Western Washington University professor Alejandro Acevedo and his research students are giving scientists new insights into marine life in Bellingham, Wash.
Acevedo’s lab is interested in how harbor seals interact with their environment and how the seals are impacted by humans, as well as the ecology and conservation of their environment.
Harbor seals are the most abundant, common marine mammal in this area, Acevedo said. Because of their interactions with the environment, especially their food sources, harbor seals are a species of local importance.
Acevedo’s research has found that male seals move a lot to forage for food. Scientists previously believed the seals traveled less than 30 kilometers (about 18.6 miles). Acevado’s group found that some seals travel hundreds of kilometers.
Some harbor seals native to our area travel as far north as the Strait of Georgia in Canada down to the lower Puget Sound.
Acevedo and his students are also researching how genetics effects the harbor seals’ food preferences. The information they are collecting on individual seal’s foraging behaviors is being used by other scientists to create more realistic models of how harbor seals effect their environment.
It’s tricky to quantify the impact harbor seals have on the environment, Acevedo said. Harbor seals eat fish like herring and salmon, but they also eat animals that feed on those fish.
Though there is much more noise and construction in the area now, Acevedo hasn’t found any difference in the number of harbor seals in the area since the studies began in 2007.
Harbor seals in Bellingham can be found in Whatcom Creek, feeding on salmon during the salmon runs, at the old Georgia Pacific plant site, at a log boom near Cornwall Avenue or on fuel docks and marinas in Bellingham.
Although harbor seals often leave when humans come near them, it can be dangerous for students if there are baby harbor seals nearby, Acevedo said. The research group has special permits granted to them by the Office of Protected Resources of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that allows them to interact with the harbor seals.
Acevedo’s group collaborates with other institutions such as the North Cascades Audubon Society, the SeaDoc Society and the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife.
You can learn more about Acevedo’s research on his website, which includes research info, links to published papers and a photo gallery.