biela, Sarah M. Laske, Rebecca L. Taylor, Kenneth H. Dunton
Sclerochronological records of environmental variability and bivalve growth in the Pacific ArcticThe Pacific Arctic region has experienced, and is projected to continue experiencing, rapid climate change. Large uncertainties exist in our understanding of the impact these physical changes have on the region’s ecology. This is, in part, due to the lack of long-term data. Here we investigate bivalve mollusc growth increment width chronologies (sclerochronologies) to develop a long-term biologicaAuthorsDavid J. Reynolds, Vanessa R. von Biela, Kenneth H. Dunton, David C. Douglas, Bryan A. Black
Fish ear stones offer climate change clues in Alaska's lakesOtoliths, also known as ear stones, are small body parts that help fish with hearing and balance. Like tree rings, otoliths form one light and one dark band per year, creating rings. These rings can be measured to understand fish growth. The wider the ring, the greater the growth. In our study, we used otoliths to understand how one fish species—lake trout—responds to rising temperature in the staAuthorsKrista K. Bartz, Vanessa R. von Biela, Bryan A. Black, Daniel B. Young, Peter van der Sleen, Christian E. Zimmerman
First juvenile Chum Salmon confirms successful reproduction for Pacific salmon in the North American ArcticThe distributional extent of Pacific salmon Oncorhynchus spp. in the North American Arctic is unresolved. While adult Pacific salmon have a recurring presence across the Alaskan North Slope and into the Canadian Arctic, it is uncertain if these fish are part of established Arctic populations, vagrants from outside sources reproducing unsuccessfully, or both. Here we present the first confirmed recAuthorsKaren M. Dunmall, Darcy G. McNicholl, Christian E. Zimmerman, Sara E. Gilk-Baumer, Sean E. Burril, Vanessa R. von Biela
Premature mortality observations among Alaska’s Pacific salmon during record heat and drought in 2019Widespread mortality of Pacific salmon Oncorhynchus spp. returning to spawn in Alaska coincided with record-breaking air temperatures and prolonged drought in summer 2019. Extreme environmental conditions are expected to happen more frequently with rapid climate change and challenge the notion that Alaska could indefinitely provide abundant, cool freshwater habitat for Pacific salmon. A total of 1AuthorsVanessa R. von Biela, Christopher J. Sergeant, Michael P. Carey, Zachary Liller, Charles M. Russell, Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, Peter S. Rand, P. A. H. Westley, Christian E. Zimmerman
Migration strategies supporting salmonids in Arctic Rivers: A case study of Arctic Cisco and Dolly VardenAmphidromous fish such as Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma) and Arctic Cisco (Coregonus autumnalis) have distinct life histories that facilitate their success in Arctic environments. Both species spawn in freshwater and make annual migrations between marine, brackish, or freshwater environments. Dolly Varden rear for one or more years in freshwater before migrating to sea whereas Arctic Cisco migratAuthorsMichael P. Carey, Vanessa R. von Biela, Randy J Brown, Christian E. Zimmerman
Egg retention of high-latitude sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) in the Pilgrim River, Alaska, during the Pacific marine heatwave of 2014–2016Ocean and freshwater conditions can influence spawning success of Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) by governing the energy content of fish at the start of and during the spawning migration. Ocean conditions determine the energy stores of fish at the freshwater entry, while freshwater conditions determine how quickly stored energy is depleted as individuals migrate to spawning grounds in natal riAuthorsMichael P. Carey, Vanessa R. von Biela, Ashley Dunker, Kevin D. Keith, Merlyn Schelske, Charlie Lean, Christian E. Zimmerman
Reduced quality and synchronous collapse of forage species disrupts trophic transfer during a prolonged marine heatwaveThe Gulf of Alaska forage fish community includes a few key species that differ markedly in their timing of spawning, somatic growth and lipid storage, and in their migration behavior. This diversity in life history strategies facilitates resilience in marine food webs because it buffers predators against the naturally high variance in abundance of pelagic forage fish populations by decreasing theAuthorsMayumi L. Arimitsu, John F. Piatt, Scott Hatch, Rob Suryan, Sonia Batten, Mary Anne Bishop, Rob Campbell, Heather Coletti, Dan Cushing, Kristen Gorman, Stormy Haught, Russell Hopcroft, Kathy Kuletz, Caitlin Elizabeth Marsteller, Caitlin McKinstry, David McGowan, John Moran, R. Scott Pegau, Anne Schaefer, Sarah K. Schoen, Jan Straley, Vanessa R. von Biela
*Disclaimer: Listing outside positions with professional scientific organizations on this Staff Profile are for informational purposes only and do not constitute an endorsement of those professional scientific organizations or their activities by the USGS, Department of the Interior, or U.S. Government