New GEMM Lab publication reveals how blue whale feeding and reproductive effort are related to environmental conditions

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

Learning by listening

Studying mobile marine animals that are only fleetingly visible from the water’s surface is challenging. However, many species including baleen whales rely on sound as a primary form of communication, producing different vocalizations related to their fundamental needs to feed and reproduce. Therefore, we can learn a lot about these elusive animals by monitoring the patterns of their calls. In the final chapter of my PhD, we set out to study blue whale ecology and life history by listening. I am excited to share our findings, recently published in Ecology and Evolution.

Blue whales produce two distinct types of vocalizations: song is produced by males and is hypothesized to play a role in breeding behavior, and D calls are a hypothesized social call produced by both sexes in association with feeding behavior. We analyzed how these different calls varied seasonally, and how they related to environmental conditions.

This paper is a collaborative study co-authored by Dr. Holger Klinck and Dimitri Ponirakis of the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics, Dr. Trevor Branch of the University of Washington, and GEMM Lab PI Dr. Leigh Torres, and brings together multiple methods and data sources. Our findings shed light on blue whale habitat use patterns, and how climate change may impact both feeding and reproduction for this species of conservation concern.

The South Taranaki Bight: an ideal study system

Baleen whales typically migrate between high-latitude, productive feeding grounds and low-latitude breeding grounds. However, the New Zealand blue whale population is present in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) region year-round, which uniquely enabled us to monitor their behavior, ecology, and life history across seasons and years from a single location. We recorded blue whale vocalizations from Marine Autonomous Recording Units (MARUs) deployed at five locations in the STB for two full years (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Study area map and blue whale call spectrograms. Left panel: map of the study area in the South Taranaki Bight region, with hydrophone (marine autonomous recording unit; MARU) locations denoted by the stars. Gray lines show bathymetry contours at 50 m depth increments, from 0 to 500 m. Location of the study area within New Zealand is indicated by the inset map. Right panels: example spectrograms of the two blue whale call types examined: the New Zealand song recorded on 31 May 2016 (top) and D calls recorded 20 September 2016 (bottom). Figure reproduced from Barlow et al. (2023).

We found that the two vocalization types had different seasonal occurrence patterns (Fig. 2). D calls were associated with upwelling conditions that indicate feeding opportunities, lending evidence for their function as a foraging-related call.

Figure 2. Average annual cycle in the song intensity index (dark blue) and D calls (green) per day of the year, computed across all hydrophone locations and the entire two-year recording period. Figure reproduced from Barlow et al. (2023).

In contrast, blue whale song showed a very clear seasonal peak in the fall and was less obviously correlated with environmental conditions. To investigate the hypothesized function of song as a breeding call, we turned to a perhaps unintuitive source of information: historical whaling records. Whenever a pregnant whale was killed during commercial whaling operations, the length of the fetus was measured. By looking at the seasonal pattern in these fetal lengths, we can presume that births occur around the time of year when fetal lengths are at their longest. The records indicated April-May. By back-calculating the 11-month gestation time for a blue whale, we can presume that mating occurs generally in May-June, which is the exact time of the peak in song intensity from our recordings (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Annual song intensity and the breeding cycle. Top panel: average yearly cycle in song intensity index, computed across the five hydrophone locations and the entire recording period; dark blue line represents a loess smoothed fit. Bottom panel: fetal length measurements from whaling catch records for Antarctic blue whales (gray, measurements rounded to the nearest foot), pygmy blue whales in the southern hemisphere (blue, measurements rounded to the nearest centimeter). Measurements from blue whales caught within the established range of the New Zealand population are denoted by the dark red triangles. Calving presumably takes place around or shortly after fetal lengths are at their maximum (April–May), which implies that mating likely occurs around May–June, coincident with the peak song intensity. Figure reproduced from Barlow et al. (2023).

