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.

New Study Looks to Investigate the Potential Reintroduction of Sea Otters to Oregon

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

As I begin a new chapter as a grad student in the Marine Resource Management program at Oregon State University, the GEMM Lab is also entering into unchartered waters by expanding its focus to a new species outside the lab’s previous research portfolio. This project – which will be the focus of my thesis – will assess the potential reintroduction of sea otters to the Oregon coast through an examination of available habitat and ecological impacts. Before I explain how this project came to fruition, it’s important to understand why sea otter reintroduction to Oregon is relevant, and why this step is important to advance the conservation of these charismatic species.

While exact historical populations are unknown, sea otters were once abundant along the coasts of northern Japan, across Russia and Alaska, and down North America to Baja California, Mexico[1]. In the United States, specifically, sea otters were native to coastal waters along the entire west coast – including Oregon. However, beginning in the 1740’s sea otters were subject to intense and unsustainable hunting pressure from Russian, British, and American entrepreneurs seeking to sell their highly-valuable pelts in the lucrative fur trade[2].  Historical records suggest these hunters did not arrive in Oregon until the 1780’s, but from that point on the sea otter was exploited over the next several decades until the last known Oregon sea otter was killed in 1906 at Otter Rock, OR[3].

Pictured: Sea otter hunters near Coos Bay, OR in 1856. Photo Credit: The Oregon History Project.

After decades of intense pressure, sea otter numbers dropped to critically low levels and were thought to have gone extinct throughout most of their range. Luckily, remnant populations persisted and were later discovered in parts of Alaska, British Columbia, California, and Mexico beginning in the 1910’s. Since then sea otters have been the focus of intense conservation efforts. With the goal of augmenting their recovery, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game lead a series of translocation projects, where groups of sea otters were transported from Alaska to unoccupied habitats in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon (Note: these were not the only sea otter translocations.)1.

Pictured: Sea otters on glacier ice, northern Prince William Sound, Alaska. Photo Credit: Patrick J. Endres/

Fun Fact: For a marine mammal, sea otters have surprisingly little blubber. Luckily, they also have the densest fur of all animals – an estimated 1,000,000 hairs per square inch – that helps to keep them well-insulated from the cold.

Many of these projects are considered successful as sea otter populations grew, and continue to expand today. With a significant exception: sea otters mysteriously disappeared shortly after reintroduction into Oregon waters and the translocation effort failed. Many hypothesized what could have gone wrong – natural mortality, dispersal, conflicts with humans – but few have concrete answers. Aside from occasional reports of strandings and sightings of sea otters in Oregon coastal waters, no resident populations have formed. This is where my thesis project comes in.

Pictured: Cape Arago, OR – one of the unsuccessful translocation sites along the Oregon coast. Photo Credit:

With renewed interests from scientists, tribes, and the public, we are now revisiting this idea from a scientific perspective. Over the next two years, we will work to objectively assess the ecological aspects of sea otter reintroduction to Oregon to identify and fill current knowledge gaps, which will help inform decision-making processes by environmental managers. Throughout this process we will give consideration to not just the ecology and biology of sea otters, but the cultural, economic, and political relevance and implications of sea otter reintroduction. Much of this work will involve working with state and federal agencies, tribes, and other scientists to gain their insights and perspectives, which we will use to shape our research questions and analyses.

The process to move forward with bringing sea otters back to Oregon will no doubt take great effort by a lot of people, consultation, patience, and time. To date, we have been reviewing the relevant literature and meeting with local experts on this topic. Through these activities, we have determined the types of questions and information – suitable habitat and potential ecological impacts – of most need to managers. My goal is to conduct a meaningful, applied project as an objective scientist, and by gaining this type of feedback at the outset, I am to help managers make better-informed decisions. I hope my thesis can serve as a critical starting point to ensure a solid foundation that future Oregon-specific sea otter research can build from.


[1] Jameson et al. 1982. History and status of translocated sea otter populations in North America. Wildlife Society Bulletin. (10) 2: 100-107.

