An update on Oregon’s sound sensitive marine mammal, the harbor porpoise.

By Amanda Holdman, M.S. Student

Marine renewable energy is developing at great speeds all around the world. In 2013, the Northwest Marine Renewable Energy Center (NMREC) chose Newport, Oregon as the future site of first utility-scale, grid-connected wave energy test site in the United States – The Pacific Marine Energy Center (PMEC). The development of marine energy holds great potential to help meet our energy needs – it is renewable, and it is predicted that marine energy sources could fulfill nearly one-third of the United States energy demands.

Wave energy construction in Newport could begin as early as 2017. Therefore, it is important to fully understand the potential risks and benefits of wave energy as the industry moves forward. Currently, there is limited information on wave energy devices and the potential ecological impacts that they may have on marine mammals and their habitats. In order to assess the effects of wave energy, pertinent information needs to be collected prior to the installation of the devices.

This is where I contribute to the wave energy industry in Oregon.

Harbor porpoise are a focal species when it comes to renewable energy management; they are sensitive to a range of anthropogenic sounds at very low levels of exposure and may show behavioral responses before other marine mammals, making them a great indicator species for potential problems with wave energy. Little is known about harbor porpoise in Oregon, necessitating the need to look at the fine scale habitat use patterns of harbor porpoise within the proposed wave energy sites.

I used two methods to study harbor porpoise presence and activity in coastal waters: visual boat surveys, and passive acoustic monitoring. Visual surveys have a high spatial resolution and a low temporal resolution, meaning you can conduct visual boat surveys over a wide area, but only during daylight hours. Whereas acoustic surveys have opposite characteristics; you can conduct surveys during all hours of the day, however, the range of the acoustic device is only a few hundred meters. Therefore, these methods work well together to gain complimentary information about harbor porpoise. These methods are crucial for collecting baseline data on harbor porpoise distribution, and providing valuable information for understanding, managing, and mitigating potential impacts.

Bi-monthly standard visual line-transect surveys were conducted for two full years (October 2013-2015), while acoustic devices were deployed May – October 2014. Field work ended last October, and since then, data analysis efforts have uncovered  seasonal, diel, and tidal patterns in harbor porpoise occurrence and activity.

Harbor porpoises in Oregon are thought to be seasonally migratory. With the onset of spring, coinciding with the start of the upwelling season, porpoise are thought to move inshore and abundance increases into the summer. Most births also occur during the late spring and summer. With the return of winter, porpoise are thought to leave the coastal waters and head out to the deeper waters (Dohl 1983, Barlow 1988, Green et al. 1992).

Results from my data support this seasonal trend. Both visual survey and acoustic recording data document the general pattern of peak porpoise presence occurring in the summer months of June and July, with a gradual decline of detections into the fall (Fig. 1 & 2).


Figure 1: Overall, from our acoustic surveys we see a large increase from May to June, suggesting the arrival of harbor porpoise to coastal waters. From July, we see a slow decline into the fall months, suggestive of harbor porpoise moving offshore.


Figure 2: Our data from visual surveys mimic those of our acoustic surveys. We see a large increase of porpoises from May to June and then a decline into the fall. We had very low survey effort in July, due to rough seas.  If we were able to survey more, it is likely we would have seen more harbor porpoise during this time.

Using acoustic recorders, we are able to get data on harbor porpoise occurrence throughout all hours of the day, regardless of weather conditions. We deployed hydrophones in two locations – one in a near-shore REEF habitat located 4 km from shore, and the second in the middle of the South Energy Testing Site (SETS) 12 km off-shore. These two sites differ in depth and habitat type. The REEF habitat is 30 m deep and has a rocky bottom as a habitat type, while SETS is 60 m deep and has a sandy bottom. When we compare the two sites (Figure 3), we can see that harbor porpoise have a preference for the REEF site.

