The current pandemic and stay-at-home orders have disrupted so many plans and events, but the crab chronicles continue! (Thanks for the cool name, Stephanie!) I am fortunate to be writing this from the safety of my home, where I’ve slowly been adjusting to this new normal. My work remains much the same, with the majority of my time dedicated to drafting a conservation plan for the Dungeness crab fishery to reduce the risk of whale entanglements in crab gear. While the conservation plan timeline itself remains uninterrupted, there have been impacts to other aspects of the state’s whale entanglement management timeline and certainly impacts being felt throughout the crab and broader fishing industry.
One activity related to whale entanglements that is unfortunately being impacted by current events, is a collaborative research project that has been working to collect whale distribution data in Oregon waters since 2019. The project is a collaboration between Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), Oregon State University, and the U.S. Coast Guard, funded during its first year by the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission and through Section 6 grants under the Endangered Species Act since. The study is utilizing bi-monthly aerial surveys to collect whale presence and absence data over a two year period. However, surveys have not been able to be conducted since March due to the current public health crisis.
The impetus for this project was a significant information gap identified early on by the Oregon Whale Entanglement Working Group (OWEWG), which was convened in 2017. The OWEWG found that knowledge of seasonal whale distribution in Oregon waters is lacking and must be addressed to better understand the spatial and temporal patterns of whale entanglement risk in Oregon. By combining improved data on whale distribution with relatively high-resolution data on fishery effort from ODFW fishery logbooks, maps of entanglement risk can be developed and used to guide more targeted management. In the meantime, preliminary presence/absence data have already been used to inform ODFW staff recommendations for risk reduction management measures that are being proposed to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission this year.
Additionally, the project involves a citizen science outreach component which encourages ocean users, including fishers, to participate in reporting opportunistic whale sightings through a Whale Alert mobile application. Aerial survey data will inform predictive distribution models describing species distributions relative to environmental conditions, and citizen science data will contribute to model validation. Additionally, vessel-based photo identification and tissue sampling will provide information on whale population structures.
The whale distribution study is critical to making informed management decisions in the future that maximize effectiveness of protecting whales while minimizing impacts to industry. It is also a great example of a collaborative approach to address a challenging issue. I hope that surveys are able to resume soon, when it is safe to do so, to continue collecting this critical information.