Can we talk about how cool sea otters are?

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog introducing our new project, and my thesis, on the potential to reintroduce sea otters to the Oregon coast. In that blog, I expressed that in order to develop a successful reintroduction plan, scientists and managers need to have a sound understanding of sea otter ecology and the current state of Oregon’s coastal ecosystems. As a graduate student conducting a research-based thesis in a management program, I’m constantly fretting over the applicability of my research to inform decision-making processes. However, in the course of conducting my research, I sometimes forget just how COOL sea otters are. Therefore, in this blog, I wanted to take the opportunity to nerd out and provide you with my top five favorite facts about these otterly adorable creatures.

Photo Credit: Point Lobos Foundation

Without further ado, here are my top five favorite facts about sea otters:

  1. Sea otters eat a lot. Previous studies show that an individual sea otter eats up to 30% of its own body weight in food each day[1][2]. With such high caloric demands, sea otters spend a great deal of their time foraging the seafloor for a variety of prey species, and have been shown to decrease prey densities in their local habitat significantly. Sea otters are famously known for their taste for sea urchins. Yet, these voracious predators also consume clams, sea stars, crabs, and a variety of other small invertebrate species[3][4].

    Photo Credit: Katherine Johns via www.listal.com
  2. Individuals are specialists, but can change their diet. Sea otters typically show individual foraging specialization – which means an individual predominantly eats a select few species of prey. However, this doesn’t mean an otter can’t switch or consume other types of prey as needed. In fact, while individuals tend to be specialists, on a population or species level, sea otters are actually generalist predators[5][6]. Past studies that looked at the foraging habits of expanding sea otter populations show that as populations expand into unoccupied territory, they typically eat a limited number of prey. But as populations grow and become more established, the otters will start to diversify their diet, suggesting intra-specific competition[3][7].
  3. Sea otters exert a strong top-down force. Top-down forcing is one of the most important concepts we must acknowledge when discussing sea otter ecology. With top-down forcing, consumers at the top of the food chain depress the trophic level on which they feed, and this feeding indirectly increases the abundance of the next lower trophic level, resulting in a cascading effect[8]. The archetype example of this phenomenon is the relationship between sea otters, sea urchins, and kelp forests. This relationship goes as follows: sea otters consume sea urchin, and sea urchins graze on kelp. Therefore, sea otters reduce sea urchin densities by direct predation, thereby mediating grazing pressure on kelp. This indirect effect allows kelp to grow more abundantly, which is why we often see relatively productive kelp forests when sea otters are present[9]. This top-down forcing also has important implications for the whole ecosystem, as I’ll explain in my next fact.

    Pictured: sea urchin dominated seascape in habitat without sea otters. Photo Credit: BISHOPAPPS via Ohio State University.
  4. Sea otters help restore ecosystems, and associated ecosystem services. In kelp habitat where sea otters have been removed, we often see high densities of sea urchins and low biomasses of kelp. In this case, sea urchins have no natural predators to keep their populations in check and therefore completely decimate kelp forests. However, what we’ve learned is that when sea otters “reclaim” previously occupied habitats or expand into unoccupied territory, they can have remarkable restorative effects because their predation on sea urchins allows for the regrowth of kelp forest[10]. Additionally, with the restoration of key ecosystems like kelp forests, we can see a variety of other indirect benefits – such as increased biodiversity, refuge for fish nurseries and commercially-important species, and carbon sequestration[11][12][13]. The structure of nearshore ecosystems and communities change drastically with the addition or removal of sea otters, which is why they’re often referred to as keystone species.

    Photo Credit: University of California, Santa Barbara.
  5. Sea otters are most often associated with coastal kelp forests, but they can also exist in other types of habitats and ecosystems. In addition to kelp dominated ecosystems, sea otters are known to use estuaries and bays, seagrass beds, and swim over a range of bottom substrates[14][15]. As evidenced by previous studies, sea otters exert similar top-down forces in non-kelp ecosystems, as they do within kelp forests. One study found that sea otters also had restorative effects on seagrass beds within estuaries, where they consumed different types of prey (i.e., crabs instead of urchins), demonstrating that sea otters play a significant keystone role in seagrass habitats as well [12]. Findings such as these are vitally important to understanding (1) where sea otters are capable of living relative to habitat characteristics, and (2) how recovering or expanding sea otter populations may impact ecosystems and habitats in which they don’t currently exist, such as the Oregon coast.
Pictured: sea otter swimming through eel grass at Elkhorn Slough, California. Photo Credit: Kip Evans Photography.

Well, there you have it – my top five favorite facts about sea otters. This list is by no means exhaustive of all there is to know about sea otter ecology, and isn’t enough information to develop an informative reintroduction plan. However, a successful reintroduction plan will rely heavily on these underlying ecological characteristics of sea otters, in addition to the current state of Oregon’s nearshore ecosystems. As someone who constantly focuses on the relationship between scientific research and management and conservation, it’s nice every now and then to take a step back and just simply appreciate sea otters for being, well, sea otters.

References:

[1] Costa, D. P. 1978. The ecological energetics, water, and electrolyte balance of the California sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz.

[2] Reidman, M. L. and J. A. Estes. 1990. The sea otter (Enhydra lutris): behavior, ecology, and natural history. United States Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Biological Report. 90: 1-126.

