More than just whales: The importance of studying an ecosystem

 

By Dawn Barlow, PhD student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

I have the privilege of studying the largest animals on the planet: blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus). However, in order to understand the ecology, distribution, and habitat use patterns of these ocean giants, I have dedicated the past several months to studying something much smaller: krill (Nyctiphanes australis). New Zealand’s South Taranaki Bight region (“STB”, Figure 1) is an important foraging ground for a unique population of blue whales [1,2]. A wind-driven upwelling system off of Kahurangi Point (the “X” in Figure 1) generates productivity in the region [3], leading to an abundance of krill [4], the desired blue whale prey [5].

Our blue whale research team collected a multitude of datastreams in three different years, including hydroacoustic data to map krill distribution throughout our study region. The summers of 2014 and 2017 were characterized by what could be considered “typical” conditions: A plume of cold, upwelled water curving its way around Cape Farewell (marked with the star in Figure 1) and entering the South Taranaki Bight, spurring a cascade of productivity in the region. The 2016 season, however, was different. The surface water temperatures were hot, and the whales were not where we expected to find them.

Figure 2. Sea surface temperature maps of the South Taranaki Bight region in each of our three study years. The white circles indicate where most blue whale sightings were made in each year. Note the very warm temperatures in 2016, and more westerly location of blue whale sightings.

What happened to the blue whales’ food source under these different conditions in 2016? Before I share some preliminary findings from my recent analyses, it is important to note that there are many possible ways to measure krill availability. For example, the number of krill aggregations, as well as how deep, thick, and dense those aggregations are in an area will all factor into how “desirable” krill patches are to a blue whale. While there may not be “more” or “less” krill from one year to the next, it may be more or less accessible to a blue whale due to energetic costs of capturing it. Here is a taste of what I’ve found so far:

In 2016, when surface waters were warm, the krill aggregations were significantly deeper than in the “typical” years (ANOVA, F=7.94, p <0.001):

Figute 3. Boxplots comparing the median krill aggregation depth in each of our three survey years.

The number of aggregations was not significantly different between years, but as you can see in the plot below (Figure 4) the krill were distributed differently in space:

Figure 4. Map of the South Taranaki Bight region with the number of aggregations per 4 km^2, standardized by vessel survey effort. The darker colors represent areas with a higher density of krill aggregations. 

While the bulk of the krill aggregations were located north of Cape Farewell under typical conditions (2014 and 2017), in the warm year (2016) the krill were not in this area. Rather, the area with the most aggregations was offshore, in the western portion of our study region. Now, take a look at the same figure, overlaid with our blue whale sighting locations:

Figure 5. Map of standardized number of krill aggregations, overlaid with blue whale sighting locations in red stars.

Where did we find the whales? In each year, most whale encounters were in the locations where the most krill aggregations were found! Not only that, but in 2016 the whales responded to the difference in krill distribution by shifting their distribution patterns so that they were virtually absent north of Cape Farewell, where most sightings were made in the typical years.

The above figures demonstrate the importance of studying an ecosystem. We could puzzle and speculate over why the blue whales were further west in the warm year, but the story that is emerging in the krill data may be a key link in our understanding of how the ecosystem responds to warm conditions. While the focus of my dissertation research is blue whales, they do not live in isolation. It is through understanding the ecosystem-scale story that we can better understand blue whale ecology in the STB. As I continue modeling the relationships between oceanography, krill, and blue whales in warm and typical years, we are beginning to scratch the surface of how blue whales may be responding to their environment.

  1. Torres LG. 2013 Evidence for an unrecognised blue whale foraging ground in New Zealand. New Zeal. J. Mar. Freshw. Res. 47, 235–248. (doi:10.1080/00288330.2013.773919)
  2. Barlow DR et al. 2018 Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger. Species Res. 36, 27–40. (doi:https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00891)
  3. Shirtcliffe TGL, Moore MI, Cole AG, Viner AB, Baldwin R, Chapman B. 1990 Dynamics of the Cape Farewell upwelling plume, New Zealand. New Zeal. J. Mar. Freshw. Res. 24, 555–568. (doi:10.1080/00288330.1990.9516446)
  4. Bradford-Grieve JM, Murdoch RC, Chapman BE. 1993 Composition of macrozooplankton assemblages associated with the formation and decay of pulses within an upwelling plume in greater cook strait, New Zealand. New Zeal. J. Mar. Freshw. Res. 27, 1–22. (doi:10.1080/00288330.1993.9516541)
  5. Gill P. 2002 A blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) feeding ground in a southern Australian coastal upwelling zone. J. Cetacean Res. Manag. 4, 179–184.

Understanding sea otter effects through complexity

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

Species reintroductions are a management strategy to augment the reestablishment or recovery of a locally-extinct or extirpated species into once native habitat. The potential for reestablishment success often depends on the species’ ecological characteristics, habitat requirements, and relationship and effects to other species in the environment[1]. While the science behind species reintroductions is continuously evolving and improving, reintroductions are still inherently risky and uncertain in nature. Therefore, every effort should be made to fully assess ecological factors before a reintroduction takes place. As Oregon considers a potential sea otter reintroduction, understanding these ecological factors is an important piece of my own graduate research.

