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National Marine Mammal Laboratory

(Quarterly Report for Jan-Feb-March 1998)

Organization of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory Changes

Over the last 24 months, the National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML) has lost through retirement or employment elsewhere seven key scientists.  To accommodate these changes and to allow a greater emphasis on the three stocks of harbor seals in Alaska, the NMML has reorganized.  The following changes are notable:

  1. Charles Fowler, in addition to directing the Ecosystem Management and Ecology Program, will also direct the Program Management Task

  2. responsibility for harbor seal research will move from the Alaska Ecosystem Program to the Polar Pinniped Program (PPP).  Along with this change in responsibility, Dave Withrow and Jack Cesarone will be moved to the PPP, where they will continue to work on harbor seal studies

  3. Rich Ferrero and Rod Hobbs will serve as acting Program Leaders for the Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program (CAEP) until a replacement for the previous program leader (D. DeMaster) can be hired

  4. Marilyn Dahlheim and Marcia Muto, formerly in the Ecosystem Management and Ecology Program, will be moved to the CAEP

  5. Robyn Angliss, formerly with the Office of Protected Resources, will be joining the CAEP.  Any questions regarding responsibilities under this organization should be directed to Doug DeMaster, Director, NMML, (206) 526-4047.

By Doug DeMaster.

Winter Steller Sea Lion Prey Study

Scientists from the NMML and USFWS conducted an echo integration-midwater trawl survey for Steller sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus) prey at three sites in Alaska waters during 4-25 March 1998 aboard the USFWS vessel Tila.  The area of operations included the Buldir, Kasatochi, and Ugamak rookeries and waters surrounding these sites.

The principal objectives of the cruise were to 1) conduct echo integration-midwater trawl surveys around the rookeries to compare with similar surveys conducted during July 1997 and 2) collect scat samples at rookeries and haul-out areas in the region. Secondary objectives included sighting surveys of marine mammals and seabirds during echo integration surveys, collection of blubber samples for fatty acid analysis, counts of sea lions by age and sex, and capture and instrumentation of juvenile sea lions.

A total of 483 km of transects were completed—355 km during the day and 128 km at night.  One midwater trawl survey using a 6-m modified herring trawl was conducted at Ugamak Island.  The midwater trawl found a variety of fish including adult pollock, as well as euphausiids, a few jelly fish, and larval fish.  Longline sets were made within 2 nmi of Kasatochi and Buldir Islands and caught Pacific halibut, Pacific cod, and sculpins.  Stomach contents collected from 15 halibut and 18 cod will be analyzed by the REFM Division’s Food Habits Laboratory. Seventy-six CTD (conductivity-temperature depth) casts were made during the survey.  Continuous sea surface temperature (SST) and salinity data were obtained during all transects.  SST was typically around 3o- 4o C, with surface salinity in the range of 32‰-33‰.

Thirty hours of marine mammal and seabird sighting surveys were conducted.  The most common species observed were common and thick-billed murres, crested auklets, white winged scoters, and glaucous-winged gulls.  This was distinctly different from the species observed at the sites during summer—shearwaters, northern fulmars, tufted puffins, common murres, black-legged kittiwakes, and ancient murrelets.  Marine mammal species sighted include killer whales, a minke whale, and Dall’s porpoise.  Killer whales were seen in sufficient numbers to attempt photographing them: 8 in the Kanaga area, 8-10 in Amchitka Pass, 5 near Seguam,  and 12-15 in the Ugamak area.  Scat samples (184) were collected at various sites throughout the region.  No juveniles were captured for satellite instrumentation and no blubber samples were collected.

By Kathryn Chumbley.

Census of Gray Whales During Their Southbound Migration

Observers conducted counts of gray whales migrating past Granite Canyon, California, from 13 December 1997 to 24 February 1998. Observers were rotated through 3-hour standard watches and covered 9 hours per day whenever weather allowed.  Severe storms and road damage on 2 February stopped the primary effort, but an alternate site was used 11-24 February to continue documentation of the seasonal trends in sighting rates.  Most watches in January were conducted as paired, independent observations such that comparisons of effort could be made. Sighting rates were low (< 1/hour) from 13 to 24 December, increasing to nearly 14/hour in mid-January, then decreasing until mid-February when the migration reversed and became northbound.  The migration timing does not appear to be remarkably different from other years.

By Dave Rugh.

