And we’re back!

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

ksweeney

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

ksweeney

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. 

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.

Part I: Is that a healthy pup?

Part 1: Studying the condition of sea lion pups

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April 10, 2018
Brian Fadely
Biologist

 

When we handle Steller sea lion pups that will be marked, we also check their condition and health status, similar to when you take your pets to the veterinarian for a check-up.  Collecting health data can give an indication of local environmental conditions, and allows testing of some hypotheses for the population decline.

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Pups are weighed by holding them in a small hoop net and measuring with a digital scale suspended from a tripod. Photo by Kristen Campbell.

While we are handling the pups, we weigh them and measure their length and girth as indicators of condition. We look at these measurements relative to the weighing date (since we don’t know a pups birth date), as well as, their weight relative to their length. Both are used as indices of body condition and help us explore trends among pup measured across regions or over years.

Weighing and measuring pups is straightforward, as simple as suspending them from digital scale while nestled in a hoop net. Length is measured from the tip of nose to the tip of their tail, and girth is measured around the body just behind the front flippers.

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A pup that fell asleep in the net while being weighed

Pups are born between late May and early July but half of the pups are born by June 10th. For consistency, we try to sample pups between June 20th and July 7th, which means we’re sampling them when they are 12-25 days old, but possibly 5-37 days old. At this young age, the size and health of the pup largely reflects the mother’s condition while she was carrying the pup, since about April. Pup condition can vary with many factors including age and size of the mother and the local foraging conditions she encounters, which we typically don’t have any way to directly assess.

Looking at pup measurements collected throughout the Aleutian Islands from 1990 to 2017, the weight of female pups (a total of 1,958 measured) has ranged between 33 and 97 Ibs (15 to 44 kg), or an average of 62 Ibs (28 kg). The weight of male pups (a total of 2,234 measured) ranged between 29 and 115 Ibs (13 to 52 kg), with an average of 75 Ibs (34 kg). Male pups tend to weigh about 11 Ibs (5 kg) more than females. Generally, pups grow just under a pound (over a third of a kg) per day.

Just as with human infants, we can compare the size of any pup against all others to determine whether they are relatively large, small, or about average. In the figure below, the sizes of pups from Hasgox Point on Ulak Island (white squares) and Gillon Point on Agattu Island (black circles) are compared to all other Aleutian Island pups (light gray circles) for females (F, left figure) and males (M, right figure). It’s evident that while some individuals are small or large compared to others, the size ranges of pups from these islands are similar to all others.

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In these plots, each dot represents the weight of a single pup. The left plot shows females and the right, males. The two sites you may be familiar with are Hasgox Point on Ulak Island (white squares) and Gillon Point on Agattu Island (black circles). The light gray circles are all other pups in the Aleutian Islands.

Since we don’t weigh the pups on the same day and they put on weight each day as they grow, to compare pup condition over years or between rookeries, we create a condition index. The condition index compares the weight we collect to the weight we would expect to see on the weighing date, or to the weight expected for their length. This condition index is a ratio of the measured weight to the expected weight which is calculated from doing a regression of all pup masses by weighing date.

In the figure below is called a box plot (also called a box and whisker plot). This is a great way to visualize data. The condition index ratio we described above is plotted in the following two figures. Median values (black lines) are shown within the 25th and 75th data percentiles (boxes), and outlier values (black dots) are plotted outside of the whiskers (1.5 times the percentile range, showing data dispersion). This box plot above shows the data collected from female pups measured from 1994 to 2017 at rookery sites within the area we have remote cameras deployed in the Aleutian Islands. Essentially, if the observed and expected weights are the same, then the condition index ratio is 1.0 (the horizontal dashed line).

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Values above that are interpreted as ‘better’ condition (they weigh more than expected for their length), and ratios less than 1 are ‘poorer’. Pups from Agattu Island rookeries tended to weigh less for a given length than did pups at Kiska or Ulak Islands, though overall there is not a great difference among these sites.

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Alternatively, we can look at differences in pup condition over the years at specific sites or region. The box plot above shows the condition indices for female pups at Hasgox Point (Ulak Island) collected from 1994 to 2017. This data suggest that the pup cohort of 1994 was in apparently relatively poorer condition compared to later years, while cohorts since 2013 have been in relatively better condition.

All of this information are valuable pieces in the puzzle towards figuring out why Steller sea lions have not recovered in the Aleutian Islands. In the next blog, I will be sharing what we can learn from the different samples that we collect from pups along with weight and length measurements. Be sure to sign up for blog notifications by filling in your email and clicking the “Follow” button!


