Biologists return to the office!

We’ve completed our 2019 field season!

ksweeney

October 1, 2019
Katie Sweeney

Biologist

 

Somehow it feels as though we just left for our summer field season and yet, it’s nice to be back with gigabytes of data! We had another successful field season in Alaska studying Steller sea lions and northern fur seals. Our Steller sea lion research included our annual aerial survey and our annual vessel survey to the far west Aleutian Islands. Unfortunately, this year we did not get around to conducting a vessel survey to look for marked animals in the eastern Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska. Fortunately, our partners in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game were able to look for marked animals in parts of the Gulf of Alaska.

Expected 2019 field work conducted by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. NOAA Fisheries.
Expected 2019 field work conducted by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Full-resolution version can be downloaded from the NOAA Fisheries website found here!

Northern fur seal research was conducted during a vessel survey to Bogoslof Island, in the eastern Aleutian Islands, as well as some land-based trips to look for tagged animals on the Pribilof Islands, where the largest aggregation of fur seals can be found. Many of our team just returned from the Pribilof Islands from a pup and adult female tagging trip, as well. And, as with previous years, we’ve had more camera tags deployed on adult female fur seals to collect rare footage of foraging at sea.

All in all, another jam packed field season and I can’t wait to share more stories with you, soon.


I have been a biologist in NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center studying Steller sea lion population abundance and life history for over 10 years. I am an FAA certified remote pilot and have been flying marine mammal surveys with our hexacopter since 2014. I earned my B.S. in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington and my Master in Coastal Environmental Management at Duke University. 

Off we go!

It’s time for the 2019 field season!

ksweeney

June 1, 2019
Katie Sweeney

Biologist

 

It’s that time again! We are about to set out for another summer field season to collect data on Steller sea lions and northern fur seals in Alaska! We’ll be conducting several trips to the field on ships, land, and aerial surveys to collect aerial images for counting individuals, ship- and skiff-based counts, sightings of branded sea lions and tagged fur seals, collect remote camera images, brand more sea lion pups out west, and deploy and reterieve more camera tag videos on fur seals. A busy summer indeed! Check out the map below (and check out the link in the caption to download the full version!) to see all the field work the Alaska Fisheries Science Center will be doing this summer.

Expected 2019 field work conducted by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. NOAA Fisheries.
Expected 2019 field work conducted by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Full-resolution version can be downloaded from the NOAA Fisheries website found here!

We will miss you and while we’re away our trusty moderator will be present when he can on the Talk Forum. Thank you all for your efforts throughout the year! We’ll see you when we return in September!


I have been a biologist in NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center studying Steller sea lion population abundance and life history for over 10 years. I am an FAA certified remote pilot and have been flying marine mammal surveys with our hexacopter since 2014. I earned my B.S. in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington and my Master in Coastal Environmental Management at Duke University. 

Since when does NOAA study polar bears?

We used our new drones and cameras to collect images to help improve polar bear detection during our ice seal surveys!

ksweeney

May 16, 2019
Katie Sweeney

Biologist

 

restingbear.pngThis post may come to a surprise to you. You may find yourself thinking, “I didn’t think NOAA studied polar bears…” Well, you’d be right! The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with monitoring and managing polar bear populations, and other marine mammal species such as, manatees, sea otters, and walrus (and I bet they would have jurisdiction of the Steller sea cow, as well, if it wasn’t extinct!). The Fish and Wildlife Service also manages numerous terrestrial species. NOAA monitors and manages the other marine mammal species and commercial fish species. 

Those marine mammal species include ribbon, spotted, ringed, and bearded seals, also referred to as “ice seals.” The method that the Polar Ecosystem Program here at NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Laboratory uses to survey these species is with fixed wing, occupied aircraft. These seals can be pretty spread out throughout the sea ice, and therefore challenging to find. They have a special camera system that is equipped with three cameras that capture standard, visual images (like those you take with your cell phone or point and shoot camera) and three thermal cameras. These are similar to the ones we used during our northern fur seal surveys, last year.

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Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Since these surveys are conducted over sea-ice to look for ice seals, it only makes sense to also look for polar bears at the same time. Polar bears prey on certain ice seal species and heavily depend on sea-ice so there is overlap of habitat between all of these species. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA are collaborating on developing these surveys to better detect polar bears, as the current method does great detecting ice seals, but not polar bears. To help, I was fortunate enough to go on a trip to Ontario Canada to visit the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat to test out a new camera and answer some questions to help the lead biologist figure out how to better detect polar bears.

