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Marine Mammal Research

Harbor SealMarine Mammal Research

Cetaceans, pinnipeds, and fissipeds—polar bears and sea otters—are all common marine mammal species that inhabit different Alaska marine ecosystems. Marine mammals, like all marine species, must adapt to environmental, ecological, and anthropogenic changes. But because marine mammals represent some of the top predators in the world’s oceans, ecosystem change can often be the most pronounced and dramatic for these species. It is why many scientists consider certain marine mammals as keystone species that help gauge overall ecosystem health. By monitoring and learning more about marine mammals, we may be able to better understand the whole ecosystem, and how changes impact species from the small—phytoplankton—to the large—killer whales.

Since the early 1970’s, the Alaska marine ecosystems have changed such that resident marine mammals such as pinnipeds—which include Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus), northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus), Pacific harbor seals (Phoca vitulina)—and northern sea otters (Enhydra lutris keyoni) experienced population declines, all with varying severity. Steller sea lions have been listed as endangered in their western range and just recently, northern sea otters were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2005. About the same time Steller sea lions were listed as endangered in 1997, construction began to build the Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC). Since its opening in 1998, the Alaska SeaLife Center has conducted intensive research on marine mammals—especially harbor seals and Steller sea lions. In an international effort to try and unravel the mysterious marine mammal declines, the ASLC has been also investigating why these species are having difficulty recovering from the declines. By solving these questions, we hope to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem.

Currently, ASLC funded research includes either directly or indirectly northern sea otters, northern fur seals, beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas), humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), killer whales (Orcinus orca), California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), southern sea lions (Otaria flavescens), and surrogate species commonly found in Antarctica such as Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii). The ASLC developed a specialized Pinniped Program in 2006 to include a broad research focus on northern fur seals, Steller sea lions, and harbor seals as they have been species affected significantly from population declines in Alaska. A separate Sea Otter Program was initiated in 2003. With the exception of beluga and humpback whales, other species studied were either surrogate (similar) species to Alaska pinnipeds or were species possibly linked to pinniped and otter population declines—specifically killer whales.

In all marine mammal research conducted at the ASLC, scientists have been implementing non-invasive, cutting-edge methods and technologies to further our understanding of these species and the environment they inhabit. With our growing abilities to conduct laboratory, field, and captive studies, the ASLC has broadened its research focus to include both bottom-up and top-down ecological factors affecting pinniped and otter populations. Though some research priorities differ for specific species, marine mammal research at the ASLC includes these broad categories:


  • Available prey species
  • Predator prey relationships
  • Population dynamics
  • Predation by other marine mammals
  • Physiology
  • Disease
  • Contaminants
  • Reproduction
  • Environmental monitoring
  • Nutritional stress


To learn more about these specific research topics and how they impact marine mammals, explore each dedicated species page.


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