[2] The Oregon History Project: Sea Otter. Accessed September 2017. <>

[3] The Oregon History Project: Otter Hunting. Accessed September 2017. <>


Seabed mining permit approved in New Zealand blue whale habitat

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

In late February, we wrapped up our 2017 blue whale survey of the South Taranaki Bight region. Upon returning to port in Wellington, Leigh and I each located our one remaining clean shirt, drank a cup of coffee, and walked into a room full of lawyers in suits where Leigh testified in front of the Environmental Protection Authority’s (EPA) Decision Making Committee. The hearing was for Trans-Tasman Resources, Ltd. (TTR)’s application for a permit to extract 50 million tons of iron sands per year from the sea floor for a 35-year period. Our reason for being there? Leigh was called as an expert witness to present our findings on blue whale distribution and ecology in the region where the proposed mining operation will be so that the potential impacts could be properly evaluated by the Decision Making Committee. Talk about seeing an immediate application of your research!

A pair of blue whales observed in February 2017 in the South Taranaki Bight.

Fast forward several months. The decision of whether or not the permit will be granted has been delayed, more evidence has been requested and considered, Leigh has testified again via skype, and the decision has been delayed yet again. It is a contentious case, and people on both sides have grown impatient, concerned, and frustrated. Finally, the date and time of the decision announcement finds me nervously refreshing my browser window until I see the outcome: the mining permit has been approved.  It was a split decision by the committee of four, with the committee chair casting the deciding vote.

A schematic of the operations of the proposed seabed mine in the South Taranaki Bight. Source: Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (

While the Decision Making Committee was split on whether or not the permit should be approved, the constituency was not. During the hearing process, over 13,700 submissions were received, 99% of which were in opposition to the mining operation. Opposition came from Iwi (Maori tribes), commercial and recreational fishing industries, scientists, and residents of local coastal communities.

What does this mean for New Zealand, for the whales, for the ecosystem, for the future? This decision represents a landmark case that will surely set a new precedent. It is the first of its kind to be approved in New Zealand, and the first commercial scale seabed mining operation in the world. Other permit applications for seabed mines elsewhere will no doubt be submitted in the wake of the approval of TTR’s iron sands mining operation. The groups Kiwis Against Seabed Mining and Greenpeace New Zealand have announced that they will appeal the EPA’s decision in High Court, and TTR cannot begin dredging until all appeals are heard and two years of environmental monitoring have taken place.

So for the time being, life continues as usual for the blue whales. They will carry on feeding and raising their young in the South Taranaki Bight, where they already are surrounded by oil rigs, vessel traffic, and seismic airguns. In the meantime, above the water’s surface, many dedicated individuals are prepared to fight hard for environmental conservation. The blue whales will likely continue to unknowingly play a role in the decision-making process as our data demonstrate the importance of this region to their ecology, and the New Zealand public and media continue to learn about these iconic animals. The research effort I am part of has the potential to immediately and concretely influence policy decisions, and I sincerely hope that our findings will not fall on deaf ears in the appeal process. While we continue to provide biological evidence, politicians, the media, and the public need to emphasize the value of preserving biodiversity. These blue whales can be a figurehead for a more sustainable future for the region.

If you are interested in learning more, I invite you to take a minute to visit the web pages listed below.

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.

Life in the lab: notes from a lab meeting

By Florence Sullivan, MSc, Oregon State University

One of my favorite parts about working as a member of the GEMM lab is our monthly lab meeting. It’s a chance for everyone to share exciting news or updates about their research, discuss recent advances in our field, and of course, make the schedule for who is in charge of writing the blog each week!  Our fearless leader, Leigh, usually also has an exercise for us to complete. These have varied from writing and editing abstracts for conferences, conducting mock interviews of each other, reading and discussing relevant papers, R coding exercises, and other useful skills. Our most recent meeting featured an exciting announcement, as well as a really interesting discussion of the latest International Whaling Commission (IWC) reports of the scientific committee (SC) that I felt might be interesting to share with our readers.

First, the good news – Six GEMM lab members submitted abstracts to the 2017 Society of Marine Mammalogy Conference, and all six were accepted for either a speed talk or an oral presentation! We are very proud and excited to present our research and support each other at the conference in October.