With this evidence for D calls as feeding-related calls and song as breeding-related calls, we had a host of new questions, we used this gained knowledge to explore how changing environmental conditions might impact multiple life history processes for New Zealand blue whales

Marine heatwaves impact multiple life history processes

Our study period between January 2016 and February 2018 spanned both typical upwelling conditions and dramatic marine heatwaves in the STB region. While we previously documented that the marine heatwave of 2016 affected blue whale distribution, the population-level impacts on feeding and reproductive effort remained unknown. In our recent study, we found that during marine heatwaves, D calls were dramatically reduced compared to during productive upwelling conditions. During the fall breeding peak, song intensity was likewise dramatically reduced following the marine heatwave. This relationship indicates that following poor feeding conditions, blue whales may invest less effort in reproduction. As marine heatwaves are projected to become more frequent and more intense under global climate change, our findings are perhaps a warning for what is to come as animal populations must contend with changing ocean conditions.

More than a decade of research on New Zealand blue whales

Ten years ago, Leigh first put forward a hypothesis that the STB region was an undocumented blue whale foraging ground based on multiple lines of evidence (Torres 2013). Despite pushback and numerous challenges, Leigh set out to prove her hypothesis through a comprehensive, multi-year data collection effort. I was lucky enough to join the team in 2016, first as a Masters’ student, and then as a PhD student. In the time since Leigh’s hypothesis, we not only documented the New Zealand blue whale population (Barlow et al. 2018), we learned a great deal about what drives blue whale feeding behavior (Torres et al. 2020) and habitat use patterns (Barlow et al. 2020, 2021), and developed forecast models to predict blue whale distribution for dynamic management of the STB (Barlow & Torres 2021). We also documented their unique, year-round presence in the STB, distinct from the migratory or vagrant presence of other blue whale populations (Barlow et al. 2022b). We now understand how marine heatwaves impact both feeding opportunities and reproductive effort (Barlow et al. 2023). We even analyzed blue whale skin condition (Barlow et al. 2019) and acoustic response to earthquakes (Barlow et al. 2022a) along the way. A decade later, it is humbling to reflect on how much we have learned about these whales. This paper is also the final chapter of my PhD, and as I reflect on how I have grown both personally and scientifically since I interviewed with Leigh as a wide-eyed undergraduate student in fall 2015, I am filled with gratitude for the opportunities for learning and growth that Leigh, these whales, and many mentors and collaborators have offered over the years. As is often the case in science, the more questions you ask, the more questions you end up with. We are already dreaming up future studies to further understand the ecology, health, and resilience of this blue whale population. I can only imagine what we might learn in another decade.

Figure 5. A blue whale mother and calf pair come up for air in the South Taranaki Bight. Photo by Dawn Barlow.

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Barlow DR, Bernard KS, Escobar-Flores P, Palacios DM, Torres LG (2020) Links in the trophic chain: Modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 642:207–225.

Barlow DR, Estrada Jorge M, Klinck H, Torres LG (2022a) Shaken, not stirred: blue whales show no acoustic response to earthquake events. R Soc Open Sci 9:220242.

Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Branch TA, Torres LG (2023) Environmental conditions and marine heatwaves influence blue whale foraging and reproductive effort. Ecol Evol 13:e9770.

Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Garvey C, Torres LG (2021) Temporal and spatial lags between wind, coastal upwelling, and blue whale occurrence. Sci Rep 11:1–10.

Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Holt Colberg M, Torres LG (2022b) Temporal occurrence of three blue whale populations in New Zealand waters from passive acoustic monitoring. J Mammal.

Barlow DR, Pepper AL, Torres LG (2019) Skin deep: An assessment of New Zealand blue whale skin condition. Front Mar Sci 6:757.

Barlow DR, Torres LG (2021) Planning ahead: Dynamic models forecast blue whale distribution with applications for spatial management. J Appl Ecol 58:2493–2504.

Barlow DR, Torres LG, Hodge KB, Steel D, Baker CS, Chandler TE, Bott N, Constantine R, Double MC, Gill P, Glasgow D, Hamner RM, Lilley C, Ogle M, Olson PA, Peters C, Stockin KA, Tessaglia-hymes CT, Klinck H (2018) Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger Species Res 36:27–40.

Torres LG (2013) Evidence for an unrecognised blue whale foraging ground in New Zealand. New Zeal J Mar Freshw Res 47:235–248.

Torres LG, Barlow DR, Chandler TE, Burnett JD (2020) Insight into the kinematics of blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data. PeerJ 8:e8906.

