We’re back from the field!

And we have so much to share with you!

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August 8, 2017
Katie Sweeney

Biologist

The Steller sea lion field season is over and everyone has returned to the office, hard at work processing and analyzing data, and writing up reports. If you’d like to read all about our different trips and scientific goals for each trip, check out our previous Steller Watch blog.

I was fortunate to participate on the research cruise and the re-sight trip. Despite some challenging weather, we were very successful and productive! We also saw a lot of amazing things along the way. Though I had a great time during my four weeks away, I have to admit I’m pretty excited that I won’t have to share tight living quarters with several other people until next year!

Be sure to “Follow” our blog to see more posts over the coming weeks from biologists, field campers and volunteers who participated in this summer’s Steller sea lion field season. And, great news: you can now use the new Zooniverse app to classify images.

During the research cruise on the M/V Tiĝlâx, two big goals we had were to look for previously marked animals (like those you all are looking for on Steller Watch) and to visit a select group of sites to count sea lions. These sites were missed during last year’s Aleutian Islands abundance survey. This means, I was able to fly six sites with our new co-pilot!

We also visited three sites and marked almost 300 pups for our long-term life history study: Gillon Point (Agattu Island, “~” symbol), Hasgox Point (Ulak Island, “>” symbol), and Ugamak Island (“A” letter). Handling and working with these large sea lion pups (weighing 70-110 lbs) is a lot of work but an amazing experience. In the first image (below, left picture) you can see a pup that fell asleep while hanging in the net during weighing!

After weighing, the two pup handlers (middle picture) carefully move the pup to the veterinarian’s station where she applied gas anesthesia until the pup fell asleep. During this time, we collect samples and apply the mark (you can read more about this process here). These pups were then released to the recovery area where we kept a watchful eye to insure they were fully awake and mobile. In the right picture, you can see small square patch of fur has been shaved off. This fur sample is used to measure contaminants, such as mercury.

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Maintenance of and downloading images from our remote cameras were other important goals during the cruise: we collected 245,972 images from 17 of the 20 sea lion remote cameras. For the last two years we haven’t been able to access two of the cameras at Cape Wrangell (Attu Island) due to large waves at the landing site. If the cameras are still working well, they should still be snapping away and capturing images. The third camera was on Cape Sabak (Agattu Island). We were able to get to it but there were no images captured due to some technical difficulties. We did end up putting a new camera on Cape St. Stephens (Kiska Island) for a total of 21 cameras!

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During one of our visits to Hasgox Point we had some unexpected visitors that delayed our work for a day. Two killer whales showed up at the rookery and were swimming around for hours! While we didn’t see any direct sea lion kills, we knew these were transient, or Bigg’s killer whales (“mammal eaters”). It seemed as though they were almost practicing hunting maneuvers. The most interesting thing to see was how the sub-adult and adult males reacted; these males would jump right in the water and swim around, very close to the killer whales! If you’d like to learn more about killer whales in the Aleutian Islands, we have a post coming up from one of our volunteers from the cruise in a couple weeks—be sure to “Follow” our blog so you don’t miss a thing!

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On our way east, we were fortunate that Bogoslof Island, a volcanic island which has been erupting since December 2016, calmed down enough for us to check out (at a safe distance). The island has changed a lot since the last time we visited in 2015. It is much larger and even higher in elevation than before. Interestingly, despite the volcano continuing to erupt, there were thousands of sea birds and hundreds of northern fur seals and Steller sea lions on shore! Looks pretty warm and steamy.

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Be sure to “Follow” our blog to see more posts over the coming weeks from biologists, field campers and volunteers who participated in this summer’s Steller sea lion field season. And, great news: you can now use the new Zooniverse app to classify images (Download for Apple or Android)! We have added more images to our Steller Watch project. Please join us and help figure out why the Steller sea lion continues to decline in the Aleutian Islands.


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. 

Gearing up for the field season

We heading off to Alaska and we will be back in August!

ksweeney

June 6, 2017
Katie Sweeney
Biologist

 

The office has been humming with energy lately. It’s that time of year, the field season is just around the corner. Spring and summer are busy times at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. This is the time of year when the Center conducts the majority of its field work. Weather in Alaska over the winter isn’t conducive to getting work done, though summer weather offers no guarantees, either!

