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.

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.




Celebrating Hydrothermal Vents!

By Florence Sullivan, MSc Student OSU

40 years ago, in 1977 OSU researchers led an NSF funded expedition to the Galapagos on a hunt for suspected hydrothermal vents. From the 1960s to the mid-1970s, mounting evidence such as (1) temperature anomalies found deep in the water column, (2) conduction heat flow probes at mid ocean ridges recording temperatures much lower than expected, (3) unusual mounds found on benthic mapping surveys, and (4) frequent, small, localized earthquakes at mid oceanic ridges, had the oceanographic community suspecting the existence of deep sea hydrothermal vents. However, until the 1977 cruise, no one had conclusive evidence that they existed.  During the discovery cruise at the Galapagos rift, the PI (principle investigator), Dr. Jack Corliss from OSU, used tow-yos (a technique where you drag a CTD up and down through the water in a zig zag pattern – see gif) to pinpoint the location of the hydrothermal vent plume. The team then sent the Deep Submergence Vehicle (DSV) Alvin to investigate and returned with the first photographs and samples from a hydrothermal vent. While discovery of the vent systems helped answer many questions about chemical and heat fluxes in the deep sea, it generated so many new questions that novel fields of study were created in biology, microbiology, marine chemistry, marine geology, planetary science, astrobiology and the study of the origin of life.

 “Literally every organism that came up was something that was unknown to science up until that time. It made it terribly exciting. Anything that came [up] on that basket was a new discovery,” – Dr. Richard Lutz (Rutgers University)

In celebration of this great discovery, OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences sponsored a seminar looking at the past, present, and future of hydrothermal vent sciences. Dr. Robert Collier began with a timeline of how the search for hydrothermal vents began, and a commemoration of all the excellent researchers and collaborations between institutions and agencies that made the discovery possible. He acknowledged that such collaborations are often somewhat tense in terms of who gets credit for which discovery, and that while Oregon State University was the lead of the project, it takes a team to get the work done.  Dr. Jack Corliss proudly followed up with a wonderful rambling explanation of how vent systems work, and a brief dip into his ground breaking paper, “An Hypothesis concerning the relationship between submarine hot springs and the origin of life on Earth.” Published in 1981, with co-authors Dr. John Baross and Dr. Sarah Hoffman, they postulate that the temperature and chemical gradients seen at hydrothermal vents provide pathways for the synthesis of chemical compounds, formation and evolution of ‘precells’ and eventually, the evolution of free living organisms.

Dr. Corliss, Dr. Baross, and Dr. Hoffman were the first to suggest the now popular theory of the origin of life at hydrothermal vents. (click on image to read full paper)

Because of time constraints, the podium was swiftly handed over to Dr. Bill Chadwick (NOAA PMEL/ HMSC CIMRS) who brought us forward to the present day with an exciting overview of current vent research.  He began by saying “at the beginning, we thought, ‘No one has seen one of these systems before, they must be very rare…’ Now, we have found them [hydrothermal vents] in every ocean basin – including the arctic and southern oceans. We just needed to know how to look!”  Dr. Chadwick also reminded us that even 40 years later, new discoveries are still being made. For example, on his most recent cruise aboard the R/V Falkor in December 2016, they found a sulfur chimney that was alternately releasing bubbles of gas (sulfur, CO2 or other, hard to know without sampling) or bubbles of liquid sulfur! Check out the video below:

Some of the goals for this recent cruise included mapping new areas of the Mariana back-arc, and investigating differences in the biological communities between vents in the Mariana trench region (a subduction zone) and vents in the back arc (a spreading zone) to see if geology plays a role in biological community composition.  For some very cool video footage of the expedition and the various dives performed by the brand new ROV SUBastian (because all scientists love puns), check out the Schmidt Ocean Institute youtube channel.

Dr. Chadwick showed this video to highlight results from his last cruise.