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Olympus point and shoot and UV camera (red lens on upper left). Credit: NOAA Fisheries

This new camera is a UV camera which means the UV light that the sun emits is captured in the image. Polar bears absorb UV light so they show up as black whereas clean snow and ice, reflect UV light and shows up white. This sort of camera and imaging capability would come in handy to detect black bears when polar bears do not show up well in visual images (think: white bears against white snow and ice) or in thermal images (think: well-insulated younger bears that just went for a swim and show up as ‘colder’ and can be confused with dirty snow and ice ‘hot spots’).

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Visual image (left) and UV image (right) with red arrows pointing to polar bear. Credit: NOAA Fisheries
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Visual image (left) and thermal image (right) with red arrow pointing to polar bear. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

BearWhile in Canada at the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat, we were able to fly over the five polar bears at the bear habitat with our new hexacopter drones, the APH-28s. One hexacopter had the thermal camera (FLIR DUO Pro R) which also has visual image capabilities. The other system had a regular point and shoot camera to collect visual images and the new UV camera that was built at MML. This opportunity allowed us to answer important questions to greatly improve our future survey methods.


I have been a biologist in NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center studying Steller sea lion population abundance and life history for over 10 years. I am an FAA certified remote pilot and have been flying marine mammal surveys with our hexacopter since 2014. I earned my B.S. in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington and my Master in Coastal Environmental Management at Duke University. 

May 1st: >38

Sea Lion of the Month

SLM_extent.png^38_20180701.JPGSpring has sprung and I’m already dreaming about heading out into the field this summer… We’ll be heading back out to the Aleutian Islands and visiting all these sites of which you have all been viewing. I’m very excited to visit one of my favorite sites, Hasgox Point on Ulak Island. Which is where our May Sea Lion of the Month was born! This month’s sea lion is >38 who is a female that was born in 2013. When she was marked, she weighed 76 pounds (34.6 kg) and was just over 3.5 feet (111 cm) long.

This female has only ever been seen on Ulak Island so she is definitely sticking to her birth place. We seen her each year during our visits on the summer research cruise (hopefully we see her this year, again!). We saw her with her first pup last year, in 2018 when she was 5 years old. This is the pretty typical age to have a first pup and means she bred in previous summer (2017. It is certainly possible she had a pup in 2017 however, when we saw her there was quite the commotion so we didn’t get a good look.

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When we saw her during our visit in 2017. We had gone to shore in hopes to mark more pups however, three killer whales showed up which meant we didn’t want to push any animals in the water so we had about a 5-hour killer whale show around the rookery. You can see in the picture that when killer whales show up, sea lions are alert and ready to jump in the water. Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? You’ll find its mostly adults that work this group mob mentality and the smaller juveniles tend to stay on shore, as they’re pretty good snacking size for the whales. Fortunately, on this day, the killer whales didn’t get any sea lions and moved along and we were able to mark animals the next day.

Have any of you seen her with a pup or at a site other than Ulak?


We will share the story of one marked sea lion each month. Be sure to check our Sea Lion of the Month page on the 1st of every month to learn about our featured Steller sear lion. You may nominate a sea lion by submitting their full mark on the Sea Lion of the Month nomination forum. Thank you all for your nominations! 

April 1st: ~19

Sea Lion of the Month

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Happy April Fool’s Day! Our Sea Lion of the Month for April is no joke, though. This female, ~19, is a bit of a home-body and has stayed in the western Aleutian Islands region. We have seen her a lot on remote cameras and in person when she was quite young and then not again until just last year. 

When she was marked on June 23, 2011, she weighed just over 60 pounds (28 kg) and was almost 3.5 feet (104 cm) long. A bit on the smaller side compared to some of our previous Sea Lion’s of the Month.

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This female was born on Gillon Point, hence the ~ sign. She was apart of the first group that we marked at this site. This means that she will be 8 years old this summer. I bet that means we’ll see her with a pup or juvenile. 

She seems to have spent most of her time at Cape Wrangell on Attu Island however, last summer in 2018 we saw her at Gillon Point. Maybe she’s found her way back home? We have yet to see her with a pup but our remote camera images haven’t been analyzed after 2014 so it’s possible she has been captured on those. Have any of you seen her with a pup?