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.

SURVIVAL 101

Why do we permanently mark Steller sea lions?

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December 12, 2017
Lowell Fritz
Biologist

 

We permanently mark Steller sea lions to estimate vital rates of the population, which are:

  • Survival (from year to year)
  • Reproduction (how often females give birth to a pup)
  • Dispersal (where marked sea lions are observed at each age)

Why is estimating vital rates important?

By seeing marked animals through time, we can determine which vital rate is most likely responsible for this decline.

For a population that’s declining, like Steller sea lions in the Aleutian Islands, estimating survival, reproduction and dispersal can help us determine what factors might be affecting the population. For instance, we know Steller sea lions in the western Aleutian Islands are declining at an alarming rate of about 7% per year. If they continue to decline at this rate, they could be go extinct in this region within the next 50 years. Which is why we need your help to classify images on Steller Watch.

Because the number of Steller sea lions (or abundance) is going down in the western Aleutian Islands we know that either they are dying faster than new pups are being born or they are abandoning this area and settling elsewhere.

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Biologists look for marked Steller sea lions.

By seeing marked animals through time, we can determine which vital rate is most likely responsible for this decline. For example, suppose we discover that survival during the first 2 years in the western Aleutians is similar to areas where the species is currently increasing. This would suggest that factors that directly kill young sea lions, such as entanglement in fishing nets or predation by killer whales, are likely not affecting the western Aleutian population any more than in parts of the range where the population is increasing.  If we knew this, then we could focus our research and management attention on other pieces of the puzzle, such as factors that would affect reproduction (e.g., disease, nutritional stress) and adult survival (e.g., illegal shooting). In addition, because we know a lot about each of the pups that were marked, we can determine whether males and females are affected differently, or whether the weight of the pup (which is an indication of the health and age of its mother) was a factor.

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A Steller sea lion pup that has been marked and a hair sample collected is being monitored in the pup recovery area.

We began marking Steller sea lion pups in the western Aleutian Islands in 2011, so as of December 2017, the oldest marked animals from this region are only about 6½ years old. Given that female Steller sea lions can live to be about 30 years old and don’t start having pups until they are 4-6 years old, this means we don’t yet have enough years of sightings to estimate reproduction or adult survival.  However, we are closer to being able to estimate juvenile survival.

I’m going to provide a short introduction into how we estimate survival, in this case, of juveniles. This will get a little messy and into the muddy math so skip ahead to the last two paragraphs if you want to skip this part. To set the stage, let’s look at a table of a simplified version of our experiment with ‘pretend’ data:

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Imagine we marked 100 pups in 2011 and set them free. In each of the following years, there are really only 2 options for us as researchers: we either see them alive that year or we don’t. Let’s say in the 2nd year (in 2012) we observed only 50 of these 100 marked individuals. In the 3rd year (2013), we only saw 30. We want to try to estimate the percent of animals that survived to the 2nd and 3rd years (and beyond) which we call survival. In the most simplistic terms, survival is 50% to year 2 and 30% to year 3.

20150626_ULAK REMOTE CAMS_2.JPGBut it’s not that simple! What complicates this is sighting probability, or the chance that we will actually observe a live marked animal. While we have remote cameras at several locations and visit the Aleutian Islands at least once a year, we know that we do not see every single marked sea lion that is alive in the population. This means we have to account for the probability of observing a live marked animal, and how that might change over time, for instance, as the animals age or with different levels of sighting effort.  Another reason we might not see a marked animal is that it completely left our study area never to be seen by us again. We collaborate with researchers in Russia and look for marked animals in other parts of Alaska, but we still try to account for this possibility, however slim. For these reasons, we use the term “apparent” survival to describe what we are actually estimating since we can’t distinguish death from permanent emigration. But for this blog, we’ll just call it survival.

So, how do we account for sighting probability and how it might vary between years so we can estimate survival? This is where some math comes into play and why collecting data over many years is so valuable.

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Capture history of marked sea lion sightings up to Year 2.

The table to the right is what we call a capture history of how many marked sea lions were seen (Y) or not seen (N) in Year 2. Of course, all of the 100 sea lions marked in 2011 were “seen” in the first year, which is why they have a “Y” listed for the first year. Then in year 2 (2012) there were 50 marked sea lions seen so their capture history is “YY”, and the other 50 were not seen which means their capture history is “YN”.

Pretty simple for year 2, right?  They were either seen or not seen.