Finally, Dr. Andrew Thurber wrapped up the session with some thoughts about hydrothermal vents from the perspective of an ecosystem services model. Even after 40 years of research, there are still many unknowns about these ecosystems.  Individual vent systems are inherently unique due to their deep sea isolation. However, most explored sites have revealed metals and mineral deposits that have generated a lot of interest from commercial sea floor mining companies. Exploitation of these deposits would be an example of ecosystem “provisioning services” (products that are obtained from the ecosystem). Other examples include the biology of the vents as a source of new genetic material, and the thermal and chemical gradients as natural laboratories that could lead to breakthroughs in pharmaceutical research. Cultural services are those non-material benefits that people obtain from an ecosystem. At hydrothermal vents these include new scientific discoveries, educational uses (British children’s television show “The Octonauts,” has several episodes featuring hydrothermal vent creatures), and creative inspiration for artists and others. Dr. Thurber cautions that there are ethical questions to be answered before considering exploitation of these resources, but there is a lot of potential for commercial and non-commercial use of vent ecosystems.

Vent inspired art by Lily Simonson

As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, I spent time as a research assistant in Dr. John Baross’ astrobiology lab. We studied evolutionary pathways of hydrothermal vent viruses and bacteria to inform the search for life on exoplanets such as Jupiter’s moon Europa.  It was very fun and exciting for me to attend this seminar, hear stories from pioneers in the field, and remember the systems I worked on in undergrad.  I may have moved up the food chain a little now, but as we all work on our pieces of the puzzle, it is important for scientists to remember the interdisciplinary nature of our work, and how there is always something more to learn.



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).

Assembling a Toolbox

By Dawn Barlow, MSc student, Oregon State University


The season has shifted since the post I wrote this summer about diving into the world of New Zealand blue whales and the beginnings of my masters research. My fieldwork will take place during the upcoming austral summer, which will require me to miss the winter term here on campus. This quarter, I have put my research on the back burner for the time being in favor of a full load of coursework. But my project is still there, simmering subtly and persistently, and giving relevance to the coursework that I’m focusing my energy on this fall term.

As an undergraduate student, I acquired a broad scientific background and had the opportunity to dabble in the areas of biology that piqued my interest. I arrived here with a basic understanding of chemistry, physics, cell biology, anatomy, marine ecology and conservation biology. I gained experience working in the field with intertidal sea stars, snails, mussels, crabs and barnacles, with bottlenose dolphins and with humpback whales. But now my focus has narrowed as I’ve honed in on the specific questions that I will pursue over the next two years. My passion lies in marine ecology and conservation. Now, as a graduate student studying the ecology of a little-known population in a highly industrial area, this passion can come to fruition. For my masters, I hope to do the following:

A) Use photo-identification analysis to obtain a population abundance estimate for blue whales in New Zealand

B) Investigate blue whale residency and distribution patterns in New Zealand waters

C) Develop a comprehensive blue whale habitat use model for the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand, which incorporates physical and biological data

Down the road I hope to have implemented a capture-recapture abundance estimate model that best fits the dynamics of this population of blue whales, to have mapped where sightings have occurred and where the highest densities of blue whales are found in both space and time, and to have paired blue whale presence and absence with prey distribution, remote-sensed environmental data, and in situ oceanographic data. But how does one accomplish these things? I need a toolbox to draw from. And so this fall, I am assembling my toolbox, learning programs and analytical skills. I am taking methods courses—statistics, data management in R, analysis in GIS, methods in physiology and behavior of marine megafauna—that are no longer explorations into the world of natural science, but rather tools for exploring, identifying, and interpreting specific phenomena in ecology. While each comes with its own hiccups and headaches (see Florence’s post about this…), they are powerful tools.

Aside from coursework, the research I’m conducting has gained weight and relevance beyond being an investigation in ecology. My study area lies in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand, which is a contentious proposed seabed mining site for iron sands. As an undergraduate student I read case studies and wrote papers on the environmental impacts of industry, and I decided to go graduate school because I want to do research that has direct conservation applications. Last week I compiled all the data I’ve processed on blue whale sightings, seasonal residency, and photo identification for the South Taranaki Bight, which will be included as evidence submitted in environmental court in New Zealand by my advisor, Dr. Leigh Torres. “Applied conservation science” has been an abstract idea that has excited and motivated me for a long time, and now I am partaking in this process, experiencing applied conservation science firsthand.

And so my toolbox is growing, and the scope of my work is simultaneously narrowing in focus and expanding in relevance. The more tools I acquire, the more excited I am to apply them to my research. As I build my toolbox this fall, this process is something I look forward to enhancing while I’m in the field, when I dig deeper into data analysis, and as I grow as a conservation scientist.

A blue whale dives in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Leigh Torres.
A blue whale dives in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Leigh Torres.