Additionally, we are also able to get some indices of behavior from acoustic recordings. Equivalent to sonar or radar, marine mammals use echolocation (high frequency sounds) to communicate and navigate. Marine mammals, specifically odonotocetes, also use echolocation to locate prey at depth when there is very little or no light. Porpoises use a series of clicks during their dives, and as the porpoise approach their prey, the clicks become closer and closer together so they sound like a continuous buzz. When studying echolocation patterns in odontocetes we typically look at the inter-click-intervals (ICIs) or the time between clicks. When ICIs are very close together (less than 10 ms apart) it is considered a foraging behavior or a buzz. Anything greater than 10 ms is classified as other (or clicks in this figure).


Figure 3: We see harbor porpoise clicks were detected about 27% of the time at the REEF, but only 18% at SETS. Potential feeding was also higher at the REEF site (14%) compared to (4%) at SETS.

Not only did we find patterns in foraging behavior between the two sites, we also found foraging patterns across diel cycles and tidal cycles:

  1. We found a tendency for harbor porpoise to forage more at night (Figure 4).
  2. The diel pattern of harbor porpoise foraging is stronger at the SETS than the REEF site (Figure 4). This result may be due to the prey at the SETS (sandy bottom) exhibiting vertical migration with the day and night cycles since prey there do not have alternative cover, as they would in the rocky reef habitat.
  3. At the reef site, we see a relationship between increased foraging behavior and low tide (Figure 5).


Figure 4: When analyzing data for trends in foraging behavior across different sites and diel cycles, we use a ratio of buzzes to clicks, so that we incorporate both echolocation behaviors in one value. This figure shows us that the ratio of buzzes to clicks is pretty similar at the REEF site across diel periods, but there is more variation at the SETS site, with more detections at night and during sunrise.


Figure 5: Due to the circular nature of tides rotating between high tide and low tide, circular histograms help to observe patterns. In this figure, we see a large preference for harbor porpoise to feed during low tide. We are unclear why harbor porpoise may prefer low tide, but the relationship may be due to minimal current movement that could enhance feeding opportunities for porpoises.

Overall, the combination of visual surveys and passive acoustic monitoring has provided high quality baseline data on harbor porpoise occurrence patterns. It is results like these that can help with decisions regarding wave energy siting, operation and permitting off of the Oregon Coast.


Barlow, J. 1987. Abundance estimation for harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) based on ship surveys along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. SWFC Administrative Report LJ-87-05. Southwest Fishery Center, La Jolla, CA. 36pp.

Dohl, T.P., Guess, R.C., Dunman, M.L. and Helm, R.C. 1983, Cetaceans of central and northern California, 1980-83: status, abundance, and distribution. Final Report to the Minerals Management Service, Contract 14-12-0001-29090. 285pp.

Green, G.A., Brueggeman, J. J., Grotefendt, R.A., Bowlby, C.E., Bonnel, M. L. and Balcomb, K.C. 1992. Cetacean distribution and abundance off Oregon and Washington, 1989-1990. Chapter 1 In Oregon and Washington Marine Mammal and Seabird Surveys. Ed. By J. J. Brueggeman. Minerals Management Service Contract Report 14-12-0001-30426.

Wildlife of the Western Antarctic Peninsula

Erin Pickett, MS Student, Fisheries and Wildlife Department, OSU

This time last week, I was on a research vessel crossing the Drake Passage. The Drake extends from the tip of the Western Antarctic Peninsula to South America’s Cape Horn, and was part of the route I was taking home from Antarctica. Over the past three months I have been working on a long-term ecological research (LTER) project based out of Palmer Station, a U.S. based research facility located on Anvers Island.


While in Antarctica, I was working on the cetacean component of the Palmer LTER project, which I’ve described in previous blog posts. In lieu of writing more about what it is like to work and live on the Antarctic Peninsula, I thought I’d share some photos with you. Working on the water everyday while searching for whales provided me with many opportunities to photograph the local wildlife. I hope you’ll enjoy a few of my favorite shots.

Does ocean noise stress-out whales?

By Leila Lemos, Ph.D. Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, OSU


We’ve all been stressed. You might be stressed right now. Deadlines, demands, criticism, bills, relationships. It all adds up and can boil over: Chronic stress is linked with poor health, and also increased risk of illness (like cancer; Glaser et al. 2005, Godbout and Glaser 2006).