Let’s add sightings collected during Year 3 (2013), and you can see that this is when it starts to get complicated. In the first table, you can see we saw only 30 marked animals in Year 3. Of those 30 marked animals seen, 10 were seen all three years so they have a capture history of YYY. The other 20 were not observed in year 2, so their capture history is: YNY.

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Capture history of marked sea lions to year 3.

Seventy of the original 100 marked sea lions were not observed in year 3 but 10 of these were seen in year 2 so they have a capture history of YYN. That leaves the remaining 60 who were not seen in year 2 and 3, and these have a capture history of YNN.

How is this sighting data by year used to estimate sighting probability (P) and survival (S) in years 2 and 3? We use a mathematical model that finds the values of P and S that best fit the following equations. Let’s start from the top by examining the number of sea lions that had each type of capture history in year 3 and equations that express the probabilities for each one.

In our data, 10% of the original marked group of 100 pups has a capture history of “YYY” in year 3. This can also be expressed as:

Pr[YYY] = 0.1 = [P2 * S2] * [P3 * S3]

Our data indicate that the probabilities of both being seen (P2) and surviving (S2) to year 2 multiplied by the probabilities of both being seen (P3) and surviving (S3) to year 3 is equal to 0.1 or 10%.

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That tells us a little bit but not too much about the individual values of each of the 4 parameters. Some more information will come from examining the equations associated with the other capture histories.

We not only have sighting probability and survival in our model, but we also have their opposites: the probability of NOT surviving (or dying) and of NOT being seen. Let’s say that we estimated that S = 0.6 for a particular year. The opposite of that, or the probability that an animal did NOT survive that year, would be (1 – S) = 0.4. In other words, if an animal had a 60% chance of surviving, it also had a 40% chance of dying. Similarly, if a marked animal had a 70% chance of being observed (P = 0.7), it also had a (1 – P) = 0.3, or 30% chance of NOT being observed. So for the capture history of “YNY” we would use the equation below:

Pr[YNY] = 0.2 = [(1-P2) * S2] * [P3 * S3]

For these 20 animals, we know they survived through year 2 because they were observed alive in year 3. Therefore, during year 2, the probability of being NOT seen (1-P2) is multiplied by the probability of surviving (S2), while for year 3, the terms are exactly the same as for the animals with capture histories of “YYY” since they were seen alive in year 3.

Pr[YYN] = 0.1 = [P2 * S2] * [(1-S3) + (S3 * (1-P3))]

OK, now it’s starting to look ugly, right?  Let’s just break it down term by term.  Since these 10 animals were all seen alive in Year 2, the equation has the same terms for year 2 as the “YYY”s. But year 3 is where it really starts to change, and this is because we don’t know if they didn’t survive to year 3 or they were alive but just not observed that year.  Data obtained in year 4 and beyond will help us untangle this, but at this point in the analysis of these example data, we do not know. Therefore, the year 3 term takes into account both possibilities: the probability that these 10 animals did NOT survive to year 3 (1-S3) and the probability that they survived to year 3 (S3) but were NOT observed (1-P3).

And now the messiest of all is the equation for the probability of having a capture history of “YNN”.

Pr[Y N N] = 0.6 = [(1-S2) + (S2 * (1-P2))] * [(1-S3) + (S3 * (1-P3))]

These 60 animals were marked in year 1 and never seen again, but we don’t know if they survived to year 3 (S2 and S3) but were just not observed either year [(1 – P2) and (1 – P3)]; if they didn’t survive to year 2 (1 – S2) and were not available to be seen in year 3; or if they survived to year 2 (S2) and were not observed (1 – P2) and then died in year 3 (1 – S3).

Without going into the gory detail, finding the values of sighting probability (P) and survival (S) for each year that best fit the data is quite a process, and luckily there’s a program called MARK that performs this task (and many more!) with remarkable speed.

For this example, survival to year 2 (S2) is estimated to be 0.82.  In other words, we estimate that 82% of the marked sea lion pups survived to celebrate their first birthday. Sighting probability during year 2 (P2) was estimated to be pretty low, only 0.19.  In other words, there was a 19% chance of seeing a marked animal during year 2.  You can see how adding sighting probability significantly changed our perception of survival, given that our first ‘guess’ for survival during year 2 was 50% when we only considered how many we actually saw alive in year 2. At this point in the data collection, P3 and S3 are not estimable with much precision because it is the last year of data in the analysis and we don’t have enough information to know whether a marked animal that was not seen in year 3 was alive or not. For each additional year of sightings, the number of years for which survival can be estimated usually increases, and the number of unique capture histories doubles. So you can see that the equations expressing the probabilities get very complicated very quickly! Add some other variables (also called co-variates) to the mix, such as sex, cohort (different island rookeries, different birth years), and weight at the time of marking, and you’ve got yourself quite a sophisticated model.

