GEMM Lab 2017: A Year in the Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Video captured under NOAA/NMFS permit #16111.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are Family

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

The GEMM Lab celebrating Leigh’s birthday with homemade baked goods and discussions about science.

A lab is a family. I know there is the common saying about how you cannot choose your family and you can only choose your friends. But, I’d beg to differ. In the case of graduate school, especially in departments similar to OSU’s Fisheries and Wildlife, your lab is your chosen family. These are the people who encourage you when you’ve hit a roadblock, who push you when you need extra motivation, who will laugh with you when you’ve reached the point of hysteria after hours of data analysis, who will feed you when you’re too busy to buy groceries, and who will always be there for you. That sure sounds a lot like a family to me.

GEMM Lab members at the Society for Marine Mammalogy 2017 Conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia at the masquerade ball. Photo source: Florence Sullivan

Many of us spend weeks—if not months—conducting field research for our various projects. None of us do this work from the main campus…seeing as the main campus for Oregon State University is located Corvallis, Oregon which is approximately 50 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. The GEMM Lab isn’t actually based on the main campus; instead, you’ll find the lab at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, within a two-minute stroll of the picturesque Yaquina Bay. However, many of the core classes we need are only offered on main campus. This results in the GEMM Lab members being spread across Corvallis, Newport, and the dominant fieldwork site for their project (which could be locally in Oregon, or in the waters off of New Zealand). So rather than your typical, weekly, hour-long lab meetings, the GEMM Lab meetings are monthly and last on the order of 3-5 hours. Others hear this and think that must be overwhelming to have such a long lab meeting. On the contrary, these are scheduled to fit into all of our chaotic schedules. One day a month, all of us gather together as a family unit, share what’s new about our lives, be sounding boards for each other, solve problems, and do so in a supportive environment. Hopefully you’re getting the picture that just because we’re all part of the same lab, it doesn’t mean we’re geographically close. This is exactly why we cultivate meaningful relationships while we are together. The Harvard Business Review published an article 2015 based on multiple peer-reviewed journals, summarizing the six dominant characteristics necessary to foster a positive workplace:

  1. Caring for colleagues as friends
  2. Supporting each other
  3. Avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes
  4. Inspiring each other at work
  5. Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work
  6. Treating each other with respect

And I can attest that every member within the GEMM Lab embraces all of these characteristics and I have a feeling that none of them have read that article prior to today. Family naturally follows those basic guidelines. And, our lab, is a family.

My very first GEMM Family Dinner.

Case and Point: when I was applying for graduate programs, I made a point of traveling to meet the GEMM Lab members at the monthly lab meeting. Sure, I also wanted to make sure that both Newport and Corvallis would be good fits in terms of locations. But, mostly, I needed to see if this Lab would be a strong family unit for my graduate school career and beyond. The moment I arrived at Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, it was clear, this was a family that I could see myself being a part of. Not only had all the members brought some kind of food item to share at the lab meeting (this was important to me), but Florence had baked homemade bread, Dawn had offered to show me around Hatfield, and Leila had set up a time to take me around main campus with other grad students. During the lab meeting discussions, I was welcomed to contribute and I felt comfortable doing so. That was another big moment where something “clicked” and I knew I had found a great group of amazing scientists who were also amazing human beings.

GEMM Lab members at the Port Orford Field Station in August 2017.

Flash forward a few months, and now I am one of those lab members who is bringing food to lab meetings. More than that, we have GEMM Lab dinners and game nights. I may be based in Corvallis, but I commute out to Newport just for these fun activities because this is my family. I want to be with them—not only when we’re talking about our research—but when we’re laughing about the silly things that happen in our daily lives, comically screaming at each other in an effort to win whatever game is on the table, and enjoying home-cooked meals. This is my family.

GEMM Lab members helping some friends at South Coast Tours build a dirt-bag house in August 2017.

I guess I’d like to plug this message to any potential graduate student regardless of discipline(s): find a lab with people that you truly want to surround yourselves with—day and night—in good times and in bad times—because undoubtedly, you’ll need those kinds of people. And, to current lab constituents in any lab: it’s up to us to create a supportive family which will make everyone successful.

Sister Sledge knew just this when the group sang this verse of their hit, “We Are Family”:

Living life is fun and we’ve just begun
To get our share of this world’s delights
High, high hopes we have for the future
And our goal’s in sight
We, no we don’t get depressed
Here’s what we call our golden rule
Have faith in you and the things you do
You won’t go wrong, oh-no
This is our family Jewel

I’m grateful to have found a lab that embodies the lyrics of one of my favorite childhood karaoke songs. The GEMM Lab is not only a lab that produces cutting-edge science; it is a family that encourages one another in all facets of life—creating an environment where people can have high-quality lives and generate high-quality science.