[3] Laidre, K.L. and R. J. Jameson. 2006. Foraging patterns and prey selection in an increasing and expanding sea otter population. Journal of Mammology. 87(4): 799-807.

[4] Estes, J. A., Jameson, R.J., and B. R. Rhode. 1982. Activity and prey election in the sea otter: influence of population status on community structure. The American Naturalist. 120(2): 242-258.

[5] Tinker, M. T., Costa, D. P., Estes, J. A., and N. Wieringa. 2007. Individual dietary specialization and dive behavior in the California sea otter: using archival time-depth data to detect alternative foraging strategies. Deep-Sea Research Part II. (54):330-342.

[6] Newsome et al. 2009. Using stable isotopes to investigate individual diet specialization in California sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis). Ecology. 90(4): 961-974.

[7] Ostfeld, R. S. 1982. Foraging strategies and prey switching in the California sea otter. Oecologia. 53(2): 170-178.

[8] Paine, R. T. 1980. Food webs: linkage, interaction strength and community infrastructure. The Journal of Animal Ecology. 49(3): 666-685.

[9] Estes, J. A. and J.F. Palmisano. 1974. Sea otters: their role in structuring nearshore communities. Science. 185(4156): 1058-1060.

[10] Estes, J. A., and D. O. Duggins. 1995. Sea otters and kelp forests in Alaska: generality and variation in a community ecological paradigm. Ecological Monographs. 65(1): 75-100.

[11] Wilmers, C. C., Estes, J. A., Edwards, M., Laidre, K. L., and B. Konar. 2012. Do trophic cascades affect the storage and flux of atmospheric carbon? An analysis of sea otters and kelp forests. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 10(8): 409-415.

[12] Hughes et al. 2014. Recovery of a top predator mediate negative eutrophic effects on seagrass. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 110(38): 15313-15318.

[13] Lee, L.C., Watson, J. C., Trebilco, R., and A. K. Salomon. Indirect effects and prey behavior mediate interactions between an endangered prey and recovering predator. Ecosphere. 7(12).

[14] Laidre, K. L., Jameson, R. J., Gurarie, E., Jeffries, S. J., and H. Allen. 2009. Spatial habitat use patterns of sea otters in coastal Washington. Journal of Mammalogy. 90(4): 906-917.

[15] Lafferty, K. D., and M. T. Tinker. 2014. Sea otters are recolonizing southern California in fits and starts. Ecosphere. 5(5).

 

GEMM Lab 2017: A Year in the Life

By Dawn Barlow, MSc Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife

The days are growing shorter, and 2017 is drawing to a close. What a full year it has been for the GEMM Lab! Here is a recap, filled with photos, links to previous blogs, and personal highlights, best enjoyed over a cup of hot cocoa. Happy Holidays from all of us!

The New Zealand blue whale team in action aboard the R/V Star Keys. Photo by L. Torres.

Things started off with a bang in January as the New Zealand blue whale team headed to the other side of the world for another field season. Leigh, Todd and I joined forces with collaborators from Cornell University and the New Zealand Department of Conservation aboard the R/V Star Keys for the duration of the survey. What a fruitful season it was! We recorded sightings of 68 blue whales, collected biopsy and fecal samples, as well as prey and oceanographic data. The highlight came on our very last day when we were able to capture a blue whale surface lunge feeding on krill from an aerial perspective via the drone. This footage received considerable attention around the world, and now has over 3 million views!

A blue whale surfaces just off the bow of R/V Star Keys. Photo by D. Barlow.

In the spring Rachael made her way to the remote Pribilof Islands of Alaska to study the foraging ecology of red-legged kittiwakes. Her objectives included comparing the birds that reproduce successfully and those that don’t, however she was thrown a major curveball: none of the birds in the colony were able to successfully reproduce. In fact, they didn’t even build nests. Further analyses may elucidate some of the reasons for the reproductive failure of this sentinel species of the Bering Sea… stay tuned.

red-legged kittiwakes
Rachael releases a kittiwake on St. George Island. Photo by A. Fleishman.

 

The 2017 Port Orford field team. Photo by A. Kownacki.

Florence is a newly-minted MSc! In June, Florence successfully defended her Masters research on gray whale foraging and the impacts of vessel disturbance. She gracefully answered questions from the room packed with people, and we all couldn’t have been prouder to say “that’s my labmate!” during the post-defense celebrations. But she couldn’t leave us just yet! Florence stayed on for another season of field work on the gray whale foraging ecology project in Port Orford, this time mentoring local high school students as part of the projectFlorence’s M.Sc. defense!

Upon the gray whales’ return to the Oregon Coast for the summer, Leila, Leigh, and Todd launched right back into the stress physiology and noise project. This year, the work included prey sampling and fixed hydrophones that recorded the soundscape throughout the season. The use of drones continues to offer a unique perspective and insight into whale behavior.

Video captured under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111.

 

Solene with a humpback whale biopsy sample. Photo by N. Job.

Solene spent the austral winter looking for humpback whales in the Coral Sea, as she participated in several research cruises to remote seamounts and reefs around New Caledonia. This field season was full of new experiences (using moored hydrophones on Antigonia seamount, recording dive depths with SPLASH10 satellite tags) and surprises. For the first time, whales were tracked all the way from New Caledonia to the east coast of Australian. As her PhD draws to a close in the coming year, she will seek to understand the movement patterns and habitat preferences of humpback whales in the region.

