The Aleutian Island Struggle

The 2018 Steller sea lion aerial survey struggle is real

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November 14, 2018
Katie Luxa
Biologist

 

Earlier this summer, NOAA scientists partnered with NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center to conduct our annual aerial survey of Steller sea lions in Alaska. You can check out this post to read more about our aerial surveys.

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Overhead view of the camera system installed in the NOAA Twin Otter. Photo credit: Katie Luxa

Our trip began in Anchorage on June 19, where my co-workers and I met the pilots, mechanic, and – most importantly – the Twin Otter airplane that would be our office for the next three and a half weeks. The first order of business was to install our survey equipment: an array of 3 digital cameras mounted in the belly of the plane and a computer that controls the mount system.

The next task was to plan the flight to our first destination. Despite our ability to cover a lot of ground in the Twin Otter, Steller sea lion sites are spread out over more than 2,500 miles of coastline and weather conditions aren’t always favorable enough to fly safely and capture high-quality images. For these reasons, we split sites into two survey areas: Southeast Alaska and the Gulf of Alaska are surveyed in odd-numbered years and the Aleutian Islands are surveyed in even-numbered years. This year, an Aleutian Island survey year, flights would be based out of Dutch Harbor (Unalaska Island) and Adak Island.

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Dutch Harbor is approximately 800 miles southwest of Anchorage; it is the #1 commercial fishing port in the United States and was featured in the TV show “Deadliest Catch”. Adak is another 440 miles west of Dutch Harbor, and is the site of a US naval air facility that closed in 1997. At its peak, there were up to 5,000 troops and their families living in Adak – they even had a McDonald’s! Our area of highest priority was around Adak and so we hoped to start the survey on a high note and visit those sites first. Unfortunately, the weather forecast didn’t look great, so we headed to Dutch Harbor instead.

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Aerial view of Adak (most of the homes in the image are empty). Photo credit: Katie Luxa

Once we settled in Dutch Harbor, it was time to start planning survey flights. We use an app called ForeFlight to upload a list of GPS locations for known Steller sea lion sites and draw a route from point to point; the route can then be shared with the pilots, who use the same app in the plane. Depending on how close the sites are to one another and how many passes are needed to photograph the sea lions, it’s possible to visit more than 30 sites in a single flight. We try to come up with a few potential flights each day, because being flexible is key to a successful survey.

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Discussing that day’s flight options in Adak. Photo credit: Ben Hou

And, boy, this year was all about flexibility! We had unusually poor weather, including many days with low “ceilings” (height of the cloud layer) or gusting winds that made it impossible for us to fly. And when we were in the air, we often spent our survey flights “hunting and pecking” for sites that weren’t covered by fog. Despite our weather difficulties, though, we were still able to survey over 130 sites and take over 13,000 photos!

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Bogoslof Island is a breeding site for both Steller sea lions and northern fur seals. The steam rising from the island is due to recent volcanic activity. Photo credit: Morgan Lynn

There were also some true highlights on this year’s survey. As Katie mentioned in an earlier post, we surveyed Bogoslof Island, which was completely transformed by a series of volcanic eruptions starting in December 2016. Compared to our aerial survey in 2016, the island had more than tripled in size and was still steaming! Bogoslof is one of the few places in Alaska where both Steller sea lions and northern fur seals breed, and it was amazing to see them there again, after such dramatic changes to the landscape.

Through the fall and winter, we’ll continue the important task of counting sea lions in this year’s images – and keep our fingers crossed for fair weather in 2019!


I’m a research scientist with the University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean. I study food habits of Steller sea lions and northern fur seals, as well as Steller sea lion population abundance and survival, at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. I’ve worked at the Center since 2008. I received my undergraduate degree in Marine Science from the Southampton College of Long Island University and my Master’s degree from Western Washington University.