GEMM Lab Family Dinner complete with the board game, Evolution, and homemade pizza. October 2017.

Hearing is believing

Dr. Leigh Torres, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab, Marine Mammal Institute, Oregon State University

Dr. Holger Klinck, Bioacoustics Research Program, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University

For too long the oil and gas industry has polluted the ocean with seismic airgun noise with little consequence. The industry uses seismic airguns in order to find their next lucrative reserve under the seafloor, and because their operations are out of sight and the noise is underwater many have not noticed this deafening (literally1) noise. As terrestrial and vision-dependent animals, we humans have a hard time appreciating the importance of sound in the marine environment. Most of the ocean is a dark place, where vision does not work well, so many animals are dependent on sound to survive. Especially marine mammals like whales and dolphins.

But, hearing is believing, so let’s have a listen to a recording of seismic airguns firing in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) of New Zealand, a known blue whale feeding area. This is a short audio clip of a seismic airgun firing every ~8 seconds (a typical pattern). Before you hit play, close your eyes and imagine you are a blue whale living in this environment.

Now, put that clip on loop and play it for three months straight. Yes, three months. This consistent, repetitive boom is what whales living in a region of oil and gas exploration hear, as seismic surveys often last 1-4 months.

So, how loud is that, really? Your computer or phone speaker is probably not good enough to convey the power of that sound (unless you have a good bass or sub-woofer hooked up). Industrial seismic airgun arrays are among the loudest man-made sources2 and the noise emitted by these arrays can travel thousands of kilometers3. Noise from a single seismic airgun survey can blanket an area of over 300,000 km2, raising local background noise levels 100-fold4.

Now, oil and gas representatives frequently defend their seismic airgun activities with two arguments, both of which are false. You can hear both these arguments made recently in this interview by a representative of the oil and gas industry in New Zealand defending a proposal to conduct a 3 month-long seismic survey in the STB while blue whales will be feeding there.

First, the oil and gas industry claim that whales and dolphins can just leave the area if they choose. But this is their home, where they live, where they feed and breed. These habitats are not just anywhere. Blue whales come to the STB to feed, to sustain their bodies and reproductive capacity. This habitat is special and is not available anywhere else nearby, so if a whale leaves the STB because of noise disturbance it may starve. Similarly, oil and gas representatives have falsely claimed that because whales stay in the area during seismic airgun activity this indicates they are not being disturbed. If you had the choice of starving or listening to seismic booming you might also choose the latter, but this does not mean you are not disturbed (or annoyed and stressed). Let’s think about this another way: imagine someone operating a nail gun for three months in your kitchen and you have nowhere else to eat. You would stay to feed yourself, but your stress level would elevate, health deteriorate, and potentially have hearing damage. During your next home renovation project you should be happy you have restaurants as alternative eateries. Whales don’t.

Second, the oil and gas industry have claimed that the frequency of seismic airguns is out of the hearing range of most whales and dolphins. This statement is just wrong. Let’s look at the spectrogram of the above played seismic airgun audio clip recorded in the STB. A spectrogram is a visual representation of sound (to help us vision-dependent animals interpret sound). Time is on the horizontal axis, frequency (pitch) is on the vertical axis, and the different colors on the image indicate the intensity of sound (loudness) with bright colors illustrating areas of higher noise. Easily seen is that as the seismic airgun blasts every ~8 seconds, there is elevated noise intensity across all frequencies (bright yellow, orange and green bands). This noise intensity is especially high in the 10 – 80 Hz frequency range, which is exactly where many large baleen whales – like the blue whale – hear and communicate.

A spectrogram of the above played seismic airgun audio clip recorded in the South Taranaki Bight, New Zealand. Airgun pulses every ~8 seconds are evident by elevated noise intensity across all frequencies (bright yellow, orange and green bands), which are especially intense in the 10 – 80 Hz frequency range.

In the big, dark ocean, whales use sound to communicate, find food, and navigate. So, let’s try to imagine what it’s like for a whale trying to communicate in an environment with seismic airgun activity. First, let’s listen to a New Zealand blue whale call (vocalization) recorded in the STB. [This audio clip is played at 10X the original speed so that it is more audible to the human hearing frequency range. You can see the real time scale in the top plot.]