A humpback whale observed during the 2017 coral sea research cruise. Photo by S. Derville.

This summer we were joined by two new lab members! Dom Kone will be studying the potential reintroduction of sea otters to the Oregon Coast as a MSc student in the Marine Resource Management program, and Alexa Kownacki will be studying population health of bottlenose dolphins in California as a PhD student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. We are thrilled to have them on the GEMM Lab team, and look forward to seeing their projects develop. Speaking of new projects from this year, Leigh and Rachael have launched into some exciting research on interactions between albatrosses and fishing vessels in the North Pacific, funded by the NOAA Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program.

During the austral wintertime when most of us were all in Oregon, the New Zealand blue whale project received more and more political and media attention. Leigh was called to testify in court as part of a contentious permit application case for a seabed mine in the South Taranaki Bight. As austral winter turned to austral spring, a shift in the New Zealand government led to an initiative to designate a marine mammal sanctuary in the South Taranaki Bight, and awareness has risen about the potential impacts of seismic exploration for oil and gas reserves. These tangible applications of our research to management decisions is very gratifying and empowers us to continue our efforts.

In the fall, many of us traveled to Halifax, Nova Scotia to present our latest and greatest findings at the 22nd Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals. The strength of the lab shone through at the meeting during each presentation, and we all beamed with pride when we said our affiliation was with the GEMM Lab at OSU. In other conference news, Rachael was awarded the runner-up for her presentation at the World Seabird Twitter Conference!

GEMM Lab members present their research. From left to right, top to bottom: Amanda Holdman, Leila Lemos, Solène Derville, Dawn Barlow, Sharon Nieukirk, and Florence Sullivan.

Leigh had a big year in many ways. Along with numerous scientific accomplishments—new publications, new students, successful fieldwork, successful defenses—she had a tremendous personal accomplishment as well. In the spring she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and after a hard fight she was pronounced cancer-free this November. We are all astounded with how gracefully and fearlessly she navigated these times. Look out world, this lab’s Principle Investigator can accomplish anything!

This austral summer we will not be making our way south to join the blue whales. However, we are keenly watching from afar as a seismic survey utilizing the largest seismic survey vessel in the world has launched in the South Taranaki Bight. This survey has been met with considerable resistance, culminating in a rally led by Greenpeace that featured a giant inflatable blue whale in front of Parliament in Wellington. We are eagerly planning our return to continue this study, but that will hopefully be the subject of a future blog.

New publications for the GEMM Lab in 2017 include six for Leigh, three for Rachael, and two for Alexa. Highlights include Classification of Animal Movement Behavior through Residence in Space and Time and A sense of scale: Foraging cetaceans’ use of scale-dependent multimodal sensory systems. Next year is bound to be a big one for GEMM Lab publications, as Amanda, Florence, Solene, Leila, Leigh, and I all have multiple papers currently in review or revision, and more in the works from all of us. How exciting!

In our final lab meeting of the year, we went around the table to share what we’ve learned this year. The responses ranged from really grasping the mechanisms of upwelling in the California Current to gaining proficiency in coding and computing, to the importance of having a supportive community in graduate school to trust that the right thing will happen. If you are reading this, thank you for your interest in our work. We are looking forward to a successful 2018. Happy holidays from the GEMM Lab!

GEMM Lab members, friends, and families gather for a holiday celebration.

Meeting to disentangle factors influencing albatross bycatch in the deep-set Hawaii Longline Fishery

By Rachael Orben PhD., Research Associate in the Seabird Oceanography Lab and GEMM Lab

Seabird bycatch is a global problem (e.g. Anderson et al 2011). Humans like eating fish and seabirds do too. Fishing vessels provide a food source for seabirds through discards, bait, and target fish. Different types of fishing gear pose different risks for seabirds. The good news is there are things that we can do to decrease these risks.

Albatrosses and petrels are particularly vulnerable to being hooked by longlines as the baited hooks are set overboard. Albatrosses and petrels are long lived (e.g., Wisdom the 65-year-old Laysan Albatross) and have a limited number of off-spring. Therefore fishery mortalities can have devastating impacts on populations if left unchecked. Currently all 22 species of albatrosses have IUCN statuses ranging from Near Threatened to Critically Endangered.

North Pacific Albatrosses

Longlines are used to catch a number of target species including tuna, swordfish, halibut, black cod, and toothfish. Just like the diversity of species this type of fishing gear is used to catch, there are a number of ways to set long-lines and ways to mitigate seabird bycatch and a method that works well in one instance may not work so well in other places. Tori Lines (a.k.a. streamer lines), side setting, night setting, faster sinking lines, and discard regulations are a few of the methods used.

Tori lines work by scaring birds away from baited longline hooks while they sink. Once the hooks sink past a few meters albatrosses are not able to reach them. Photo by Ed Melvin/Washington Sea Grant

In early November, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop in Honolulu, Hawaii hosted by the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council. The workshop was held due to a dramatic increase in black-footed albatross bycatch by the Hawaii deep-set longline fishery in 2015 and 2016 (see the figure below). It was our job to figure out why, or more realistically pave the path for future analysis and data collection to answer this question.

Recently Leigh Torres and I were funded by the NOAA Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program to characterize fine-scale fishery-albatross interactions using previously collected albatross tracking data and tracks of fishing boats processed in real time by Global Fishing Watch. The workshop provided the perfect opportunity for me to learn more about the Hawaii longline fisheries.