And that’s Survival 101!


I have been studying Steller sea lions since 1990 with NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.  My primary research interests are sea lion population dynamics, demographics, and interactions with commercial fisheries.  I’ve also worked on fish during my career with NOAA, particularly species eaten by sea lions, like Atka mackerel, walleye pollock (you may know them as fish sticks and imitation “krab”), and Pacific cod.   I graduated from Bucknell University (B.A. Biology, 1976) and College of William and Mary (M.S. Marine Science, 1982), and started my science career in 1982 at Rutgers University as a Research Associate.  At Rutgers, I worked at the Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory in Bivalve, NJ (down the road from Shellpile… you can’t make this up) studying the shells of mollusks living in habitats ranging from freshwater lakes and streams to deep-sea hydrothermal vents. I even had the opportunity to go down in the Alvin submersible!

Not so black and white

Understanding the role of killer whales in the Aleutian Islands

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August 22, 2017
Kristin Campbell

Biologist

 

As I peer through the binoculars, a jet-black, triangular dorsal fin slowly arcs over the ocean’s glassy horizon. There is no mistaking it… we found killer whales!

NOAA Fisheries. Permit No. 20465

For centuries killer whales have captured the human imagination. Although arguably one of the most recognizable species, there is a lot we still do not know about them… but we are learning! NOAA Fisheries’ Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program has been studying killer whales in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska since 2001. As researchers, our goal is to better understand the abundance (how many whales there are), distribution (where the whales are), social structure, and feeding behavior of killer whales in the Central and Western Aleutian Islands. The information we learn about these populations can help us understand the role of killer whales within this fragile ecosystem. We are particularly interested in how, or if, Bigg’s (“mammal-eating”) killer whale predation or resident (“fish-eating”) prey competition may be impacting Steller sea lion recovery in the Western Aleutian Islands.

Transient killer whale predation on marine mammals in the Aleutian Islands has rarely been observed. However, on this year’s cruise we happened upon a predation event in-progress at Hasgox Point on Ulak Island.

During this year’s Steller sea lion cruise, killer whale biologist, Dr. Paul Wade, and I conducted cetacean (whale, dolphin, and porpoise) surveys from the highest point of our research vessel, the flying bridge. We spent hours scanning the horizon with our binoculars as our ship traveled from one Steller sea lion site to the next. When we sighted whales or porpoises we noted the species, group size, and their GPS location. This year we saw many cetacean species on our voyage including sperm whales, fin whales, humpback whales, Dall’s porpoise, beaked whales, and others. Surveys give us information about whale population abundance and distribution within the Aleutian Islands.

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When we encountered killer whales, we suspended our survey in order to collect photographs of the killer whale’s dorsal fins and adjacent saddle patch pigmentation. We are able to make an initial determination of ecotype (“fish-eating” resident or “mammal-eating” Bigg’s) in the field based on physical characteristics of the dorsal fin and saddle patch, group size, and behavior. However, photographs allow us to later confirm the ecotype designation and even identify individual killer whales from their natural markings. If conditions permitted, we launched a small vessel for closer approaches to collect tissue biopsies or deploy satellite tags.

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Transient killer whale predation on marine mammals in the Aleutian Islands has rarely been observed. However, on this year’s cruise we happened upon a predation event in-progress at Hasgox Point on Ulak Island. We observed two transient killer whales methodically “working” the sea lion rookery. The killer whales closely approached sea lion groups on the shore and in the water.

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These killer whales may seem menacing, but Steller sea lions are not defenseless! Steller sea lions are large, agile in the water, and have big teeth that could harm killer whales. Even though many sea lions were in the water, the killer whales were not successful in making a kill and eventually moved on. The next morning we observed another group of four Bigg’s killer whales at Ulak Island. This group was more active, they hunted further away from the rookery, and displayed exciting behaviors like tail slaps, spy hops, and even porpoising.

