Biology's Alejandro Acevedo-Gutierrez: Seals, salmon and the Salish Sea

WWU Professor of Biology Alejandro Acevedo-Gutierrez’s research on harbor seals could yield important new information about the potential impacts the seals may have on the Salish Sea salmon crisis.

In addition to the things Gutierrez does as a professor for Western, he also has a long list of accomplishments in his life, including a key to the city of Tampa, Florida, an Oscar nomination for the IMAX movie “Dolphins,” and the Museum of Science and Industry's National Hispanic Scientist of the Year award.

Gutierrez grew up in Mexico City where he cultivated his drive for learning about mammals. His wife, Lisa Acevedo, is a special-education teacher at Ferndale High School. Together they have a 6-year-old son, Ethan Acevedo and the memories of their daughter Alima Acevedo, who died when she was 7 months old.

Gutierrez received his undergraduate degree in La Paz at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur. He earned his doctorate at Texas A&M University, where he did his senior thesis in Golfo Dulce and Isla del Coco, Costa Rica, studying bottlenose dolphin behavior.

“Being on the island was amazing. It was uninhabited and there were so many cool experiences there with dolphins and sharks and diving,” he said. “It was fun. There was really nothing within 300 miles, just ocean. So true, I did live on a tropical island for a while in my life.” 

Before coming to Western, Gutierrez did research in Santa Cruz, California, where he studied the diving behavior of mainly blue whales and fin whales.

“I'm pretty proud of that work we did,” he said, “Because it spurred a lot of research into whales and now we’re learning a lot about this general idea from that research.”

Gutierrez works hard to share this experience with his students.

“The most rewarding part of research is to generate new knowledge and to help students become better scientists,” he said. “That same answer applies to working with harbor seals. We are learning new stuff about them, and students have gained skills that are helping them advance professionally.”

One of the projects Gutierrez says he and his graduate students are researching measures the impacts harbor seals have on salmon stock and potentially endangered orcas, which are currently at the forefront of local marine issues in the region.

Dietmar Schwarz, a close associate of Gutierrez, received his doctorate in entomology and had no past marine biology experience. However, he was brought into the harbor seal collaboration because of his knowledge of analyzing variation within populations. He started collaborating on the project in 2012, which he says started with the idea that “not all harbor seals are created equal.”

“Harbor seals eat a lot of different stuff, literally dozens of different fish species, octopuses, sometimes even the odd muskrat. But people have always treated them essentially as one population,” Schwarz said. “So the idea that we’re pursuing is maybe it's really not that easy; and in fact, not all harbor seals do the same thing when it comes to foraging.”

Gutierrez says harbor seals are like the “third spoke of the wheel,” in terms of their impact on the salmon population. Most of the increased consumption of salmon comes from two sources: orcas that eat the most salmon in terms of biomass and harbor seals that eat the most in terms of numbers.

Gutierrez compared their research to diets of human beings. Some people may prefer to eat more pork to chicken, or more vegetables to beef and so on. This idea is similar to their research with male and female harbor seals. Collectively they have an impact, but individually some may have more of an impact than others.

“Maybe there's a give and take,” he said “If things work out the way we think they are, the take-home message will be that females are less dangerous to salmon in terms of population density than males.” However, he says they can’t yet conclusively affirm this is the case until further research.

Gutierrez does many things as a professor for Western. He teaches numerous SMATE and biology classes related to his field of expertise, in addition to the work he does for the department of biology, to SMATE and the college; but it’s his commitment to his students that he sees as his most important role.

WWU Professor of Biology Benjamin Miner is a good friend and colleague who has known Gutierrez for 13 years. Currently they co-teach a tropical marine biology class during the summers in Mexico. Miner says he thinks Gutierrez is mainly motivated by his students, which makes him someone that excels at his job.

“He’s someone that puts his students’ interests first. What he puts forth is what his students need and what best supports them,” Miner says. “I think collectively, those things kind of elevate him to one of our best instructors within the department.”

Gutierrez says the most fundamental part of his job is his ability to make sure he is helpful to all of his students, both the ones he’s mentoring in research and in the classroom. His essential role, he says, is to provide an atmosphere for students to learn and to continue to have the motivation to keep going, to make sure they have a positive experience and to gain valuable skills.

“To make sure I’m helpful to the students is the most fundamental part of my job," he said. "My primary responsibility is to them.”

"Student Science" is a regular feature in Western Today where WWU students submit stories about their own research or the research of their peers or professors.