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Sea Lion Science Takes to the Skies - Post 5

July 19, 2021

Join Alaska Fisheries Science Center staff as they survey and photograph Steller sea lions in Alaska aboard a NOAA Twin Otter aircraft.

Photo of team standing in orange flight suits on the tarmac in front of NOAA Twin Otter aircraft. The 2021 Steller sea lion aerial survey team (left to right): Casey O’Toole (NOAA AOC), Ben Hou (AFSC), Lt. Kyle Cosentino (NOAA AOC), Lt. Chris Licitra (NOAA AOC), Katie Luxa (AFSC), and Burlyn Birkemeier (UW CICOES). Credit: NOAA Fisheries.
Photo of Burlyn wearing orange flight suit and sitting in the NOAA Twin Otter cockpit during flight, taken from rear cabin.
During a transit flight, Burlyn has the chance to sit in the cockpit for an up-close look at what it’s like to pilot a NOAA Twin Otter with Lt. Kyle Cosentino (not pictured). Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

Week of July 4, 2021 and Next Steps

And just like that: the 2021 Steller sea lion aerial survey is complete!

Despite some short bouts of poor weather, we were able to fly three more days out of Kodiak and survey nearly all of the sea lion sites in the central and western Gulf of Alaska. That brings our survey totals up to 246 sites (including 4 new ones) and a whopping 30,843 images!

The Alaska Fisheries Science Center's annual aerial survey is important for population monitoring. This year was particularly notable because our team was part of a coordinated bilateral and multi-state effort to survey the entire eastern stock of Steller sea lions. That means that while we were surveying sites in Southeast Alaska, groups from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife were also surveying Steller sea lion sites in their regions. This type of cross-agency survey takes a lot of time and effort to plan. They only occur every five years or so. We hope the other survey teams had as much success (and fun) as we did!

Aerial photo of Steller sea lions on rocks bordered by surf.
Aerial image of the Steller sea lion rookery on Chernabura Island in the western Gulf of Alaska. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

So, what comes next? Burlyn and I are finishing up a survey log that summarizes the date and time we surveyed each site. This also includes: the number of photos taken, and any other observations that we recorded in the plane. Once we have uploaded all of the images to our network drive, Burlyn and the aerial survey project manager (Katie Sweeney, Alaska Fisheries Science Center) will begin the real work. They will review the images and count the sea lions at each site. That process usually takes around 3-4 months to complete. Before we know it, it’ll be time to start planning the 2022 aerial survey in the Aleutian Islands!

Aerial photo of Kodiak Island from NOAA Twin Otter Aircraft.
Just another day at the office! Flying over Kodiak Island en route to Steller sea lion sites in the Gulf of Alaska. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

I feel comfortable speaking for the entire 2021 aerial survey team when I say that getting back into the field was awesome - there’s really no other word for it! We are so grateful for everyone at the University of Washington Cooperative Institute for Climate, Ocean & Ecosystem Studies, and NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. They made it possible for us to participate in this important research while ensuring the health and safety of our team and the local communities.

Thanks for following along on our Steller sea lion aerial survey - we hope you enjoyed it!

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