Alaska Sea Otter Expedition Investigates Coastal Health
Pacific Nearshore Project 2011 Alaska Expedition
Marine biologists recently conducted a 3-week expedition studying sea otters as part of a joint U.S.-Canadian project to investigate the ecological health of the Pacific coastline.
The Pacific Nearshore Project is a multinational, multiagency project investigating sea otters as indicators of the health of coastal waters and marine resources from California northward through Canada and Alaska. (See related Sound Waves article "USGS Launches Multidisciplinary Investigation of Northeast Pacific Sea Otter Populations and Nearshore Ecosystems.") A major component of the investigation was conducted in late May and early June 2011, when 16 researchers from four research institutions sailed between Juneau and Ketchikan, Alaska, 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," said James Bodkin, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research 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."
The Alaska expedition is among the last of several sampling missions that began in 2008 at locations that include Big Sur in California and the Katmai coast of Alaska. During the next 2 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,'" said Seth Newsome, a University of Wyoming researcher analyzing 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."
Taking whiskers from wild, ill-tempered otters isn't easy, but the captured animals were 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 served as the expedition veterinarian, operating a mobile "otter-examination clinic" on the USGS research vessel Alaska Gyre.
"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," said USGS ecologist Keith Miles, a co-leader in the project. "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."
The Pacific Nearshore Project is led by the USGS, with key research partners from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Seattle Aquarium, the University of California, the University of Idaho, the University of Wyoming, and the California Department of Fish and Game.
A sample field-journal entry, for Day 7 of the expedition (May 28, 2011), is reprinted in this issue ("Field Journal: Pacific Nearshore Project Alaska Expedition, Day 7"), and links to all the journal entries are in the sidebar at top right. For additional information, including more photographs, a full list of sponsoring agencies, and details about the types of data being gathered, please visit the project homepage at http://www.werc.usgs.gov/project.aspx?projectid=221.
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