Scratching the Surface

By Dr. Leigh Torres, Assistant Professor, Oregon State University, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

I have been reminded of a lesson I learned long ago: Never turn your back on the sea – it’s always changing.

The blue whales weren’t where they were last time. I wrongly assumed oceanographic patterns would be similar to our last time out in 2014 and that the whales would be in the same area. But the ocean is dynamic – ever changing. I knew this. And I know it better now.

Below (Fig. 1) are two satellite images of sea surface temperature (SST) within the South Taranaki Bight and west coast region of New Zealand that we surveyed in Jan-Feb 2014 and again recently during Jan-Feb 2016. The plot on the left describes ocean surface conditions in 2014 and illustrates how SST primarily ranged between 15 and 18 ⁰C. By comparison, the panel on the right depicts the sea surface conditions we just encountered during the 2016 field season, and a huge difference is apparent: this year SST ranged between 18 and 23 ⁰C, barely overlapping with the 2014 field season conditions.

Figure 1. A comparison of satellite images of sea surface temperature (SST) in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand between late January 2014 and early February 2016. The white circles on each image denote where the majority of blue whales were encountered during each field season.
Figure 1. A comparison of satellite images of sea surface temperature (SST) in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand between late January 2014 and early February 2016. The white circles on each image denote where the majority of blue whales were encountered during each field season.

While whales can live in a wide range of water temperatures, their prey is much pickier. Krill, tiny zooplankton that blue whales seek and devour in large quantities, tend to aggregate in pockets of nutrient-rich, cool water in this region of New Zealand. During the 2014 field season, we encountered most blue whales in an area where SST was about 15 ⁰C (within the white circle in the left panel of Fig. 1). This year, there was no cool water anywhere and we mainly found the whales off the west coast of Kahurangi shoals in about 21 ⁰C water (within the white circle in the right panel of Fig. 1. NB: the cooler water in the Cook Strait in the southeast region of the right panel is a different water mass than preferred by blue whales and does not contain their prey.)

The hot water we found this year across the survey region can likely be attributed, at least in part, to the El Niño conditions that are occurring across the Pacific Ocean currently. El Niño has brought unusually settled conditions to New Zealand this summer, which means relatively few high wind events that normally churn up the ocean and mix the cool, nutrient rich deep water with the hot surface layer water. These are ideal conditions for Kiwi sun-bathers, but the ocean remains highly stratified with a stable layer of hot water on top. However, this stratification does not necessarily mean the ocean is un-productive – it only means that the SST satellite images are virtually useless for helping us to find whales this year.

Although SST data can be informative about ocean conditions, it only reflects what is happening in the thin, top slice of the ocean. Sub-surface conditions can be very different. Ocean conditions during our two survey periods in 2014 and 2016 could be more similar when compared underwater than when viewed from above. This is why sub-surface sensors and data collection is critical to marine studies. Ocean conditions in 2014 and 2016 could both potentially provide good habitat for the whales. In fact, where and when we encountered whales during both 2014 and 2016 we also detected high densities of krill through hydro-acoustics (Fig. 2). However, in 2014 we observed many surface swarms of krill that we rarely saw this recent field season, which could be due to elevated SST. But, we did capture cool drone footage this year of a brief sub-surface foraging event:

An overhead look of a blue whale foraging event as the animal approaches the surface. Note how the distended ventral (throat) grooves of the buccal cavity (mouth) are visible. This is a big gulp of prey (krill) and water. The video was captured using a DJI Phantom 3 drone in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand in on February 2, 2016 under a research permit from the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) permit # 45780-MAR issued to Oregon State University.

Figure 2. An echo-sounder image of dense krill patches at 50-80 m depth captured through hydroacoustics in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand.
Figure 2. An echo-sounder image of dense krill patches at 50-80 m depth captured through hydroacoustics in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand.

Below are SST anomaly plots of January 2014 and January 2016 (Fig. 3). These anomaly plots show how different the SST was compared to the long-term average SST across the New Zealand region. As you can see, in 2014 (left panel) SST conditions in our study area were ~1 ⁰C below average, while in 2016 (right panel) SST conditions were ~1 ⁰C above average. So, what are normal conditions? What can we expect next year when we come back to survey again for blue whales across this region? These are challenging questions and illustrate why marine ecology studies like this one must be conducted over many years. One year is just a snap shot in the lifetime of the oceans.