Reasons for Albatross Bycatch

Rates of bycatch can change due to many factors, including where or when the fish are being caught, subtle choices made by fishermen, changes in seabird distributions, changes in prey of fish or seabirds, and so on. So, it can be very challenging to pin-point the exact reasons for an increase in bycatch. But, across the North Pacific, 2015 and 2016, were very strange years oceanographically. There was the warm water phenomena known as ‘the Blob’ along with a strong El Niño, and a positive Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). So perhaps, bycatch levels will drop off again as we move into a La Niña, but perhaps not. It is good to know that fishery managers and scientists are paying attention.

Implications

From the perspective of the fisherman in the Hawaiian longline fleet, albatrosses are hardly ever caught; they are pulled in at a barely perceptible level of less than one bird per set and only from about December to July. Although one occasional dead bird among the menagerie of fish doesn’t seem like much, it can add up: there are ~140 boats in the deep-set longline fleet, that set 40-52 million hooks a year, plus the multiple other fisheries and fleets encountered by albatrosses across the North Pacific, and enough albatrosses could be killed to make a difference in their population numbers. And, we need to also consider the cumulative impacts since fisheries aren’t the only threat  (e.g., sea level rise, storm surges, introduced predators; see Bakker et al 2018).

Inspecting the Catch

On the morning of the last day of the workshop we took a field trip to the Honolulu Fish Market at Pier 38 in Honolulu where the Hawaiian long-line fishing vessels dock to offload and sell their catch. We checked out some of the boats, watched fish being craned off a vessel into a large cart and went inside the cooler room to see where the fish are auctioned.

In the cooler room, the catch from one vessel was laid out on brilliant blue pallets. The tails of each tuna were sliced so the deep pink color of the meat could be assessed. A core sample of each fish was laid out on an identification tag. Then the auctioneer and the buyers visited each fish, rapidly bidding on a price per pound. Their quick words were basically incomprehensible to my untrained ear.

The prize-catch of the fishery, and the fish that gets the highest price per pound, is the big eye tuna. A number of other large and beautiful pelagic species are also caught and sold including: long and narrow marlins, with their bills cut off for packing, side table size pomfrets, speckled white with red accents; and the distinctive blunt headed mahimahi, with yellow bellies. Once the fish are sold, they are moved out of the auction room, packed and loaded into the trucks that whisk them away toward markets and restaurants in Hawaii, the U.S. Mainland, and beyond.

Sustainable management of these commercially valuable fish is dependent on a better understanding of their pelagic ecosystem, including when, where, and why albatrosses interact with fishing vessels. Hopefully, our current research project will help to answer some of these questions.

The GEMM Lab is Conference-Bound!

By Dawn Barlow, MSc Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Every two years, an international community of scientists gather for one week to discuss the most current and pressing science and conservation issues surrounding marine mammals. The thousands of attendees range from longtime researchers who have truly shaped the field throughout the course of their careers to students who are just beginning to carve out a niche of their own. I was able to attend the last conference, which took place in San Francisco in 2015, as an undergraduate. The experience cemented my desire to pursue marine mammal research in graduate school and beyond, and also solidified my connection with Leigh Torres and the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Laboratory, leading to my current enrollment at Oregon State University. This year, the 22nd Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals takes place in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. At the end of this week, Florence, Leila, Amanda, Solene, Sharon and I will head northeast to represent the GEMM Lab at the meeting!

As those of you reading this may not be able to attend, I’d like to share an overview of what we will be presenting next week. If you will be in Halifax, we warmly invite you to the following presentations. In order of appearance:

Amanda will present the final results from part of her MSc thesis on Monday in a presentation titled Comparative fine-scale harbor porpoise habitat models developed using remotely sensed and in situ data. It will be great for current GEMM Lab members to catch up with this recent GEMM Lab graduate on the other side of the continent! (Session: Conservation; Time: 4:00 pm)

On Tuesday morning, Leila will share the latest and greatest updates on her research about Oregon gray whales, including photogrammetry from drone images and stress hormones extracted from fecal samples! Her presentation is titled Combining traditional and novel techniques to link body condition and hormone variability in gray whales. This is innovative and cutting-edge work, and it is exciting to think it will be shared with the international research community. (Session: Health; Time: 10:45 am)

Did you think humpback whales have been so well studied that we must know just about everything about them? Think again! Solene will be sharing new and exciting insights from humpback whales tagged in New Caledonia, who appear to spend an intriguing amount of time around seamounts. Her talk Why do humpback whales aggregate around seamounts in South Pacific tropical waters? New insights from diving behaviour and ocean circulation analyses, will take place on Tuesday afternoon. (Session: Habitat and Distribution Speed Talks; Time: 1:30 pm)

I will be presenting the latest findings from our New Zealand blue whale research. Based on multiple data streams, we now have evidence for a unique blue whale population which is present year-round in New Zealand waters! This presentation, titled From migrant to resident: Multiple data streams point toward a resident New Zealand population of blue whales, will round out the oral presentations on Tuesday afternoon. (Session: Population Biology and Abundance; Time: 4:45 pm)

The GEMM Lab is using new technologies and innovative quantitative approaches to measure gray whale body condition and behaviors from an aerial perspective. On Wednesday afternoon, Sharon will present Drone up! Quantifying whale behavior and body condition from a new perspective on behalf of Leigh. With the emerging prevalence of drones, we are excited to introduce these quantitative applications. (Session: New Technology; Time: 11:45 am)

