The pathway to advancing knowledge of rorqual whale distribution off Oregon

By Solène Derville, Postdoc, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

In September 2020, I was hired as a postdoc in the GEMM Lab and was tasked to conduct the analyses necessary for the OPAL project. This research project has the ambitious, yet essential, goal to fill a knowledge gap hindering whale conservation efforts locally: where and when do whales occur off the Oregon coast? Understanding and predicting whale distribution based on changing environmental conditions is a key strategy to assess and reduce spatial conflicts with human activities, specifically the risk of entanglement in fixed fishing gear.

Starting a new project is always a little daunting. Learning about a new region and new species, in an alien research and conservation context, is a challenge. As I have specialized in data science over the last couple of years, I have been confronted many times with the prospect of working with massive datasets collected by others, from which I was asked to tease apart the biases and the ecological patterns. In fact, I have come to love that part of my job: diving down the data rabbit hole and making my way through it by collaborating with others. Craig Hayslip, faculty research assistant in MMI, was the observer who conducted the majority of the 102 helicopter surveys that were used for this study. During the analysis stage, his help was crucial to understand the data that had been collected and get a better grasp of the field work biases that I would later have to account for in my models. Similarly, it took hours of zoom discussions with Dawn Barlow, the GEMM lab’s latest Dr, to be able to clean and process the 75 days of survey effort conducted at sea, aboard the R/V Shimada and Oceanus.

Once the data is “clean”, then comes the time for modeling. Running hundreds of models, with different statistical approaches, different environmental predictors, different parameters etc. etc. That is when you realize what a blessing it is to work with a supervisor like Leigh Torres, head of the GEMM Lab. As an early career researcher, I really appreciate working with people who help me take a step back and see the bigger picture within which the whole data wrangling work is included. It is so important to have someone help you stay focused on your goals and the ecological questions you are trying to answer, as these may easily get pushed back to the background during the data analysis process.

And here we are today, with the first scientific publication from the OPAL project published, a little more than three years after Leigh and Craig started collecting data onboard the United States Coast Guard helicopters off the coast of Oregon in February 2019. Entitled “Seasonal, annual, and decadal distribution of three rorqual whale species relative to dynamic ocean conditions off Oregon, USA”, our study published in Frontiers in Marine Science presents modern and fine-scale predictions of rorqual whale distribution off Oregon, as well as a description of their phenology and a comparison to whale numbers observed across three decades in the region (Figure 1). This research focuses on three rorqual species sharing some ecological and biological traits, as well as similar conservation status: humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus musculus), and fin whales (Balaenoptera physallus); all of which migrate and feed over the US West coast (see a previous blog to learn more about these species here).

Figure 1: Graphical abstract of our latest paper published in Frontiers in Marine Science.

We demonstrate (1) an increase in rorqual numbers over the last three decades in Oregon waters, (2) differences in timing of migration and habitat preferences between humpback, blue, and fin whales, and (3) predictable relationships of rorqual whale distribution based on dynamic ocean conditions indicative of upwellings and frontal zones. Indeed, these ocean conditions are likely to provide suitable biological conditions triggering increased prey abundance. Three seasonal models covering the months of December-March (winter model), April-July (spring) and August-November (summer-fall) were generated to predict rorqual whale densities over the Oregon continental shelf (in waters up to 1,500 m deep). As a result, maps of whale densities can be produced on a weekly basis at a resolution of 5 km, which is a scale that will facilitate targeted management of human activities in Oregon. In addition, species-specific models were also produced over the period of high occurrence in the region;  that is humpback and blue whales between April and November, and fin whales between August and March. 

As we outline in our concluding remarks, this work is not to be considered an end-point, but rather a stepping stone to improve ecological knowledge and produce operational outputs that can be used effectively by managers and stakeholders to prevent spatial conflict between whales and human activities. As of today, the models of fin and blue whale densities are limited by the small number of observations of these two species over the Oregon continental shelf. Yet, we hope that continued data collection via fruitful research partnerships will allow us to improve the robustness of these species-specific predictions in the future. On the other hand, the rorqual models are considered sufficiently robust to continue into the next phase of the OPAL project that aims to assess overlap between whale distribution and Dungeness crab fishing gear to estimate entanglement risk. 

The curse (or perhaps the beauty?) of species distribution modeling is that it never ends. There are always new data to be added, new statistical approaches to be tested, and new predictions to be made. The OPAL models are no exception to this rule. They are meant to be improved in future years, thanks to continued helicopter and ship-based survey efforts, and to the addition of new environmental variables meant to better predict whale habitat selection. For instance, Rachel Kaplan’s PhD research specifically aims at understanding the distribution of whales in relation to krill. Her results will feed into the more general efforts to model and predict whale distribution to inform management in Oregon.

This first publication therefore paves the way for more exciting and impactful research!

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Reference

Derville, S., Barlow, D. R., Hayslip, C. E., and Torres, L. G. (2022). Seasonal, Annual, and Decadal Distribution of Three Rorqual Whale Species Relative to Dynamic Ocean Conditions Off Oregon, USA. Front. Mar. Sci. 9, 1–19. doi:10.3389/fmars.2022.868566.

Acknowledgments

We gratefully acknowledge the immense contribution of the United State Coast Guard sectors North Bend and Columbia River who facilitated and piloted our helicopter surveys. We would like to also thank NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center for the ship time aboard the R/V Bell M. Shimada. We thank the R/V Bell M. Shimada (chief scientists J. Fisher and S. Zeman) and R/V Oceanus crews, as well as the marine mammal observers F. Sullivan, C. Bird and R. Kaplan. We give special recognition and thanks to the late Alexa Kownacki who contributed so much in the field and to our lives. We also thank T. Buell and K. Corbett (ODFW) for their partnership over the OPAL project. We thank G. Green and J. Brueggeman (Minerals Management Service), J. Adams (US Geological Survey), J. Jahncke (Point blue Conservation), S. Benson (NOAA-South West Fisheries Science Center), and L. Ballance (Oregon State University) for sharing validation data. We thank J. Calambokidis (Cascadia Research Collective) for sharing validation data and for logistical support of the project. We thank A. Virgili for sharing advice and custom codes to produce detection functions.

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