We will share the story of one marked sea lion each month. Be sure to check our Sea Lion of the Month page on the 1st of every month to learn about our featured Steller sear lion. You may nominate a sea lion by submitting their full mark on the Sea Lion of the Month nomination forum. Thank you all for your nominations! 

March 1st: ~38

Sea Lion of the Month

SLM_extent.pngAnd we’re back with a Sea Lion of the Month for march! Our first for 2019. We’ve missed sharing more about these unique individuals and are happy to be back and sharing their stories with you all. Our featured sea lion is ~38 and he was nominated by a new member of our team!

As you probably know by now, the ~ means she was marked on Gillon Point on Agattu Island. This sea lion is a female that was marked on June 23, 2011. When she was marked she weighed almost 80 pounds (35.8 kg) and was almost 4 feet (115 cm) long. That’s a pretty big female pup!

38_20140816_1-e1550697010327.jpgThis female has been seen mostly on Cape Wrangell on Attu Island but on occasion we have seen her at the other end of the island at Chichagof Point. We have an image of this female staying with her mother and suckling until she was about three years old (August 16, 2014) at Cape Wrangell. This is a pretty significant amount of time for a juvenile to stay with their mother. It’s very likely that the mother had another pup that year and likely weaned ~38 shortly after we observed this behavior.

After that we saw her in person in 2016 at Cape Wrangell and just last summer in 2018 at Chichagof Point where it appears she could have had a juvenile of her own that was suckling from her. That would be great if she is having her own pups now. She would be about 7 years old last summer when we saw her and often time sea lions will have their first pup at around 5 years of age.

Keep an eye out for ~38 and let us know if you see her with a pup! Also, anyone seeing her back at her birthplace, Gillon Point?


We will share the story of one marked sea lion each month. Be sure to check our Sea Lion of the Month page on the 1st of every month to learn about our featured Steller sear lion. You may nominate a sea lion by submitting their full mark on the Sea Lion of the Month nomination forum. Thank you all for your nominations! 

February 1st: U. S. Government Shutdown

Sea Lion of the Month

 

Unfortunately, we are catching up after the 35 day U.S. Government Shutdown and will not have a Sea Lion of the Month featured for February. We hope to feature a special sea lion in March! Thank you for sticking with us and we look forward to sharing stories with you, again!

 


We will share the story of one marked sea lion each month. Be sure to check our Sea Lion of the Month page on the 1st of every month to learn about our featured Steller sear lion. You may nominate a sea lion by submitting their full mark on the Sea Lion of the Month nomination forum. Thank you all for your nominations! 

Hot images may help find hidden fur seals

We use drones to survey Steller sea lions but what about northern fur seals?

ksweeney

January 16, 2018
Katie Sweeney

Biologist

 

Here is something you may not know: the Steller Watch team also studies northern fur seals! We have a blog post about an interesting research project on northern fur seals but I would like to share another project with you all that I’m working on with this incredible species.

But, before I dive in, I’d like to share a little bit of background information about northern fur seals. This species ranges throughout the North Pacific Ocean and similar to Steller sea lions, they gather during the summer breeding season however, unlike Stellers, they only gather at a handful of locations in California, Alaska, and Russia.

In Alaska, where our program primarily studies northern fur seals, they gather on the Pribilof Island Archipelago and Bogoslof Island. We’ve mentioned Bogoslof Island in our last two blog posts (here and here) as this island erupted over 50 times in a 9-month period in 2017. Fortunately, the eruptions seem to have caused little, if any, displacement of the wildlife and there is a lot more real estate for these northern fur seals to spread out as the population on this island has been increasing since the mid-1990s. Contrary to the increasing trend of northern fur seals on Bogoslof, we are seeing continued declines in the populations that inhabit St. Paul and St. George Island (in the Pribilof Islands).

The northern fur seal drone project was featured on the UAS Program website and we wanted to share it with you, here!

Advanced UAS Sensor Development for Marine Mammal Monitoring

In 1963, NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Laboratory (MML) began to use the mark-recapture method of shear-sampling northern fur seal pups to estimate pup abundance. Presently, these surveys are conducted every two years on St. Paul and St. George Island (Pribilof Islands, Alaska). These trips require up to 22 people to be stationed on the islands for up to three weeks and the presence of scientists on the rookery creates disturbance (authorized by a Federal permits: NMFS/MMPA 14327 and IACUC ANW2013-3).