November 1st: >38

Sea Lion of the Month

 

^38_20170629_2_resize.JPGWe’re back from our summer field season and our Sea Lion of the Month for November is an animal that we saw during our research cruise! This month’s featured sea lion is >38 and I suspect you will see him on Steller Watch images, if you haven’t already. This female was marked at Hasgox Point on Ulak Island  on July 2, 2013 which makes her 5 years old! When she was marked she weighed about 76 pounds (34.6 kg) and was just over 3.5 feet (111 cm) long and almost 2.5 feet (76 cm) around his torso, just below his flippers. She was a pretty healthy sized pup and when we saw her this summer, still looked healthy.

 

SLM_extent.pngThis sea lion has been seen at Hasgox Point by scientists during each of the research cruises since she was marked in 2013. This means you have probably seen her in images from Ulak Island! Our observation of her during the 2018 cruise was an amazing milestone, she had her first pup (as far as we know)! It’s pretty exciting to see this sea lion grow up and now have a pup. Hopefully we see her again next year with another pup. Let us know in the Talk forum if you see her in the Steller Watch images!

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This is >38 observed by scientists in 2014 when she was a 1 year old!

Curious about other pinnipeds (seals and sea lions)? Check out our neighbors in the Pacific Islands to the south, the monk seals of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center features their own Monk Seal of the Month!


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! 

And we’re back!

The Steller Watch team is back from our 2018 summer field season

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October 5, 2018
Katie Sweeney

Biologist

 

The Steller Watch team is back from a busy field season and we’re hard at work processing and analyzing data that we have collected over the summer. We had a couple of research cruises and an aerial survey to study Steller sea lions in Alaska this past summer.

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There was also field work to study northern fur seals! Over the next few months me and some of my colleagues will be sharing more in-depth stories about these trips and results. But, for now, I’ll just give you a brief summary of what we were able to accomplish to study Steller sea lions.

Western Aleutian Island Research Cruise:

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During our annual research cruise on board the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service R/V Tiglax  we focused our efforts in the western Aleutian Islands, boarding and disembarking from Adak, Alaska. Weather was quite a challenge this year but we did quite well despite the fog and wind.

Pup work

We were able to visit the highest priority sea lions sites to look for marked animals, conduct counts, and do drone surveys. We were also able to access all of our remote cameras to collect over 330,000 images! There were three sites where we went to shore to work up pups in order to help assess pup condition in this area of concern. We handled almost 150 pups–phew! They were heavy…

NOAA Twin Otter Aerial Survey:

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During the time we were on the R/V Tiglax in the western Aleutian Islands, our aerial survey team, including NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center pilots and mechanic were surveying the area from the Delarof Islands to the east, along the Aleutian Islands. During our cruise, we had challenging weather and the fog and wind caused a lot of problems for our aerial survey team, as well! They didn’t get as many days of flights completed as is possible during a ‘good’ weather survey year, but despite the spotting nature of surveying, they were able to cover a lot of ground!

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They even got to check out Bogoslof Island, which is an island that had been erupting pretty consistently in the previous year! Check out all of those fur seals, sea lions, and marine birds.

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Eastern Aleutian Islands & Gulf of Alaska Resight trip:

Like the other two Steller sea lion projects, we encountered some difficult weather during our resight trip, as well. It didn’t keep us down! This was the first trip I’ve been on where we had a scientific crew that was all women! We were able to accomplish a lot of work in the Eastern Aleutian Islands and spotted many marked sea lions. Once we moved into the Gulf of Alaska, currents and winds slowed us down a lot which meant we had to focus our efforts on getting back to Homer in time to get home.

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Steller Sea Lion Field Camps (Cancelled):

Unfortunately, this year the Marine Mammal Laboratory were unable to run the two annual Steller sea lion field camps. This is the first year since early 2000 when the field camps have not been conducted.

What’s next?

We returned with over 330,000 images and guess what? We still need your help to get through these images on Steller Watch. While we were away, you all did a great job completing 55% of the classifications in the Presence of Marked Animals workflow! We have a new set of images that are now live in or Presence or Absence workflow. Thank you Steller Watch team for your continued help and support!


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. 

It’s that time of year!