While we’re away, we will be putting the Steller watch project on hold starting June 20th. Since we won’t have internet while we are in Alaska we can’t respond on the Talk Forum but don’t worry! We’ll be back in August with many more images and stories to share with you all.

Some of the Center’s research trips this year include bottom trawl and hydro-acoustic groundfish surveys, marine mammal aerial surveys in the Arctic, harbor seal vessel surveys, Cook Inlet beluga aerial surveys, and vessel surveys to deploy passive acoustic recorders to record marine mammal sounds. Along with Steller sea lion surveys, our program will also conduct several studies on northern fur seals.

We have four Steller sea lion trips planned, similar to our efforts in 2016. And like all the field work at the Center, these trips require a lot of preparation. It is a coordinated effort to ensure we have everything we need since we will be isolated in very remote places and can’t just run to the store if we forgot something. Here’s a little background about each of our Steller sea lion trips:

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One of our featured bloggers, Katie Luxa, has been working with other biologists to accomplish the large task of packing and preparing gear to be shipped up to Alaska to our remote field camps. They have also been preparing the week-long training class for the seven biological observers who will be living on two uninhabited islands (Ugamak and Marmot Islands) for almost two months. The field campers will live in rudimentary shelters with limited electricity, no internet or cell phones, and no running water. They will be perching above sea lions, going unnoticed to collect data on marked animals and sea lion behavior.

Research cruise

One of the trips I will be participating in will be our annual research cruise on board the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Research Vessel (R/V) Tiĝlax̑ (pronounced TEKH-lah; Aleut for eagle). For two weeks, 13 people from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center will call this 120 foot vessel home. Every summer, six skilled USFWS crew members operate this vessel, a vital platform, for nearshore research along the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

During our trip, the primary goal is to study sea lions to collect population counts, service our 20 remote cameras and download images (more images to come for our citizen scientists team members!), look for marked individuals, and mark individuals for on our ongoing research project. Along with sea lion biologists, there are two fish biologists who will dropping an underwater camera near sea lion sites to get a better idea of the available prey. There will also be two killer whale biologists on board looking for killer whales and other species of whales.

hexacopterTo prepare for this trip, I’ve been working with our other remote pilots to test out our new camera mount, called a gimbal, mounted to our hexacopter (or drone). The gimbal mount ensures that the camera will always point directly down and over the sea lions no matter how much the wind causes the hexacopter to tilt. I’m excited to see these mounts in action! We also have a new person on our team who you heard form in our last post about the NOAA Corps. LTJG Blair Delean will be heading up to Alaska with us for the first time to help with hexacopter surveys.

Aerial survey

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Biologists (and featured bloggers) Lowell Fritz, Josh Cutler, and Katie Luxa will be heading out on the annual aerial survey. The team will meet up with NOAA Aircraft Operation Center flight team and Twin Otter aircraft in southeast Alaska. They will survey along the coastline, capturing images of sea lions hauled out on land at known sites.

The aerial survey team assembled and tested our camera mount that holds three cameras; it will be installed on the NOAA Twin Otter. Now we know it’s working fine, I’m packing up all the gear to ship to Alaska.

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After the aerial survey and research cruise, Katie Luxa and I will meet up in Dutch Harbor (Unalaska Island) for our final survey. We will be on board a small boat for six days, checking out nearby sea lion sites for marked animals.

While we’re away, we will be putting the Steller watch project on hold starting June 20th. Since we won’t have internet while we are in Alaska we can’t respond on the Talk Forum but don’t worry! We’ll be back in August with many more images and stories to share with you all. Thank you all for your contributions classifying so many images before we head out. It’s been a joy to share our research with such dedicated people and we are so happy to have you as apart of our team!

Wish us calm seas, clear skies, low winds, and many sea lions!


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. 

Sea Lion Summer Camp

Living and working at remote field sites in Alaska

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April 22, 2017
Katie Luxa
Biologist

 

Have you ever wanted to get away from it all? No phone, no internet, no car, no electricity. Just you and a little cabin in the wilderness…and a few thousand noisy neighbors.

Each summer, NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center sends observers to field camps on two remote islands in Alaska: Marmot Island, near Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, and Ugamak Island, near Dutch Harbor in the eastern Aleutian Islands. Observers spend about 10 weeks on the islands where we are responsible for monitoring Steller sea lions hauled out on beaches. Every day, we scan the beaches for marked animals, count the sea lions on land, and record behavioral observations. These data provide a fine-scale look at two Steller sea lion populations and, in conjunction with other field studies and the remote images you’re helping to examine, contribute to our understanding of this species across its range.