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With the help of the UAS Program Office, MML has been collaborating with NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center (AOC), National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service (NESDIS), Mystic Aquarium, Aerial Imaging Solutions, and GeoThinkTank (Figure 1) to work on developing a UAS-based approach for conducting northern fur seal abundance surveys.

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MML has successfully implemented unoccupied aircraft systems (UAS; i.e., drones) to supplement annual Steller sea lion abundance surveys since 2014. Given the size and relatively more distinct coloration from their background, using a high-resolution mirrorless camera has worked well for capturing images of Steller sea lions (Figure 2). The challenge with developing a similar approach for northern fur seals has been deciphering small black fur seal pups from the black boulder substrate common in the Pribilof Islands—northern fur seals are much harder to count in images!

APH-HL-CF2.jpgWe have a few objectives for our project to get us closer to our goal: (1) assess a heavy-lift hexacopter with longer flight times and ability to carry heavier payloads, (2) evaluate imaging capabilities of a thermal sensor for northern fur seals, and (3) conduct an on-the-ground assessment of the feasibility of multi-spectral imaging for distinguishing northern fur seals from their background.

In August of 2018 during the shear-sampling surveys on St. George Island, we were able to test the APH-28 hexacopter  (Figure 3) (Aerial Imaging Solutions) mounted with the FLIR DUO Pro R thermal sensor and conduct aerial surveys of a small rookery (Figure 4). We completed redundant surveys of this rookery with this thermal sensor and also with a high-resolution mirrorless digital camera. We will soon count northern fur seals from these two sets of imagery and be able to compare the counts to our traditional ground-survey estimates.

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During this same trip, we worked with GeoThinkTank to collect spectral measurements using a handheld spectroradiometer (loaned by NESDIS) of northern fur seals (pups, adult females, and a deceased adult male) and the substrate (rocks, grass, driftwood, etc.) (Figure 5). Collecting measurements like these is a normal procedure for plants and other substrate (e.g., for calibrating satellite imagery), but as far as we know, has never been done for wildlife.

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5_Mystic Aquarium_sm.jpgCollecting these spectral measurements in the field in Alaska was made easier by our preliminary trip to Mystic Aquarium in May of 2018. The Mystic Aquarium allowed us the opportunity to collect more measurements of northern fur seals (from animals far more cooperative than those we encounter in the wild) and in a more controlled environment to help us streamline our methods for the harsher field conditions in Alaska (Figure 6). These spectral measurements will be used to model a virtual northern fur seal rookery environment to run various aerial survey simulations. This will allow scientists to test various bands beyond the typical four bands customary to off-the-shelf multi-spectral UAS sensors. If optimal bands are identified and multi-spectral imaging is found to be effective, this will guide our next steps towards developing a custom UAS-mounted sensor.

Assessing optimal imaging capabilities will guide sensor selection and further development of an observing system. Once we have a handle on the best sensor payload option, we can explore which UAS platforms would be most effective for abundance surveys, and eventually replace and improve upon the current traditional survey method.


I have been a biologist in NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center studying Steller sea lion population abundance and life history for over 10 years. I am an FAA certified remote pilot and have been flying marine mammal surveys with our hexacopter since 2014. I earned my B.S. in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington and my Master in Coastal Environmental Management at Duke University. 

January 1st: U. S. Government Shutdown

Sea Lion of the Month

 

Unfortunately, we will be unable to post a Sea Lion of the Month for January due to the U. S. Government shut down. Thank you for understanding and we hope to be able to return to work very soon.

Happy New Year!


We will share the story of one marked sea lion each month. Be sure to check our Sea Lion of the Month page on the 1st of every month to learn about our featured Steller sear lion. You may nominate a sea lion by submitting their full mark on the Sea Lion of the Month nomination forum. Thank you all for your nominations! 

My maiden voyage to Alaska

The 2018 Steller sea lion research cruise

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December 11, 2018
Burlyn Birkemeier

Biologist

 

This year, a team of NOAA scientists completed a re-sight trip by boat from the eastern Aleutian Islands to the Gulf of Alaska. The purpose of a re-sight trip was to survey Steller sea lion rookeries and haulouts for previously marked animals, similar to Steller Watch citizen scientists who look for marked animals in remote camera images. This year, after many years of working at the Marine Mammal Laboratory, looking through more than 200,000 remote camera images, I finally had the opportunity to go into the field and see Steller sea lions in person, for the first time.

