Keeping an eye on sea lions: SeaLife Center crowdfunds for research funding

Keeping an eye on sea lions: SeaLife Center crowdfunds for research funding

The video equipment used to monitor sea lions at a rookery just south of Resurrection Bay is at the end of its life, and researchers are turning to crowdfunding to keep the two-decades-long project afloat.

The Alaska SeaLife Center is asking the public to donate to a GoFundMe campaign to replace cameras and equipment that monitor the Steller sea lion rookery on Chiswell Island, about 35 miles south of Seward. Researchers use the equipment to follow survival rates, in particular reproductive females in the rookery.

Original funding came through grants, but the center has been unable to secure any funding for an upgrade. With the equipment near failure, researchers were at a desperation point and wanted to try something new, SeaLife Center research scientist John Maniscalco said. The center is hoping to raise $30,000 by October.

Maniscalco, a specialist in sea lion behavior and population dynamics, said the project has provided a safe and convenient way of doing in-depth research on the population over the years. “We’ve learned a heck of a lot.”

The research began in the wake of a steep Stellar sea lion decline, which reduced the Alaska population by 80 percent between the 1970s and 1990s.

While there is still disagreement over the causes of the decline, Maniscalco thinks multiple factors may be responsible, including changes in the ecosystem that decreased the availability of fatty fish and interaction with commercial fishing in the region, which limited food resources and put sea lions at risk of being caught in a net or shot.

Killer whales, looking for food, may also have cut into the sea lion population.

”I think all three of these major factors probably contributed to the decline,” he said.

SeaLife center researchers have seen the population bounce back during their two decades of study.

“Since we’ve been watching the population have been doing really really well,” Maniscalco said. “Reproductive rates have improved. Juvenile survival rates have improved.”

Currently, the project’s three working cameras — each mounted separately — capture sea lions at a 700-foot by 1,400-foot rookery on the island. Footage from the sea lion cameras is streamed live on Seward’s Channel 6 during different times of the day, depending on visibility, year-round.

SeaLife Center research associate Pamela Parker hopes the new equipment will allow a live, continuous internet stream and serve as an opportunity for the public to become “citizen scientists.”

“I’m super excited,” she said. “I’ve wanted a digital feed for a long time.”

The new equipment should also allow researchers to view footage from multiple cameras at once, she said.

Parker has worked on the project since it started 18 years ago, and now oversees day-to-day operations. During her time on the project, Parker has witnessed three generations of females, and seen a variety of maternal behavior.

She spends her days taking a census count of animals, determining age and sex and identifying individuals using fungal patches, scars, flippers and other unique markers.

“As someone who’s done this for 18 years, the excitement lies in seeing an animal you haven’t seen in a year or two,” she said. “Or an animal you didn’t think was doing well come back the next spring.”

Not only does the ongoing monitoring allow researchers to extrapolate the number of sea lions in other areas, it helps show environmental conditions, like the amount of available food, by the animals’ foraging habits. The longer it takes a sea lion to forage, the harder it may be to find food.

Although the sea lion population has grown since the project began, most recently there have been setbacks — fewer pup births were recorded two years running. “We have not have that over our 18 years of monitoring,” Parker said.

Maniscalco said an increase in killer whale activity in Resurrection Bay after 2014, as well as a warm-water “blob” that hit Alaska in the winter of 2015 and 2016, may be factors in the decline of seal pup births.

“At this point it’s really important to keep this project going because things are changing,” Maniscalco said.

Reach Erin Thompson at

More in News

The sign in front of the Homer Electric Association building in Kenai, Alaska, as seen on April 1, 2020. (Peninsula Clarion file)
HEA rates to increase Jan. 1

The cooperative’s last rate increase took effect in April 2020

AP Photo/Erin Hooley
An eight-week-old sea otter rescued from Seldovia, Alaska, peaks out of his enclosure at Shedd Aquarium Wednesday, Dec. 6 in Chicago. The otter was found alone and malnourished and was taken to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward which contacted Shedd, and the Chicago aquarium was able to take the otter in. He will remain quarantined for a few months while he learns to groom and eat solid foods before being introduced to Shedd’s five other sea otters.
Seldovia sea otter pup has a new home at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium

The northern sea otter was found alone and malnourished and taken to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward

Students from Nikiski Middle/High School and Kenai Middle School join Jesse Bjorkman, Ken Felchle and volunteers from the Kenai Peninsula Chapter of Safari Club International on an educational moose hunt in Nikiski, Alaska, on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. (Photo provided by Jesse Bjorkman)
Lessons in big game hunting

Students learn to ethically and responsibly harvest a moose and process its meat for food

Cook Inletkeeper Energy Policy Analyst Ben Boettger presents information about retrofitting homes to be more energy efficient at the Cook Inletkeeper Community Action Studio on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Inletkeeper turns focus to energy for next community climate solution

The meeting marked the official kickoff of Cook Inletkeeper’s fourth installment in its local solution series

Alaska State Troopers logo.
Woman arrested after allegedly shooting neighbor’s house

The woman had been trying to break up a dog fight, troopers said

A pie chart shows Kenai Peninsula Borough School District expenditures by object for the current fiscal year. (Chart via KPBSD)
Explanation of how KPBSD organizes funds caps ‘Budget 101’ series

Finance Director Elizabeth Hayes delivered the presentation to school board members during a Monday work session

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, answers questions from constituents during a legislative update at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Ruffridge predicts school funding, energy security will be top issues in Juneau next session

Ruffridge has represented District 7, which includes Kenai and Soldotna, in the Alaska House of Representatives since October 2022

Members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education meet on Monday, Dec. 4, 2023, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
New school board group will study 4-day school week

The group will meet regularly until next July, when committee members will present their findings to the full board

Members of the Kenai/Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee raise hands to vote in favor of a proposal during a meeting at Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association in Kenai, Alaska, on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Advisory committee supports protections for lake trout and king salmon

Advisory committee recommendations will be weighed by the State Board of Fisheries alongside public testimony as they deliberate on each proposal

Most Read