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Alaska Sea Otter Expedition Investigates Coastal Health



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Pacific Nearshore Project 2011 Alaska Expedition

Field Journal

otter

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.

Researchers board the USGS research vessel Alaska Gyre
Above: Researchers board the USGS research vessel Alaska Gyre before embarking on the latest expedition of the Pacific Nearshore Project: (left to right) Tim Tinker (USGS), Mike Murray (Monterey Bay Aquarium), Michelle Staedler (Monterey Bay Aquarium), George Esslinger (USGS), Mike Kenner (University of California, Santa Cruz), project leader Jim Bodkin (USGS), and Jim Estes (University of California, Santa Cruz). Photograph by Keith Miles, USGS. [larger version]

"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."

Geographic bounds and conceptual components of the Pacific Nearshore Project
Above: Geographic bounds and conceptual components of the Pacific Nearshore Project, including six geographically distinct sea otter populations (from west to east): Katmai, Prince William Sound, Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and California. The sea otter population in Southeast Alaska (enlarged in inset map) was the focus of the May/June 2011 expedition. [larger version]

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.

Expedition scientists release a sea otter back into the ocean after a full health checkup. Vanessa von Biela dissects kelp greenling for their otoliths
Above left: Expedition scientists release a sea otter back into the ocean after a full health checkup. [larger version]

Above right: Although their focus is on sea otters, Pacific Nearshore Project scientists study other organisms in the nearshore food web as well. Here, Hans Bruning (left; first mate on the Snow Goose) and Tim Tinker (right) watch as USGS biologist Vanessa von Biela dissects kelp greenling for their otoliths—earbones whose growth rings can reveal a fish's age and indicate how fast the fish grew in certain years. Learn more at http://www.werc.usgs.gov/ProjectSubWebPage.aspx?SubWebPageID=3&ProjectID=221. [larger version]

"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.

Expedition biologists must carefully clamber up and down rocky cliffs to find the best lookout for observing sea otter behavior. Research divers take a break from a gray and gloomy day out on the water.
Above left: Expedition biologists must carefully clamber up and down rocky cliffs to find the best lookout for observing sea otter behavior. [larger version]

Above right: Research divers take a break from a gray and gloomy day out on the water. [larger version]

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.

 

Related Sound Waves Stories
Field Journal: Pacific Nearshore Project Alaska Expedition, Day 7
July 2011
USGS Launches Multidisciplinary Investigation of Northeast Pacific Sea Otter Populations and Nearshore Ecosystems
March 2010

Related Web Sites
Pacific Nearshore Project
USGS

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Fieldwork
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Alaska Sea Otter Expedition Investigates Coastal Health

Field Journal: Pacific Nearshore Project Alaska Expedition

Meetings Coastal Sediments '11

Workshop Examines Effects of Sea-Level Change on Everglades

Staff Solar-Heating System Reduces Environmental Footprint

Summer Intern Processes Underwater Video

Publications New Book Offers Comprehensive Description of Gulf of Mexico Geology

July 2011 Publications


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