Sea otters are oftentimes referred to as keystone species because they can have wide-reaching effects on the community structure and function of nearshore marine environments. Furthermore, relative to other marine mammals or top predators, several papers have documented these effects – partially due to the ease in observing their foraging and social behaviors, which typically take place close to shore. In many of these studies, a classic paradigm repeatedly appears: when sea otters are present, prey densities (e.g., sea urchins) are significantly reduced, while macroalgae (e.g., kelp, seagrass) densities are high.

Source: Belleza.

While this paradigm is widely-accepted amongst researchers, a few key studies have also demonstrated that the effects of sea otters may be more variable than we once thought. The paradigm does not necessarily hold true everywhere sea otters exist, or at least not to the same degree. For example, after observing benthic communities along islands with varying sea otter densities in the Aleutian archipelago, Alaska, researchers found that islands with abundant otter populations consistently supported low sea urchin densities and high, yet variable, kelp densities. In contrast, islands without otters consistently had low kelp densities and high, yet variable, urchin densities[2]. This study demonstrates that while the classic paradigm generally held true, the degree to which the ecosystem belonged to one of two dominant states (sea otters, low urchins, and high kelp or no sea otters, high urchins, and low kelp) was less obvious.

This example demonstrates the danger in applying this one-size-fits-all paradigm to sea otter effects. Hence, we want to achieve a better understanding of potential sea otter effects so that managers may anticipate how Oregon’s nearshore environments may be affected if sea otters were to be reintroduced. Yet, how can we accurately anticipate these effects given these potential variations and deviations from the paradigm? Interestingly, if we look to other fields outside ecology, we find a possible solution and tool for tackling these uncertainties: a systematic review of available literature.

Two ecosystem states as predicted by the classic paradigm (left: kelp-dominated; right: urchin-dominated). Source: SeaOtters.com.

For decades, medical researchers have been conducting systematic reviews to assess the efficacy of treatments and drugs by combining several studies to find common findings[3]. These findings can then be used to determine any potential variation between studies (i.e. instances where the results may conflict or differ from one another) and even test the influence and importance of key factors that may be driving that variation[4]. While systematic reviews are quite popular within the medical research field, they have not been applied regularly in ecology, but recognition of their application to ecological questions is growing[5]. In our case of achieving a better understanding of the drivers of ecological impacts of sea otter, a systematic literature review is an ideal tool to assess variable effects. This review will be the focus of my second thesis chapter.

In conducting my review, there will be three distinct phases: (1) review design and study collection, (2) meta-analysis, and (3) factor testing. In the first phase (review design and study collection), I will search the existing literature to collect studies that explicitly compare the availability of key ecosystem components (i.e. prey species, non-prey species, and macroalgae species) when sea otters are absent and present in the environment. By only including studies that make this comparison, I will define effects as the proportional change in each species’ or organism group’s availability (e.g. abundance, biomass, density, etc.) with and without sea otters. In determining these effects, it’s important to recognize that sea otters alter ecosystems via both direct and indirect pathways. Direct effects can be thought of as any change to prey availability via sea otter predation directly, while indirect effects can be thought of an any alteration to the broader ecosystem (i.e. non-prey species, macroalgae, habitat features) as an indirect result from sea otter predation on prey species. I will record both types of effects.

General schematic of a meta-analysis in a systematic review. A meta-analysis is the process of taking multiple datasets (i.e. Data 1, Data 2 etc.) from literature sources, calculating summary statistics or effects (i.e. Summary 1, Summary 2, etc.) for each dataset, running statistical procedures (e.g. SMA = sequential meta-analysis) to relate summary effects and investigate between study variation, and identifying important features driving variation. Source: MediCeption.

In phase two, I will use meta-analytical procedures (i.e. statistical analyses specific to systematic reviews) to calculate one standardized metric to represent sea otter effects. These effects will be calculated and averaged across all collected studies. As previously discussed, there may be key factors – such as sea otter density – that influence these effects. Therefore, in phase three (factor testing), effects will also be calculated separately for each a priori factor to test their influence on the effects. Such factors may include habitat type (i.e. hard or soft sediment), prey species (i.e. sea urchins, crabs, clams, etc.), otter density, depth, or time after otter recolonization.

In statistical terms, the goal of testing factors is to see if the variation between studies is impacted by calculating sea otter effects separately for each factor versus across all studies. In other words, if we find high variation in effects between studies, there may be important factors driving that variation. Therefore, in systematic reviews, we recalculate effects separately for each factor to try to explain that variation. If, however, after testing these factors, variation remains high, there may be other factors that we didn’t test that could be driving that remaining variation. Yet, without a priori knowledge on what those factors could be, such variation should be reported as a major source of uncertainty.

Source: Giancarlo Thomae.

Predicting or anticipating the effects of reintroduced species is no easy feat. In instances where the ecological role of a species is well known – and there is adequate data – researchers can develop and use ecosystem models to predict with some certainty what these effects may be. Yet, in other cases where the species’ role is less studied, has less data, or is more variable, researchers must look to other tools – such as systematic reviews – to gain a better understanding of these potential effects. In this case, a systematic review on sea otter effects may prove particularly useful in helping managers understand what types of ecological effects of sea otters in Oregon are most likely, what the important factors are, and, after such review, what we still don’t know about these effects.

References:

[1] Seddon, P. J., Armstrong, D. P., and R. F. Maloney. 2007. Developing the science of reintroduction biology. Conservation Biology. 21(2): 303-312.