And now, a little science history:

The IWC was originally formed as a management body, to regulate the global catch of great whales. However, it never had much legal power to enforce its edicts, and was largely ineffective in its task.  By 1986 whale populations had been decimated to such low numbers by commercial whaling efforts that a worldwide moratorium on harvest was imposed. The SC of the IWC meets on an annual basis, and is made up of leading experts in the field who give advice and recommendations to the commission.  If you are interested in seeing reports from over the years, follow this link to the IWC Archive.  The reports presented by the various sub committees of the Scientific Committee are dense, packed full of interesting information, but also contain lots of procedural minutiae.  Therefore, for this lab meeting, each of us took one of the 2017 Annexes, and summarized it for the group.

Alyssa and Dawn reviewed Annex J: Report of the working group on non-deliberate human induced mortality of cetaceans.  The report shared new data about scarring rates of bowhead whales in the Bering Sea, notably, that 2.4% of the population will acquire a new scar each year, and that by the time an individual is 25 years old, it has a 40% chance of being scarred from a human derived interaction. The study noted that advances in drone technology may be an effective tool to assess scarring rates in whale populations, but emphasized that it is important to examine stranded carcasses to ground truth the rates we are able to capture from aerial and boat based photography.  The discussion then turned to the section about ship strikes, where we learned that in a comparison of fresh scars on humpback whales, and rates of voluntarily reported ship strikes, collisions were vastly under reported. Here it was noted that injuries that did not cause visible trauma could still be lethal to cetaceans, and that even moderate speed collisions can cause non-immediate lethal injury.

Leila walked us through Annex K: Report of the standing working group on environmental concerns. This subcommittee was the first one formed by the SC, and their report touched on issues such as bioaccumulation of heavy metals in whales, global oil spill emergency response training, harmful algal blooms (HABs), marine debris, diseases of concern, strandings and related mortality, noise, climate change, loss of arctic sea ice, and models of cetacean reaction to these impacts.

A few notes of particular interest:

-PCBs and other toxins are known to accumulate in killer whales, but this report discussed high levels of lead and cadmium in gray whales, leading to the question of what might be the source – sediment deposits? Fish?

-Lots of research has been done on the outfall of HABs involving domoic acid; now there is a need for research on other types of HABs

-A website has been created to increase surveillance, diagnosis and risk management of cetacean diseases, and is currently being refined:

-Changing climate is prompting distribution shifts in a number of species, putting animals at risk of interactions with shipping lanes, and increasing contact with invasive species.

-Models of cetacean bioenergetics have found that being entangled has energy costs equivalent to migration or pregnancy. Another model found that naval noise increased the metabolic rate of individuals by 30%. Models are becoming more and more accurate and complex every year, and each new one helps provide a framework to begin to assess cumulative impacts of human-cetacean interactions.

To wrap things up, I gave a brief overview of Annex N: Report of the subcommittee on whalewatching. This report gave quick updates on a number of different whale watching research projects around the world:

-Humpback whales in Hawaii change their swim speed and dive time when they encounter vessels.

-Endangered humpbacks in the Arabian Sea may need management intervention because there have been minimal advances in standards and attitudes by whale watching outfits or recreational boaters in Oman.

-Increased interactions and close encounters may be eroding the protective social barriers between bottlenose dolphins and the public.  The committee emphasizes that cetacean habituation to humans is a serious conservation cause of concern.

After research updates, the document then details a review from the working group on swim-with-whale operations. They emphasize the need for a global database, and note that the Convention on Migratory Species and the World Cetacean Alliance are both conducting reviews of this section of the whale watching industry and that a collaboration could be beneficial. Finally, this committee often gives feedback to ongoing projects and local management efforts, but is not convinced that their recommendations are being put into practice.

As one reads this litany of issues that face cetaceans in the modern world, it can be quite disheartening. However, reports like these keep researchers up to date on the current state of knowledge, areas of concern, and questions that need answering.  They help us set our priorities and determine which piece of the puzzle we are capable of tackling.  For more on some of the projects that our lab has under taken to help tackle these issues, check out Leila’s work on stress in gray whales, Dawn’s work looking at blue whales in New Zealand, Solene’s work on humpback habitat selection, or my work on vessel interactions. Individually, it’s easy to feel small, but when you look through the archives of the IWC, and realize how far we’ve come from extractive management to active conservation, you realize that every little project adds to those before it, and together, we can make a difference.