Immersive Marine Science: Diving for Data and a New Perspective on Gray Whale Habitat

Allison Dawn, GEMM Lab Master’s student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab 

If you have followed the GEMM Lab blog for a while, you have read about the multitude of techniques we use to conduct research. A combination of platforms and technologies help us observe whales: rigid inflatable boats (RHIBs), kayaks, theodolites, cameras, binoculars, high-tech drones, and more. However, not only do we observe from the sky and sea surface, but we also know it is important to monitor whale behavior, habitat, and prey underwater. For this week’s blog, I’d like to highlight the GEMM Lab’s sub-surface efforts as part of the TOPAZ/JASPER project, and share more about the world of scientific diving.

Most terrestrial ecologists have the luxury of strolling through their study systems without having to give thought to their next breath, but marine scientists need creative, streamlined, and most importantly, life-preserving ways to directly observe the ocean environment. Like most inventions, today’s self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) equipment was developed from countless prototypes worldwide, dating as far back as the 1800s. This equipment was improved during World War II, specifically to support combat swimmers (called “frogmen” at the time). After the Franco-German Armistice of 1940, French engineer Émile Gagnan and Naval Lieutenant/Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau teamed up to invent the “Aqua-Lung” (Fig. 1), which allowed divers to autonomously stay underwater for much longer periods of time. 

Figure 1: Vintage advertisement for the Aqua-Lung (left) and a diver testing out the equipment (right). Photos sourced from

Now that the first commercially successful breathing apparatus was available, universities began to purchase these units to aid with scientific exploration. However, after a series of fatal diving accidents, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography felt it was urgent to develop the first scientific diving safety program in 1954, years before recreational diving courses were implemented. With specific tasks at hand, the additional level of distraction makes safety and situational awareness that much more important. Now, scientific dive programs, like the one at OSU, are widespread, and after proper safety precautions and training, researchers have been able to accomplish what was previously implausible: restore coral reefs, obtain genetic information from invasive species, monitor species under polar ice sheets, and so much more (Fig. 2).

Figure 2: Scientific divers at work. Norwegian polar ice diver Michal Tessman collects algae, zooplankton, and phytoplankton samples (left); Florida State doctoral student Nathan Spindel obtains genetic material from urchins (top right); Dr. Colleen Bove of UNC Chapel Hill monitors tropical coral growth (bottom right).

On the south coast of Oregon, the GEMM lab collaborates with Dr. Aaron Galloway, an accomplished scientific diver and one of the lead scientists with the Oregon Kelp Alliance (ORKA), an organization dedicated to kelp forest monitoring, urchin culling, and restoration efforts. He and his team, along with our long-term project partner Dave Lacey of South Coast Tours, help us deploy our in situ underwater cameras each summer (Figs 3 & 4). As you may know, the TOPAZ component of our project aims to link fine-scale gray whale foraging ecology to prey distribution patterns, using inexpensive field methods. The in situ underwater CamDO camera systems are an exciting, recent addition to our long-standing sampling approach.

Figure 3: CamDo lander with attached oceanographic sensors (left); two new OSU scientific divers and Marine Studies Initiative interns, Faith Townsend and Caroline Rice, preparing to dive (right).

We have two durable camera housings that anchor in Mill Rocks and Tichenor Cove. In each housing we insert a GoPro, an extra battery, and a microcontroller programmed to record footage at continuous intervals. With these cameras we capture hundreds of hours of underwater footage of fish, zooplankton, and we hope to one day record gray whale foraging.

Figure 4: Dr. Aaron Galloway and his graduate student Samantha Persad getting ready to complete the final dive of the season in ideal visibility conditions.

Each week during the field season, the divers and I meet early at the dock to board the tour boat Black Pearl for our routine CamDO maintenance excursions. My first role on the early morning journeys is to be a “dive tender” — I help the divers back on board, log their dive times and air pressure, and keep gear organized on the boat. Then, while the divers relax and enjoy a snack, my next role begins. The next few minutes is what we refer to as the “NASCAR pit-stop” of camera maintenance: I replace batteries, swap SD cards, program the camera, ensure that it is secure in the housing, and tuck it into the diver’s bag along with installation tools. All the while, I simultaneously listen for radio calls from our Port Orford interns, sometimes troubleshooting urgent questions while they collect zooplankton and water quality data from the kayak or observe for whales from the cliff.