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So how do we get to a Steller sea lion field camp on an uninhabited island in Alaska? By helicopter, of course! But our journey really begins in Seattle. Field camp observers go through a week-long training in Seattle where we learn about Steller sea lion biology, data collection, and the responsibilities involved with living in a remote shelter on a small island with only 1 or 2 other people, away from it all. In many cases, this is also our first opportunity to get to know one another – communication and cooperation are vitally important when working with a team in remote location for over two months.

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After training, we spend 3 days in the town nearest our assigned field camp (Kodiak or Dutch Harbor) to organize equipment which includes our rain gear, datasheets, cameras, etc. We also complete one of our most daunting tasks: buying 2 months’ worth of groceries. On deployment day, the helicopter transports us – along with all of our food and gear – to our temporary island homes. I also like to hum the Jurassic Park theme to myself as we land. Once we have unloaded, we get straight to work and by the end of the day, we will have set up our composting toilet hut (no indoor plumbing here!), solar panels, water filter, propane cook stove, cabin heater, and put away all of our food. It’s still light outside, but the clock reads 10:00 pm. Welcome to the land of the midnight sun!

The next day is dedicated to setting up our observation sites so we can start collecting data. Depending on the camp, the site may be just a few minutes’ walk away over wind-blown tundra dotted by wildflowers or at the end of a 2-mile hike through dewy meadows and moss-covered Sitka spruce. These are some of my favorite places on Earth. No matter how close the observation site is, though, we always make sure we’re prepared: datasheets and extra pencils, a camera with charged batteries, binoculars, a satellite phone, a VHF radio, a Personal Locator Beacon for emergencies, extra layers of clothes, bear spray (for those on Marmot Island), and plenty of water and snacks.

We use the same observation sites from year to year; these spots were selected because they allow us to safely observe sea lions without disturbing them. Our goal is to go the entire 10 weeks without the sea lions realizing we’re there. The sites range from about 350-1,000 feet above the beaches, so we use anchor systems and wear climbing harnesses each time we approach the cliff edge.observation-site As soon as we’re clipped into the anchor system, we’re ready to get comfortable and watch the hundreds of sea lions on the beach below.

Within a few days, we settle into an easy rhythm of data collection and camp life. We get to know the daily patterns of the marked animals. We witness fierce battles over territories. We watch sea lion pups learn to swim. And we live happily ever after. That is, until it’s time to decide who gets to empty the composting toilet.

Want to see how field camps operate in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands? Check out this blog by fellow biologists from the Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center about monk seal research in this other remote Pacific Island chain.


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 for just over six years. 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.

Low, slow, and good to go!

Taking flight to count Steller sea lions means covering 2,500 miles on a deadline

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April 11, 2017
Josh Cutler
Biologist + Information Systems Specialist

 

For most of the year, Steller sea lions in Alaska spend their time alone or in small groups spread across the expansive waters and shores surrounding the state. But every summer sea lions converge on land in large groups to give birth, mate, and rear newborn pups. For researchers this period is a fantastic opportunity to count every sea lion on shore and estimate the population.

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The opportunity comes with high stakes. We must conduct the counts within a three week window. The timing has to be just right to ensure females have given birth, but, wait too long and the the animals will disperse again for the year, making counts impossible.

We must conduct the counts within a three week window.

On top of the time constraint, Steller sea lions are spread across 2,500 miles of Alaska’s southern coast, through the Aleutian Island chain. That is a lot of ground to cover in a short time frame. So, in addition to our ship-based survey, we also take to the sky. With help from NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center team, a few scientists fly over Steller sea lion sites, allowing us to conduct the survey efficiently. The airplane we use is a Twin Otter and we mount a large camera in the belly of the plane so we can capture images as we fly over sea lions. The motto of this Twin Otter aircraft? Low, slow, and good to go! Which means we can fly low and slow and capture high resolution images.

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Me at the camera mount controller with two scientific observers at the front bubble windows.

