Why does the Steller sea lion population continue to decline in the Aleutian Islands?
It’s a question biologists must solve before it’s too late.
With their signature roar and massive size, the gigantic sea creatures — males can weigh in at almost 2,500 pounds and reach 11 feet in length — are hard to ignore. But in the waters near the chain of islands that extends off Alaska in the northern Pacific, they’re less and less common. In the past 34 years, the population of sea lions there has fallen 93 percent.
Scientists want to know why — and you can help find out with Steller Watch. The citizen science project turns people with a bit of extra time on their hands into eyes and ears for researchers.
Since the waters off the Aleutian Islands are so remote (and chilly), scientists conduct only occasional field studies there. They’ve installed 21 remote cameras where they know sea lions congregate. Researchers mark some Steller sea lions in the hopes of following them throughout their lives.
That’s where the public comes in. Volunteers for Steller Watch look at images, call out ones that contain marked sea lions, and help classify them so biologists know which ones to review first.
The project already has over 10,000 volunteers who have made over 576,000 classifications of images they’ve reviewed. That’s impressive for a citizen science initiative. But the work is far from done. At last count, the project was only 21 percent complete.
It just takes a computer and some free time to participate in the project, which is led by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Researchers estimate that without the help of the public, they’d miss out on nearly 30 percent of the sea lions. It may take years to determine just what is happening with the Steller sea lion population — but the answers that do arise will be thanks to public involvement in the project.