“Marching for Science” takes many forms

By Florence Sullivan, MSc student, Oregon State University.

Earth day is a worldwide event celebrated annually on April 22, and is typically observed with beach, park, or neighborhood clean ups, and outreach events sponsored by environmental groups.  Last year, environmentalists rejoiced when 195 nations signed the Paris Agreement – to “strengthen global response to the threat of climate change by keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees C”.

GEMM Lab member Dawn Barlow helps carry the banner for the Newport, OR March for Science which over 600 people attended. photo credit: Maryann Bozza

This year, the enviro-political mood is more somber. Emotions in the GEMM Lab swing between anger and dismay to cautious optimism and hope. The anger comes from threatened budget cuts, the dismissal of climate science, and the restructuring of government agencies, while we find hope at the outpouring of support from our local communities, and the energy building behind the March for Science movement.

The Newport March for Science. photo credit: Maryann Bozza

What is perhaps most striking about the movement is how celebratory it feels. Instead of marching against something, we are marching FOR science, in all its myriad forms. With clever signs and chants like “The oceans are rising, and so are we”, “Science, not Silence”, and “We’re nerds, we’re wet, we’re really quite upset” (it rained on a lot of marches on Saturday) echoing around the globe, Saturday’s Marches for Science were a cathartic release of energy, a celebration of like-minded people.

Our competition room for NOSB 2017! Game officials are in the front of the picture, competitors at the first two desks, and parents, coaches and supporters in the back.

While millions of enthusiastic people were marching through the streets, I “Ran for Science” at the 20th annual National Ocean Science Bowl (NOSB) – delivering question sheets and scores between competitors and graders as 25 teams competed for the title of national champion! Over the course of the competition, teams of four high school students compete through rounds of buzzer-style multiple choice questions, worksheet style team challenge questions, and the Scientific Expert Briefing, a mock congressional hearing where students present science recommendations on a piece of legislation.  The challenges are unified with a yearly theme, which in 2017 was Blue Energy: powering the planet with our ocean.  Watching the students (representing 33 states!) compete is exciting and inspiring, because they obviously know the material, and are passionate about the subject matter.  Even more encouraging though, is realizing that not all of them plan to look for jobs as research scientists. Some express interest in the arts, some in policy, or teaching or engineering. This competition is not just about fostering the next generation of leading marine scientists, but rather about creating an ocean-literate, and scientifically-literate populace.  So, congratulations to Santa Monica High School, who took home the national title for the first time this year! Would you like to test your knowledge against some of the questions they faced? Try your luck here!

Santa Monica competes in the final round

The GEMM Lab also recently participated in the Hatfield Marine Science Center’s Marine Science Day.  It’s an annual open house where the community is invited to come tour labs, meet scientists, get behind the scenes, and learn about all the exciting research going on.  For us as researchers, it’s a great day to practice explaining our work and its relevance to many different groups, from school children to parents and grandparents, from artists to fishermen to teachers, fellow researchers, and many others.  This year the event attracted over 2,000 people, and the GEMM Lab was proud to be a part of this uniquely interactive day.  Outreach events like this help us feel connected to our community and the excitement present in all the questions field during this event reassure us that the public still cares about the work that we do.

Lab members Florence, Leila, and Dawn (L to R) answer questions from the public.

Our science is interdisciplinary, and we recognize the strength of multiple complimentary avenues of action to affect change.  If you are looking to get involved, consider taking a look at these groups:

500 Women Scientists: “working to promote a diverse and inclusive scientific community that brings progressive science-based solutions to local and global challenges.” Read their take on the March for Science.

314Action: starting from Pi (3.14), their mission is “to (1) strengthen communication among the STEM community, the public and our elected officials, (2) Educate and advocate for and defend the integrity of science and its use, (3) Provide a voice for the STEM community on social issues, (4) Promote the responsible use of data driven fact based approaches in public policy and (5) Increase public engagement with the STEM Community through media.”

She should run: “A movement working to create a culture that inspires women and girls to aspire towards public leadership. We believe that women of all backgrounds should have an equal shot at elected leadership and that our country will benefit from having a government with varied perspectives and experiences.”

And finally, The March for Science is finishing up it’s week of action, culminating in the People’s Climate March on April 29.

