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Crowdsourcing Science to Obtain New Information About Endangered Steller Sea Lions

March 15, 2017

Crowdsourcing project launched by Alaska Fisheries Science Center researchers.

Helping save endangered Steller sea lions is now as easy as looking at a picture—well, half a million of them to be precise. NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center researchers are launching their first crowdsourcing project on Zooniverse called Steller Watch. The hope is that everyday people will help them review and classify about 500,000 photos of Steller sea lion sites, taken on some of the most remote islands in the world.

“I’m excited about sharing our work with people,” said project leader Katie Sweeney. Sweeney has worked at the Center since 2007 and primarily studies Steller sea lions. Scientists are concerned because sea lion populations in most of Alaska have rebounded, but not in the western Aleutian Islands. Sea lions have declined by 94 percent in the past 30 years in that area.

Because the western Aleutians Islands are not easily accessible, scientists are only able to survey the area once, sometimes twice a year. To get year-round data they began installing automated remote cameras at six sea lion sites in 2012. The cameras have been wildly successful. They photograph sites every five to 20 minutes during the day, every day—that yielded nearly 380,000 photos last year alone.

However, reviewing hundreds of thousands of photos is challenging and time consuming. Right now, pictures from 2016 and a couple hundred thousand photos from 2015 have yet to be classified. And this science has a shelf life.

“Getting the data in a timely manner is so important and if we get the images but can’t review them for years, we would not have relevant information to inform management decisions,” Sweeney said.

That’s where Sweeney and other researchers hope so-called citizen scientists can help. The Steller Watch project page has a short tutorial to teach people how to classify pictures. Then, making a classification is as easy as a click. The idea is that citizen scientists will help whittle down hundreds of thousands of images to the most important, highest-priority photos that biologists can later review. Of particular interest are sightings of marked Steller sea lions.

The remote camera images combined with Center researchers’ work in the field has been vital to obtaining new information. By permanently marking just a couple hundred sea lions in the western Aleutians in the last five years, scientists have been able to track those individual animals from birth. That allows them to make estimates about the declining part of the population and make comparisons to areas where Steller sea lions are thriving. 

Information is still preliminary, but so far, scientists have learned that survival rates for pups and young juveniles in the westernmost part of the population are similar to other areas. This information supported their recorded observations. “Every time we see juveniles they look healthy. So, it wasn’t a total surprise. But it was interesting to see the survival data back that up,” Sweeney said. As scientists try to determine the cause of the declines this new information contributes to their overall understanding. 

The unseen images now uploaded on Steller Watch may hold more answers. For Sweeney, this is the realization of a years-long effort. Crowdsourcing the data is more efficient and saves work hours but it also connects the public to scientists’ work protecting endangered Steller sea lions. “I hope the public wants to get involved. We’re all scientists,” Sweeney said. “We all live in the world and observe things.” Steller Watch is live now.