[2] Estes, J. A., Tinker, M. T., and J. L. Bodkin. 2009. Using ecological function to develop recovery criteria for depleted species: sea otters and kelp forests in the Aleutian Archipelago. Conservation Biology. 24(3): 852-860.

[3] Sutton, A. J., and J. P. T. Higgins. 2008. Recent developments in meta-analysis. Statistics in Medicine. 27: 625-650.

[4] Arnqvist, G., and D. Wooster. 1995. Meta-analysis: synthesizing research findings in ecology and evolution. TREE. 10(6): 236-240.

[5] Vetter, D., Rucker, G., and I. Storch. 2013. Meta-analysis: a need for well-defined usage in ecology and conservation biology. Ecosphere. 4(6): 1-13.

Oregon sea otter reintroduction: opinions, perspectives, and theories

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

Species reintroductions can be hotly contested issues because they can negatively impact other species, ecosystems, and society, as well as failing, altogether. The uncertainty of their outcomes forces stakeholder groups to form their own opinions on whether it’s a good idea to proceed with a reintroduction. When you have several groups with conflicting values and views, managers need to focus on the information most important for them to make a well-informed decision on whether to pursue a reintroduction.

As researchers, we can play an important role by carefully considering and addressing these views through our research, if the appropriate data is available. Despite being in the early days of our study on the potential sea otter reintroduction to Oregon, we have already heard several perspectives regarding its potential success, the type of research we should do, and if sea otters should be brought back to Oregon. Here, I present some of the most interesting and relevant opinions, perspectives, and theories I’ve heard regarding this reintroduction idea.

Source: Suzi Eszterhas

The first reintroduction failed because of X, Y, and Z.

From 1970-1971, managers translocated 93 sea otters to Oregon in a reintroduction effort (Jameson et al. 1982). However, in a matter of 5-6 years, all sea otters disappeared, and the effort was considered a failure. Researchers have theorized that sea otters left Oregon due to a lack of suitable habitat and prey, or to return home to sites from which they were captured. Others have reasoned that managers should have introduced southern sea otters instead of northern sea otters, suggesting one subspecies’ genetic pre-disposition may improve their chance for survival.

Knowing the reasons for this failure may help managers avoid these causes in a future reintroduction attempt and increase its chance of success. We, as scientists, can also gain insight from knowing these causes because this may help us better tailor our research to potentially investigate whether those causes still pose a threat to sea otters during a second attempt. Unfortunately, we lack concrete evidence on what exactly caused this failure, but we can still work to test some these theories.

Source: Mike Baird.

An otter is an otter, no matter where you put it.

There is evidence that northern and southern sea otters are genetically distinct, to a certain degree (Valentine et al. 2008, Larson et al. 2012), and hypotheses have been put forward that the two subspecies may be behaviorally- and ecologically-distinct, too. Studies have shown that northern and southern sea otters have different sized and shaped skulls and teeth, which researchers hypothesize may be a specialized foraging adaptation for consuming different prey species (Campbell & Santana 2017, Timm-Davis et al. 2015). This view suggests that each subspecies has developed unique traits to adapt to the environmental conditions specific to their current ranges. Therefore, when considering which subspecies to bring to Oregon, managers should reintroduce the subspecies with traits better-suited to cope with the types of habitat, prey assemblages, and oceanographic conditions specific to Oregon.

However, other scientists hold the opposite view, and argue that “an otter is an otter” no matter where you put it. This perspective suggests that both subspecies have an equal chance at surviving in any type of suitable habitat because all otters behave in similar ways. Therefore, ecologically, it may not matter which subspecies managers bring to Oregon.

Source: Trover

Oregon doesn’t have enough sea otter habitat.

Kelp is considered important sea otter habitat. In areas with high sea otter densities, such as central and southern California, kelp forests are persistent throughout the year. However, in Oregon, our kelp primarily consists of bull kelp – a slightly more fragile species compared to the durable giant kelp in California. In winter, this bull kelp gets dislodged during intense storms, resulting in seasonal changes in kelp availability. Managers worry that this seasonality could reduce the amount of suitable habitat, to the point where Oregon may not be able to support sea otters.

Yet, we know sea otters used to exist here; therefore, we can assume there must have been some suitable habitat that may persist today. Furthermore, sea otters use a range of habitats, including estuaries, bays, and reefs (Laidre et al. 2009, Lafferty & Tinker 2014, Kvitek et al. 1988). Therefore, even during times when kelp is less abundant, sea otters could use these other forms of habitat along the Oregon coast. Luckily, we have the spatial tools and data to assess how much, where, and when we have suitable habitat, and I will specifically address this in my thesis.

They’ll eat everything!

Sea otters are famous for their voracious appetites for benthic invertebrates, some of which are of commercial and recreational importance to nearshore fisheries. In some cases, sea otters have significantly reduced prey densities, such as sea urchins and Dungeness crab (Garshelis & Garshelis 1984, Estes & Palmisano 1974). However, without a formal analysis, it’s difficult to know if sea otters will have similar impacts on Oregon’s nearshore species, as well as at spatial scale these impacts will occur and whether our fisheries will be affected. We can predict where sea otters are likely to occur based on the presence of suitable habitat, but foraging impacts could be more localized or widespread across sea otter’s entire potential range. To better anticipate these impacts, managers will need an understanding of how much sea otters eat, where foraging could occur based on the availability of prey, and where sea otters and fisheries are likely to interact. I will also address this concern in my thesis.

