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March 17, 2003

James Estes receives Ed Ricketts Marine Science Award

By Gloria Maender
U.S. Geological Survey

James Estes, adjunct professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and ocean sciences, received this year's Ed Ricketts Award during the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Symposium at California State University, Monterey Bay, on Saturday, March 15.

James Estes

Estes, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, is an internationally recognized expert on sea otters and a specialist in the critical role of apex, or top-level predators in the marine environment.

Since 1986, the Ed Ricketts Memorial Lecture has honored individuals who have exhibited exemplary work throughout their career and advanced the status of knowledge in the field of marine science. Recipients are selected by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Research Activities Panel.

"I am delighted to be a recipient of this award," said Estes, who is based at UCSC's Center for Ocean Health.

Estes presented the Ricketts Memorial Lecture, titled "Defaunated Food Webs: Vertebrate Consumers and Nature's Balance," on Saturday. Research activities panel chair Chris Harrold of the Monterey Bay Aquarium introduced Estes and presented the award to him immediately after the lecture.

"Jim has conducted ground-breaking research on sea otters and other marine mammals for over 30 years," said Harrold in praise of Estes. "Much of what we know today about sea otters and their interactions with nearshore marine ecosystems comes from his pioneering work in the Aleutian Islands and the subsequent work done by him and his students. His knowledge about marine mammals and ecosystems is broad and deep, and his research interests range from the ecology and evolution of kelps to reasons for the rise and fall of the great whales. He worked recently with several collaborators in reconstructing long-term effects of human exploitation on marine ecosystems."

Estes's interest in predation as an ecosystem-level process began in the early 1970s, shortly after he began working with sea otters. Using the otters' fragmented distribution across the Aleutian Archipelago, which resulted from a history of near-extinction and recovery, he discovered the species' keystone role in kelp forests by contrasting islands where the otter was abundant or rare. This work provides one of the better-known examples of how apex predators influence ecosystem function.

These early findings led Estes to explore the spatial, temporal, and functional dimensions of sea otter-kelp forest interactions over the next 30 years. Estes's most recent research addresses the unanticipated collapse of sea otters and kelp forests in western Alaska. He is currently involved with studies designed to better understand the vexing problem of decline in the threatened California sea otter.

Estes has published his research in more than 100 journal articles and book chapters. He earned a B.A. in zoology at the University of Minnesota, M.S. in zoology at Washington State University, and Ph.D. in biological sciences and statistics from the University of Arizona.

Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist who never earned a college degree, died over 50 years ago, yet he still inspires followers with his book Between Pacific Tides. Ricketts pursued his research from a laboratory in Monterey, where fishermen, biologists, and writers alike visited him. He was the inspiration for the character "Doc" in John Steinbeck's novel Cannery Row.

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