Figure 3. Comparison of sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly plots of the New Zealand region between January 2014 (left) and January 2016 (right). The white box in both plots denotes the general location of our blue whale study region. (Apologies for the different formats of these plots - the underlying data is directly comparable.)
Figure 3. Comparison of sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly plots of the New Zealand region between January 2014 (left) and January 2016 (right). The white box in both plots denotes the general location of our blue whale study region. (Apologies for the different formats of these plots – the underlying data is directly comparable.)

Like all marine megafauna, blue whales move far and fast to adjust their distribution patterns according to ocean conditions. So, I can’t tell you what the ocean will be like in January 2017 or where the whales will be, but as we continue to study this marine ecosystem and its inhabitants our understanding of ocean patterns and whale ecology will improve. With every year of new data we will be able to better predict ocean and blue whale distribution patterns, providing managers with the tools they need to protect our marine environment. For now, we are just beginning to scratch the (sea) surface.




Blues Clues

Although blue whales are big, the South Taranaki Bight is bigger. So finding them is not straight forward. In fact, with little prior research in this area, the main focus of our project is to gain a better understanding of blue whale distribution patterns in the region. So, while bouncing around on the sea, we are collecting habitat data that we relate to whale occurrence data to learn what makes preferred whale habitat.

We conduct CTD casts. CTD stands for Conductivity, Temperature and Depth. This is an instrument we lower down to the bottom of the ocean on a line and along the w ay it records temperature and salinity (conductivity) data at all depths. This data describes the water structure at that location, such as the depth of the thermocline. The ocean is often layered with warm, low-salt water on top, and cooler and salty water at the bottom. This thermocline can act as a boundary above which prey aggregate.

Todd and Andrew deploy the CTD off the R/V Ikatere.
Todd and Andrew deploy the CTD off the R/V Ikatere. (Photo by Callum Lilley)
CTD cast
Example data retrieved from a CTD cast showing how temperature (green line) decreases and salinity (red line) increases as it descends through the water column (depth on y-axis).

We also have a transducer on board that we use to record the presence of biological material in the ocean, like krill (blue whale prey). This transducer emits pings of sound through the water column and the echoes bounce back, either off the seafloor, krill or fish. This glorified echosounder records where blue whale prey is, and is not.

Example display image from our echosounder (EK60) showing patches of prey (likely krill) in the upper surface layer.
Example display image from our echosounder (EK60) showing patches of prey (likely krill) in the upper surface layer.

Additionally, the research vessel is always recording surface temperature (SST). I monitor this SST readout somewhat obsessively while at-sea as well as study the latest SST satellite images. Using these two bits of data as my “blues clues”, we search for blue whales.

After a bumpy ride across the Cook Strait we had a good spell of weather last week. We covered a lot of ground, deploying our 5 hydrophones across the Bight and keeping our eyes peeled for blows. Our first day out we found three whales. Fantastic sightings. But, as we continued to survey through warm, low productivity water we found no signs of blue whales. The third day out was a beauty – the type of day I wish for: low swell and low winds – perfect for whale finding. We covered 220 nautical miles this day (deploying 2 hydrophones) and we searched and searched. But no whales. I could see from the SST satellite image that the whole Bight was really warm: about 20 ⁰C. I could also see a strip of cold water down south, toward Farewell Spit. I said “Let’s go there”.

Sea surface temperature (SST) satellite image of the South Taranaki Bight region in New Zealand that shows mostly warm water with a plume of colder water down south.
Sea surface temperature (SST) satellite image of the South Taranaki Bight region in New Zealand that shows mostly warm water with a plume of colder water down south.

After twelve and a half hours of survey effort through clear, blue, warm water, we finally saw the water temperature drop (to about 18 ⁰C) and the water color turn green. We started to see gannets, petrels, shearwaters, and common dolphins feeding. Then I heard the magic words come from Todd’s mouth: “Blow!” So began our sunset sighting. From 7:30 to 10 pm we worked with four blue whales capturing photographs and biopsy samples, and echosounder prey data.

Diving blue whale in the South Taranaki Bight, NZ (photo by Leigh Torres)
Diving blue whale in the South Taranaki Bight, NZ (photo by Leigh Torres)

This is an example of a species-habitat relationship that marine ecologists like me seek to document. We observe and record patterns like this so that we can better understand and predict the distribution of blue whales. Such information is critical for environmental managers to have in order to effectively regulate where and when human activities that may impact blue whales can occur. Over the next two weeks we will continue to document blue whale habitat in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand.