Source: Suzi Eszterhas

To reintroduce or not to reintroduce? That is the question.

I have found that many scientists and managers have strong opinions on whether it’s appropriate to bring sea otters back to Oregon. Those who argue against a reintroduction often highlight many of the theories already mentioned here – lack of habitat, potential impacts to fisheries, and genetics. While other opponents provided more logistical and practical justifications, such as confounding politics, as well as difficulties in getting public support and regulatory permission to move a federally-listed species.

In contrast, proponents of this idea argue that a reintroduction could augment the recovery of the species by providing additional habitat for the species to rebound to pre-exploitation levels, as well as allowing for increased gene flow between southern and northern sea otter populations. Other proponents have brought up potential benefits to humans, such restoring ecosystem services, providing an economic boost through tourism, or preserving tribal and cultural connections. Such benefits may be worth attempting another reintroduction effort.

As you can see, there are several opinions and perspectives related to a potential sea otter reintroduction to Oregon. While it’s important to consider all opinions, managers still need facts to make key decisions. Scientists can play an important role in providing this information, so managers can make a well-informed decision. Oregon managers have not yet decided whether to proceed with a sea otter reintroduction, but our lab is working to provide them with reliable and accurate science, so they may form their own opinions and arrive at their own decision.

References:

Estes, J. A. and J. F. Palmisano. 1974. Sea otters: the role in structuring nearshore communities. Science. 185: 1058-1060.

Garshelis, D. L. and J. A. Garshelis. 1984. Movements and management of sea otters in Alaska. The Journal of Wildlife Management. 48: 665-678.

Jameson, R. J, Kenyon, K. W., Johnson, A. M., and H. M. Wight. 1982. History and status of translocated sea otter populations in North America. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 10: 100-107.

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

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.

Kvitek, R. G. ,Fukayama, A. K., Anderson, B. S., and B. K. Grimm. 1988. Sea otter foraging on deep-burrowing bivalves in a California coastal lagoon. Marine Biology. 98: 157-167.

Larson, S., Jameson, R., Etnier, M., Jones, T., and R. Hall. 2012. Genetic diversity and population parameters of sea otters, Enhydra lutris, before fur trade extirpation from 1741-1911. PLoS ONE. 7(3).

Timm-Davis, L. L, DeWitt, T. J., and C. D. Marshall. 2015. Divergent skull morphology supports two trophic specializations in otters (Lutrinae). PLoS ONE. 10(12).

Valentine et al. 2008. Ancient DNA reveals genotypic relationships among Oregon populations of the sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Conservation Genetics. 9:933-938.

 

 

Forecasting blue whale presence: Small steps toward big goals

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

In 2013, Leigh first published a hypothesis that the South Taranaki Bight region between New Zealand’s North and South Islands is important habitat for blue whales  (Torres 2013). Since then, we have collected three years of data and conducted dedicated analyses, so we now understand that a unique population of blue whales is found in New Zealand, and that they are present in the South Taranaki Bight year-round (Barlow et al. in press).

A blue whale surfaces in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by Leigh Torres.

This research has garnered quite a bit of political and media attention. A major platform item for the New Zealand Green Party around the last election was the establishment of a marine mammal sanctuary in the South Taranaki Bight. When the world’s largest seismic survey vessel began surveying the South Taranaki Bight this summer for more oil and gas reserves using tremendously loud airguns, there were rallies on the lawn in front of Parliament featuring a large inflatable blue whale that the protesters affectionately refer to as “Janet”. Needless to say, blue whales have made their way into the spotlight in New Zealand.

Janet the inflatable blue whale accompanies protesters on the lawn in front of Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand. Image credit: Greenpeace.

Now that we know there is a unique population of blue whales in New Zealand, what is next? What’s next for me is an exciting combination of both ecology and conservation. If an effective sanctuary is to be implemented, it needs to be more than a simple box drawn on a map to check off a political agenda item—the sanctuary should be informed by our best ecological knowledge of the blue whales and their habitat.

In July, Leigh and I will attend the Society for Conservation Biology meeting in Wellington, New Zealand, and I’ll be giving a presentation titled “Cloudy with a chance of whales: Forecasting blue whale presence based on tiered, bottom-up models”. I’ll be the first to admit, I am not yet forecasting blue whale presence. But I am working my way there, step-by-step, through this tiered, bottom-up approach. In cetacean habitat modeling, we often assume that whale distribution on a foraging ground is determined by their prey’s distribution, and that satellite images of temperature and chlorophyll-a provide an accurate picture of what is going on below the surface. Is this true? With our three years of data including in situ oceanography, krill hydroacoustics, and blue whale distribution and behavior, we are in a unique position to test some of those assumptions, as well as provide managers with an informed management tool to predict blue whale distribution.

What questions will we ask using our data? Firstly, can in situ oceanography (i.e., thermocline depth and temperature, mixed layer depth) predict the distribution and density of blue whale prey (krill)? Then, can those prey patterns be accurately predicted in the absence of oceanographic measurements, using just satellite images? Next, we’ll bring the blue whales back into the picture to ask: can we predict blue whale distribution based on our in situ measurements of oceanography and prey? And finally, in the absence of in situ measurements (which is most often the case), can we forecast where the whales will be based just on remotely-sensed images of the region?

