What is the most interesting aspect of working with sea otters?
The expansion of sea otters in Southeast Alaska is a fascinating case study of how an animal population recovers. Sea otters were reintroduced to Southeast Alaska in the late 1960s. They were hunted for their fur in the late 1700s to early 1800s and were absent for over 100 years. As they recolonize, I am fascinated by the changes in the marine environment and the response of people to this change.
What is one of your favorite moments in the field?
My favorite moments in the field have happened when I was least expecting it. As an example, I was in the intertidal zone looking down at some algae when a humpback whale surfaced to breathe, literally right next to me, along the steep rocky zone. The exploding “whoosh” startled me and I jumped. My dog next to me started to bark. The wildlife animals in Alaska are stunning and the best opportunities to see them up close often happen like this, unexpectedly.
What inspired you to study this species?
Sea otters play a critical role in the ecosystem because they eat so much. Because they don’t have blubber, they need to eat one-quarter or more of their weight per day in order to stay warm in the cold Pacific Ocean. Their favorite foods are marine invertebrates, such as sea urchins, clams and crabs. People like to eat many of these same foods, and so one of my graduate students and I began studying sea otters to identify the overlap between human fisheries and sea otter diets. The research has evolved and we continue to study the role of sea otters in the marine environment.
How does citizen science support your research?
The coast of Alaska is vast, and is longer than the coastline of the lower 48 states combined. Involving citizens has a mutual benefit. We can sample more of this extensive coast with more people power. At the same time, volunteers get to experience the beauty and wildness of Alaska up close. Additionally, citizen science volunteers are an invaluable source to outreach about conservation of sensitive and ecologically important species, such as sea otters.