This multitasking is challenging, but at least I am dry, warm, and have total dexterity of my hands. As I watch the divers descend, in all their neoprene glory, to secure the camera back to its stationary landing, I like to imagine what they are seeing and experiencing. If visibility is good, they will descend into a cerulean blue world filled with rockfish, jellies, mysid swarms, and algae covered reefs (Fig 5.). However, as exciting as sightseeing can be while diving, my own scientific diver training has allowed me to understand the focus, determination, and adaptability even the simplest of tasks require, especially in the chilly waters of the Pacific Northwest.

Figure 5: Under the surface: black rockfish enjoying a swim around the rocky reefs in Tichenor Cove, Port Orford.

I earned my AAUS Scientific Diver certification in 2018 through UNC Chapel Hill, and have since learned just how different cold water is from warm water diving. My first cold water dive was at the Orford Reef exhibit in the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Guided by Kevin Buch, OSU’s Diving and Boat Safety Officer, I gained a new respect for how important it is to train in the conditions you will be working in. For example, cold-water diving requires much more insulation, which in turn changes your buoyancy and dexterity. At first, I struggled to learn my new buoyancy baseline while simultaneously rolling out transect tape with thick neoprene gloves and keeping a curious sturgeon from stealing my mask. At times it felt like I was learning to dive all over again. This winter, I have increased my confidence by taking evening SCUBA proficiency courses to sharpen my skills and logging dives in local conditions.

Figure 6: Obtaining my open water certification on the French Reef in Florida Keys, 2018.

As part of our Advanced Diver weekend course in the beautiful Hood Canal, I had the opportunity to hone my skills in compass navigation, buoyancy, night and deep dives, and search & recovery methods, all in my new cold water gear. While my dive buddy and I were ecstatic to see some amazing flora and fauna (giant pacific octopus, sea pens, nudibranch, pipefish, and more!) we mainly bonded over the shared sense of achievement in safely completing our complex tasks in low-visibility, cold-water conditions.

Figure 7: Giant Pacific Octopus like this can be observed while diving in the Hood Canal, photo credit Bruce Kerwin.

As I complete these trainings, I think of all there is to to be discovered with data collected under the surface of our Port Orford study system: the health of kelp forests, the density and patchiness of mysid shrimp (the crucial prey source for gray whales), habitat complexity, and more. I am curious if there are certain puzzle pieces driving gray whale foraging decisions that may be revealed through expanding our subsurface monitoring efforts as part of the GEMM Lab’s already impressive dataset.

The skill sets required for scientific diving are also useful for outdoor leadership, and truly in all situations: maintaining a cool head under stressful conditions, planning for the unexpected, managing expectations, and communicating well (you can’t really talk with a regulator in your mouth!) — to name just a few. Regardless of exactly how I use my scientific dive training for future research, I am thankful for all this experience has taught me; and, I look forward to integrating these skills further as we head into our 9th year of the JASPER/TOPAZ project.

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How do we study the impact of whale watching?

Clara Bird, PhD Candidate, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Since its start, the GEMM Lab has been interested in the effect of vessel disturbance on whales. From former student Florence’s masters project to Leila’s PhD work, this research has shown that gray whales on their foraging grounds have a behavioral response to vessel presence (Sullivan & Torres, 2018) and a physiological response to vessel noise (Lemos et al., 2022). Presently, our GRANITE project is continuing to investigate the effect of ambient noise on gray whales, with an emphasis on understanding how these effects might scale up to impact the population as a whole (Image 1).

To date, all this work has been focused on gray whales feeding off the coast of Oregon, but I’m excited to share that this is about to change! In just a few weeks, Leigh and I will be heading south for a pilot study looking at the effects of whale watching vessels on gray whale mom/calf pairs in the nursing lagoons of Baja California, Mexico.

