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Sea otters in Prince William Sound, AK --Photographer: Don Becker, USGS
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Alaska Sea Otter Expedition Sets Sail This Week
MONDAY MAY 16 2011
It'll be no vacation cruise. A team of sixteen researchers are about to embark on a three-week research expedition in Southeast Alaska, scuba diving in frigid waters, standing watch at desolate shorelines in bear country, and working from dawn till the wee hours of night.

Welcome to the latest voyage of the Pacific Nearshore Project -- a multinational, multiagency project investigating sea otters as health indicators of coastal waters and marine resources from California north through Canada and Alaska. 

The Alaska expedition is among the last of several sampling missions that began in 2008 at locations including Big Sur in California and the Katmai coast of Alaska. On these voyages, researchers are capturing sea otters for physical exams, biopsies, and blood tests, observing sea otter feeding behavior, and collecting samples from fish and other species that hold clues to ecological health.

"Sea otters are the perfect health indicators of our nearshore waters," says James Bodkin, a USGS Alaska Science Center biologist and the project's chief scientist. "They’re entirely dependent on nearshore marine habitats and they are keystone species in kelp forest food webs. Some populations are abundant and stable, while others are either declining or struggling to reach healthy numbers. Can these differences be explained by ocean influences, or by human impacts to the adjacent watersheds? That’s what we’re hoping to learn."

In the next two years, the project researchers will continue to act as detectives, piecing together clues from DNA analysis, disease and toxin studies, sea otter diets, fish growth rates, and satellite imagery to assess and compare the health of some of North America’s most iconic coastlines.

"It’s not so much 'CSI: Sea Otters' as it is 'CSI: Coastal Health,'" says Seth Newsome, a University of Wyoming researcher who will analyze the chemical signature of otter whiskers and fish muscle tissue collected from the expedition. "Sea otter health and diet tells us a great deal about the quality of their marine habitat — the same habitat that supports our fisheries and our recreational waters."

Join the investigation and learn how sea otter genes, satellite photography and chemical isotopes can help assess the health of our coastal waters! Visit the homepage of the Pacific Nearshore Project:

Nearshore Homepage screenshot --Photographer: USGS

Taking whiskers from wild, ill-tempered otters isn’t easy — but the captured animals will be safely sedated during the biopsies. “We actually use the same anesthetics that doctors use for colonoscopy exams in humans,” says Mike Murray, chief veterinarian at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Murray will serve as the expedition veterinarian, operating a mobile “otter examination clinic" on the research vessel deck.

"We have colleagues who are using groundbreaking techniques to solve this mystery, including a blood test that can show whether an otter has been exposed to oil, parasites or other types of stress," says WERC deputy center director Keith Miles, another project co-leader.

Tim Tinker of WERC's Santa Cruz Field Station is another project co-leader: "This is an extraordinary collaboration among government agencies, research institutes and universities working together to understand our coastal resources. We’ll all be learning something new."

-- Ben Young Landis

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