Now, let’s look at a spectrogram of seismic airgun pulses and a blue whale call happening at the same time. The seismic airgun blasts are still evident every ~8 seconds, and the blue whale call is also evident at about the 25 Hz frequency (within the pink box). Because blue whales call at such a low frequency humans cannot hear their call when played at normal speed, so you will only hear the airgun pulses if you hit play. But you can see in the spectrogram that five airgun blasts overlapped with the blue whale call.

No doubt this blue whale heard the repetitive seismic airgun blasts, and vocalized in the same frequency range at the same time. Yet, the blue whale’s call was partially drowned out by the intense seismic airgun blasts. Did any other whale hear it? Could this whale hear other whales? Did it get the message across? Maybe, but probably not very well.

Some oil and gas representatives point toward their adherence to seismic survey guidelines and use of marine mammal observers to reduce their impacts on marine life. In New Zealand these guidelines only stop airgun blasting when animals are within 1000 m of the vessel (1.5 km if a calf is present), yet seismic airgun blasts are so intense that the noise travels much farther. So, while these guidelines may be a start, they only prevent hearing damage to whales and dolphins by stopping airguns from blasting right on top of animals.

So, what does this mean for whales and other marine animals living in habitat where seismic airguns are operating? It means their lives are disturbed and dramatically altered. Multiple scientific studies have shown that whales change behavior5, distribution6, and vocalization patterns7 when seismic airguns are active. Other marine life like squid8, spiny lobster9, scallops10, and plankton11 also suffer when exposed to airgun noise. The evidence has mounted. There is no longer a scientific debate: seismic airguns are harmful to marine animals and ecosystems.

What we are just starting to study and understand is the long-term and population level effects of seismic airguns on whales and other marine life. How do short term behavioral changes, movement to different areas, and different calling patterns impact an individual’s ability to survive or a population’s ability to persist? These are the important questions that need to be addressed now.

Seismic airgun surveys to find new oil and gas reserves are so pervasive in our global oceans, that airgun blasts are now heard year round in the equatorial Atlantic3, 12. As reserves shrink on land, the industry expands their search in our oceans, causing severe and persistent consequences to whales, dolphins and other marine life. The oil and gas industry must take ownership of the impacts of their seismic airgun activities. It’s imperative that political, management, scientific, and public pressure force a more complete assessment of each proposed seismic airgun survey, with an honest evaluation of the tradeoff between economic benefits and costs to marine life.

Here are a few ways we can reduce the impact of seismic airguns on marine life and ecosystems:

  • Restrict seismic airgun operation in and near sensitive environmental areas, such as marine mammal feeding and breeding areas.
  • Prohibit redundant seismic surveys in the same area. If one group has already surveyed an area, that data should be shared with other groups, perhaps after an embargo period.
  • Cap the number and duration of seismic surveys allowed each year by region.
  • Promote the use of renewable energy sources.
  • Develop new and quieter survey methods.

Even though we cannot hear the relentless booming, this does not mean it’s not happening and harming animals. Please listen one more time to 1 minute of what whales hear for months during seismic airgun operations.

 

More information on seismic airgun surveys and their impact on marine life:

Boom, Baby, Boom: The Environmental Impacts of Seismic Surveys

A Review of the Impacts of Seismic Airgun Surveys on Marine Life

Sonic Sea: Emmy award winning film about ocean noise pollution and its impact on marine mammals.

Atlantic seismic will impact marine mammals and fisheries

 

References:

  1. Gordon, J., et al., A review of the effects of seismic surveys on marine mammals. Marine Technology Society Journal, 2003. 37(4): p. 16-34.
  2. National Research Council (NRC), Ocean Noise and Marine Mammals. 2003, National Academy Press: Washington. p. 204.
  3. Nieukirk, S.L., et al., Sounds from airguns and fin whales recorded in the mid-Atlantic Ocean, 1999–2009. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 2012. 131(2): p. 1102-1112.
  4. Weilgart, L., A review of the impacts of seismic airgun surveys on marine life. 2013, Submitted to the CBD Expert Workshop on Underwater Noise and its Impacts on Marine and Coastal Biodiversity 25-27 February 2014: London, UK. .
  5. Miller, P.J., et al., Using at-sea experiments to study the effects of airguns on the foraging behavior of sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico. Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers, 2009. 56(7): p. 1168-1181.
  6. Castellote, M., C.W. Clark, and M.O. Lammers, Acoustic and behavioural changes by fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) in response to shipping and airgun noise. Biological Conservation, 2012. 147(1): p. 115-122.
  7. Di lorio, L. and C.W. Clark, Exposure to seismic survey alters blue whale acoustic communication. Biology Letters, 2010. 6(1): p. 51-54.
  8. Fewtrell, J. and R. McCauley, Impact of air gun noise on the behaviour of marine fish and squid. Marine pollution bulletin, 2012. 64(5): p. 984-993.
  9. Fitzgibbon, Q.P., et al., The impact of seismic air gun exposure on the haemolymph physiology and nutritional condition of spiny lobster, Jasus edwardsii. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2017.
  10. Day, R.D., et al., Exposure to seismic air gun signals causes physiological harm and alters behavior in the scallop Pecten fumatus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017. 114(40): p. E8537-E8546.
  11. McCauley, R.D., et al., Widely used marine seismic survey air gun operations negatively impact zooplankton. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2017. 1(7): p. s41559-017-0195.
  12. Haver, S.M., et al., The not-so-silent world: Measuring Arctic, Equatorial, and Antarctic soundscapes in the Atlantic Ocean. Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers, 2017. 122: p. 95-104.