The transducer pole in the water off the RV Star Keys (left) deployed with the echosounder to collect prey availability data, including this image (right) of krill swarms near feeding blue whales. Photo by Leigh Torres.

So, cloudy with a chance of whales? Well, you’ll have to stay tuned for that story in the coming months. In the meantime, I can tell you that as daunting as it is to aggregate so many data streams, each step of the way has a piece of the story to tell. I can’t wait to see how it falls together, both from an ecological modeling perspective and a conservation management objective.

A blue whale surfaces in front of a floating production storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel which services the oil rigs in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by Dawn Barlow.

 

References:

Torres, L. G. (2013). Evidence for an unrecognised blue whale foraging ground in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research47(2), 235-248.

Barlow, D. R., Torres, L. G., Hodge, K. B., Steel, D. Baker, C. S., Chandler, T. E., Bott, N., Constantine, R., Double, M. C., Gill, P., Glasgow, D., Hamner, R. M., Lilley, C., Ogle, M., Olson, P. A., Peters, C., Stockin, K. A., Tessaglia-Hymes, C. T., Klinck, H. (in press). Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endangered Species Research. 

Assessing suitable sea otter habitat along Oregon’s coast

By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management

When considering a species reintroduction into an area, it is important to assess the suitability of the area’s habitat before such efforts begin. By doing this assessment at the outset, managers and conservationists can gain a better understanding of the capacity of the area to support a viable population overtime, and ultimately the success of the reintroduction. However, to do a habitat assessment, researchers must first have a base understanding of the species’ ecological characteristics, behavior, and the physical habitat features necessary for the species’ survival. For my thesis, I plan to conduct a similar assessment to identify suitable sea otter habitat to inform a potential sea otter reintroduction to the Oregon coast.

Source: The Tribune.

To start my assessment, I conducted a literature review of studies that observed and recorded the various types of habitats where sea otters currently exist. In my research, I learned that sea otters use in a range of environments, each with a unique set of habitat characteristics. With so many features to sort through, I have focused on specific habitat features that are consistent across most of the current range of sea otters – from Alaska to California – and are important for at least some aspects of sea otters’ everyday life or behavior, specifically foraging. Focusing my analysis on foraging habitat makes sense as sea otters require around 30% of their body weight in food every day (Costa 1978, Reidman & Estes 1990). Meaning sea otters spend most of their day searching for food.

Here, I present four habitat features I will incorporate into my analysis and explain why these features are important for sea otter foraging behavior and survival.

Habitat Features:

  1. Kelp: Sea otters are famously known for the benefits they provide to kelp forests. In the classic three-trophic-level model, sea otters allow for the growth of kelp by keeping sea urchins – consumers of kelp – in check (Estes & Palmisano 1974). Additionally, sea otters and kelp have a mutually-beneficial relationship. Sea otters will often wrap themselves amongst the top of kelp stocks while feeding, resting, or grooming to prevent being carried away by surface currents. Meanwhile, it’s thought that kelp provide a refuge for sea otters seeking to avoid predators, such as sharks, as well as their prey.
Source: The Telegraph.
  1. Distance from Kelp: The use of kelp, by sea otters, is relatively straight-forward. Yet, kelp can still have an influence on sea otter behavior even when not used directly. A 2014 study found that sea otters along the southern California coast were almost 10 times more likely to be located within kelp habitat than outside, while outside kelp beds sea otter numbers declined with distance from the edge of kelp canopies. Sea otters will often forage outside or next to kelp canopies when prey’s available, and even sometimes to socialize in age- or sex-specific rafts (Lafferty & Tinker 2014). These findings indicate that sea otters can and do regularly disperse away from kelp habitat, but because they’re so dependent on kelp, they don’t stray very far.

 

  1. Seafloor Substrate: Sea otters forage over a variety of sediment substrates, including rocks, gravel, seagrass, and even sometimes sand. For example, sea otters hunt sea urchins over rocky substrates, while in other areas they may hunt for crabs in seagrass beds (Estes & Palmisano 1974, Hughes et al. 2014). The type of substrate sea otters forage in typically depends on the substrate needs of their target prey species. Despite some variability across their range, sea otters predominantly forage in rocky substrate environments. Rocky substrate is also necessary for kelp, whose holdfasts need to attach to hard, stable surfaces (Carney et al. 2005).
Source: Save our Seas Foundation.
  1. Depth: Seafloor depth plays a pivotal role in sea otter foraging behavior and therefore acts as a natural boundary that determines how far away from shore sea otters distribute. Many of the prey species sea otters eat – including sea urchins, crabs, and snails – live on the seafloor of the inner continental shelf, requiring sea otters to dive when foraging. Interestingly, sea otters exhibit a non-linear relationship with depth, where most individuals forage at intermediate depths as opposed to extremely shallow or deep waters. One study found the average foraging depth to be around 15 meters (Lafferty & Tinker 2014). This behavior results in a hump-shaped distribution of diving patterns as illustrated in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. Average probability of occurrence as a function of depth for female (A) and male (B) sea otters as predicted by a synoptic model of space-use (Tinker et al. 2017).

