Scientists sift through new sea lion research

Posted: Tuesday, January 21, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- They were just two 17-month-old Steller sea lions on the prowl, searching for fish off Perry Island in Prince William Sound, but these animals, nicknamed Perry and Lindy, had an audience.

University and state biologists followed Perry and Lindy during three months last winter with satellite tags that kept track of how long and how deep they dived, then calculated whether the animals might have been pushing themselves too hard in quest of their food.

The study, among 160 reports presented last week at the Marine Science in the Northeast Pacific conference in Anchorage, is an example of the studies now under way to find out what's causing a regional sea lion population crash.

Scientists have been analyzing sea lion diets, conducting lab studies of hormone levels, sifting for clues to physiological health in globs of feces and tracking animals with satellite tags. Across an arc of ocean from Southeast to the mid-Aleutian Chain, biologists have been cataloging what sea lions eat, where they go and how they raise their young.

The stakes reach deep into Alaska's coastal economy. The sea lion decline has confounded scientists and resource managers for nearly two decades and continues to trigger expensive closures for commercial fishing. The western stock has been listed as endangered since 1997.

With $80 million in federal funding, more than 200 scientific studies at 25 institutions or agencies are now under way. Preliminary results from scores of studies were presented last week by scientists at the Hotel Captain Cook.

''I think we're learning a lot,'' said Bob Small, chairman of the sea lion recovery team and Alaska's marine mammals coordinator. ''It's encouraging that there's a lot of new information coming out, and it's making us think.''

''Everybody is going after parts of the puzzle,'' said biologist Brian Fadely, with the National Marine Mammal Lab in Seattle. ''Putting it all together is going to be a master job.''

The recovery team will meet next month in Seattle, Small said.

Summarizing the conference's scope will be daunting: 10-hour days jammed with hundreds of 15-minute reports, each with detailed charts and analyses. But over and over, scientists said, the collaboration with other researchers is opening up new insight into the sea lion world.

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