Flying in the Twin Otter is nothing like flying in a commercial plane. The fuselage is just big enough to fit six people and our equipment; the ceiling is too low to stand. We wear flame-retardant flight suits for our safety. And we get to fly low and slow through some of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

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Biologist Katie Luxa at the bubble window.

The team consists of two pilots, one field mechanic, and three scientists. One scientist operates the mounted cameras from a computer station near the back of the plane. The other scientists look for sea lions through bubble windows on each side of the plane and help the pilots navigate to make sure our cameras capture all the animals. My favorite position is at the bubble window — I often see whales, walruses, active volcanoes, and glaciers, and I occasionally find new Steller sea lion sites.

Most days start with scientists and pilots meeting to discuss the weather forecasts and if it’s looking good to safely travel through the terrain. Alaska’s foggy, rainy and cloudy summer days often ground us due to low visibility. When the weather is good, we can fly all day. We spend nights in towns along our survey track: Sitka, Homer, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor or Adak.

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Perfect conical volcanoes peaking through the ceiling of low fog.

At the end of the survey, two scientists independently count every sea lion in each aerial and ground photo. Counting the animals allows us to make estimates about the total population. Using yearly figures we can also track population trends. Despite the challenges, we do the work because it is vital to monitoring Steller sea lions’ overall health.


I am a research scientist with the University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO) and have worked at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center for six years. I develop data systems, conduct manned and unmanned aerial surveys, and often conduct field work for various Steller sea lion and northern fur seal studies. I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Massachusetts and my Master’s degree from Sonoma State University.

We’d also like to know what you’d like to hear about. Head to our Talk forum to post a Question for Biologists and your question could be selected for a future blog post!

The conundrum of counting Steller sea lions

Searching for innovative solutions to count Steller sea lions

ksweeney

March 23, 2017
Katie Sweeney
Biologist

 

The images you’re viewing on Steller Watch are from the remote cameras we placed at the westernmost reaches of the U.S., where Steller sea lions have declined dramatically. The remote cameras along with marking the animals are two research projects that are part of our mission to pinpoint why Steller sea lions in the western half of the Aleutian Islands are not rebounding like they are to the east.

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The NOAA Twin Otter flying over Yunaska Island to capture image of Steller sea lions.

In addition to Steller Watch, we just launched an effort to develop a program to automate the yearly Steller sea lion population count, our biggest and perhaps most important research project of the year. We partnered with Kaggle to accomplish this. Kaggle connects people to coders who compete to find a solution to big data challenges, saving organizations time and money. The project called NOAA Fisheries Steller Sea Lion Population Count is now live and runs through the end of June. This story was shared by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center if you’d like to read more.

Counting the Steller sea lion population is vital to monitoring the species and staying on top of abundance trends. Each summer, we head to Alaska and gear up for weeks at sea on a research vessel. Summer is best because it’s when Steller sea lions go on land, which biologists call hauling out. During the rest of the year, sea lions spend a lot of time in the open ocean.

So, how do we count? We use a handful of methods depending on the situation.

The summer months are a busy time for Steller sea lions – females give birth, begin rearing their pups and adults breed. Aggressive males stay on land and fast for months to defend their breeding territories. Even non-breeding juveniles and sub-adult males (males that are not yet sexually or socially mature) haul-out with greater consistency during the breeding season. There’s a flurry of activity at sea lion sites and scientists from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center are closely monitoring as much as possible while we count the population.

hexacopterSo, how do we count? We use a handful of methods depending on the situation. At smaller sites with fewer sea lions, we can count on land or by boat, either on the research vessel itself or by launching small skiffs to get a closer look. At large sites, we take aerial images from a plane or an unoccupied aircraft system, or hexacopter drone. During our 2016 survey, we collected over 20,000 aerial images that we counted 29,427 sea lions from, back at the office.

It takes two biologists up to four months to look through those aerial photos. And in those pictures, there are tens of thousands of individual sea lions, and we count and identify the age and sex of each one we count. We hope computer scientists will connect with us on Kaggle to create an innovative algorithm that can recognize sea lions in aerial photos. Automation, or partial automation, would make counting more efficient and give us biologists more time to focus on other important Steller sea lion research studies.

In our next blog, one of our biologists will share what it’s like to conduct aerial surveys in the traditional way, using a small plane.


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.

We’d also like to know what you’d like to hear about. Head to our Talk forum to post a Question for Biologists and your question could be selected for a future blog post!