Biologically, stress manifests itself in vertebrate animals as variable levels of hormones, particularly the hormone cortisol. This academic term I am taking a class at OSU called “vertebrate endocrinology” where I am learning the different types of secretions and organs involved and the mechanisms of hormone action: how secretion, transport and signaling happen. These issues are important for my research because I will be examining stress levels in gray whales.

It may seem strange to study how stressed out a whale is, but there are reasons to believe that the long-term health of animals, including whales, is significantly related to their stress-hormone levels (Jepson et al. 2003, Cox et al. 2006, Wright et al. 2007, Rolland et al. 2012).

So what could be stressing out whales? Probably lots of things including food availability, predators and mating. However, we are mostly interested in describing how much added stress human activities in the oceans are causing, particularly from increased ocean noise. Ambient ocean noise levels have increased considerably over the last decades: according to IUCN, the increase was about 3 dB per decade over the past 60 years and now it seems to be increasing from 3 to 5 dB per decade (Simard and Spadone 2012).

Baleen whales communicate through low-frequency signals, reaching between 20 and 200 Hz and large ships generate noise in the same frequency band, which can mask whale vocalizations and potentially add stress (Rolland et al. 2012), especially in areas with high anthropogenic activities such as big ports, where an intense traffic occurs.

To get a sense of how noisy oceans can disrupt the acoustic lives of whales, the Monterey Institute has created an excellent interactive website where it is possible to listen to the whales’ vocalization and add other sources of sounds, like ship traffic, to compare the difference in noise levels.

We still do not understand the population level consequences of this increased ocean noise on whales, however it has been demonstrated that whales respond behaviorally to increased noise, including changes in vocalization rates and habitat displacement (Morton and Symonds 2002, Nowacek et al. 2007, Weilgart 2007, Rolland et al. 2012). In order to understand how acoustic disturbance may influence marine mammal populations, the population consequences of acoustic disturbance model (PCAD) was developed by the US National Academies of Sciences (National Resource Council 2005; We believe that examining stress levels in whales can provide a useful link between ocean noise and population-level impacts.

One previous study convincingly demonstrated the impacts of ocean noise on whale stress hormones due to the chance experiment caused by the shut-down of all air and vessel traffic during the days following September 11, 2001. Rolland et al. (2012) collected acoustic samples from the Bay of Fundy, Canada, and fecal samples from north Atlantic right whales in the area before and after September 11th over five years. The results found a 6 dB decrease in ocean noise (Figure 1) in the area after this date and an associated decrease in glucocorticoids (GC) metabolite (stress) levels in the whales (Figure 2 – highlighted in red).

Spectrum of the noise in different days along the Bay of Fundy, Canada. Source: Rolland et al. (2012)
Figure 1: Spectrum of the noise in different days along the Bay of Fundy, Canada.
Source: Rolland et al. (2012)


Figure 2
Figure 2: (a) Levels of fecal glucocorticoids metabolites (ng g -1) in North Atlantic right whales before (gray) and after (white) 11 September; (b) Yearly difference in median fecal GC levels. Source: Rolland et al. (2012)


For my PhD research we are attempting to assess how multiple, confounding factors contribute to stress levels in individual whales: prey availability, body condition, location, ocean noise, sex and sexual maturity. My advisor, Dr. Leigh Torres, developed a conceptual pathway diagram that illustrates potential scenarios caused by dichotomous levels of three major ecological components and their hypothesized influence on whale stress levels (Figure 3).


Figure 3
Figure 3: Conceptual pathway diagram of the hypothesized stress response of whales based on high or low levels of the three contributing ecological factors on stress that will be measured (developed by L. Torres).


From this diagram we can generate different hypotheses for our research to test. Distinct levels (high or low) of noise, prey availability, and health condition can lead to varied responses in the amplitude and duration of stress. We will measure prey availability through GoPro camera drops, hormone levels through fecal sample collection, and body condition through photogrammetry measurements of aerial images captured through an Unmanned Aerial System (aka drone).