Of course, local conditions and available habitat are always a factor. For example, a study found that sea otters along the coast of Washington foraged further from shore and in slightly shallower environments than sea otters in California (Laidre et al. 2009), indicating that local topography is important in determining distribution. Additionally, diving requires energy and limits how deep sea otters are able to forage for prey. Therefore, diving patterns are not only a function of local topography, but also availability of prey and foraging efficiency in exploiting that prey. Regardless, most sea otter populations follow this hump-shaped diving pattern.

Source: Doretta Smith.

These features are not a complete list of all habitat characteristics that support viable sea otter populations, but seem to be the most consistent throughout their entire range, as well as present in Oregon’s nearshore environment – making them ideal features to include in my analysis. Furthermore, other studies that have predicted suitable sea otter habitat (Tinker et al. 2017), estimated carrying capacity as a product of suitable habitat identification (Laidre et al. 2002), or simply observed sea otter foraging behavior (Estes & Palmisano 1974), have echoed the importance of these four habitat features to sea otter survival.

As with most reintroduction efforts, the process of identifying suitable habitat for the species of interest can be complicated. No two ecosystems or habitats are exactly alike and each comprise their own unique set of physical features and are impacted by environmental processes to varying degrees. The Oregon coast consists of a unique combination of oceanographic conditions and drivers that likely impact the degree and amount of available habitat to sea otters. Despite this, by focusing on the habitat features that are consistently preferred by sea otters across most of their range, I will be able to identify habitat most suitable for sea otter survival in Oregon. The questions of where this habitat is and how much is available are what I’ll determine soon, so stay tuned.

References:

Carney, L. T., Robert Waaland, J., Kilinger, T., and K. Ewing. 2005. Restoration of the bull kelp Nereocystis luetkeana in nearshore rocky habitats. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 302: 49-61.

Costas, D. P. 1978. The ecological energetics, waters, and electrolyte balance of the California sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz.

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

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.

Lafferty, K. D. and M. T. Tinker. 2014. Sea otters are recolonizing southern California in fits and starts. Ecosphere. 5(5): 1-11.

Laidre et al. 2002. Estimates of carrying capacity for sea otters in Washington state. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 30(4): 1172-1181.

Laidre et al. 2009. Spatial habitat use patterns of sea otters in coastal Washington. Journal of Mammalogy. 90(4): 906-917.

Tinker et al. 2017. Southern sea otter range expansion and habitat use in the Santa Barbara Channel, California: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2017-1001 (OCS Study BOEM 2017-022), 76 p., http://doi.org/10.3133/ofr20171001.

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.

 

 

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).

 

A Marine Mammal Odyssey, Eh!

By Leila Lemos, PhD student

Dawn Barlow, MS student

Florence Sullivan, MS

The Society for Marine Mammalogy’s Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals happens every two years and this year the conference took place in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Logo of the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s 22nd Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, 2017: A Marine Mammal Odyssey, eh!

The conference started with a welcome reception on Sunday, October 22nd, followed by a week of plenaries, oral presentations, speed talks and posters, and two more days with different workshops to attend.

This conference is an important event for us, as marine mammalogists. This is the moment where we get to share our projects (how exciting!), get important feedback, and hear about different studies that are being conducted around the world. It is also an opportunity to network and find opportunities for collaboration with other researchers, and of course to learn from our colleagues who are presenting their work.

The GEMM Lab attending the opening plenaries of the conference!

The first day of conference started with an excellent talk from Asha de Vos, from Sri Lanka, where she discussed the need for increased diversity (in all aspects including race, gender, nationality, etc.) in our field, and advocated for the end of “parachute scientists” who come into a foreign (to them) location, complete their research, and then leave without communicating results, or empowering the local community to care or act in response to local conservation issues.  She also talked about the difficulty that researchers in developing countries face accessing research that is hidden behind journal pay walls, and encouraged everyone to get creative with communication! This means using blogs and social media, talking to science communicators and others in order to get our stories out, and no longer hiding our results behind the ivory tower of academia.  Overall, it was an inspirational way to begin the week.

On Thursday morning we heard Julie van der Hoop, who was this year’s recipient of the F.G. Wood Memorial Scholarship Award, present her work on “Drag from fishing gear entangling right whales: a major extinction risk factor”. Julie observed a decrease in lipid reserves in entangled whales and questioned if entanglements are as costly as events such as migration, pregnancy or lactation. Tags were also deployed on whales that had been disentangled from fishing gear, and researchers were able to see an increase in whale speed and dive depth.

Julie van der Hoop talks about different drag forces of fishing gears
on North Atlantic Right Whales.

There were many other interesting talks over the course of the week. Some of the talks that inspired us were:

— Stephen Trumble’s talk “Earplugs reveal a century of stress in baleen whales and the impact of industrial whaling” presented a time-series of cortisol profiles of different species of baleen whales using earplugs. The temporal data was compared to whaling data information and they were able to see a high correlation between datasets. However, during a low whaling season concurrent to the World War II in the 40’s, high cortisol levels were potentially associated to an increase in noise from ship traffic.

