The northern fur seal population in the Pribilof Islands, Alaska has experienced drastic declines. In 2018, St. Paul Island fur seals reached the lowest pup production levels since 1915, while pup abundance in the Pribilof Islands has declined 50 percent since 1998. It is imperative that NOAA Fisheries continue to monitor and document this decline to identify potential threats to recovery and inform management decisions. Currently, population estimates are derived from biennial pup abundance surveys and are conducted on the ground, requiring the participation of more than 20 researchers and support staff for up to 21 days. This method is costly, labor intensive, and involves disturbing the entire population of fur seals on both islands—an estimated 100,000 pups and many more adults and juveniles.
In partnership with the UAS Program Office, NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal Laboratory (MML) is working towards developing a survey approach using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).