Researchers from USGS, Monterey Bay Aquarium and other institutions are currently on a three-week expedition sailing Alaskan waters to study sea otters, as part of the Pacific Nearshore Project investigating coastal health. During their voyage, researchers will be sharing their shipboard life with us through journal entries that they’re sending home regularly.
Editor's Note: We’ve finally received our first batch of photos from the 2011 Alaska expedition! The photos you seen in this post were compiled by biologist Kim Kloecker, who has finished her portion of the expedition and is now home.
Editor's Note: Preliminary observations stated in this post should not be cited or construed as analyzed, peer-reviewed findings.
Pacific Nearshore Project
Alaska Expedition Day 9 - May 25, 2011 – Aboard the R/V Alaska Gyre
Jim Bodkin, Project Leader
Today, we depart our northern SE Alaska study site in Port Althorp, having accomplished goals in terms of otters, observational data, and fish.
Achieving this milestone and contemplating the second leg of our cruise provided an opportunity for us scientists -- over early morning coffee and homemade scones -- to reflect on the project‘s progress and observations so far. Having conducted similar studies in Port Althorp between 1993 and 1999, we considered our recent observations with those made previously. At a preliminary glance, the sea otters today appear to live in the same areas and in similar abundances, consume the same types and numbers of prey and seem to be in similar health and condition.
Our study design, where we assess sea otter populations as either “core” or “periphery” (expanding into unoccupied habitats where food is plentiful) is unique among population studies of wild mammals and provides insights regarding differences observed among the populations we are sampling.
We also discussed the potential for our data to provide some insight into the controversy regarding the role of disease as a causal factor in regulating sea otter populations, a question particularly relevant to the status of sea otters in California, where little, if any population growth has been evident in recent years. We anticipate that the use of gene express analysis to understand sea otter exposure to disease and contaminants across the span of our study sites from Katmai to California will provide new insights into this question.
As we head south and approach Mount Edgecombe volcano near the beautiful city of Sitka, Alaska, we ponder the challenges to come in obtaining further samples from an area where we have not previously worked. The Whale Bay region of Baranof Island represents one of our “periphery” sea otter populations, occurring at the southern edge of their range in northern SE Alaska.
Because of our lack of familiarity in this region, we have allowed 12 days to accomplish here what we did in 7 days in Port Althorp. It will be a challenge, but we have the very best of scientists in the field to do what needs to be done.
-- Jim Bodkin
Jim Bodkin is the chief scientist and project leader of the Pacific Nearshore Project. He is a sea otter biologist with the USGS Alaska Science Center.
Like crime lab detectives, biologists are using blood samples to learn about parasites and contaminants that sea otters may have been exposed to. Learn more about “gene expression” clues here.
Top Image: Jim Bodkin departs from the Alaska Gyre for a day of field studies. Middle: Jim Bodkin takes his turn on sea otter diet observations. Bottom: Observers must be highly trained to spot sea otters afar, which can blend in easily with kelp heads. Image Credits: USGS.
The Pacific Nearshore Project is a multinational, multiagency project investigating sea otters as health indicators of coastal waters and marine resources from California north through Canada and Alaska. The project is led by the U.S. Geological Survey with key research partners from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Seattle Aquarium, University of California, University of Idaho, University of Wyoming and California Department of Fish and Game. For a full list of sponsoring agencies, research blogposts, otter photos, please visit the project homepage at http://on.doi.gov/nearshore