Natives Help Scientists
INTRO: Each year dead seals, walrus, sea lions and even whales wash onto Alaska's beaches. Such finds are a treasure trove to scientists, but scientists can't be everywhere marine mammals wash ashore. As Doug Schneider reports in this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio, Alaska Natives are trained to collect valuable information from marine animals that wash onto the state's far-flung beaches.
STORY: To a scientist, the chance to study whales, seals and walrus alive in their natural habitat offers a unique glimpse into a rarely seen world. But there's only so much a scientist can learn from watching and following live marine mammals in the wild. For some things, you need to have a specimen—that is, a dead animal that you can examine and dissect.
Most of the time this is simply not possible because federal law protects marine mammals. Yet scientists say lots of marine mammals die from any number of causes, and sometimes they wash ashore. These strandings offer researchers the chance to learn a great deal. But scientists can't be everywhere along the state's 34,000 miles of mostly remote coastline. So Alaska Natives are helping out. Federal law allows Natives to hunt marine mammals and salvage any dead animals they come across. And since they spend a great deal of time hunting and fishing along the coast, the odds are good that they'll come across the occasional beached whale, sea lion or other marine mammal that has died and washed ashore.
Donna Willoya is a research coordinator for the Alaska Sea Otter and Steller Sea Lion Commission. She says Title IV of the Marine Mammal Protection Act established a program to report stranded and dead marine mammals along the nation's coast. And recently there's been an effort to train Natives to collect scientific information from these marine mammals.
WILLOYA: "Native people are already looking at dead marine mammals anyway, whether it's under Title IV or whether we have the exemption under MMPA. It's getting those samples from dead-stranded marine mammals, getting more information and cooperating among the various agencies that's important."
Willoya says dead marine mammals provide scientists with a lot of useful information, in their own way. Tissues, organs and glands taken from a gray whale that recently died on a beach near Anchorage may yield clues to how the whale lived and perhaps how it died. Tissue and fat samples may tell scientists whether pollutant levels are rising in the world's oceans. Scientists can also learn firsthand what the animal had for dinner.These nearly-always-smelly investigations can have a big impact on research. For example, scientists once downplayed the role of killer whales in the decline of Alaska's Steller sea lions. That is until scientists dissected a dead killer whale and found Steller sea lion and other marine mammal parts in its stomach. Now killer whales are the focus of intense research to learn how these predators may be impacting sea lions and other marine mammals.
In many cases the data used by researchers comes from local Natives. In workshops held in Dillingham, Anchorage and Seward, Alaska Natives were taught procedures for taking skin, organ, tooth and stomach samples. The North Pacific Marine Research Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks funded the training. Natives from communities across the state practiced necropsy procedures on a dead (and slightly decomposed) baby beluga whale donated by the National Marine Fisheries Service. At the end of the training, participants were given a field necropsy kit. Lianna Jack is the executive director of the Alaska Sea Otter and Steller Sea Lion Commission.
JACK: "It's a gut bucket. That's what we like to call it. Basically it's all of the tools you might need to necropsy a whale or a stranded dead walrus or bird, whatever bird or marine mammal you might encounter. It's a whole collection of things, species guide books, knives, plastic baggies, that type of thing."
It all fits into a five-gallon bucket, ready to go anywhere a carcass washes ashore.
This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. I'm Doug Schneider.
Audio version and related websites (above right)
Thanks to the following individuals for help preparing this script:
Donna Willowy, Research Coordinator
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The shortcut to our ASJ news home page is www.asjnews.org.
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