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On July 12, I met the other three women who would compose our team at the airport, on our way to Dutch Harbor via Anchorage. I had heard many horror stories of canceled flights and stranded researchers trying to make their way to Dutch Harbor, so I braced myself for the worst case scenario when we arrived to Anchorage. My first surprise was that the only gate for passengers travelling to Dutch Harbor had no TSA, and upon checking in, every passenger was weighed with their carry-ons before getting on the plane. As we waited for our flight, we watched the crew load luggage onto the plane, wondering if ours would make it. Lucky enough, it was smooth sailing and we arrived in Dutch Harbor on our first attempt, luggage and all, just in time for dinner. We stayed the night in the only hotel in Dutch Harbor. The next morning, we got up bright and early to get the gear ready and hauled over to the M/V Pŭk-ŭk, our research vessel and home for the next two weeks.

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Once aboard the Pŭk-ŭk, we wasted no time and set off for our first site. I took in the first views of the beautiful green cliffs and incredible wildlife—as well as the onset of nausea (sea sickness!)—as we entered the Bering Sea. The weather was too bad for us to survey that day, so it wasn’t until the second day that I saw my first Steller sea lion. The first skiff survey was at Tanginak, a lower priority site home to a mere 12 sea lions. Our team donned large mustang suits for warmth and flotation, climbed down into the skiff from the Pŭk-ŭk and observed the sea lions while the skiff driver navigated our boat back-and-forth in front of the site. We used stabilizing binoculars to look for marked animals and conducted counts while we slowly moved closer to the site in a zig-zag fashion, so as not to disturb the sea lions. Once we were sure we had a thorough look at each sea lion, we returned to the Pŭk-ŭk.

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DSC01639It was on our second day of surveying when I was the first person to spot a marked animal, an exciting and personal feat. After that, finding them became much easier. On day three, we visited seven sites but only needed to get in the skiff for a closer look at three of the sites. Cape Morgan (Akutan Island) was the first large rookery I had visited, with over 1,000 sea lions. Larger sites, such as this one, took a couple hours to survey, and despite the cold and rain, I enjoyed every moment. My favorite site was Billings Head (Akun Island), a large rookery tucked into a cove at the base of a massive bluff. The water was so clear you could see to the bottom. Some curious sea lions would come and investigate the skiff, while we rapidly called out the brands of the many marked animals we were seeing to the data recorder. The remainder of the two weeks continued the same fashion, doing multiple surveys some days, and other days, remaining on the boat and not surveying because of bad weather or because we were travelling between sites.

DSC01591.JPGBy the end of the two weeks, we had surveyed 29 sites. All but five had sea lions, and four we surveyed multiple times. Multiple trips to larger sites like Cape Morgan or Billings Head gave us chances to see new sea lions that were out foraging during our previous visit. In total, we observed 98 different marked individuals, many of which we saw more than once. One male was even present at Billings Head and then the next day we saw him at Cape Sarichef (Unimak Island), which are 50 kilometers apart! We also saw six dead sea lions (unknown causes) and, sadly, two entangled animals (packing bands). In addition to Steller sea lions, we saw sea otters, harbor seals, northern fur seals, a pod of humpback whales feeding, and even heard the calls of one very lost California sea lion. While we could have had better weather—we were unable to work due to poor weather a total of 5 days—it was still a productive trip.

The data we collected will help us better understand Steller sea lion survival, movement, and reproductive success of this endangered population. The information we collected, in addition to the data collected from Steller Watch, will help us understand the potential causes for decline of this fragile population.


I began working at the Marine Mammal laboratory for an internship in 2014 analyzing Steller sea lion remote camera images. I completed my senior thesis project on sea lion pup birth timing for my Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences degree at the University of Washington, where I also earned a degree in Biology. After graduating, I was contracted to continue my work at the Marine Mammal Laboratory analyzing remote camera images. I am currently a research biologist with the University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO) at the Marine Mammal Laboratory where I analyze high-definition videos from camera tags placed on Northern fur seals to study feeding rates, prey availability, and foraging success.