 

 

 

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!

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 (kasm.org.nz).

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.

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.

New aerial footage captures blue whale lunge feeding!

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

This past field season the New Zealand blue whale team was lucky enough to capture something spectacular – an aerial view of a blue whale surface lunge feeding. I invite you to view the footage and listen to Leigh’s narration of the event in the video below!

Below is the full press release, written by Mark Floyd:

NEWPORT, Ore. – Blue whales didn’t become the largest animals ever to live on Earth by being dainty eaters and new video captured by scientists at Oregon State University shows just how they pick and choose their meals.

There is a reason for their discretion, researchers say. The whales are so massive – sometimes growing to the length of three school buses – that they must carefully balance the energy gained through their food intake with the energetic costs of feeding.

“Modeling studies of blue whales ‘lunge-feeding’ theorize that they will not put energy into feeding on low-reward prey patches,” said Leigh Torres, a principal investigator with the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State, who led the expedition studying the blue whales. “Our footage shows this theory in action. We can see the whale making choices, which is really extraordinary because aerial observations of blue whales feeding on krill are rare.”

“The whale bypasses certain krill patches – presumably because the nutritional payoff isn’t sufficient – and targets other krill patches that are more lucrative. We think this is because blue whales are so big, and stopping to lunge-feed and then speeding up again is so energy-intensive, that they try to maximize their effort.”

The video, captured in the Southern Ocean off New Zealand, shows a blue whale cruising toward a large mass of krill – roughly the size of the whale itself. The animal then turns on its side, orients toward the beginning of the krill swarm, and proceeds along its axis through the entire patch, devouring nearly the entire krill mass.

In another vignette, the same whale approaches a smaller mass of krill, which lies more perpendicular to its approach, and blasts through it without feeding.

“We had theorized that blue whales make choices like this and the video makes it clear that they do use such a strategy,” explained Torres, who works out of Oregon State’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. “It certainly appears that the whale determined that amount of krill to be gained, and the effort it would take to consume the meal wasn’t worth the effort of slowing down.

“It would be like me driving a car and braking every 100 yards, then accelerating again. Whales need to be choosy about when to apply the brakes to feed on a patch of krill.”

The researchers analyzed the whale’s lunge-feeding and found that it approached the krill patch at about 6.7 miles per hour. The act of opening its enormous mouth to feed slowed the whale down to 1.1 mph – and getting that big body back up to cruising speed again requires a lot of energy.

The rare footage was possible through the use of small drones. The OSU team is trained to fly them over whales and was able to view blue whales from a unique perspective.

“It’s hard to get good footage from a ship,” Torres said, “and planes or helicopters can be invasive because of their noise. The drone allows us to get new angles on the whales without bothering them.”

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).

A day in the office

Join us for a couple boat rides as we study blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight of New Zealand.

In both videos below you can see and hear the field team coordinate to capture photo-identification images of the whale(s) while also obtaining a small tissue biopsy sample. It is important to match the individual whale to the sample so we can link biological data obtained from the sample (genetics, hormones, stable isotopes) to the individual whale. We also carefully take notes on where, when and what we collect in order to help us keep track of our data.

In this video clip you can watch as we gently approach two blues surfacing off the starboard bow of the RV Star Keys in order to capture photo-identification images and a small tissue biopsy sample. Callum Lilley (DOC) on the bow; Leigh Torres, Dawn Barlow, and Todd Chandler (OSU) photographing and coordinating from the flying bridge.

 

We are in the small boat here collecting data on a pair of blue whales. Callum Lilley (DOC) is on the rifle; Leigh Torres (OSU) is on the camera and taking notes; Todd Chandler (OSU) is on the helm.

