[Currents headergraphic]

July 19, 1999

Marine ecologist wins Pew Fellowship to support Bering Sea research

By Tim Stephens

James Estes, a marine ecologist with UCSC and the U.S. Geological Survey, has been named a 1999 Pew Marine Conservation Fellow. Estes is one of 11 "ocean crusaders" to receive the prestigious award this year from the Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation. Each fellow will receive an award of $150,000 to carry out an innovative, interdisciplinary project that addresses an urgent conservation challenge facing the world's oceans.

Estes will use the award to study the use of marine reserves to manage and protect the Bering Sea marine ecosystem, now considered on the verge of collapse. Populations of Steller sea lions and harbor seals have declined precipitously in the Bering Sea, an arm of the North Pacific between Alaska and Siberia. Overexploitation of marine fisheries in the area may be responsible for the reduced abundance of certain fish species and the resulting collapse of the seal and sea lion populations that feed on them.

Estes has been studying the coastal ecosystem of Alaska's Aleutian archipelago, focusing on the role of sea otters, since the early 1970s. Last year, he and his colleagues reported a dramatic disruption of this ecosystem involving a cascade of ecological interactions that extends from fish populations in the open ocean to otters and other species that inhabit the coastal kelp forests. The researchers found that sea otter populations have plummeted due to predation by killer whales, an unheard of phenomenon prior to the decline in killer whales' preferred prey, seals and sea lions (see earlier Currents story).

Now Estes plans to study the spatial and food needs of the key predators in the Bering Sea ecosystem in order to determine the best design for a system of marine reserves in the area. The location, size, and distribution of marine reserves are critical to their success as conservation and management tools, he said.

"The spatial and temporal scales of effective ocean management need to be reevaluated," said Estes, an adjunct professor of biology at UCSC. He is also a researcher for the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation is an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, based in Philadelphia, in partnership with the New England Aquarium in Boston. The Pew Fellowships are highly competitive awards targeted primarily to midcareer professionals working in marine ecosystem conservation, fisheries management, marine contamination, and coastal conservation.

Nominations for Pew Fellowships are made through an international network of environmental experts. Review and selection is conducted by a 12-member international advisory committee. Selection is based on the applied conservation merit of the proposal, the individual's professional achievement, and the potential impact of the project.

"To comprehensively address the challenges facing our oceans requires the combined efforts of individuals with diverse skills and expertise," said Cynthia Robinson, associate director of the program. "The 1999 Pew Fellows are innovators--individuals willing to take risks and apply new approaches to improve the status and sustainability of the world's seas."

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