How will you carry the cause of science forward?


Reporting back on the Whales in a Changing Ocean Conference

Solène Derville, Entropie Lab, Institute of Research for Development, Nouméa, New Caledonia (Ph.D. student under the co-supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres)

My flight back to New Caledonia gives me time to think and process all that I have experienced in the last few days. From April 4th to 6th, I had the great opportunity to attend the “Whales in a Changing Ocean” conference held in Nuku’alofa, in the Kingdom of Tonga. This conference organized by SPREP (Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme) as part of the “Protect Pacific Whales – Ocean Voyagers” campaign brought together members of the Pacific Island governments, whale-watching operators, NGOs, IGOS and scientists.

Opening ceremony

As a relatively novice PhD student studying humpback whale spatial ecology in New Caledonia this was my first experience attending a conservation and management focused conference. To be completely honest, when I was asked to attend the conference as part of the work I am conducting on the effect of environmental changes on humpbacks of the South Pacific breeding grounds, I gladly accepted the offer, as an opportunity for me to learn more about the political mechanisms underlying international conservation plans. However, I was a little sceptical as to what tangible outputs could come out of such event. How would the science be integrated into this rather political event? How many delegations would be able to make it? Would they manage to agree on strong objectives regarding the conservation of cetaceans in the region?

Leena Riekkola, a PhD student at University of Auckland, and I with traditional flower necklaces offered by the organizers

On the first day of the conference, we sat through several hours of formal opening ceremony and comments from the governmental delegations that had travelled to Tonga from all over the Pacific: Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, Niue, French Polynesia, New Zealand, Australia, the Cook Islands, Palau, Fiji and many others. These comments mainly consisted of a succession of (well deserved) acknowledgments to the Tongan government for hosting the event and the enumeration of the endless list of threats faced by cetaceans in the region. Despite the tedious nature of this inevitable display of etiquette, I was impressed by the sight of all these governmental and non-governmental delegations sitting around the same table to discuss the future of whales. I was surprised to hear a note of emotion in several of the speeches that day. I clearly had not realized how valuable whales are to the Pacific islanders. Valuable economically of course, as whale watching is one of the most important drivers of tourism to several of these islands, most of all to Tonga. But also importantly, whales and dolphins bear a strong cultural value to the people of the Pacific. Many of the attendees shared stories and legends about whales, and I quickly realized that these animals were indeed a “cultural heritage” that people were eager to protect and preserve.

The next two days of the conference were built around a series of plenaries and workshops surrounding 3 themes: sustainable whale-watching, scientific research and emerging threats. While I was initially a bit lost and did not quite understand where all of this was going, I progressively saw several recommendations and objectives emerging from the discussions. By the end of the conference, I realized how much had been accomplished in only three days and that these achievements were more than just words. Four main outcomes resulted from this conference:

  • The commitment to adopt and sign a Pacific Island Year of the Whale Declaration by 11 nations/territories of the region (out of 21), namely: Australia, the Cook Islands, Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Tokelau and Tuvalu. Not all of the governmental representatives were able to sign but it is likely that some will join later.

  • The agreement to a voluntary commitment to “Protect, conserve and restore whale populations in the Pacific islands, which will be presented at the UN Oceans conference in June 2017.
  • A technical and scientific input from international working groups to help establish the next SPREP Whale and Dolphin Action Plan for 2018-2023

  • Tonga’s announcement of a whale sanctuary in their waters.

    Governmental representatives group photo after signing the Pacific Island Year of the Whale Declaration

Whether these declarations of intentions and recommendations will actually lead to tangible actions in the short term, I could not tell. But I am glad I got the opportunity to witness the very first regional conference on whales in the Pacific Islands, and the celebration of these beautiful creatures and their place in Pacific cultures.

How Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS, aka “drones”) are being applied in conservation research

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


Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as “drones”, have been increasingly used in many diverse areas. Concerning field research, the use of drones has brought about reduced errors, increased safety and survey efforts, among other benefits, as described in a previous blog post of mine.

Several study groups around the world have been applying this new technology to a great variety of research applications, aiding in the conservation of certain areas and their respective fauna and flora. Examples of these studies include forest monitoring and tree cover analyses, .