“This is what I would do if I weren’t afraid” – New Zealand blue whale field season 2016

By Dr. Leigh Torres, Assistant Professor, Oregon State University, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Two years ago I documented a blue whale foraging ground in an area of New Zealand called the South Taranaki Bight (STB) – the country’s most industrially active marine area with intense oil and gas exploration and extraction since the 1970’s, elevated vessel traffic, and potential seabed mining (Figure 1). Over just five days of survey effort we observed 50 blue whales and documented foraging behavior. But we still know next to nothing about where and when blue whales are in the STB, how many whales use this area, how important this area is as a feeding area, or to what population the whales belong. Without answers to these questions effective management of human activities in the region to protect the whales and their habitat is unfeasible.

I am now heading back to New Zealand to collect the data needed to answer these questions that will enable successful management. That’s my goal.

Figure 1. Illustration of a space-use conflict between industry activity and blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight, which lies between the north and south islands of New Zealand. Blue whale sightings and strandings recorded between 1970 and 2012.
Figure 1. Illustration of a space-use conflict between industry activity and blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight, which lies between the north and south islands of New Zealand. Blue whale sightings and strandings recorded between 1970 and 2012.

Such research costs money. In collaboration with the Bioacoustic Research Program at Cornell University (, we are deploying five hydrophones to listen for blue whales across the region for 2 years. We will conduct vessel surveys for 1 month in each year to find whales and collect data on their habitat, behavior, and individual occurrence patterns. As far as field research projects go, this work is not very expensive, but we still need to pay for vessel time, equipment, and personnel time to collect and analyze the data. This is an ugly truth of scientific research – it costs money and there is not a lot out there.

For two years I’ve had my fund raising hat on (Not my favorite hat. I much prefer my research hat). I believe that industry groups active in the STB should take an active role in supporting the necessary research. They exploit the natural resources in the region and should therefore take responsibility for ensuring the ecosystem’s sustainability and health. Right? They did not agree.

I emphasized to these groups that by supporting the project they would demonstrate their environmental responsibility and ultimately be engaged in discussions of management options based on project findings. Despite hundreds of emails, phone calls and discussions, all the oil and gas companies, the seabed mining group, and the maritime traffic organization declined to fund the project, claiming lack of funds or lack of relevance to their interests. Meanwhile, other groups who prioritize conservation management are supporting the project. I am grateful to The Aotearoa Foundation, The National Geographic Society Waitt Foundation, The New Zealand Department of Conservation, Greenpeace New Zealand, OceanCare, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, and an anonymous donor.

Lately I have been reading Sheryl Sandberg’s poignant book, Lean In, which I feel is a call to women to take responsibility for our equality and leadership. Those familiar with this book will recognize the opening of my blog title from her valid push for women to take more risks and push ourselves beyond our comfort zones. In many ways I feel I am doing this now. It would be much easier for me to withdraw from this project, say I tried, and let things carry on until someone else takes the challenge. Funding is short, last minute contract issues abound, equipment logistics are running late, I fear political pushback, and I have a sore throat. But it’s time for this project to happen. It’s time to recognize biodiversity’s innate right to healthy habitat. It’s time for industry groups to acknowledge their potential impacts on blue whales through elevated ocean noise, vessel strikes, and habitat degradation and displacement. It’s time for management to have the tools to act.

Figure 2. A blue whale surfaces in front of an oil rig in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Deanna Elvines.
Figure 2. A blue whale surfaces in front of an oil rig in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Photo by Deanna Elvines.

I remain hopeful that industry groups will engage in this research effort. Through diplomacy, transparency and robust science I want to bring together industry, NGOs, and management groups to develop effective conservation strategies to protect blue whales and their habitat in the STB. Collaboratively we can balance industry activity and biodiversity protection.

Since reading Lean In, I’ve been wondering if the conservation movement suffers because of women’s reluctance to challenge, take risks, and ‘sit at the table’ as Sandberg says. The conservation field is heavily dominated by women. For progress to happen we must be willing to force issues, be perceived as aggressive, and not be nice all the time. Just like men are expected to be.

Over the next four weeks colleagues and I will conduct research in the STB on blue whales. Stay tuned to this blog for updates.