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.
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