GoPros, kayaks, and gray whales, oh my! A limited budget couldn’t stop Florence from conducting excellent science and gaining new insights into gray whale fine-scale foraging. On Thursday afternoon, she will present Go-Pros, kayaks and gray whales: Linking fine-scale whale behavior with prey distributions on a shoestring budget, and share her findings, which she was able to pull off with minimal funds, creative study design, and a positive attitude. (Session: Foraging Ecology Speed Talks; Time: 1:55 pm)

Additional Oregon State University students presenting at the conference will include Michelle Fournet, Samara Haver, Niki Diogou, and Angie Sremba. We are thrilled to have such good representation at a meeting of this caliber! As you may know, we are all working on building the GEMM Lab’s social media presence and becoming more “twitterific”. So during the conference, please be sure to follow @GEMMLabOSU on twitter for live updates. Stay tuned!

New steps towards community engagement: introducing high schoolers to the field

By Florence Sullivan, MSc, GEMM Lab Research Assistant

This summer, I had the pleasure of returning to Port Orford to lead another field season of the GEMM Lab’s gray whale foraging ecology research project.  While our goal this summer was to continue gathering data on gray whale habitat use and zooplankton community structure in the Port Orford region, we added in a new and exciting community engagement component: We integrated local high school students into our research efforts in order to engage with the local community to promote interest in the OSU field station and the research taking place in their community. Frequent blog readers will have seen the posts written by this year’s interns (Maggie O’Rourke Liggett, Nathan Malamud, and Quince Nye) as they described how they became interns, their experience doing fieldwork, and some lessons they’ve learned from the project. I am very impressed with the hard work and effort that all three of them put into making this field season a success.  (Getting out of a warm bed, and showing up at the field station at 6am sharp for five weeks straight is no easy feat for high-schoolers or an undergrad student during summer break!)

Quince hard at work scanning the horizon for whale spouts. photo credit: Alexa Kownacki

During the month of August, our team collected the following data on whale distribution and behavior:

  •  Spent 108 hours on the cliff looking for whales
  • Spent 11 hours actively tracking whales with the theodolite
  • Collected 19 whale tracklines
  • Identified 15 individual whales using photo-ID – Two of those whales came back 3 times each, and one of them was a whale nick-named “Buttons” who we had tracked in 2016 as well.

We also collected data on zooplankton – gray whale prey – in the area:

  • Collected 134 GoPro videos of the water column at the 12 kayak sample sites
  • Did approximately 147 zooplankton net tows
  • Collected 64 samples for community analysis to see what species of zooplankton were present
  • Collected 115 samples for energetic analysis to determine how many calories can be derived from each zooplankton
The 2017 field team. From left to right: Tom Calvanese (Field Station Manager), Florence Sullivan (Project Lead), Quince Nye, Maggie O’Rourke-Liggett, and Nathan Malamud. Photo credit: Alexa Kownacki

Since I began this project in 2015, I have been privileged to work with some truly fantastic interns.  Each year, I learned new lessons about how to be an effective mentor, and how to communicate our research goals and project needs more clearly. This year was no exception, and I worked hard to bring some of the things I’ve learned into my project planning.  As the team can tell you, science communication, and the benefits of building good will and strong community relationships were heavily emphasized over the course of the internship.  Everyone was encouraged to use every opportunity to engage with the public, explain our work, and pass on new things they had learned.  Whenever the team encountered other kayakers out on the water, we took the time to share any cool zooplankton samples we gathered that day, and explain the goals of our research.  Maggie and I also took the opportunity to give a pair of evening lectures at Humbug Mountain State Park, which were both well attended by curious campers.

Florence and Maggie give evening lectures at Humbug Mountain State Park

In addition, the team held a successful final community presentation on September 1 at the Port Orford Field Station that 45 people attended!  In the week leading up to the presentation, Quince and Nathan spent many long hours working diligently on the powerpoint presentation, while Maggie put together a video presentation of “the intern experience” (Click here for the video showcased on last week’s blog).  I am incredibly proud of Nathan and Quince, and the clear and confident manner in which they presented their experience to the audience who showed up to support them.  They easily fielded the following questions:

Q: “How do you tell the difference between a whale that is searching or foraging?”

A: When we look at the boundaries of our study site, a foraging whale consistently comes up to breathe in the same spot, while a searching whale covers a lot of distance going back and forth without leaving the general area.

Q: “How do we make sure that this program continues?”

A: Stay curious and support your students as they take on internships, support the field station as it seeks to provide resources, and if possible, donate to funds that raise money for research efforts.

Nathan talks about the plankton results during the final community presentation. photo credit: Alexa Kownacki
The audience during the final community presntation. photo credit: Alexa Kownacki
Quince and Nathan answer questions at the end of the community presentation. photo credit: Alexa Kownacki

When communicating science, it is important to results into context.  In addition to showcasing the possibilities of excellent research with positive community support, and just how much a trio of young people can grow over the course of 6 weeks, this summer has highlighted the value of long term monitoring studies, particularly when studying long-lived animals such as whales. We saw far fewer whales this summer than compared to the two previous years, and the whales spent much less time in the Port Orford area (Table 1). As a scientist, knowing where whales are not (absence data) is just as important as knowing where whales are (presence data), and these marked differences drive our hypotheses! What has changed in the system? What can explain the differences in whale behavior between years?  Does it have to do with food quality or availability?  (This is why we have been gathering all those zooplankton samples.) Does it have to do with other oceanographic factors or human activities?