Watch a video clip filmed via a UAS of a gray whale defecation event, and the field team collecting the sample for analysis.

Our study species is the gray whale, a non endangered species that regularly visits the Oregon coast during summer and fall months to feed, allowing accessibility to whales and repeatability of sighting individual animals. This ability to resight individual whales within and between years is important so that we can evaluate natural stress variability, thus allowing us to identify ‘stressful events’ and potential causes.

Overall, the main aim of my PhD research is to better understand how gray whale hormone levels vary across individual, time, body condition, location, and ambient noise environments. We may then be able to scale-up our results to better understand the population level impacts of elevated ocean noise on reproduction, distribution and abundance of whales.

We plan to study the correlation between stress levels in whales and ocean noise over many years to compile a robust database that allows us to identify how animals may be impacted physiologically at short- and long- term scales. These results will inform environmental management decisions regarding thresholds of ambient ocean noise levels in order to limit harm posed to baleen whales.


Bibliographic References:

Cox T, Ragen T, Read A, Vos E, Baird R, Balcomb K, Barlow J, Caldwell J, Cranford T, Crum L, D’Amico A, D’Spain G, Fernandez A, Finneran J, Gentry R, Gerth W, Gulland F, Hildebrand J, Houser D, Hullar T, Jepson P, Ketten D, MacLeod C, Miller P, Moore S, Mountain D, Palka D, Rommel S, Rowles T, Taylor B, Tyack P, Wartzok D, Gisiner R, Mead J, Benner L. 2006. Understanding the impacts of anthropogenic sound on beaked whales. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 7:177-187.

Glaser R, Padgett DA, Litsky ML, Baiocchi RA, Yang EV, Chen M, Yeh PE, Klimas NG, Marshall GD, Whiteside T, Herberman R, Kiecolt-Glaser J, Williams MV (2005) Stress-associated changes in the steady-state expression of latent Epstein-Barr virus: implications for chronic fatigue syndrome and cancer. Brain Behav. Immun. 19(2):91-103.

Godbout JP, Glaser R. 2006. Stress-Induced Immune Dysregulation: Implications for Wound Healing, Infectious Disease and Cancer. J. Neuroimmune Pharm. 1:421-427.

Simard F, Spadone A (eds). 2012. An Ecosystem Approach to Management of Seamounts in the Southern Indian Ocean. Volume 2 – Anthropogenic Threats to Seamount Ecosystems and Biodiversity. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. 64pp.

Jepson PD, Arbelot M, Deaville R, Patterson IAP, Castro P, Baker JR, Degollada E, Ross HM, Herraez P, Pocknell AM, Rodriguez F, Howie II FE, Espinosa A, Reid RJ, Jaber JR, Martin V, Cunningham AA, Fernandez A. 2003. Gas-bubble lesions in stranded cetaceans: Was sonar responsible for a spate of whale deaths after an Atlantic military exercise? Nature 425:575-576.

Morton AB, Symonds HK. 2002. Displacement of Orcinus orca (L.) by high amplitude sound in British Columbia, Canada. ICES Journal of Marine Science 59:71-80.

National Resource Council. 2005. Marine Mammal Populations and Ocean Noise: Determining When Noise Causes Biologically Significant Effects. National Academies Press, Washington D.C.

Nowacek DP, Thorne LH, Johnston DW, Tyack PL. 2007. Responses of cetaceans to anthropogenic noise. Mammal Rev. 37, 81–115.

Rolland RM, Parks SE, Hunt KE, Castellote M, Corkeron PJ, Nowacek DP, Wasser SK, Kraus SD. 2012. Evidence that ship noise increases stress in righ whales. Proc. R. Soc. B 279:2363-2368.

Weilgart LS. 2007 The impacts of anthropogenic ocean noise on cetaceans and implications for management. Can. J. Zool. 85, 1091–1116.

Wright AJ, Soto NA, Baldwin AL, Bateson M, Beale CM, Clark C, Deak T, Edwards EF, Fernández A, Godinho A. 2007. Do Marine Mammals Experience Stress Related to Anthropogenic Noise? International Journal of Comparative Psychology 20.