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Conservation Science History

Research may have commenced when the Alaska SeaLife Center opened in 1998, but the vision of a research facility in Seward was conceptualized many years earlier. In 1988, a group of concerned citizens and scientists from Seward formed an organization called the Seward Association for the Advancement of Science (SAAMS). One of their core missions was to build a cold-water research facility in Seward that would serve as a focal point for research in south central Alaska.

Following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, a settlement with the State of Alaska, the U.S. government, and Exxon was reached in 1991. In a civil settlement, Exxon agreed to pay $900 million (U.S.) over ten, annual installments and was fined $150 million (U.S.)—the largest fine ever issued for an environmental crime.  By 1994, SAAMS was able to successfully lobby $25 million (U.S.) from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council’s (EVOSTC) Restoration Plan to build the public research facility in Seward. By 1998, construction on the new 56 million-dollar Alaska SeaLife Center facility was completed.

The Steller sea lion program was the first research program initiated at the Alaska SeaLife Center in 1998. With the arrival of Sugar, Kiska, and Woody, our captive Steller sea lions, the program focused its priorities on captive research. Under the direction of Dr. Michael Castellini, former Science Director at the Alaska SeaLife Center, these animals participated in a series of physiological assessments that included metabolic and nutritional requirements, lipid chemistry analysis, and reproductive physiology. Under Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council funding, eight captive harbor seals were moved to the Alaska SeaLife Center to participate in similar physiological studies, and more specifically, to examine how diet, when fed different concentrations of lipids (fat), affects their overall body condition. In 2000, the Alaska SeaLife Center hired its current science director, Dr. Shannon Atkinson.

To support early research projects (1998-2000), including the aforementioned sea lion projects, major funding sources came directly from Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council funding continues to support Alaska SeaLife Center research, but it was their early funding that jumpstarted Alaska SeaLife Center research in many different areas aside from Steller sea lions and harbor seals. Additional funded Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council projects conducted by the Alaska SeaLife Center from 1998-2003 included: 1) the effects of oil contamination in river otters; 2) hormonal, viral, and nutritional studies on captive harlequin ducks; 3) pigeon guillemot restoration research; 4) studying the life history and distribution of surf and white-winged scoters; 5) identifying critical habitat for pacific halibut in the Gulf of Alaska; and 6) constructing a genetic linkage map for pink salmon to better identify genetic damage following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

From 2001, the ASLC has received federal funding to conduct research projects for both captive, field and laboratory experiments. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have been our principal funding agencies since 2001 and have since served as our principal permitting agencies to conduct field and captive research. In 2005, the Alaska SeaLife Center began a comprehensive effort to focus department objectives around the central theme of an ecosystem-based approach to research.

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