Image 1. Infographic for the GRANITE project. Credit: Carrie Ekeroth

We are collaborating with a Fernanda Urrutia Osorio, a PhD candidate at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, to spend a week conducting fieldwork in one of the nursing lagoons. For this project we will be collecting drone footage of mom/calf pairs in both the presence and absence of whale watching vessels. Our goal is to see if we detect any differences in behavior when there are vessels around versus when there are not. Tourism regulations only allow the whale watching vessels to be on the water during specific hours, so we are hoping to use this regulated pattern of vessel presence and absence as a sort of experiment.

Image 2. A mom and calf pair.  NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

The lagoons are a crucial place for mom/calf pairs, this is where calves nurse and grow before migration, and nursing is energetically costly for moms. So, it is important to study disturbance responses in this habitat since any change in behavior caused by vessels could affect both the calf’s energy intake and the mom’s energy expenditure. While this hasn’t yet been investigated for gray whales in the lagoons, similar studies have been carried out on other species in their nursing grounds.

Video 1. Footage of “likely nursing” behavior. NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

We can use these past studies as blueprints for both data collection and processing. Disturbance studies such as these look for a wide variety of behavioral responses. These include (1) changes in activity budgets, meaning a change in the proportion of time spent in a behavior state, (2) changes in respiration rate, which would reflect a change in energy expenditure, (3) changes in path, which would indicate avoidance, (4) changes in inter-individual distance, and (5) changes in vocalizations. While it’s not necessarily possible to record all of these responses, a meta-analysis of research on the impact of whale watching vessels found that the most common responses were increases in the proportion of time spent travelling (a change in activity budget) and increased deviation in path, indicating an avoidance response (Senigaglia et al., 2016).

One of the key phrases in all these possible behavioral responses is “change in ___”. Without control data collected in the absence of whale watching vessels, it impossible to detect a difference. Some studies have conducted controlled exposures, using approaches with the research vessel as proxies for the whale watchers (Arranz et al., 2021; Sprogis et al., 2020), while others use the whale watching operators’ daily schedule and plan their data collection schedule around that (Sprogis et al., 2023). Just as ours will, all these studies collected data using drones to record whale behavior and made sure to collect footage before, during, and after exposure to the vessel(s).

One study focused on humpback mom/calf pairs found a decrease in the proportion of time spent resting and an increase in both respiration rate and swim speed during the exposure (Sprogis et al., 2020). Similarly, a study focused on short-finned pilot whale mom/calf pairs found a decrease in the mom’s resting time and the calf’s nursing time (Arranz et al., 2021). And, Sprogis et al.’s  study of Southern right whales found a decrease in resting behavior after the exposure, suggesting that the vessels’ affect lasted past their departure (Sprogis et al., 2023, Image 3). It is interesting that while these studies found changes in different response metrics, a common trend is that all these changes suggest an increase in energy expenditure caused by the disturbance.

However, it is important to note that these studies focused on short term responses. Long term impacts have not been thoroughly estimated yet. These studies provide many valuable insights, not only into the response of whales to whale watching, but also a look at the various methods used. As we prepare for our fieldwork, it’s useful to learn how other researchers have approached similar projects.

Image 3. Visual ethogram from Sprogis et al. 2023. This shows all the behaviors they identified from the footage.

I want to note that I don’t write this blog intending to condemn whale watching. I fully appreciate that offering the opportunity to view and interact with these incredible creatures is valuable. After all, it is one of the best parts of my job. But hopefully these disturbance studies can inform better regulations, such as minimum approach distances or maximum engine noise levels.

As these studies have done, our first step will be to establish an ethogram of behaviors (our list of defined behaviors that we will identify in the footage) using our pilot data. We can also record respiration and track line data. An additional response that I’m excited to add is the distance between the mom and her calf. Former GEMM Lab NSF REU intern Celest will be rejoining us to process the footage using the AI method she developed last summer (Image 4). As described in her blog, this method tracks a mom and calf pair across the video frames, and allows us to extract the distance between them. We look forward to adding this metric to the list and seeing what we can glean from the results.

Image 4. Example of a labelled frame from SLEAP, highlighting labels: rostrum, blowhole, dorsal, dorsal-knuckle, and tail. This labels are drawn to train the software to recognize the whales in unlabelled frames.