We’re heading out for our 2018 summer field season

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June 19, 2018
Katie Sweeney

Biologist

 

Well, Steller Watch team, it’s that time of year again! We are gearing up to head out for our summer field season to Alaska to study Steller sea lions. While we are away, we will not be present on our Project Blog or the Talk Forum. Our current workflow will still be live while we are away! We are hoping to be almost complete with this current set of images very soon since we plan on coming back in the fall with a whole new set of images!

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We have several Steller sea lion trips happening this summer, very similar to last year: a research cruise to the western Aleutian Islands, a traditional aerial survey, and a resight cruise to the eastern Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska. Unfortunately, this year we are not able to do our field camps. This will be the first time since our field camp effort began a couple decades ago that we will be unable to do field camps (except for in 2006 when field camps were on hold due to a law suit). Other science groups from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center are heading out this summer for field work, as well.

Western Aleutian Island Research Cruise:

This year’s cruise is very similar to last year. We will be on board the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s R/V Tiglax for about two weeks surveying between Attu and Adak Islands. During this trip we will be conducting count surveys by boat, land, and air with our drone. We will also be looking for marked animals at all the sites we visit and visit those sites with remote cameras to collect more images for Steller Watch! We will be doing some work with pups to collect data to help figure out more about pup health in the Aleutian Islands. Finally, there will be a couple whale biologists on board with us to help look for whales in the area, including killer whales.

NOAA Twin Otter Aerial Survey:

Since 2006, NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center has operated a NOAA Twin Otter for the aerial survey that will go from the Delarof Islands to the western Gulf of Alaska. This means they mostly operate out of Adak Island and Dutch Harbor. We even hope they’ll be able to check out Bogoslof Island, a volcano that erupted for over a year and has more than doubled in size. Will we see Steller sea lions, northern fur seals, and sea birds?

Eastern Aleutian Islands & Gulf of Alaska Resight trip:

We are not able to do field camps this year but luckily we are able to do a resight trip to look for animals that were marked on Ugamak Island, just last year. During this trip, we will just be visiting sites to look for those newly marked one year olds and marked adults beginning around Dutch Harbor and ending in Homer, AK.

A HUGE thank you to those of you who have contributed to Steller Watch! We’ll be back in the fall with many, many more images to share! 


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. 

June 1st: ~57

Sea Lion of the Month

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The Sea Lion of the Month for May is one that was nominated by one of our Steller Watch team. This months’ sea lion is a bit of a master of disguise. In several images, his mark has looked like ~80 or ~50 but, we finally have him figured out, now! Our sea lion for June is ~57. This male was marked at Gillon Point (Agattu Island) on June 24, 2013. When he was marked he weighed about 54 pounds (25 kg) and was almost 3.5 feet (107 cm) long and over 2 feet (64 cm) around his torso, just below his flippers. He was a bit of a smaller pup but now he is almost 5 years.

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At first, we only saw ~57 at his birth place. But many of you have reported seeing just around the corner of the island, at Cape Sabak. Mostly, we have been seeing him from the remote cameras, as well. Keep an eye out and let’s see if we can find him on any sites?

Curious about other pinnipeds (seals and sea lions)? Check out our neighbors in the Pacific Islands to the south, the monk seals of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center features their own Monk Seal of the Month!


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! 

May 1st: ~16

Sea Lion of the Month

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Here you can see ~16 suckling from his mother in October 2012 when he was just over a year old.

The Sea Lion of the Month for May is one that was nominated by one of our Steller Watch team. This months sea lion is a male who we marked as ~16 at Gillon Point (Agattu Island) on June 23, 2011—this is when the first group of sea lions was marked in the western Aleutian Islands! When he was marked he weighed about 84 pounds (38 kg) and was almost 4 feet (113 cm) long and over 2.5 feet (79 cm) around his torso, just below his flippers. That is one big pup and ~16 will be 7 years old this summer!

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This sea lion is quite the adventurer judging by all of our sightings at six different locations! In fact, we have seen him at least once per year since he was marked. Mostly, it seems as though he was hanging around Agattu Island (both at Gillon Point, his birthplace and Cape Sabak). Then in 2013 he seemed to have spread his wings to nearby Alaid and Attu Islands. When he was in 2014 he began to range farther and we saw him at Buldir and Ulak Island in between visits back to Agattu and Alaid.