Using drones for forest monitoring and tree cover analyses allows for many applications, such as biodiversity and tree height monitoring, forest classification and inventory, and plant disease and detection. The Ugalla Primate Project, for example, performed an interesting study on tree coverage mapping in western Tanzania (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Tree coverage analyses in Tanzania.
Source: Conservation Drones, 2016.


The access to this data (not possible before from the ground) and the acquired knowledge on tree density and structure were important to better understand how wild primates exploit a mosaic landscape. Here is a video about this project:


Forest restoration activities can also be monitored by drones. Rainforests around the world have been depleted through deforestation, partly to open up space for agriculture. To meet conservation goals, large areas are being restored to rainforests today (Elsevier 2015). It is important to monitor the success of the forest regeneration and to ensure that the inspected area is being replenished with the right vegetation. Since inspection events can be costly, labor intensive and time consuming, drones can facilitate these procedures, making the monitoring process more feasible.

Zahawi et al. (2015) conducted an interesting study in Costa Rica, being able to keep up with the success of the forest regeneration. They were also able to spot many fruit-eating birds important for forest regeneration (eg. mountain thrush, black guan and sooty-capped bush tanager). Researchers concluded that the automation of the process lead to equally accurate results.

Drones can also be used to inspect areas for illegal logging and habitat destruction. Conservationists have struggled to identify illegal activities, and the use of drones can accelerate the identification process of these activities and help to monitor their spread and ensure that they do not intersect with protected areas.

The Amazon Basin Conservation Association Los Amigos conservancy concession (LACC) has been monitoring 145,000 hectars of the local conservation area. Illegal gold mining and logging activities were identified (Figure 2) and drones have aided in tracking the spread of these activities and the progress of reforestation efforts.

Figure 2: Identification of illegal activities in the Amazon Basin.
Source: NPR, 2015.


Another remarkable project was held in Mexico, in one of the most important sites for monarch butterflies in the country: the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Around 10 hectars of vital trees were cut down in the reserve during 2013-2015, and a great decrease of the monarch population was perceived. The reserve did not allow researchers to enter in the area for inspection due to safety concerns. Therefore, drones were used and were able to reveal the illegal logging activity (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Identification of illegal logging at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, Mexico.
Source: Take Part, 2016.


Regarding the use of drones for mapping vulnerable areas, this new technology can be used to map potential exposed areas to avoid catastrophes. Concerning responses to fires or other natural disasters, drones can fly immediately, while planes and helicopters require a certain time. The drone material also allows for operating successfully under challenging conditions such as rain, snow and high temperatures, as in the case of fires. Data can be assessed in real time, with no need to have firefighters or other personnel at a dangerous location anymore. Drones can now fulfill this role. Examples of drone applications in this regard are the detection, monitoring and support for catastrophes such as landslides, tsunamis, ship collisions, volcanic eruptions, nuclear accidents, fire scenes, flooding, storms and hurricanes, and rescue of people and wildlife at risk. In addition, the use of a thermal image camera can better assist in rescue operations.

Researchers from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) are developing a system to detect forest fires by using a color index (Cruz et al. 2016). This index is based on vegetation classification techniques that have been adapted to detect different tonalities for flames and smoke (Figure 4). This new technique would result in more cost-effective outcomes than conventional systems (eg. helicopters, satellites) and in reaching inaccessible locations.

Figure 4: Fire detection with Forest Fire Detection Index (FFDI) in different scenes.
Source: UPM, 2016.


Marine debris detection by drones is another great functionality. The right localization and the extent of the problem can be detected through drone footage, and action plans for clean-ups can be developed.

A research conducted by the Duke University Marine Lab has been detecting marine debris on beaches around the world. They indicate that marine debris impacts water quality, and harms wildlife (eg. whales, sea birds, seals and sea turtles) that might confuse floating plastic with food. You can read a bit more about their research and its importance for conservation ends here.

Drones are also being extensively used for wildlife monitoring. Through drone footage, researchers around the world have been able to detect and map wildlife and habitat use, estimate densities and evaluate population status, detect rare behaviors, combat poaching, among others. One of the main benefits of using a drone instead of using helicopters or airplanes, or having researchers in the area, is the lower disturbance it may cause on wildlife.

