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Marine ecologist Jim Estes wins Shoemaker Award for Distinguished Achievement in Communication

By Tim Stephens

James Estes, adjunct professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has received the Shoemaker Award for Distinguished Achievement in Communication from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The award honors a scientist who creates excitement and enthusiasm for science among nonscientists.

Jim Estes

Estes, a research biologist with the USGS Western Ecological Research Center, is based at UCSC's Center for Ocean Health at Long Marine Laboratory. He is well-known nationally and internationally for his research on sea otters and the key role they play in kelp-forest ecosystems. The USGS award citation outlined the many ways in which Estes has worked with the media to publicize his findings about sea otter populations.

Through his research and communications efforts, Estes has made widely known the fascinating story of the precipitous decline of sea otters in Alaska, the discovery that killer whales were preying on otters, and the subsequent chain reaction that resulted in the loss of entire kelp-forest ecosystems. Estes first published his findings in the journal Science in 1998, then went on to capture the public's attention around the world by telling his story through newspaper, magazine, radio, and television media, including the New York Times and Washington Post, the Associated Press, Reuters, ENN News, National Geographic magazine, NBC Nightly News, MSNBC, National Public Radio, CNN, ABC, and the Canadian Broadcasting Company.

Estes discussed the otter decline and historical human impacts on the Aleutian otters in a two-part production by Fox Television-New Zealand and Oregon Public Television titled "Aleutians: Cradle of the Storms." His story inspired Los Angeles Times environment writer Marla Cone to join Estes in Alaska to view and write about his research on Aleutian sea otters in depth. Cone's story for the Los Angeles Times also appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

According to the award citation, Estes has enthusiastically communicated his story to all audiences, both young and old, leaving his legacy for even the youngest audience to ponder in a well-received, two-part cartoon story that appeared in Ranger Rick Magazine, a publication of the National Wildlife Federation.

In more than 30 years of research on sea otters, Estes has done fieldwork from the Aleutian Islands to the southern limits of the sea otter's range in California. His research includes efforts to understand why California's threatened sea otter population is growing so slowly.

When the spring sea otter census of 1999 reported a 5 percent decline of adults and young adults since the previous year, Estes found himself in the midst of another media frenzy. NBC Nightly News reported the population decline just hours after Estes and his team made the final tally known. Since 1999, the media have closely followed the annual sea otter census, and Estes is frequently sought out by reporters for his scientific perspective whenever new findings about California otters become known.

Estes was named a Pew Marine Conservation Fellow in 1999. In 2003, he was honored by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary as the Ed Ricketts Memorial Lecturer.

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