While we are just getting started, I am excited to see what we can learn about these whales and how best to study them. Stay tuned for updates from Baja!

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Arranz, P., Glarou, M., & Sprogis, K. R. (2021). Decreased resting and nursing in short-finned pilot whales when exposed to louder petrol engine noise of a hybrid whale-watch vessel. Scientific Reports, 11(1), 21195.

Lemos, L. S., Haxel, J. H., Olsen, A., Burnett, J. D., Smith, A., Chandler, T. E., Nieukirk, S. L., Larson, S. E., Hunt, K. E., & Torres, L. G. (2022). Effects of vessel traffic and ocean noise on gray whale stress hormones. Scientific Reports, 12(1), Article 1.

Senigaglia, V., Christiansen, F., Bejder, L., Gendron, D., Lundquist, D., Noren, D., Schaffar, A., Smith, J., Williams, R., Martinez, E., Stockin, K., & Lusseau, D. (2016). Meta-analyses of whale-watching impact studies: Comparisons of cetacean responses to disturbance. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 542, 251–263.

Sprogis, K. R., Holman, D., Arranz, P., & Christiansen, F. (2023). Effects of whale-watching activities on southern right whales in Encounter Bay, South Australia. Marine Policy, 150, 105525.

Sprogis, K. R., Videsen, S., & Madsen, P. T. (2020). Vessel noise levels drive behavioural responses of humpback whales with implications for whale-watching. ELife, 9, e56760.

Sullivan, F. A., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Assessment of vessel disturbance to gray whales to inform sustainable ecotourism. Journal of Wildlife Management, 82(5), 896–905.

Announcing our new project: SLATE – Scar-based Long-term Assessment of Trends in whale Entanglements

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

Filling the gaps

Reports of whale entanglements have been on the rise over the last decade on the US West Coast, with Dungeness crab fishing gear implicated in many cases (Feist et al., 2021; Samhouri et al., 2021; Santora et al., 2020). State agencies are responsible for managing this environmental issue that has implications both for the endangered whale sub-populations that are subject to entanglements, and for the fishing activities, which play an important social, cultural, and economic role for coastal communities. In Oregon, the Oregon Whale Entanglement Working Group (today the Oregon Entanglement Advisory Committee, facilitated by ODFW – Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife) formed in 2017, tasked with developing options to reduce entanglement risk. The group members composed of managers, researchers and fishermen identified that a lack of information and understanding of whale distribution in Oregon waters was a significant knowledge gap of high priority.

In response, the GEMM Lab and its collaborators at ODFW developed the OPAL project (Overlap Predictions About Large whales, phase 1: 2018-2022). The first phase of the project (phase 1) was developed to 1) model and predict large whale distribution off the coast of Oregon in relation to dynamic environmental conditions, and 2) assess overlap with commercial crab fishing gear to inform conservation efforts. Although this first phase was extended up to June as a result of COVID, it is now coming to an end. As a postdoc in the GEMM Lab, I have been the main analyst working on this project. The habitat use models that I generated from several years of aerial and boat-based surveys provide improved knowledge about where and when rorqual whales (combining blue, humpback and fin) are most abundant (Derville et al., 2022). Moreover, we are about to publish an analysis of overlap between whale predicted densities and commercial Dungeness crab fishing effort. This analysis of co-occurrence over 10 years shows distinct spatio-temporal patterns in relation to climatic fluctuations affecting the northern California Current System (Derville et al., In review).

Although we are quite satisfied with the outputs of these four years of research, this is not the end of it! Project OPAL continues into a second phase (2022-2025; supported by NOAA Section 6 funding), during which models will be improved and refined via incorporation of new survey data (helicopter and boat-based) as well as prey data (krill and fish distribution). PhD student Rachel Kaplan is a key contributor to this research, and I will do my best to keep assisting her in this journey in the years to come.

Announcing SLATE!

