Historically, Steller Sea Lions were highly abundant along Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, a chain of islands that straddle the northernmost part of the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea.
For generations, Alaskan indigenous peoples hunted them for meat, hides, oil and other products and to this day they remain an important subsistence resource.
In addition, Steller Sea Lions play an important part in the ecosystem of the land and waters of the area. They help balance the food web.
For example, Stellar Sea Lions are top predators who eat a variety of other species that eat salmon. Without Sea Lions the salmon population would dwindle.
Sea Lions also turnover the bottom substrate layer (ocean floor) in their search for various prey. This allows the turnover of various nutrients (nutrient recycling) that feed smaller species that fish then feed on, only to be eaten by larger fish…. and so on up the chain.
Their lives on the rocky shores means nutrients, prey remains, and se lion pool leave nutrient-rich patches for the growth of algae which feeds small crustaceans and a variety of birds.
Stellar sea lions are exposed to a variety of threats such as:
- Increasing annual commercial fishery (leads to overall reduction in amount of prey available and a change in prey size as fish are captured before reaching full maturity)
- Sea level rise from climate change (leading to loss of habitat access to terrestrial rookery sites)
- Temperature rise from climate change (warmer oceans and changing patterns of natural phenomena, such as El Nino, lead to increase in harmful/toxic algae blooms, effecting distribution, variety and abundance of prey)
- Human (tourist) disturbance through power boats, kayaks, hiking, paddleboards and flying drones (incursion into sea lion areas disturbs nesting sites, interrupts mating, nursing, resting and socializing, and can cause mass stampedes from land into water where juveniles are injured or killed)
- Increased oil and gas activity from tankering and pipeline transport (leaves toxic substances in the waters)
- Entanglement in marine debris, fishing line, and ingestion of fishing gear
- Increase in Orca whale populations over the past decades (sea lions are a primary food source for these whales)
Due to these threats the Stellar Sea Lion population has experienced a population decline of as much as 80 – 90% since the 1990s(1) and the species is listed as endangered.
The Killer Whale Count is a collaborative project run by a trio of professionals: a Marine Science PhD student, a Research biologist, and a Conservation biologist, and supported by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the University of Canterbury (New Zealand).
The objective of the study is to assess the potential impact of Orca whales (Orcinus orca) – also known as Killer Whales – predation on the Stellar sea lion colony populations of the western range of the Aleutian Islands.
The research projects focuses solely on the impact of this particular threat facing the sea lion population.
The study involves sets of citizen scientists looking through almost 1 million photographs taken by remote cameras between 2016 and 2019 and identifying any sightings of Orcas. This huge dataset of photos were taken by cameras installed at various sites in the Aleutian Islands.
Some of the cameras were installed to look over mostly land (edge of shore) to identify and monitor Stellar Sea Lion populations. These photographs also can be used to identify opportunistic images of Orcas in the nearby water.
Other remote camera boxes were placed around the sea lion populations and aimed at the water to increase the chances of capturing an image with an Orca.
The Team leading the study partnered with Zooniverse – the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research (https://www.zooniverse.org/projects). It focuses on accomplishing scientific research using volunteers, enabling projects that may not have been possible, or practical, without access to unlimited volunteer citizen-scientists.
Zooniverse has a wide-ranging and ever-expanding suite of available projects run by scientists and researchers from every industry and discipline, with topics across all sciences and humanities. So it’s easy to find a project for a topic you are passionate about.
With help of Zooniverse volunteers, researchers can analyze large sets of data quickly and accurately. Projects run through Zooniverse volunteers have discovered interesting discoveries and produced a large number of published research papers. Research that has had impact on the world (check out: https://www.zooniverse.org/about/publications), as well as produced many open-source sets of analyzed data future projects can rely on to boost their progress.
What’s amazing is that it can be done through a computer or your phone from anywhere and it’s easy to do it as a group, in a class, etc. Plus, as a volunteer for a specific project, you can chat with the scientist Team and other volunteers and you are kept up to date on research findings. It is easy to see the tangible results of your impact!
Once you sign up for a project you are provided a short, helpful, educational self-paced study guide that trains you on how to do the project and provides interesting contextual information.
For the Killer Whale Project, I would be given randomly selected photographs from their dataset to review. I was to find, mark and count the Orca sightings in the images. I was given specific instructions with multiple examples of what to look for and how to mark the photographs. I also had access to a field guide for killer whale identification.
Their training and FAQ sections highlighted tips and tricks and common misidentification errors. A nice social aspect of the project was the ability to “favorite” any photographs so other volunteers, and the research team, could see them.
I started with about 75 photos. The photos are given to you one at a time and you can do as many, or as few, as you would like. One day I could only look at a few. Another day I had time to look through a few dozen.
I saw seals in most of the photos but no whales at first. I could, however, see photos of other participants, and those provided by the scientific team, which showed whale sightings. It was fun to see the seals and know I was part of a team of citizen scientists making a difference.
Could the scientist and research team have used machine learning and AI (Artificial Intelligence) to do this task instead of volunteers? Yes. But it would take time to set up the testing and one of their goals is to work on a citizen science project to promote outreach, raise awareness of human impact on nature, and get others involved in helping an important endangered species.
Since I started working through the photographs, I find myself coming back to do more whenever I have down time. I’ve found it especially helpful as a way to relax after a stressful day at work or when I cannot sleep at night. Participating in the project led me to do a bit of research on Stellar Sea Lions and Killer Whales, which I enjoyed and found fascinating. And through the project I feel connected to something bigger. It’s as if, from my own little corner of the universe, I’m doing something useful for the future of this great planet.
I am eager to see the research findings when the project is complete!
I also saw many other Zooniverse projects that interested me so I have a feeling I’ll be participating in others.
If you are interested in learning more about the Killer Whale Project, check out the project link at: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/alexa-dot-hasselman/killer-whale-count
If you are curious about the types of projects available through Zooniverse and want to be a citizen-scientist yourself, or with your family or through your child(ren)’s school, check out the Zooniverse project site at: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects
It’s definitely fun to look through the current projects. There are dozens of them. If you see one that interests you, drop a note in the comments below. I would love to see what interests you!
Thank you for journeying along with me,
XO XO Penny