Tales from the birds in the nest (on the ship at sea)

Clara Bird, PhD Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Greetings from the NOAA research vessel Shimada! As you may know from previous blogs, usually one member of the GEMM Lab goes on the Northern California Current (NCC) ecosystem survey cruises as a marine mammal observer to collect data for the project Where are whales in Oregon waters? But for this September 2020 cruise we have two observers on-board. I’m at-sea  with fellow GEMM lab student Dawn Barlow to learn the ropes and procedures for how we collect data. This research cruise is exciting for a few reasons: first, this is my first cruise as a marine mammal observer! And second, this is the first NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center research cruise since the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States.

Our job as observers involves surveying for marine mammals from the flying bridge, which is the upper most deck of the ship, above the Bridge where the officers command the vessel. Here, we are referred to as the “birds in the nest” by the officers (something I find fitting given my last name). We spend our time looking out at the water with our binoculars searching for any sign of a marine mammal. These signs include: a blow, a fluke, a flipper, or the splash of a dolphin. Surveys involve long stretches of time staring at the ocean seeing nothing but blue waves, punctuated by exciting moments. The level of excitement of these moments can range from finally seeing a blow in the distance to seeing a whale breach! As of the time I’m writing this blog, we’ve been at sea for six days and have four more to go, so I will describe the things we’ve seen and my experience being on a primarily oceanographic research cruise.

We started day one transiting offshore of Newport, right into some whale soup! What started as a few distant blows quickly became an ocean full of whales. Dawn and I were some-what frantic as we worked to keep track of the many humpback and blue whales that were around us (I saw my first blue whale!). We even saw a humpback whale breaching! This introduction to marine mammal observation was an exciting exercise in keeping track of blows and rapid species identification. Day two was pretty similar, as we spent the day travelling back inshore along the same path we had followed offshore on day one. It was cool to see that there were still many whales in the same area.

On day three we woke up to dense fog, and overall pretty poor conditions for marine mammal observing. One of the challenges of this work is that not only does bad weather make it hard to see, but it also makes it hard for us to be able to say that mammals were truly absent. In bad observation conditions we cannot know if we did not see anything because the animals were not there or if we just could not see them through the swell, fog or white-caps. However, by the late afternoon the fog cleared and we had a spectacular end of the day. We saw a killer whale breach (Image 1) and a humpback whale tail lobbing (smacking it’s fluke against the surface of the water) in front of a stunning sunset (Image 2).

(Top) Figure 1. A killer whale breaching. Photo credit: Clara Bird. (Bottom) Figure 2. A humpback whale fluke at sunset. Photo credit: Dawn Barlow.

Day four was a bit of a marine mammal work reality check. While spectacular evenings like day three are memorable and exhilarating, they tend to be rare. The weather conditions on day four were pretty poor and we ended up surveying from the bridge for most of the day and not seeing much. Conditions improved on day five and we had some fun dolphin sightings where they came and rode on the wake from the bow, and observed a sperm whale blow in the distance!

The weather was not great today (day six), especially in the morning, but we did have one particularly exciting sighting right along the edge of Heceta Bank. While we were stopped at an oceanographic sampling station, we were visited by a group of ~30 pacific white sided dolphins who spent about half an hour swimming around the ship. We also saw several humpback whales, a fur seal, and a Mola mola (Ocean sunfish)! It was incredible to be surrounded by so many different species, all so close to the ship at the same time.

Overall, it has been wonderful to be out at sea after the many isolating months of COVID. And, it has been an exciting and interesting experience being surrounded by non-whale scientists who think about this ecosystem from a different perspective. This cruise is focused on biological oceanography, so I have had the great opportunity to learn from these amazing scientists about what they study and what oceanographic patterns they document. It’s a good reminder of our interconnected research. While it’s been cool to observe marine mammals and think about something totally different from my research on gray whale behavior, I have also enjoyed finding the similarities. For example, just last night I had a conversation with a graduate student researching forams (check out this link to learn more about these super cool tiny organisms!). Even though the organisms we study are polar opposites in terms of size, we actually found out that we had a good bit in common because we both use images to study our study species and have both encountered similar unexpected technical challenges in our methods.

I am thoroughly enjoying my time being one of the “birds in the nest”, contributing data to this important project, and meeting these wonderful scientists. If you are curious about how the rest of the cruise goes, make sure to check out Dawn’s blog next week!

Cascadia 2020: Exploring Oregon via Zoom

By Rachel Kaplan, PhD student, OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

As a newly-minted PhD student, starting graduate school has so far been everything I dreamt — and a bit more. I expected the excitement of meeting my cohort and professors, and starting classes. The apocalyptic drive to campus through a fiery sky as fires burned across Oregon, and the week after spent solely indoors, I did not.

When conditions allow, being in the field is one of my favorite parts of the scientific process!

As I’ve settled into Corvallis, my program, and navigating the roadblocks 2020 keeps throwing our way, I have been so grateful for the warm (virtual) welcome by my lab groups, professors, and fellow students. One of the most impressive displays of flexibility and adaptability so far is the ever-evolving field course I am currently taking.