As this newly acquired knowledge leads to potentially new management measures in Oregon, it becomes essential for managers to evaluate their impacts on the entanglement issue. But how do we know exactly how many entanglements occur during any year within Oregon waters? Is recording reports of entanglements or signs of entanglements in stranded whales enough? The simple answer is no. Entanglements are notoriously under-detected and under-reported (Tackaberry et al., 2022). Over the US West Coast, entanglements are also relatively rare events that can easily go unnoticed in the immensity of the ocean. Moreover, entangled large whales are often able to carry the fishing gear for some time away from the initial gearset location, which makes it hard to locate the origin of the gear causing problems (van der Hoop et al., 2017).

Figure 1: Graphical representation of the SLATE project representing the different tasks described below. Work in progress…

Our approach to the challenge of assessing humpback whale entanglement rates in Oregon waters is to use scar analysis. Our new “SLATE” (Scar-based Long-term Assessment of Trends in whale Entanglements, Figure 1) project will be using scar-based methods as a proxy to detect unobserved entanglement events (e.g., Basran et al., 2019; Bradford et al., 2009; George et al., 2017; Knowlton et al., 2012; Robbins, 2012). Indeed, this approach has been effective to detect potential interactions with fishing gear at a much higher frequency than entanglement reports in the Atlantic Ocean (e.g., only 10% of entanglements of humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine were estimated to be reported; Robbins, 2012). We will be examining hundreds of photographs of humpback whales observed in Oregon waters to try to detect wrapping scars and notches that result from entanglement events. Based on this scar pattern, we will assign each whale a qualitative probability of prior entanglement (i.e., uncertain, low, high). We will specifically be looking at the caudal peduncle (the attachment point of the whale’s fluke, see Figure 2) following a methodology developed in the Gulf of Maine by Robbins & Mattila, (2001).

Figure 2: Examples of unhealed injuries interpreted as entanglement related in 2010 in the Gulf of Maine. Figure reproduced from (Robbins, 2012).

Data please?

While this approach is to-date the most applicable way to assess otherwise undetected entanglements, it is sometimes limited by sample size. Although we plan to collect more photos in the field in summer 2023 and 2024, this long-term analysis of scarring patterns would not be possible without the contribution of the Cascadia Research Collective (CRC) led by John Calambokidis. The CRC humpback whale catalogue will be crucial to assessing entanglement rates at the individual level over the last decade.

Moreover, as we have been contemplating the task ahead of us, we realized that the data collected through traditional scientific surveys might not be sufficient to achieve our goal. We need the help of the people who live off the ocean and encounter whales on a day-to-day basis: fishermen. That is why we decided to solicit interested fishermen to take photographs of whales while at sea. Starting this year, we will work with at least three self-selected fishermen who are interested in supporting this program and collecting data to support the research efforts. Participants will be provided a stipend, equipped with a high-quality camera, and trained to photograph whales while following National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) guidelines.

And here come the statistics…

If we have some of my previous blogs (e.g., May 2022, June 2018), you know that I usually participate in projects that have a significant statistical modeling component. As part of the SLATE project, I will be trying out some new approaches that I never had the opportunity to work with before, which makes me feels both super excited and slightly apprehensive!

First, I will analyze humpback whale scarring at the population level. That means I will be using all available photos of whales in Oregon waters without considering individual identification, and I will model the probability of entanglement scars in relation to space and time. This model will help us answer questions such as: did whales have a higher chance of becoming entangled in certain years over others? Did whales observed in a certain zone in Oregon waters have a higher risk of getting entangled?

Second, I will analyze humpback whale scarring at the individual level. This time, we will only use encounters of a selected number of individuals that have a long recapture history, meaning that they were photo-identified and resighted several times throughout the last decade. Using a genetic database produced by the Cetacean Conservation and Genomic Laboratory (CCGL, Marine Mammal Institute), we will also be able to tell to which “Distinct Population Segment” (DPS) some of these individual whales belong. Down the line, this is an important piece of information because humpback whale DPS do not breed in the same areas, and these groups have different levels of population health. Then, we will use what is known as a “multi-event mark-recapture model” to estimate the probability of entanglement as a function of time and spatial residency or DPS assignment, while accounting for detection probability and survival.

Through these analyses, our goal is to produce a single indicator to help managers assess the effects of mandatory or voluntary changes in Oregon fishing practices. In the end, we hope that these models will provide a measurable and robust way of monitoring whale entanglements in fishing gear off the coast of Oregon.



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