— Jane Khudyakov (“Elephant seal blubber transcriptome and proteome responses to single and repeated stress”) and Cory Champagne (“Metabolomic response to acute and repeated stress in the northern elephant seal”) presented different aspects of the same project. Jane looked at down/upregulation of genes (downregulation is when a cell decreases the quantity of a cellular component, such as RNA or protein, in response to an external stimulus; upregulation is the opposite: when the cell increases the quantity of cellular components) to check for stress. She was able to confirm an upregulation of genes after repeated stressor exposure. Cory checked for influences on the metabolism after administering ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone: a stimulating hormone that causes the release of glucocorticoid hormones by the adrenal cortex. i.e., cortisol, a stress related hormone) to elephant seals. By looking only at the stress-related hormone, he was not able to differentiate acute from chronic stress responses. However, he showed that many other metabolic processes varied according to the stress-exposure time. This included a decrease in amino acids, mobilization of lipids and upregulation of carbohydrates.

— Jouni Koskela (“Fishing restrictions is an essential protection method of the Saimaa ringed seal”) talked about the various conservation efforts being undertaken for the endangered Lake Saimaa ringed seal. Gill nets account for 90% of seal pup mortality, but if new pups can reach 20kg, only 14% of them will drown in these fishing net entanglements. Working with local industry and recreational interests, increased fishing restrictions have been enacted during the weaning season. In addition to other year-round restrictions, this has led to a small, but noticeable upward trend in pup production and population growth! A conservation success story is always gratifying to hear, and we wish these collaborative efforts continued future success.

— Charmain Hamilton (“Impacts of sea-ice declines on a pinnacle Arctic predator-prey relationship: Habitat, behaviour, and spatial overlap between coastal polar bears and ringed seals”) gave a fascinating presentation looking at how changing ice regimes in the arctic are affecting spatial habitat use patterns of polar bears. As ice decreases in the summer months, the polar bears move more, resulting in less spatial overlap with ringed seal habitat, and so the bears have turned to targeting ground nesting seabirds.  This spatio-temporal mismatch of traditional predator/prey has drastic implications for arctic food web dynamics.

— Nicholas Farmer’s presentation on a Population Consequences of Disturbance (PCoD) model for assessing theoretical impacts of seismic survey on sperm whale population health had some interesting parallels with new questions in our New Zealand blue whale project. By simulating whale movement through modeled three-dimensional sound fields, he found that the frequency of the disturbance (i.e., how many days in a row the seismic survey activity persisted) was very important in determining effects on the whales. If the seismic noise persists for many days in a row, the sperm whales may not be able to replenish their caloric reserves because of ongoing disturbance. As you can imagine, this pattern gets worse with more sequential days of disturbance.

— Jeremy Goldbogen used suction cup tags equipped with video cameras to peer into an unusual ecological niche: the boundary layer of large whales, where drag is minimized and remoras and small invertebrates compete and thrive. Who would have thought that at a marine mammal conference, a room full of people would be smiling and laughing at remoras sliding around the back of a blue whale, or barnacles filter feeding as they go for a ride with a humpback whale? Insights from animals that occupy this rare niche can inform improvements to current tag technologies.

The GEMM Lab was well represented this year with six different talks: four oral presentations and two speed talks! It is evident that all of our hard work and preparation, such as practicing our talks in front of our lab mates two weeks in advance, paid off.  All of the talks were extremely well received by the audience, and a few generated intelligent questions and discussion afterwards – exactly as we hoped.  It was certainly gratifying to see how packed the room was for Sharon’s announcement of our new method of standardizing photogrammetry from drones, and how long the people stayed to talk to Dawn after her presentation about an unique population of New Zealand blue whales – it took us over an hour to be able to take her away for food and the celebratory drinks she deserved!

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

 

GEMM Lab members at the closing celebration. From left to right: Florence Sullivan, Leila Lemos, Amanda Holdman, Solène Derville, and Dawn Barlow.
We are not always serious, we can get silly sometimes!

The weekend after the conference many courageous researchers who wanted to stuff their brains with even more specialized knowledge participated in different targeted workshops. From 32 different workshops that were offered, Leila chose to participate in “Measuring hormones in marine mammals: Current methods, alternative sample matrices, and future directions” in order to learn more about the new methods, hormones and matrices that are being used by different research groups and also to make connections with other endocrinologist researchers. Solène participated in the workshop “Reproducible Research with R, Git, and GitHub” led by Robert Shick.  She learned how to better organize her research workflow and looks forward to teaching us all how to be better collaborative coders, and ensure our analysis is reproducible by others and by our future selves!

On Sunday none of us from the GEMM Lab participated in workshops and we were able to explore a little bit of the Bay of Fundy, an important area for many marine mammal species. Even though we didn’t spot any marine mammals, we enjoyed witnessing the enormous tidal exchange of the bay (the largest tides in the world), and the fall colors of the Annaoplis valley were stunning as well. Our little trip was fun and relaxing after a whole week of learning.

The beauty of the Bay of Fundy.
GEMM Lab at the Bay of Fundy; from left to right: Kelly Sullivan (Florence’s husband and a GEMM Lab fan), Florence Sullivan, Dawn Barlow, Solène Derville, and Leila Lemos.
We do love being part of the GEMM Lab!

It is amazing how refreshing it is to participate in a conference. So many ideas popping up in our heads and an increasing desire to continue doing research and work for conservation of marine mammals. Now it’s time to put all of our ideas and energy into practice back home! See you all in two years at the next conference in Barcelona!

Flying out of Halifax!

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 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/AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com

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: TravelOregon.com

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.

