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Steller Sea Lion Conservation in Alaska

July 25, 2014

Steller Sea Lion Conservation in Alaska

Earlier this week, Georgia Aquarium Director of Zoological Operations/Animal Training & Interactive Programs, Dennis Christen, embarked for a two-week trip to Alaska in order to assist the Alaska SeaLife Center in conservation efforts for endangered Steller sea lions. Below is an introduction to the project and update on the journey thus far from Dennis himself:

July 23, 2014

Everything is loaded, the team is aboard, and we are about to cast off from the dock in Seward's small boat harbor. Despite the long cruise ahead and a forecast that suggests it will be a bumpy ride, there is an excitement in the air. The course is set for Prince William Sound, a beautiful region at the very northern part of the Gulf of Alaska made infamous by the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster of 1989.

Dennis on vessel in Alaska

It is 7 p.m. and the plan is to sail through the night to reach our first stop, a haul-out (a predictable location on land where pinnipeds, seals and sea lions, congregate to rest and socialize) of Steller sea lions on the Southeast side of Glacier Island. It will take 13 plus hours to get to there, and while it is a fairly stable haul-out - one in which we routinely encounter large numbers of sea lions- like many things in this part of the world, there are never any guarantees and only time will tell if we will see them there in the morning.

Prior to joining the Zoological Operations team at Georgia Aquarium in March of 2006, I worked as the Mammal Curator for the Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC) in Seward, Alaska. While at the ASLC I was part of a team of individuals that were focused on studying Steller sea lions. Steller sea lions are the largest species of sea lion and males can exceed 2000 pounds and grow more than 10 feet long. Steller sea lions inhabit the near shore waters of the North Pacific Ocean and range from Northern California, through the Gulf of Alaska, and into the waters of the Russian Far East. In the 1980s, the population of Steller sea lions in U.S. waters declined by more than 80%, and in 1997 they were listed as endangered in the Western Gulf of Alaska and threatened in the Eastern Gulf of Alaska.

One project I am particularly proud to have been a part of was the ASLC's Transient Juvenile Steller Sea Lion Program. This program's principle investigator is Dr. Jo-Ann Mellish, an Associate Professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and Scientist at the Alaska SeaLife Center. The focus of the project is to help understand why juvenile Steller sea lions (animals from 1-4 years of age) are failing to make it to adulthood and breed. ASLC's transient juvenile (TJ) program was conceived to help scientists studying the decline of this species and its failure to recover by creatively providing access to free ranging animals in the population and age class of most concern.

The program involves collecting juvenile Steller sea lions and temporarily caring for them in a specialized quarantine facility located at ASLC for a period of weeks. During that time, various samples and measurements can be collected as well as studies in a controllzed environment. After 4 to 8 weeks, the animals are fitted with a satellite transmitter, marked with a permanent identification number and released.

This TJ program was the first of its kind to be carried out on a large scale with an endangered species and involved a tremendous amount of planning and coordination by experts of a variety of disciplines: scientific research, veterinary care, and animal management and care. At its core, it involved providing world class care to wild animals being temporarily managed in human care to provide for their wellbeing in a way that didn't cause them to habituate, or get comfortable, with humans and compromise their ability to be released.

While at ASLC, my role in this project was multifaceted. I was a key person involved in the initial program brainstorming work that brought in a variety of experts from various fields to plan how to successfully carry out this sort of undertaking. I was involved with the design, construction, start-up and operation of the quarantine facility that would serve to temporarily house the collected sea lions (known to the ASLC team as Steller South Beach, due primarily to its location relative to the Center's main complex).

I was also a member of the ASLC dive team that first started collecting juvenile Steller sea lions for field research, such as health assessments and tagging of free ranging animals. We used a dive collection technique pioneered by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), by which divers use a specialized underwater lariat (lasso) to safely snare a specific sea lion underwater and allow for a surface team to gently pull the target animal onto a 'capture boat.' This collection technique and health assessment/tagging work was the subject of an episode of Ocean Mysteries with Host Jeff Corwin that we filmed in June 2012.

One project that has been a priority of the TJ program has been the Life History Transmitter (LHX) project. This project is collaboration with Dr. Mellish of UAF/ASLC and Dr. Markus Horning of the Oregon State University. Information on this project can be found in detail at In short, some of the collected animals are implanted with a special device that essentially detects and transmits the point and conditions with which an implanted animal were to die. If the assumption is that Steller sea lion populations are not recovering because the juvenile animals are not surviving, then these transmitters should detect when and where some of these juveniles are dying, and whether it is a sudden traumatic event like being eaten by a predator, or a long drawn out process consistent with an infectious disease process or lack of nutrition.

Since the project first started in 2003, 71 transient juvenile Steller sea lions have been collected, transported, and temporarily housed at the ASLC Steller South Beach quarantine facility to date. Forty of the collected/ released TJs have had LHX tags surgically implanted. Of the 40 LHX implanted animals, 18 have expired, i.e tags have transmitted, providing the project investigators, Drs. Mellish and Horning, with extremely valuable information on the conditions with which these particular individuals perished in their environment. It also helps shed light on what might be inhibiting juvenile Steller sea lions from reaching adulthood.

So what does all of this have to do with me and why am I on a vessel in the Northern Gulf of Alaska?
A month ago, while putting the finishing touches on her plan to do another deployment of the next generation of life history transmitters (LHX2) by collecting six female juvenile Steller sea lions, Dr. Mellish found herself in need of additional personnel with specific experience in the collection, handling, care, and transport of these endangered animals. Given my previous experience with the project and the knowledge of Georgia Aquarium’s continued commitment to the conservation of marine animals that inhabit our oceans, Dr. Mellish contacted Georgia Aquarium to see if I would be available to assist her and her team with this critical conservation work.

Since opening in 2005, Georgia Aquarium has assembled a phenomenal team of professionals from all over the country. The diverse expertise of the Aquarium's team has resulted in these sorts of requests being quite common, from manatees to sea turtles to penguins and more, allowing Georgia Aquarium to assist in valuable conservation work all over the globe - a prime example being Georgia Aquarium making me available to assist ASLC and Dr. Mellish on this research expedition.

Over the next two weeks, I will be a part of a 12-person team whose aim it is to collect, assess and transport a handful of juvenile female Steller sea lions back to ASLC's Steller South Beach quarantine facility. There, after following a brief acclimation period, they will be surgically implanted with LHX2 transmitters and released back into their natural environment

Stay tuned as I document the expedition for you, our Georgia Aquarium followers, with the hopes of connecting those interested in learning a little more about this exciting project and this amazing species.

- Dennis

To learn more about Georgia Aquarium’s conservation efforts, visit here. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for the latest updates.

Jump ahead to more blog entries from Dennis on the project's development: Part 2


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