Image credit: NOAA Fisheries. Permit# 20465 MML/AFSC/NMFS/NOAA

This year we successfully deployed two satellite tags on Bigg’s killer whales. Satellite tags give us information about where the whales travel and how deep they dive, unlocking the mysteries of their daily activities. Previous satellite data from Bigg’s killer whales in the Western Aleutians has revealed distinct foraging patterns. The tagged Bigg’s killer whales made shallow dives around Steller sea lion rookeries in the early mornings and repetitive deep dives (to almost 400m!) in the evenings. This data has revealed that Bigg’s killer whales in the Central and Western Aleutians forage on both marine mammals and squid!

NOAA Fisheries. Permit No. 20465

We look forward to analyzing the data we have collected this field season (including photographs, remote camera images, satellite tag data, and survey data) and discovering more about whales in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.


I am a volunteer researcher for NOAA’s Marine Mammal Lab studying killer whales and for the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture studying sea otter morphology and foraging behavior. I earned my B.S. from the University of Washington in Biology. I plan to attend graduate school in marine mammal science.

Getting away from it all . . .

Returning from two months away at a remote field camp

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August 15, 2017
Molly McCormley

Biologist

 

I was one of the seven researchers who lived on a remote Alaskan island to study Steller sea lions during the 2017 summer breeding season. These field camps are important for studying behavior and vital rates (like survival and birth rates) of Steller sea lions across their range – much like what you’re doing on Steller Watch! People always ask me what it’s like to spend two months on a remote island in the Aleutians. I can honestly say that it’s some of the best months of my year!

I have just returned from my fifth summer at a Steller sea lion field camp and was stationed on Marmot Island for the first time! Picture a cabin in the middle of moss-covered woods, situated a couple hundred feet back from the beach, next to a fresh water lagoon. Can’t get more picturesque than that! Now imagine you get to wake up to birds chirping every morning and while you sip your coffee on the deck, fox kits (baby foxes) wrestle a few yards away and deer graze a little way off. Doesn’t sound too bad, huh? Those days make up for the times when the weather refuses to cooperate (heavy rain or strong wind) and fog obscures even the lagoon from view.

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I was stationed at this cabin with one other field camper. Each day, we completed a four-hour shift at a Steller sea lion rookery (breeding site). A two-mile uphill hike is required to get to this site which, depending on the day, can be amazing. However, care must be taken to avoid devils club, a spiky monstrosity, and cow parsnip (also known as pushki), which contains a photosensitive chemical – it reacts with the sun and can cause blistering or skin discoloration. Machetes are sometimes required, especially in the beginning of the season, to clear the path and we take extra precautions to avoid coming into contact with pushki “juice”.

Image credit: Koa Matsuoka, NOAA Fisheries

Once at the site, we sit about 500 feet above the sea lions, with harnesses and climbing ropes clipped into an anchor system to ensure our safety. Our location allows us to observe the sea lions without disturbing them. Using binoculars and spotting scopes, we observe and record behavior of marked sea lions, as well as any other marine mammals in the area (e.g., killer whales), disturbance events (e.g., caused by rock slides), or sightings of Steller sea lions entangled in fishing gear and other marine debris.

Most days, these shifts fly by since watching Steller sea lion behavior never gets old to me. There’s always cute pups suckling or playing together; juveniles bouncing around the rookery, sometimes sneaking milk from females who are unaware; females giving birth; and males fighting to keep their territories. Having done this project for many years, I get to see the same animals every day and sometimes across multiple years. This allows me to get to know these individuals and makes collecting data exciting. What always amazes me about these animals is their hardiness and their ability to survive in harsh sub-arctic conditions!

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One unique thing that I observed this summer was a female nursing two juveniles! It’s rare for sea lions to have two dependents, though having a juvenile and a new pup is more common on Marmot Island than Ugamak Island. However, I have never seen a female nursing two juveniles. That’s a lot of milk that she has to supply each of them. That means that this female must be very healthy, which is a great sign!

IMG_3891.jpgAt the end of the day, if it’s cold or raining, we light a fire in the wood stove to dry our field clothes and gear and get cozy inside our cabin. Our evening entertainment consists of watching the fox kits play or suckle mom, observing eagles or kingfishers perched around the lagoon, or maybe even just curling up with a good book by the fire. It’s nice to get away from the rush of normal life for a while. I count myself lucky that I get to study Steller sea lions from such an amazing location and I hope to continue this work for many years in the future!

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 am currently working towards my M.S. at the University of the Pacific studying elephant seals and their hormonal reactions to stress. I earned my B.S. from the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). After undergraduate school I worked at the Ocean Institute and at UCSC’s Cognition and Sensory Systems Lab. I have worked at the Marine Mammal Laboratory’s summer field camps for the last five seasons to study Steller sea lion behavior and life history.