 

Keeping up with blue whales in a dynamic environment

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

“The marine environment is patchy and dynamic”. This is a phrase I have heard, read, and written repeatedly in my studies of marine ecology, and it has become increasingly tangible during the past several weeks of fieldwork. The presence of the blue whales we’ve come here to study is the culmination of a chain of events that begins with the wind. As we huddle up at anchor or in port while the winds blow through the South Taranaki Bight, the water gets mixed and our satellite images show blooms of little phytoplankton lifeforms. These little phytoplankton provide food for the krill, the main prey item of far larger animals—blue whales. And in this dynamic environment, nothing stays the same for long. As the winds change, aggregations of phytoplankton, krill and whales shift.

When you spend hours and hours scanning for blue whales, you also grow intimately familiar with everything that could possibly look like a blue whale but is not. Teasers include whitecaps, little clouds on the horizon, albatrosses changing flight direction, streaks on your sunglasses, and floating logs. Let me tell you, if we came here to study logs we would have quite the comprehensive dataset! We have had a few days of long hours with good weather conditions and no whales, and it is difficult not to be frustrated at those times—we came here to find whales. But the whale-less days prompt musings of what drives blue whale distribution, foraging energetics, and dreams of elaborate future studies and analyses, along with a whole lot of wishing for whales. Because, let’s admit it, presence data is just more fun to collect.

The view from the flying bridge of R/V Star Keys of Mt. Taranaki and a calm sea with no whales in sight. Photo by D. Barlow.

But we’ve also had survey days filled with so many whales that I can barely keep track of all of them. When as soon as we begin to head in the direction of one whale, we spot three more in the immediate area. Excited shouts of “UP!! Two o’clock at 300 meters!” “What are your frame numbers for your right side photos?” “Let’s come 25 degrees to port” “UUUPPP!! Off the bow!” “POOOOOOP! Grab the net!!” fill the flying bridge as the team springs into action. We’ve now spotted 40 blue whales, collected 8 biopsy samples, 8 fecal samples, flown the drone over 9 whales, and taken 4,651 photographs. And we still have more survey days ahead of us!

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

In Leigh’s most recent blog post she described our multi-faceted fieldwork here in the South Taranaki Bight. Having a small inflatable skiff has allowed for close approaches to the whales for photo-identification and biopsy sample collection while our larger research vessel collects important oceanographic data concurrently. I’ve been reading numerous papers linking the distribution of large marine animals such as whales with oceanographic features such as fronts, temperature, and primary productivity. In one particular sighting, the R/V Star Keys idled in the midst of a group of ~13 blue whales, and I could see foamy lines on the surface where water masses met and mixed. The whales were diving deep—flukes the size of a mid-sized car gracefully lifting out of the water. I looked at the screen of the echosounder as it pinged away, bouncing off a dense layer of krill (blue whale prey) just above the seafloor at around 100 meters water depth.  As I took in the scene from the flying bridge, I could picture these big whales diving down to that krill layer and lunge feeding, gorging themselves in these cool, productive waters. It is all mostly speculative at this point and lots of data analysis time remains, but ideas are cultivated and validated when you experience your data firsthand.

A blue whale shows its fluke as it dives deep in an area with abundant krill deep in the water column. Photo by L. Torres.

The days filled with whales make the days without whales worthwhile and valuable. To emphasize the dynamic nature of the environment we study, when we returned to an area in which we had seen heaps of whales just 12 hours before, we only found glassy smooth water and no whales whatsoever. Changing our trajectory, we came across nothing for the first half of the day and then one pair of whales after another. Some traveling, some feeding, and two mother-calf pairs.

The dynamic nature of the marine environment and the high mobility of our study species is what makes this work challenging, frustrating, exciting, and fascinating. Now we’re ready to take advantage of our next weather window to continue our survey effort and build our ever-growing dataset. I relish the wind-swept, sunburnt days of scanning and musing, and I also look forward to settling down with all of these data to try my best to compile all of the pieces of this blue whale puzzle. And I know that when I find myself behind a computer screen processing and analyzing photos, survey effort, drone footage, and oceanographic data I will be imagining the blue waters of the South Taranaki Bight, the excitement of seeing the water glow brilliantly just before a whale surfaces off our bow, and whale-filled survey days that end only when the sun sets over the water.

A big moon rises to the east and a bright oil rig on the horizon at the end of a long and fruitful survey day. Photo by L. Torres.
And to the west of the moon and the rig, the sun sets over the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by L. Torres.