A research team from Monash University is using drones for seabird monitoring in remote islands in northwestern Australia (Figure 5). After some tests, researchers were able to detect which altitude (~75 meters) the drone would not cause any disturbances to the birds. Results achieved by projects like this should be used in the future for approaching the species safely.

Figure 5: Photograph taken by a drone of a crested tern colony on a remote island in Australia.
Source: Conservation Drones, 2014.


Drones are also being used to combat elephant and rhino poaching in Africa. They are being implemented to predict, trace, track and catch suspects of poaching. The aim is to reduce the number of animals being killed for the detusking and dehorning practices and the illegal trade. You can read more about this theme here. The drone application on combating one of these illegal practices is also shown here in this video.

As if the innovation of this device alone was not enough, drones are also being used to load other tools. A good example is the collection of whale breath samples by attaching Petri dishes or sterile sponges in the basal part of the drones.

The collection of lung samples allows many health-monitoring applications, such as the analysis of virus and bacteria loads, DNA, hormones, and the detection of environmental toxins in their organisms. This non-invasive physiological tool, known as “Snotbot”, allows sampling collection without approaching closely the individuals and with minimal or no disturbance of the animals. The following video better describes about this amazing project:

It is inspiring to look at all of these wonderful applications of drones in conservation research. Our GEMM Lab team is already applying this great tool in the field and is hoping to support the conservation of wildlife.




Conservation Drones. 2014. Conservation Drones for Seabird Monitoring. Available at:

Conservation Drones. 2016. Tree cover analyses in Tanzania in collaboration with Envirodrone. Available at:

Cruz H, Eckert M, Meneses J and Martínez JF. 2016. Efficient Forest Fire Detection Index for Application in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs). Sensors 16(893):1-16.

Elsevier. 2015. Drones Could Make Forest Conservation Monitoring Significantly Cheaper: new study published in the Biological Conservation wins Elsevier’s Atlas award for September 2015. Available at: significantly-cheaper

NPR. 2015. Eyes In The Sky: Foam Drones Keep Watch On Rain Forest Trees. Available at:

Take Part. 2016. Drones Uncover Illegal Logging in Critical Monarch Butterfly Reserve. Available at:

UPM. 2016. New automatic forest fire detection system by using surveillance drones. Available at:

Zahawi RA, Dandois JP, Holl KD, Nadwodny D, Reid JL and Ellis EC. 2015. Using lightweight unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor tropical forest recovery. Biological Conservation 186:287–295.


What it looks like when science meets management decisions

Dr. Leigh Torres
GEMM Lab, OSU, Marine Mammal Institute

It’s often difficult to directly see the application of our research to environmental management decisions. This was not the case for me as I stepped off our research vessel Tuesday morning in Wellington and almost directly (after pausing for a flat white) walked into an environmental court hearing regarding a permit application for iron sands mining in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) of New Zealand (Fig. 1). The previous Thursday, while we surveyed the STB for blue whales, I received a summons from the NZ Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to appear as an expert witness regarding blue whales in NZ and the potential impacts of the proposed mining activity by Trans-Tasman Resources Ltd. (TTR) on the whales. As I sat down in front of the four members of the EPA Decision Making Committee, with lawyers for and against the mining activity sitting behind me, I was not as prepared as I would have liked – no business clothes, no powerpoint presentation, no practiced summary of evidence. But, I did have new information, fresh perspective, and the best available knowledge of blue whales in NZ. I was there to fill knowledge gaps, and I could do that.

Figure 1. Distribution map of blue whale sightings (through Nov 2016) in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) of New Zealand, color-coded by month. Also identified are the current locations of oil and gas platforms (black flags) and the proposed area for seabed mining (yellow polygon). The green stars denote the location of our hydrophones within the STB that record blue whale vocalizations. The source of the upwelling plume at Kahurangi Point, on the NW tip of the South Island, is also identified.

For over an hour I was questioned on many topics. Here are a few snippets:

Why should the noise impacts from the proposed iron sands mining operation on blue whales be considered when seismic survey activity produces noise 1,000 to 100,000 times louder?

