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Saildrones track fur seals over Pribilofs

August 12th, 2016 | Jim Paulin Print this article   Email this article  

The saildrones might help explain the plummeting population of northern fur seals in the Pribilof Islands.

The northern fur seal population on the Pribilof Islands, Alaska has been experiencing an unexplained decline since the mid-1970s. This despite it being one of the most studied marine mammals, according to National Marine Fisheries Service spokeswoman Marjorie Mooney-Seus. ?The fur seals are being tracked this summer with Saildrones, unmanned, solar and windpowered boats that departed Unalaska/Dutch Harbor in May.

Critical information is still lacking about the relationship between fur seals and their prey, which is mostly fish. That's why scientists researching where their food is located, how abundant it is and how that affects fur seals' behavior and population trends.

In mid-July, scientists started tracking adult female northern fur seals in the Bering Sea,,using temporary tags glued onto the animals in St. Paul. The tags are removed after the animals make a few trips to sea.

At the same time, researchers were measuring the availability of fish that are the seal's main food source. This was made possible by using two Saildrones. unmanned, solar and wind powered boats that are collecting data across the Bering Sea this summer.

"This project is an important step forward in the understanding of northern fur seal ecology and behavior. It's vital for developing effective management and conservation strategies as the northern fur seal population continues to decline," Mooney-Seus said.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research and fisheries staff have teamed up with academic and private sector partners to test innovative technologies that, if successful, will enable researchers to gather information in areas of the ocean virtually off limits to standard research vessels.

Scientists will be using a novel research platform that resembles a windsurfer, called a Saildrone, developed by Saildrone, Inc. Scientists and engineers equipped two of these autonomous, wind- and solar-powered vessels with other newly designed technologies. Their goal is to collect needed oceanographic data and information for endangered and commercially important species living in remote areas of the Bering Sea.

"We have high hopes for this mission - that it could mark a new chapter in ocean research," said Christopher Sabine, director, NOAA Research's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. "Last year, we successfully implemented a 3-month testbed Saildrone mission in the Bering Sea to remotely collect data on physical oceanographic conditions via satellite in near real-time. This summer, we are testing other new technologies in the hopes of demonstrating their efficacy for remotely collecting critical biological data."

"As pioneers in this new research frontier we're seeking to discover more cost-effective ways to augment our existing research efforts and gather additional biological information in places that are difficult to navigate with a full-sized research vessel," said Douglas DeMaster, research and center director, NOAA Fisheries' Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

This unprecedented research mission will test new technologies to:

1. Continue to collect near real-time oceanographic data for U.S waters that will enable scientists to track environmental changes that may be occurring there;? 2. Attempt to locate and gather acoustic data on marine mammals, among them the rarest whale inhabiting U.S. waters, the North Pacific right whale;? 3. Test the use of a small-scale acoustic device that emits sound waves underwater to gather hard to obtain information on remote spawning areas for Alaska's most important commercial fish stock; walleye pollock; and? 4. Conduct detailed prey surveys within the foraging range of a declining population of northern fur seals.

Jim Paulin can be reached at


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