Comanagement of Marine Mammal Subsistence Use

Section 119 of the 1994 amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act authorizes the Secretaries of Commerce and Interior to “enter into cooperative agreements with Alaska Native organizations to conserve marine mammals and provide comanagement of subsistence use by Alaska Natives.”  The purpose of such cooperative agreements would be to enhance communication and cooperation between the Federal Government and Alaska Native organizations by forming partnerships to:

  1. collect and analyze data on marine mammal populations

  2. monitor the harvest of marine mammals for subsistence use

  3. participate in marine mammal research conducted by the Federal Government, state governments, academic institutions, and private organizations

  4. develop marine mammal comanagement structures with Federal and state agencies.

Beginning in 1995, representatives from NMFS, the USFWS, and the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey met with representatives of Alaska Native organizations to explore ways to implement the provisions of Section 119.  Those discussions revealed a strong mutual desire both by the Federal Government and Alaska Natives to work more closely with each other to conserve marine mammal populations and to ensure the long-term sustainability of subsistence harvests.  All parties expressed interest in finding ways to prevent marine mammal stocks from diminishing beyond the point at which they cease to fulfill their role in their ecosystem and to levels that do not allow sustainable subsistence harvests.  The negotiations concluded successfully in August 1997 with the signing of a Memorandum of Agreement between the Federal agencies noted above and the Indigenous People’s Council for Marine Mammals, which provides a foundation for developing individual agreements under Section 119.  This umbrella agreement outlines the framework within which Federal agencies and Alaska Native organizations will work together to formulate individual agreements that will address specific issues of marine mammal conservation and comanagement of subsistence use in Alaska.

In February 1998, representatives from NMML, the Alaska Regional Office, and the Office of Protected Resources met with representatives of the Alaska Native Harbor Seal Commission to discuss the development of an individual agreement to conserve Alaska harbor seals and to provide comanagement of subsistence use.  A small drafting group met in March to move that process forward, and a conceptual framework and draft outline has been agreed.  Drafting of a potential agreement between NMFS and the Alaska Native Harbor Seal Commission is expected to continue over the next several months.  It is hoped that if an agreement can be finalized, it will serve to strengthen NMFS’ ability to meet its Alaska harbor seal conservation and management goals by working together with the Alaska Native community.

By John Bengtson.

Marine Mammal Stock Assessment Reports Revised

The NMML in conjunction with the Alaska Scientific Review Group (SRG) has revised 15 of the 33 stock assessment reports for stocks of marine mammals recognized to inhabit Alaska waters.  The revised Alaska stock assessments for 1998 include all the strategic stocks (western U.S. Steller sea lions, eastern U.S. Steller sea lions, northern fur seals, Cook Inlet beluga whales, sperm whales, western North Pacific humpback whales, central North Pacific humpback whales, fin whales, right whales, and bowhead whales), plus harbor seals (Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea, and Southeast Alaska stocks), and killer whales (eastern North Pacific transient and northern resident stocks).

Additionally the NMML, in conjunction with the Pacific SRG, has revised five of six stock assessment reports for marine mammal stocks in the Pacific Region.  The revised Pacific stock assessments include the following stocks: Oregon and Washington coastal waters harbor seal; Washington inland waters harbor seal; San Miguel Island, California, northern fur seal; Oregon and Washington coast harbor porpoise; and inland Washington harbor porpoise.

Fishery mortality sections in the revised reports have been updated where possible to include Observer Program data, fisher self-reporting data, and stranding data through 1996.  Similarly, subsistence harvest information through 1996 has been included for those stocks which are taken by Alaska Natives for subsistence purposes.  New abundance estimates are available and have been included in the revised assessments for both Steller sea lion stocks, both northern fur seal stocks, Cook Inlet beluga whales, both humpback whale stocks, Gulf of Alaska harbor seals, both killer whale stocks, Oregon and Washington coastal waters harbor seals, inland Washington harbor seals, and Inland Washington harbor porpoises.  Revised potential biological removal (PBR) levels have been calculated for all stocks having new abundance estimates.  The new information on abundance and mortality did not change the status (strategic or not) of any of these stocks relative to the 1996 stock assessment reports. Finally, habitat concerns have been addressed for all strategic stocks.

The revised 1998 Marine Mammal Stock Assessments are currently in draft form and soon will enter a 90-day public comment period.  It is anticipated that the 1998 stock assessment reports will be finalized in October 1998.

By Scott Hill.