References:

[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. <https://oregonhistoryproject.org/articles/historical-records/sea-otter/#.WamgT7KGPIU>

[3] The Oregon History Project: Otter Hunting. Accessed September 2017. <https://oregonhistoryproject.org/articles/historical-records/otter-hunting/#.Wa2TCLKGPIU>

 

Finding the edge: Preliminary insights into blue whale habitat selection in New Zealand

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

I was fortunate enough to spend the Austral summer in the field, and so while the winter rain poured down on Oregon I found myself on the water with the sun and wind on my face, looking for blue whales in New Zealand. This spring I switched gears and spent time taking courses to build my analytical toolbox. In a course on technical writing and communication, I was challenged to present my research using only pictures and words with no written text, and to succinctly summarize the importance of my research in an introduction to a technical paper. I attended weekly seminars to learn about the diverse array of marine science being conducted at Oregon State University and beyond. I also took a course entitled “Advanced Spatial Statistics and Geographic Information Science”. In this skill-building course, we were given the opportunity to work with our own data. Even though my primary objective was to expand the tools in my toolbox, I was excited to explore preliminary results and possible insight into blue whale habitat selection in my study area, the South Taranaki Bight region (STB) of New Zealand (Figure 1).

Figure 1. A map of New Zealand, with the South Taranaki Bight (STB) region delineated by the black box. Farewell Spit is denoted by a star, and Kahurangi point is denoted by an X.

Despite the recent documentation of a foraging ground in the STB, blue whale distribution remains poorly understood in New Zealand. The STB is New Zealand’s most industrially active marine region, and the site of active oil and gas extraction and exploration, busy shipping traffic, and proposed seabed mining. This potential space-use conflict between endangered whales and industry warrants further investigation into the spatial and temporal extent of blue whale habitat in the region. One of my research objectives is to investigate the relationship between blue whales and their environment, and ultimately to build a model that can predict blue whale presence based on physical and biological oceanographic features. For this spring term, the question I asked was:

Is the number of blue whales present in an area correlated with remotely-sensed sea surface temperature and chlorophyll-a concentration?

For the purposes of this exploration, I used data from our 2017 survey of the STB. This meant importing our ship’s track and our blue whale sighting locations into ArcGIS, so that the data went from looking like this:

… to this:

The next step was to get remote-sensed images for sea surface temperature (SST) and chlorophyll-a (chl-a) concentration. I downloaded monthly averages from the NASA Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectrometer (MODIS aqua) website for the month of February 2017 at 4 km2 resolution, when our survey took place. Now, my images looked something more like this:

But, I can’t say anything reliable about the relationships between blue whales and their environment in the places we did not survey.  So next I extracted just the portions of my remote-sensed images where we conducted survey effort. Now my maps looked more like this one:

The above map shows SST along our ship’s track, and the locations where we found whales. Just looking at this plot, it seems like the blue whales were observed in both warmer and colder waters, not exclusively in one or the other. There is a productive plume of cold, upwelled water in the STB that is generated off of Kahurangi point and curves around Farewell Spit and into the bight (Figure 1). Most of the whales we saw appear to be near that plume. But how can I find the edges of this upwelled plume? Well, I can look at the amount of change in SST and chl-a across a spatial area. The places where warm and cold water meet can be found by assessing the amount of variability—the standard deviation—in the temperature of the water. In ArcGIS, I calculated the deviation in SST and chl-a concentration across the surrounding 20 km2 for each 4 km2 cell.

Now, how do I tie all of these qualitative visual assessments together to produce a quantitative result? With a statistical model! This next step gives me the opportunity to flex some other analytical muscles, and practice using another computational tool: R. I used a generalized additive model (GAM) to investigate the relationships between the number of blue whales observed in each 4 km2 cell our ship surveyed and the remote-sensed variables. The model can be written like this:

Number of blue whales ~ SST + chl-a + sd(SST) + sd(chl-a)

In other words, are SST, chl-a concentration, deviation in SST, and deviation in chl-a concentration correlated with the number of blue whales observed within each 4 km2 cell on my map?

This model found that the most important predictor was the deviation in SST. In other words, these New Zealand blue whales may be seeking the edges of the upwelling plume, honing in on places where warm and cold water meet. Thinking back on the time I spent in the field, we often saw feeding blue whales diving along lines of mixing water masses where the water column was filled with aggregations of krill, blue whale prey. Studies of marine mammals in other parts of the world have also found that eddies and oceanic fronts—edges between warm and cold water masses—are important habitat features where productivity is increased due to mixing of water masses. The same may be true for these New Zealand blue whales.

These preliminary findings emphasize the benefit of having both presence and absence data. The analysis I have presented here is certainly strengthened by having environmental measurements for locations where we did not see whales. This is comforting, considering the feelings of impatience generated by days on the water spent like this with no whales to be seen:

Moving forward, I will include the blue whale sighting data from our 2014 and 2016 surveys as well. As I think about what would make this model more robust, it would be interesting to see if the patterns become clearer when I incorporate behavior into the model—if I look at whales that are foraging and traveling separately, are the results different? I hope to explore the importance of the upwelling plume in more detail—does the distance from the edge of the upwelling plume matter? And finally, I want to adjust the spatial and temporal scales of my analysis—do patterns shift or become clearer if I don’t use monthly averages, or if I change the grid cell sizes on my maps?

I feel more confident in my growing toolbox, and look forward to improving this model in the coming months! Stay tuned.