Table 1. Summary of whale tracking efforts for the three seasons of field work in Port Orford.   Notice how in 2017 we only collected 194 whale location points (theodolite marks). This is about 92% less than in the previous years.

2015 2016 2017
Hours spent watching 72:49 148:30 108
Hours spent tracking 80:39* 82:30 11
Number of individuals 43 50 15
Number of theodolite marks 2483 2414 194

*we often tracked more than one individual simultaneously in 2015

Long term monitoring projects give us a chance to notice differences between years, and ask questions about what are normal fluctuations in the system, and what are abnormal. On top of that, projects like this create the opportunity for additional internships, and to mentor more students in the scientific method of investigation.  There is so much still to be explored in the Port Orford ecosystem, and I truly hope this program is able to continue.  If you are interested in making a monetary contribution to sustain this research and internship program, donations can be accepted here (gemm lab fund) and here (field station fund).

Quince records zooplankon sample weights in the wet lab.
Quince sorts through a zooplankton sample in the wet lab.
Nathan stores zooplankton community analysis samples
Maggie and Nathan out in the kayak
Quince and Maggie in the kayak
Maggie, Florence and Quince enjoy the eclipse!
Quince and Maggie bundle up on the cliff as they watch for whales.
Nathan and Quince organize data on the computer at the end of the day.
Quince and Nathan build sand castles as we wait for the fog to clear before launching the research kayak

This research and  student internships would not have been possible without the generous support from Oregon Sea Grant, the Oregon Coast STEM hub, the Port Orford Field Station, South Coast Tours, partnerships with the Bernard and Chapman labs, the OSU Marine Mammal Institute, and the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab.

Through the intern’s eyes; a video log of the 2017 gray whale foraging ecology project.

By: Maggie O’Rourke-Liggett, GEMM lab summer intern, Oregon State University

Enjoy this short video showcasing the intern experience from the gray whale foraging ecology project this summer. Check back next week for a recap of our preliminary results.

The passion of a researcher

By Quince Nye, GEMM Lab Summer Intern, Pacific High School Junior

I have spent a lot of my life surrounded by nature. I like to backpack, bike, dive, and kayak in these natural environments. I also have the luck of having parents who are always planning to take me on another adventure where I get to see nature and its inhabitants in ways most people don’t get to enjoy.

Through my backyard explorations, I have begun to realize that Port Orford has an amazing ecosystem in the coves and rivers that are very tied into our community. I’ve fished and swam in these rivers, gone on kayaking tours in these coves (with a great kayak company called South Coast Tours that we partner with), and I’ve seen the life that dwells in them.

Nathan and Maggie paddle out to Mill Rocks for early morning sample collection

Growing up in a school of less than 100 kids I have learned to never reject an opportunity to be a part of something bigger and learn from that experience. So when one of my close friends told me about an OSU project (a college I’m interested in attending) that needed interns to help collect data on gray whales, and kayak almost every day, I signed up without a doubt in my mind.

The team gets some good practice tracking Buttons (Whale #3).  Left to right; Quince, Nathan, Maggie, Florence.

Fast forward a month, and I wake up at 5:20 am. I eat breakfast and get to the Port Orford Field Station. We make a plan for the operations of both the kayak team and cliff team. Today, I’m part of the cliff team, so I head up above the station to Fort Point. Florence and I set up the theodolite and computer at the lookout point and start taking half hour watch shifts searching the horizon for the spout of a gray whale.  Sometimes you see one right away, but other times it feels like the whales are actively hiding from you. These are the times I wish Maggie was here with her endless supply of Disney soundtracks to help pass the hours.

Imitating a ship’s captain, Quince points toward our whale while shouting “Mark”.

A whale spouts out at Mill Rocks and starts heading across to the jetty. Hurray, its data collection time! I try to quickly move the cross-hairs of the theodolite onto the position of the whale using a set of knobs like those on an etch-a-sketch. As you may understand, it’s not an easy task at first but I manage to do it because I’ve been practicing for three weeks. I say “Mark!” cueing Florence to click a button in the program Pythagoras on the computer to record the whale’s position.

The left hand side of Buttons – notice the scatter of white markings on the upper back.

Meanwhile, Florence sees that the whale has two white spots where the fluke meets the knuckles. Those are identifying marks of the beloved whale, Buttons. This whale has been seen here since 2016 and is a fan favorite for our on-going research program. Florence gets just as excited every time and texts her eagerly awaiting interns of previous years all about the sighting. Of course Buttons is not the only whale to have identifying marks such as scars and pigmentation marks. This is why we make sure to get photos of the whales we spot, allowing us to do photo-ID analysis on them through comparison to our database of pictures from previous years.

Quince practices CPR protocol on a training mannequin on his first day.

So far I have gained skill after skill in this internship. I got CPR certified, took a kayak training class, learned how to use a theodolite, and have spent many educational (and frustrating) hours entering data in Excel. I joined the program because I was interested in all of these things. It surprised me that I was developing a relationship with the whales I’m researching. By the end of August I’m now sure that I will also know many of the whales by name. I will probably be much better at using an etch-a-sketch, and I will have had my first taste at what being a scientist is like. What I strive for, however, is to have the same look in my eyes that appears in Florence’s whenever a familiar whale decides to browse our kelp beds.

