Graduate student Adria Banks of Vancouver, Wash., began the research a couple of years ago, with WWU Assistant Professor Alejandro Acevedo-Gutierrez.
The five-year grant will enable the researchers to pay graduate and undergraduate student assistants, buy supplies and new equipment, and cover the costs of the collaborating agencies: Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
In some trial protected marine areas, which discourage fishing in an effort to restore the rockfish population, the number and size of the bottom fish have increased. But harbor seals, which are "opportunistic feeders," have the potential to slow the recovery of the rockfish population, Acevedo-Gutierrez said.
"Rockfish are not alone in their own bubble," he added.
Banks is tracking the number of harbor seals at haul-out sites from Deception Pass to Bellingham Bay, and from the coast to Rosario Strait. The data will provide a baseline that can be compared later to the number of seals using the sites if protected marine reserves increase rockfish population. Banks also is looking at interseasonal changes.
While Banks is measuring the number of harbor seals, graduate student Katie Luxa of Tacoma will be examining the contents of the predators' diets. Together, the research projects could shed some light on the effect harbor seals have on the rockfish populations.
"Little is known about the harbor seal diet in northern Puget Sound," Luxa said. "I have two sites, utilized by approximately 350 seals, from which I collect scat in southern Padilla Bay. The sites are only accessible at low tide and, because Padilla Bay is so shallow, I'm using a kayak to reach them."
Contact: Kari Neumeyer
Western Washington University