Called “Cascadia,” this course provides an introduction to the range of geological, physical, ecological, and biogeochemical topics that exist within the Pacific Northwest, and explores the linkages between these areas. The course’s goal is to introduce incoming CEOAS (College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences) students to the surrounding landscape, and to the ways that human systems interact with that landscape. 

The professors teaching Cascadia — Drs. Frederick Colwell, Emily Shroyer, and George Waldbusser — have done an amazing job adapting the course to unprecedented circumstances. Over the summer, safety measures due to the pandemic required them to move the course to a largely online format, with only three planned day trips (typically the course is a full ten-day road trip around the state). Over the last week, the fires raging around Oregon have forced them to adapt the course repeatedly in real time, postponing field trips based on air quality forecasts and site closures.

During a typical year in the Cascadia course, the incoming students learn while exploring, camping, and hiking their way around a number of sites around Oregon. This year, our classmates are scattered around the country and our explorations have taken place in a Zoom room — but that hasn’t stopped the experience from being great.

Several professors shared their expertise with us through a series of talks that covered the ecology and history of the Willamette River, Pacific Northwest volcanoes, tsunami safety and preparation, and even wildfire ecology. In addition to talks by subject matter experts, each student delved into and presented on a topic of their choice, allowing us to learn from one another about everything from edible plants, to Oregon craft beers, to human movements throughout the Willamette River valley. We also enjoyed gorgeous pictures of Oregon’s mountains, coast, and desert, and received recommendations for trips and hikes that everyone is excited to explore.

As of the time of writing this blog, I’m excited to say that things may look a little different tomorrow — rain and improved air quality are in the forecast, and the Cascadia crew is planning to venture out to the coast for our first field trip! We’ll be learning on-site about the Oregon Coast Range and coastal dynamics, climate, and processes. This will actually be my first time on the Oregon coast, but definitely not my last.

For my PhD research, I will work with Dr. Leigh Torres and Dr. Kim Bernard (CEOAS) to understand how ocean conditions and prey distribution shape where whales are found in Oregon waters. Whale entanglements in Dungeness crab fishing gear have been on the rise since 2014, and we will collaborate with the Oregon Whale Entanglement Working group to look for solutions to this problem. 

A big part of my excitement about this research project lies in the way it intersects natural and human systems, just as we have been exploring through the Cascadia course. I am interested in how marine mammal distribution and behavior intersect with human systems — and how understanding these interactions can inform management and conservation efforts. I am thrilled to be a new member of the GEMM Lab, and to be starting (remote) classes and this research. For now, I’m wishing everyone good air quality and a safe fall!

Update: The Cascadia class did make it the coast! We were even lucky enough to see gray whales here at Depoe Bay.

The teamwork of conservation science

Dr. Leigh Torres
PI, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab, Marine Mammal Institute
Assistant Professor, Oregon Sea Grant, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University

I have played on sports teams all my life – since I was four until present day. Mostly soccer teams, but a fair bit of Ultimate too. Teams are an interesting beast. They can be frustrating when communication breaks down, irritating when everyone is not on the same timeline, and disastrous if individuals do not complete their designated job. Yet, without the whole team we would never win. So, on top of the fun of competition, skill development, and exercise, playing on teams has always been part of the challenging and fulfilling process for me: everyone working toward the same goal – to win – by making the team fluid, complimentary, integrated, and ultimately successful.

I have come to learn that it is the same with conservation science.

A few of my teams through the ages, as player and coach. Some of my favorite people are on these teams, from 1981 to 2018.

Conservation efforts are often so complex, that it is practically impossible to achieve success alone. Forces driving the need for conservation typically include monetary needs/desires, social values, ecological processes, animal physiology, multi-jurisdictional policies, and human behavior. Each one of these forces alone is challenging to understand and takes expertise to comprehend the situation. Hence, building a well-functioning team is essential. Here’s a recent example from the GEMM Lab:

Since 2014 entanglements of blue, humpback and gray whales in fishing gear along the west coast of the USA have dramatically increased, particularly in Dungeness crab fishing gear. Many forces likely led to this increase, including increased whale population abundance, potential shifts in whale distributions, and changes in fishing fleet dynamics. While we cannot point a finger at one cause, many people and groups recognize that we cannot continue to let whales become entangled and killed at such high rates: whale populations would decline, fisheries would look bad in the public eye and potentially lose profits, whales have an intrinsic right to live in the ocean without being bycaught, and whales are an important part of the ecosystem that would deteriorate without them. In 2017, the Oregon Whale Entanglement Working Group was formed to bring stakeholders together that were concerned about this problem to discuss possible solutions and paths forward. I was lucky to be a part of this group, which also included members of the Dungeness crab fishery and commission, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), other marine mammal scientists, and representatives of the American Cetacean Society, The Nature Conservancy, and a local marine gear supplier.

