Arctic Science Journeys
Radio Script


Pooper Scooper

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INTRO: Scientists trying to understand why Steller sea lions are declining in Alaska have been out in force collecting a variety of data. They've attached satellite transmitters to sea lions to see where they go. They've dropped nets into the water to see what there is for sea lions to eat. One scientist even travels regularly to sea lion haul-outs to collect the fecal material sea lions leave behind. As Doug Schneider reports in this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio, scooping sea lion poop is a smelly but necessary job.

STORY: Kate Wynne is a veteran sea lion pooper scooper. So accustomed is she to the smell of sea lion dung that her nose doesn't so much as twitch as she scoops a chunk of dung into a plastic zip-lock bag.
WYNNE: "This was harbor seal poop and was pretty old. It had an edge to it, but it's nothing like fresh sea lion scats."

Once a month, Wynne boards a helicopter for the ride out to Kodiak Island's rocky promontories, where hundreds of sea lions come ashore to rest, sun themselves and, of course, defecate. Kate is there, scoop in hand, to gather samples for science.

WYNNE: "Well, the sites themselves are usually really bad because they're haul-outs and urine pools that don't get rinsed by the tides. So they're foul to begin with. The scats are half-gallon zip-lock bags of wet cement." It may seem like drudgery, and it is. But it's also vital work that has to be done if scientists are to understand how sea lions are faring in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. Over the last 30 years, Steller sea lion populations in these regions have plummeted 80 percent. They are now listed as an endangered species.

Kate Wynne
Dirty job—Kate Wynne, a Sea Grant marine mammal specialist, has a special permit to visit sea lion haul-outs. She says collecting sea lion dung is messy, but it yields important data about this endangered marine mammal. (Photo by D. Brenner/Alaska Sea Grant)
WYNNE: "Well it's not a glamorous job, Doug. But, you know whenever people start talking about whether we're competing with marine mammals or what's going on in the system, this is the basic stuff you have to know, and there are only a few ways to figure it out. So someone's got to do it. It's not glamorous, but it is key."

Wynne brings her samples back to the University of Alaska's research labs in Kodiak, where she runs them through a specialized machine that washes away the fecal matter, leaving behind the undigested body parts of the sea lion's last meal.

WYNNE: "And then I send those off and some other folks will identify the parts, the hard parts—bones, otoliths, eye lenses, squid beaks, whatever happens to be left there."

Knowing what Steller sea lions eat will help scientists understand the dietary needs of sea lions, and help determine the role commercial fishing and natural changes may be playing in the decline of the marine mammal. From sea lion dung may come some of the answers scientists need to save this marine mammal from extinction. That thought is enough to keep Wynne coming back to these windswept rocks, pooper-scooper in hand.

OUTRO: This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I'm Doug Schneider.

Note: The research described in this story is being conducted under a National Marine Fisheries Service permit. Visiting sea lion haul-outs or disturbing sea lions is prohibited except by special permit.

For more about Steller sea lions, visit these web sites:

The Marine Mammal Center: Steller Sea Lion

National Marine Mammal Laboratory: Decline of the Steller Sea Lion

Thanks to the following individual for help preparing this script:

Kate Wynne, Marine Mammal Specialist
Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program
University of Alaska Fairbanks
118 Trident Way
Kodiak, Alaska 99615-7401
Phone: 907-486-1517

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.

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