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~16 from an aerial perspective with the drone during the summer of 2016.

I expect that during the summer breeding season, now that he’s getting a bit older, we’ll see him around Gillon Point since he’ll be hoping to someday be big enough to defend a breeding territory. Kind of like in 2016 when we saw him with our drone!

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Fall of 2016, ~16 was spotted at Hasgox Point at Ulak Island.

Curious about other pinnipeds (seals and sea lions)? Check out our neighbors in the Pacific Islands to the south, the monk seals of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center features their own Monk Seal of the Month!


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! 

Part II: Is that a healthy pup?

With a few measures we can check on the health of pup and find out about mom too

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April 24, 2018
Brian Fadely
Biologist

 

In my last post, I shared how we use pup weights and lengths to calculate a condition index to better understand the health of the pups. When we handle Steller sea lion pups that will be marked, we also collect blood, tissue, and fur samples. Collecting blood and other tissue samples allows us to evaluate health status in another way involving work in a lab. We look at blood chemistry and hematology parameters, to test for signs of disease, contaminant exposure, or other systemic concerns.

Some degree of clinical issues or disease is normal to find in any wild population; we’re interested in determining whether there is evidence of clusters of disease, contaminant exposure, or other concerns at a rookery or greater area. This can provide insight into local conditions that may help explain population declines or lack of recovery. Samples are collected while the pup is gently but firmly restrained by hand.

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Collecting a blood sample from a restrained pup. The restraint board helps prevent wriggling so the procedure is safe for the pup and handlers.

The board that we place the pup on helps prevent wriggling so the procedure is safe for the pup and handlers. We looked at blood chemistry and hematology profiles of 1,231 pups sampled during 1998-2011 throughout Alaska. We found no indications that pup condition was compromised during their first month after being born, including pups within the declining parts of the Aleutian Islands (Lander et al. 2013).

Exposure to heavy metal contaminants (like mercury) is a concern since Steller sea lions are apex predators, or predators that feed at highest trophic level. In other words, Steller sea lions eat prey that are high up in the food web. That means, if there are contaminants in an environment, the contaminants can bioaccumulate and biomagnify through the food chain. Exposure to high levels of mercury can cause neurological disruption that may impact health and consequently survival and reproduction. Pups accumulate mercury during gestation in utero (while they are a fetus in their mothers), and again once they are born and suckling milk from their mothers. In a project led by collaborators at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Alaska Department of Fish and Game, we’re investigating the mercury burden of pups throughout their range in Alaska and Russia. We shave off a small patch of hair from the pups when we handle them and are then able to measure the mercury content. Specifically, we can figure out the mercury concentration the pup was exposed to from its mother over a period of several months during gestation.

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The patch where hair was removed for a sample to measure mercury content is evident on this pup chilling with mom at Agattu/Gillon Point. 

We found that pups in some areas of the endangered western population had a higher mercury exposure than pups from Southeast Alaska (Castellini et al. 2012). The greatest exposure is shown by pups from the Gillon Point rookery on Agattu Island, with three pups showing exposure levels known to cause neurological effects in other fish-eating wildlife (Rea et al. 2013). If you look at the figure below, you can see the difference in mercury exposure (median values are shown by colored lines and average values by black lines) between pups from Agattu Island and other rookeries can be seen in this boxplot that was published in Rea et al. (2017).

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We do not have direct evidence that this exposure to mercury during gestation leads to health consequences for the pups and their subsequent survival, nor that it impacts adult reproduction. But, these levels of mercury exposure do indicate that further research is necessary to better understand the role of contaminants in the ecology and biology of Steller sea lions.


I am a research wildlife biologist with NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, in the Alaska Ecosystems Program where I’ve studied Steller sea lions and northern fur seals since 2000. My primary research interest is vertebrate physiological ecology, which at NOAA Fisheries translates into studying sea lion foraging behavior, health status, and body condition to help address conservation questions and wildlife management issues.