My answer: Seismic survey noise is very loud, but it’s important to note that seismic and mining noises are two different types of sound sources. Seismic surveys noise is an impulsive noise (a loud bang every ~8 seconds), while the mining operation will produce non-impulsive (continuous) sound. Also, the mining operation will likely be continuous for 32 years. Therefore, these two sound sources are hard to compare. It’s like comparing the impacts of listening to pile driving for a month, and listening to a vacuum cleaner for 32 years. What’s important here is to considering the cumulative effects of both these noise sources occurring at the same time: pile driving on top of vacuum cleaner.


How many blue whales have been sighted within 50 km of the proposed mining site?

My answer: Survey effort in the STB has been very skewed because most marine mammal sighting records have come from marine mammal observers aboard seismic survey vessels that primarily work in the western regions of the STB, while the proposed mining site is in the eastern region. So at first glance at a distribution map of blue whale sightings (Fig. 1) we may think that most of the blue whales are found in the western region of the STB, but this is incorrect because we have not accounted for survey effort.

During our past three surveys in the STB we have surveyed closer to the proposed mining site. In 2014 our closest point of survey approach to the mining site was 26 km, and our closest sighting was 63 km away. In 2016, we found no whales north of 40’ 30” in the STB and the closest sighting was 107 km away from the proposed mining site, but this was a different oceanographic year due to El Niño conditions. During this recent survey in 2017, our closest point of survey approach to the proposed mining site was 22 km, and our closest sighting was 29 km, with a total of 9 sightings of 16 blue whales within 50 km of the proposed mining site. With all reported sighting records of blue whales tabulated, there have been 16 sightings of 33 blue whales within 50 km of the proposed mining site. Considering the minimal survey effort in this region, this is actually a relatively high number of blue whale sighting records near the proposed mining site.

Additionally, we have a hydrophone located 18.8 km from the proposed mining site. We have only analyzed the data from January through June 2016 so far, but during this period we have an 89% daily detection rate of blue whale calls.


Why are blue whales in the STB and where else are they found in NZ?

My answer: A  wind-driven upwelling system occurs off Kahurangi Point (Fig. 1) along the NW coast of the South Island. This upwelling brings nutrient rich deep water to the surface where it meets the sunlight causing primary productivity to begin. Currents push these productive plumes of water into the STB and zooplankton, such as krill that is the main prey item of blue whales, aggregate in these productive areas to feed on the phytoplankton. Blue whales spend time in the STB because they depend on the predictability of these large krill aggregations in the STB to feed efficiently.

Sightings of blue whales have been reported in other areas around New Zealand, but nowhere with regular frequency or abundance. There may be other areas where blue whales feed occasionally or regularly in New Zealand waters, but these areas have not been documented yet. We don’t know very much about these newly documented New Zealand blue whales, yet what we do know is that the STB is an important foraging area for these animals.


Questions like these went on and on, and I was probed with many insightful questions. Yet, the question that sticks with me now was asked by the Chair of the Decision Making Committee regarding the last sentence in my submitted evidence where I remarked on the importance of recognizing the innate right of animals to live in their habitat without disturbance. “This sounds like an absolute statement,” claimed the Chair, “like no level of disturbance is tolerable”. I was surprised by the Chair’s focus on this statement over others. I reiterated my opinion that we, as a society, need to recognize the right of all animals to live in undisturbed habitats whenever we consider any new human activity. “That’s why we are all here today”, I explained to the committee, “to recognize and evaluate the potential impacts of TTR’s proposed mining operation on blue whales, and other animals, in the STB”. Undisturbed habitat may not always be achievable, but when we make value-based decisions regarding permitting industrial projects we need to recognize biodiversity’s right to live in uncompromised environments.

I do not envy this Decision Making Committee, as over three weeks they are hearing evidence from all sides on a multitude of topics from environmental, to economic, to cultural impacts of the proposed mining operation. They will be left with the very hard task of balancing all this information and deciding to approve or decline the mining permit, which would be a first in NZ and may open the floodgates of seabed mining in the country. My only hope is that our research on blue whales in NZ over the last five years has filled knowledge gaps, allowing the Decision Making Committee to fully appreciate the importance of the STB habitat to NZ blue whales, and appropriately consider the potential impacts of TTR’s proposed mining activities on this unique population.

A blue whale surfaces in a calm sea in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand (Photo L. Torres).