We met regularly over 2.5 years, and despite some hesitation at first about walking into a room of potentially disgruntled fishermen (I would be lying if I did not admit to this), after the first meeting I looked forward to every gathering. I learned an immense amount about the Dungeness crab fishery and how it operates, how ODFW manages the fishery and why, and what people do, don’t and need to know about whales in Oregon. Everyone agreed that reducing whale entanglements is needed, and a frequent approach discussed was to reduce risk by not setting gear where and when we expect whales to be. Yet, this idea flagged a very critical knowledge gap: We do not have a good understanding of whale distribution patterns in Oregon. Thus leading to the development of a highly collaborative research effort to describe whale distribution patterns in Oregon and identify areas of co-occurrence between whales and fishing effort to reduce the risk of entanglements. Sounds great, but a tough task to accomplish in a few short years. So, let me introduce the great team I am working with to make it all happen.

While I may know a few things about whales and spatial ecology, I don’t know too much about fisheries in Oregon. My collaboration with folks at ODFW, particularly Kelly Corbett and Troy Buell, has enabled this project to develop and go forward, and ultimately will lead to success. These partners provide feedback about how and where the fishery operates so I know where and when to collect data, and importantly they will provide the information on fishing effort in Oregon waters to relate to our generated maps of whale distribution. This spatial comparison will produce what is needed by managers and fishermen to make informed and effective decisions about where to fish, and not to fish, so that we reduce whale entanglement risk while still harvesting successfully to ensure the health and sustainability of our coastal economies.

So, how can we collect standardized data on whale distribution in Oregon waters without breaking the bank? I tossed this question around for a long time, and then I looked up to the sky and wondered what that US Coast Guard (USCG) helicopter was flying around for all the time. I reached out to the USCG to enquire, and proposed that we have an observer fly in the helicopter with them along a set trackline during their training flights. Turns out the USCG Sector North Bend and Columbia River were eager to work with us and support our research. They have turned out to be truly excellent partners in this work. We had some kinks to work out at the beginning – lots of acronyms, protocols, and logistics for both sides to figure out – but everyone has been supportive and pleasant to work with. The pilots and crew are interested in our work and it is a joy to hear their questions and see them learn about the marine ecosystem. And our knowledge of helicopter navigation and USCG duties has grown astronomically.

On the left is a plot of the four tracklines we survey for whales each month for two years aboard a US Coast Guard helicopter. On the right are some photos of us in action with our Coast Guard partners.

Despite significant cost savings to the project through our partnership with the USCG, we still need funds to support time, gear and more. And full credit to the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission for recognizing the value and need for this project to support their industry, and stepping up to fund the first year of this project. Without their trust and support the project may not have got off the ground. With this support in our back pocket and proof of our capability, ODFW and I teamed up to approach the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric and Administration (NOAA) for funds to support the remaining years of the project. We found success through the NOAA Fisheries Endangered Species Act Section 6 Program, and we are now working toward providing the information needed to protect endangered and threatened whales in Oregon waters.

Despite our cost-effective and solid approach to data collection on whale occurrence, we cannot be everywhere all the time looking for whales. So we have also teamed up with Amanda Gladics at Oregon Sea Grant to help us with an important outreach and citizen science component of the project. With Amanda we have developed brochures and videos to inform mariners of all kinds about the project, objectives, and need for them to play a part. We are encouraging everyone to use the Whale Alert app to record their opportunistic sightings of whales in Oregon waters. These data will help us build and test our predictive models of whale distribution. Through this partnership we continue important conversations with fishermen from many fisheries about their concerns, where they are seeing whales, and what needs to be done to solve this complex conservation challenge.  

Of course I cannot collect, process, analyze, and interpret all this data on my own. I do not have the skills or capacity for that. My partner in the sky is Craig Hayslip, a Faculty Research Assistant in the Marine Mammal Institute. Craig has immense field experience collecting data on whales and is the primary observer on the survey flights. Together we have navigated the USCG world and developed methods to collect our data effectively and efficiently (all within a tiny space flying over the ocean). In a few months we will be ¾ of the way through our data collection phase, which means data analysis will take over. For this phase I am bringing back a GEMM Lab star, Solene Derville, who recently completed her PhD. As the post-doc on the project, Solene will take the lead on the species distribution modeling and fisheries overlap analysis. I am looking forward to partnering with Solene again to compile multiple data sources on whales and oceanography in Oregon to produce reliable and accurate predictions of whale occurrence and entanglement risk. Finally I want to acknowledge our great partners at the Cascadia Research Collective (Olympia, WA) and the Cetacean Conservation and Genomics Lab (OSU, Marine Mammal Institute) who help facilitate our data collection, and conduct the whale photo-identification or genetic analyses to determine population assignment.  

As you can see, even this one, smallish, conservation research project takes a diverse team of partners to proceed and ensure success. On this team, my position is sometimes a player, coach, or manager, but I am always grateful for these amazing collaborations and opportunities to learn. I am confident in our success and will report back on our accomplishments as we wrap up this important and exciting conservation science project.   

A fin whale observed off the Oregon coast during one of our surveys aboard a US Coast Guard helicopter.