Curiosity and Community, new ways of exploring our environment.

By Nathan Malamud, GEMM Lab summer intern, Pacific High School senior

I am someone who has lived in a small town for all his life. Pretty much everyone knows each other by their first name and my graduating class only has around 20 people. Everywhere you look you will find a farm, ranch, or cranberry bog (even our school has two bogs of their own!). Because of my small town life, I have a strong sense of community. However, I have also developed a curiosity about natural and global phenomena. I try to connect these two virtues by participating in scientific efforts that help my community. When I heard that the OSU Port Orford Field Station was offering internships, I knew right away that it would definitely be a great experience for me.

The view from our field site at Fort Point in Port Orford

Port Orford, on Oregon’s southern coast, is a town that is closely tied to the ocean. So naturally, it’s important to understand and monitor our surroundings so that our town can thrive. Last year, my Marine Science class helped me further understand the complexity of the ocean. Our first semester taught us all about marine biology, zoology, and ecology. Our second semester immersed us into oceanography, ocean geology, and ocean chemistry. During the second semester, we also took trips to our town’s marine science center and to the marine reserve near Rocky Point. I loved this course and decided to try to expand my knowledge about the subject by going to the OSU Field Station.

Our safety instructor teaches takes us through basic paddling techniques

As an intern, I am currently working with three teammates to understand the feeding behavior of gray whales – what places they like to eat zooplankton the most and why they like to eat there. This whale project helps our community by Port Orford enabling high school students to perform college-level scientific research and inquiry, as well as allowing us to learn valuable skills such as CPR, surveying using a theodolite, working with chemicals in a lab, and data processing.

We had to learn how to rescue ourselves just in case we have an accident in the boat.
We all made it back in the boat!

This internship with OSU’s GEMM Lab has taught me many new skills and given me new experiences that I have never had before. Before this internship, I had never been in a kayak. Now, I go out on the water nearly every other day! When on the water, I always try to sharpen my navigating skills. I use a GPS to pinpoint the locations of our sampling stations, and I communicate to my partner where we need to go and how we will get there.

Its very important to stretch before kayaking every morning.

Once we are there, it is my job to keep the boat close to the station location so that my partner can get accurate samples. This part is a very tricky task, because not only do I have to pay attention to the GPS to make sure we are within 10 meters of the spot, but I also have to pay attention to my surroundings. I have to look at the ocean, and figure out what direction the waves are coming from. I have to watch how external forces, like wind and currents, can cause the boat to drift far from station, and I have to correct drifting with gentle paddle strokes. This is hard, especially since the kayak is so light and easy to get pushed around by the wind. However, despite the difficulty, I have learned that it is crucial not to panic. Frustration only makes things worse. The key is to maintain a harmonic balance of concentration and zen.

I have also learned that when collecting data in the field, it’s important to observe and document as much as possible. When we are in the kayak, we have 12 stations that we try to visit every day (as long as the weather cooperates). At each station, we first use a secchi disk to test the water clarity, then lower the GoPro to film the water column and see where the zooplankton are. Sometimes we catch other interesting things on the video too, such as siphonophores (my personal favorites are jellies and salps) and rockfish.

A siphonophore
A rockfish captured with our GoPro.

Next we tow a zooplankton net through the water, and let it collect zooplankton of all shapes and sizes, from tiny mysids to skeleton shrimp. Then we proceed to the next station and repeat the process. We have to remember to label everything, and tell the GoPro camera what station we’re at so we can sort all the information correctly when we get back to the field station. At the end of the day, we log our data into a computer, and preserve half our plankton samples with ethanol, so that we can identify the species present.  The other half gets frozen for caloric content analysis by our collaborator Dr. Kim Bernard to help us understand how much zooplankton a whale needs to eat to meet its energy needs each day.

By repeating this entire process every day, we are able to look at daily changes, which also helps us to better understand why whales spend time in certain areas and not others. Be sure to check out my teammate Maggie’s blog post about some of the tools and technologies we use to track the whales!

This whale project has been, and definitely still is, a great experience for me! I have learned a lot and have worked with some amazing people. I believe that I am learning many valuable skills, and that the skills I learn will allow me to help my community.

A Little Slice of Heaven

Guest writer: Maggie O’Rourke-Liggett, GEMM Lab summer intern, Oregon State University,

One of the biggest obstacles an undergraduate can face is fulfilling the degree requirement of completing an internship or research opportunity. With almost every university and degree program requiring it for graduation and many employers requiring prior experience, the amount of pressure and competition is intense.

After being rejected from the internships I applied for earlier in the year, I heard about Dr. Leigh Torres’s research with the Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab . I decided to email her and ask if she had any open positions. Fast-forward a few weeks and I am collaborating with Florence Sullivan, a recent masters graduate from OSU, on the logistics of my Gray Whale Foraging Behavior internship with the GEMM Lab.

 

My workstation while I conduct photo identification analysis in the field station classroom. The photos are displayed and organized in Adobe Bridge. Source: Maggie O’Rourke-Liggett

During my time with the GEMM Lab team, I have been assisting with photo identification analysis of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus), using a theodolite and Pythagoras computer program to track their movements, collecting samples of the zooplankton they eat, and recording other oceanographic data with our time-depth recorder. This project is hoping to identify the drivers of gray whale fine-scale foraging behavior.  For instance: Why do gray whales spend more time in some areas than others?  Does the type or density of prey affect their behavior? Do the whales use static features like kelp beds to help find their food? As a senior currently studying oceanography, who desires to study whale behavior in the future, this internship is like finding a gold mine.

