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.

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