WWU receives $720,000 for 5-year harbor seal study

BELLINGHAM, Wash. The National Science Foundation has awarded a $720,000 grant to Western Washington University's Biology Department to continue researching the response of harbor seals to the density of rockfish in Puget Sound.

Graduate student Adria Banks of Vancouver, Wash., began the research a couple of years ago, with WWU Assistant Professor Alejandro Acevedo-Gutierrez.

The five-year grant will enable the researchers to pay graduate and undergraduate student assistants, buy supplies and new equipment, and cover the costs of the collaborating agencies: Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

In some trial protected marine areas, which discourage fishing in an effort to restore the rockfish population, the number and size of the bottom fish have increased. But harbor seals, which are "opportunistic feeders," have the potential to slow the recovery of the rockfish population, Acevedo-Gutierrez said.

"Rockfish are not alone in their own bubble," he added.

Banks is tracking the number of harbor seals at haul-out sites from Deception Pass to Bellingham Bay, and from the coast to Rosario Strait. The data will provide a baseline that can be compared later to the number of seals using the sites if protected marine reserves increase rockfish population. Banks also is looking at interseasonal changes.

While Banks is measuring the number of harbor seals, graduate student Katie Luxa of Tacoma will be examining the contents of the predators' diets. Together, the research projects could shed some light on the effect harbor seals have on the rockfish populations.

"Little is known about the harbor seal diet in northern Puget Sound," Luxa said. "I have two sites, utilized by approximately 350 seals, from which I collect scat in southern Padilla Bay. The sites are only accessible at low tide and, because Padilla Bay is so shallow, I'm using a kayak to reach them."

Luxa is working with several undergraduates who help her collect samples.

"I will be providing baseline data on harbor seal diet composition and seasonal changes in diet in a region where diet has not yet been studied."

With the help of the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, Banks has been working with Mount Vernon High School science teacher, Rebecca Krueger. Recently, three of Krueger's students have been assisting with the research.

"A huge part of wildlife biology is bringing all that data from field work into the lab, and it has been rewarding having local high school students, as well as WWU undergraduates, involved in that process," Banks said. Banks expects to complete her research by June 2007.

The team also plans to hire a couple of Western students this summer.

"Alejandro has definitely been instrumental in steering qualified researchers my way," Banks added.


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