Nathan Malamud, our other high school intern, and I working together to set up the theodolite in backyard during a practice run. Source: Florence Sullivan

Ever since day one at Hatfield Marine Science Center, I’ve been working with people who share the same passions for marine mammals as me. Spending hours upon hours sorting thousands of pictures may seem like a painful, tedious job, but knowing my work helps others to update existing identification catalogs makes it worthwhile. Plus, who wouldn’t want to look at whales all day?! After a while, you start to recognize specific individuals based on their various pigment configurations and scars. Once you can recognize individuals, it makes the sorting go by faster and helps with recognizing individual whales in the wild faster. It’s always exciting to sort through the photos and observe from the cliff or kayak and recognize a whale from the photo identification work.

After Florence taught me how to set up and operate the theodolite, a survey tool used to track a whale’s movements, we taught a class to undergrads on how to use it. I’ll never get over how people’s faces lit up when we discussed how the instrument works and its role in the overall mission.

Quince Nye, one of our high school interns, using side strokes to stabilize the kayak while I deploy our zooplankton net over the side with a down rigger. Source: Florence Sullivan

These past two weeks at OSU’s Port Orford Field Station have been like living on a little slice of heaven. My days are filled with clear views of the coast and the sound of waves crashing serve as a backdrop on my home for the month, the bed-and-breakfast turned field station. Each morning, the sun fills my room as I gather my gear for the day and help my teammates load the truck. We spend long days on the water collecting zooplankton samples and GoPro video or on the cliff recording whale behavior through the theodolite. To anyone searching for an internship and feeling burnt out from completing application after application, don’t give up. You’ll find your slice of heaven too.

Getting my Feet Wet: My first Dive into Marine Science

Guest Writer: Alyssa Gomez, GEMM Lab summer intern, University of Idaho, Doris Duke Conservation Scholar

 

Upon my arrival in Newport, OR, the sand greeted my toes, the sun my skin, and the ocean my heart. I’m an Idahoan and have yearned for the ocean my whole life, only getting glimpses of it here and there while on vacation. I have savored these memories, but for the summer of 2017, I no longer need to rely on the past. I’m only a hop, skip, and a jump away from tides and salty air until August 5th. Despite how distracting the scenery here may be, there is a lot of work to be done, as I am interning in the GEMM Lab, under the supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres, in collaboration with Craig Hayslip (Whale Telemetry Group) and Kaety Jacobson (Oregon Sea Grant).

 

In the short time I am here, my goal is to find out how probable it is for a gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) to be injured to the point of scarring, and what is causing this scarring. In order to do this, I’m analyzing thousands of photos of gray whales capture in Oregon waters, which span from 2012-2016. In these thousands of images, I am identifying both anthropogenic (i.e., from fishing gear or a vessel propeller) and natural (i.e., killer whale teeth rake marks) scarring, with most focus on the anthropogenic scars. This project is collaborative, not only in terms of the data we are looking at, but in terms of who will be looking at the data. Once I’ve compiled all of the scarred whale photos, we hope to have fishermen asses the photos as well, in order to identify causes of the scars. If they believe the scars are from entanglements in fishing gear, we will ask for their opinion on the type of fishing gear that caused the scar. Hopefully, with this type of collaboration, we will be able to better understand the complex relationship between fisheries and gray whales.

Kaety Jacobson explaining the many types of gear present on vessels docked in Newport, OR.

While whale entanglement events are rare, Dungeness crab fishing gear is often involved. Dungeness crab is a very important fishery for this region, both economically and culturally, with a large commercial fleet and many recreational fishers. Dungeness crab pots are stationary on the sea floor, often placed in near shore waters and left out for many days in between drop off and pickup, and sometimes even abandoned altogether. Because gray whales, specifically the Pacific Coast Feeding Group of gray whales, feed in the same habitat as many Oregon commercial and recreational crab gear, they sometimes get entangled in the lines. Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion on this entanglement issue and how to maintain fishery profits while reducing entanglements. A working group of scientists, crab fishers, and gear experts met in Portland in March of 2017 to discuss this issue. Dr. Leigh Torres was in attendance, and thus, my project was born. Our goal is to identify the body regions most often involved, describe gear types if possible, and quantify healing rates of scars. We are hoping that this information will fill in some knowledge gaps and help us come up with effective solutions to this entanglement issue.

Kaety showing me the ins and outs of crab pots on some abandoned gear.

This seems like a big undertaking for me, as I’ve never been exposed to marine science, let alone marine mammals and all of the analysis programs, protocols, etc., that I am now using daily. There is certainly a learning curve; however, I have exactly the support and the freedom needed in order to prosper and learn in the GEMM Lab. Leigh, Florence, Dawn, Leila, and some honorary guests of this lab have been exceptionally welcoming and inviting, not to mention all others here at Hatfield.  Each day is filled with countless new opportunities, such as dock walks, necropsies, field work, meetings, and seminars.  Although I haven’t been here long, I already know that this lab is a real GEMM. I’m excited for all that is yet to come.

Leigh and I collecting a gray whale fecal sample aboard Ruby.