KODIAK (AP) -- Federal officials have approved 26 research projects to examine the decline of the Steller sea lion in the oceans off western Alaska.
Money for the studies comes from a $15 million federal appropriation set aside for studies outside the federal umbrella. Altogether, Congress allocated $43 million last year for research on the threatened animals.
The projects were approved by Jim Balsiger, National Marine Fisheries Service administrator for the Alaska region, but the list is still subject to review by grant administrators with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Research proposals got a two-pronged evaluation. Technical issues were examined by scientists from NMFS, while fishing industry stakeholders also looked at them.
According to Pete Jones of NMFS, the two groups generally agreed on which proposals should go forward. The scientists will look at fishermen's interaction with the Steller sea lion and various predator-prey relationships.
The grants are going to local researchers from the University of Alaska and the state, along with outside researchers as far afield as University of St. Andrews in Scotland and the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut.
Janice M. Straley of the University of Alaska Southeast will research killer whale predation in Southeast Alaska waters, where Steller sea lion numbers are increasing, and the proportion that eat marine mammals. She will then compare her data with that from concurrent studies from the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands. Straley's research will cost $210,774.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game will spend $64,499 to compile 20 years of notes taken by aerial surveyors during the Cook Inlet herring fishery into a database. Aerial surveyors frequently logged Steller sea lions and other marine mammals as indications of herring. Researchers can use the data to better understand the relationship between Steller sea lions, commercial fisheries, and their shared prey species, the proposal said.
A study by the University of Washington will look at whether sea lions in western Alaska, where the population is threatened, suffer from a lack of certain forage fish compared with the healthy populations further to the east.
The biggest project approved by NMFS will spend nearly $1.7 million to implant satellite transmitters in 60 juvenile Steller sea lions, plus a dozen captive animals at the Alaska SeaLife Center, to assess body condition, health and immune systems, and pollutant levels. That study will be conducted by the Texas A&M Research Foundation.
''This is the single largest competitive grant program in NMFS in two decades,'' said Jones of NMFS. ''It demonstrates that the agency has some resolve to get behind the Steller sea lion issue (and to find) what factors are causing the decline.''
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