Harbor porpoise and gray whale distribution over three decades: introducing the EMERALD project

By Dawn Barlow, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Throughout the world, humans rely on coastal regions for shipping and commerce, fisheries, industrial development, and increasingly for the development of marine renewable energy such as wind and wave energy [1]. Nearshore environments, including the coastal waters of the Northern California Current (NCC), are therefore coupled social-ecological systems, at the intersection of human and biological productivity [2].

The NCC supports a diverse food web of ecologically and commercially important species [3]. The nearshore region of the NCC is further shaped by a rich mosaic of complex features including rocky reefs, kelp forests, and sloping sandy bottom substrate [4], creating habitat for numerous species of conservation interest, including invertebrates, fish, seabirds, and marine mammals [5]. Despite its importance, this realm poses significant challenges for vessel-based data collection, and therefore it remains relatively poorly monitored and understood.

The view from Cape Foulweather, showing the complex mosaic of nearshore habitat features. Photo: D. Barlow.

I am excited to introduce a new project focused on these important nearshore waters, in which we will be Examining Marine mammal Ecology through Region-wide Assessment of Long-term Data (EMERALD). Since 1992, standardized surveys have been conducted between San Francisco Bay, CA, and the Columbia River, OR, to monitor the abundance of marbled murrelets, a seabird of conservation concern. Each spring and summer, researchers have simultaneously been diligently documenting the locations of harbor porpoise and gray whale sightings—two iconic marine mammal species that rely on the nearshore waters of the NCC. This rich and extensive record is rare for marine mammal data, particularly in the challenging, turbulent nearshore environment. Furthermore, harbor porpoises are cryptic, making visual sampling particularly challenging, and gray whales can be sparsely distributed, yielding low sample sizes in the absence of long-term data collection.

Left: The survey team collecting data; Right: Marbled murrelet floating on the water.

For the EMERALD project, we will investigate spatial and temporal distribution patterns of harbor porpoises and gray whales in relation to fluctuations in key environmental drivers. The primary goals of the project are to (1) Identify persistent hotspots in harbor porpoise and gray whale sightings over time, and (2) Examine the environmental drivers of sighting hotspots through spatial and temporal analyses.

A harbor porpoise surfacing off the central Oregon coast. Photo: L. Torres.

From a first look at the data, we are already excited by some emerging patterns. In total, the dataset contains sightings of 6,763 harbor porpoise (mean 233 per year) and 530 gray whales (mean 18 per year). Preliminary data exploration reveals that harbor porpoise sightings increased in 2011-2012, predominantly between Cape Blanco, OR, and Cape Mendocino, CA. Gray whale sightings appear to follow an oscillating, cyclical pattern with peaks approximately every three years, with notable disruption of this pattern during the marine heatwave of 2014-2015. What are the drivers of sighting hotspots and spatial and temporal fluctuations in sighting rates? Time—and a quantitative analytical approach involving density estimation, timeseries analysis, and species distribution modeling—will tell.

A gray whale forages in kelp forest habitat over a nearshore rocky reef. Photo: T. Chandler.

I recently completed my PhD on the ecology and distribution of blue whales in New Zealand (for more information, see the OBSIDIAN project). Now, I am excited to apply the spatial analysis skills have been honing to a new study system and two new study species as I take on a new role in the GEMM Lab as a Postdoctoral Scholar. The EMERALD project will turn my focus to the nearshore waters close to home that I have grown to love over the past six years as a resident of coastal Oregon. The surveys I will be working with began before I was born, and I am truly fortunate to inherit such a rich dataset—a rare treat for a marine mammal biologist, and an exciting prospect for a statistical ecologist.

Dawn and Quin the dog, enjoying views of Oregon’s complex and important nearshore waters. Both are thrilled to remain in Oregon for the EMERALD project. Photo: R. Kaplan.

So, stay tuned for our findings as the project unfolds. In the meantime, I want express gratitude to Craig Strong of Crescent Coastal Research who has led the dedicated survey effort for the marbled murrelet monitoring program, without whom none of the data would exist. This project is funded by the Oregon Gray Whale License Plate funds, and we thank the gray whale license plate holders for their support of marine mammal research.

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References:

1.        Jouffray, J.-B., Blasiak, R., Norström, A. V., Österblom, H., and Nyström, M. (2020). The Blue Acceleration: The Trajectory of Human Expansion into the Ocean. One Earth 2, 43–54.

2.        Sjostrom, A.J.C., Ciannelli, L., Conway, F., and Wakefield, W.W. (2021). Gathering local ecological knowledge to augment scientific and management understanding of a living coastal resource: The case of Oregon’s nearshore groundfish trawl fishery. Mar. Policy 131, 104617.

3.        Bograd, S.J., Schroeder, I., Sarkar, N., Qiu, X., Sydeman, W.J., and Schwing, F.B. (2009). Phenology of coastal upwelling in the California Current. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, 1–5.

4.        Romsos, G., Goldfinger, C., Robison, R., Milstein, R., Chaytor, J., and Wakefield, W. (2007). Development of a regional seafloor surficial geologic habitat map for the continental margins of Oregon and Washington, USA. Mapp. Seafloor Habitat Charact. Geol. Assoc. Canada, Spec. Pap., 219–243.

5.        Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (2016). Oregon Nearshore Strategy. Available at: https://oregonconservationstrategy.org/oregon-nearshore-strategy/ [Accessed January 10, 2022].

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