Burning Krillories – Determining Krill Caloric Content in New Zealand’s South Taranaki Bight

By Nina Mahalingam, University of California Davis, OSU CEOAS REU program

Hello! I’m Nina Mahalingam, a rising junior at the University of California, Davis studying biochemistry and molecular biology. Growing up in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, the Boston Aquarium was practically in my backyard –  and with just one feel of a touch tank, a lifelong affinity for marine sciences began. CEOAS has provided me with a grand opportunity to pursue this passion, and I can’t wait to dip my toes into the salt water!

Figure 1. Nina posing with a Parr Semimicro Calorimeter.

Here at OSU, I’m researching how our tiny friends, the krill, can provide a krill-uminating perspective on trophic ecology and the vitality of marine ecosystems by investigating the caloric content of an understudied species of krill off the coast of New Zealand. Nyctiphanes australis serves as a key prey species to numerous higher trophic levels. Limited knowledge exists regarding the distribution of N. australis in the South Taranaki Bight (STB), with only a handful of studies focused exclusively on the species. The majority of recent information available on the species in the STB came out of research on blue whales and their foraging behaviors (e.g., Barlow et al., 2020). However, given that the spatial distribution of N. australis directly influences the distribution of predator species that depend on them for sustenance (Barlow et. al. 2020), studying the krill may yield a more comprehensive understanding of blue whale behavior as well as ecosystem resilience.

Figure 2. Nyctiphances australis. Photo by A. Slotwinski, CSIRO.

Seawater temperatures around New Zealand have been increasing since 1981 (Sutton & Bowen, 2019), and there is a growing concern about the implications to marine life. In particular, increasing ocean temperatures have had significant impacts on local aquaculture and fisheries (Sutton et al. 2005; Bowen et al. 2017). Although warming trends along the North Island, north of East Cape, have been more severe (around 0.4℃ increase per decade), warming has also been observed in the central and western areas of the STB, averaging around 0.15-0.20℃ increase per decade (Sutton & Bowen, 2019). During Marine Heat Waves (MHWs) (data collected between 2002 and 2018), warming anomalies were observed to decrease phytoplankton presence (Chiswell & Sutton, 2020). Being krill’s primary food source, this suggests a consequent decrease in krill health and reproduction. A recent study on blue whale reproductive patterns in the STB found that whale feeding activity decreased during MHWs, leading to a decline in their reproductive activity during the following breeding season (Barlow et al., 2020). Concurrently, the study observed that there were less krill aggregations and that they were less dense on average (Barlow et al., 2020). This is presumed to be a result of less upwelling nutrients, and therefore poor conditions for krill feeding and reproduction. These findings indicate that the absence of their primary food source, krill, during MHWs can lead to severely negative consequences for the blue whale populations (Barlow et al., 2023).

Anthropogenic activity in the STB, including high vessel traffic, as well as petroleum and mineral exploration and extraction activities, has also been identified as a threat to the local blue whale population (Torres et. al., 2013). Given the cultural significance of the blue whales in this region, there is an urgent need for improved, dynamic management practices in the STB that can be achieved using predictive models to forecast blue whale spatial distribution. Using environmental factors to inform predictive spatial distribution models (SDMs) of blue whales (Redfern et al. 2006, Elith & Leathwick 2009), Barlow et al. (2021) designed a blue whale forecasting tool for managers and decision-makers in New Zealand.

Given the ecological and cultural significance of blue whales and their krill prey in the STB, a Project SAPPHIRE (Synthesis of Acoustics, Physiology, Prey, and Habitat in a Rapidly changing Environment) was developed to examine the impacts of climate change on the health of these crucial species. The overarching goal of Project SAPPHIRE is to measure prey (krill) and predator (blue whales) response to environmental change off the coast of New Zealand. Despite forecasts of high probability of occurrence of blue whales in the STB during the first field season conducted in January-February 2024, both the blue whales and their krill prey were scarce, and it is currently unclear why. My research will focus on examining the calorie content of N. australis in order to advance understanding of how they fulfill the energetic needs of blue whales. Thus, this data can inform future SDMs to forecast impacts of climate change on New Zealand’s marine ecosystem.

Figure 3. Map of SAPPHIRE’s survey effort for 2024. Gray lines represent visual tracking, dotted lines represent aerial tracking. Red dots represent whale sightings and purple stars indicate where two hydrophones were deployed.

This project has already proven tricky – but I’m ready to embrace the challenge. I would like to thank the CEOAS REU program as well as my mentors Kim Bernard, Rachel Kaplan, and Abby Tomita for their continued support. I can’t wait to see what this summer brings!

References

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. 2023;13:e9770.

Barlow D, Kim S. Bernard, Pablo Escobar-Flores, Daniel M. Palacios, Leigh G. 2020. Torres Links in the trophic chain: modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Marine Ecology Progress Series.

Sutton, P.J.H., & Bowen, M. 2019. Ocean temperature change around New Zealand over the last 36 years. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, 53(3), 305–326.

Sutton P.J.H., Bowen M, Roemmich D. 2005. Decadal temperature changes in the Tasman Sea. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research. 39:1321–1329.

Bowen M, Markham J, Sutton P, Zhang X, Wu Q, Shears N, Fernandez D. 2017. Interannual variability of sea surface temperatures in the Southwest Pacific and the role of ocean dynamics. Journal of Climate.

Stephen M. Chiswell & Philip J. H. Sutton. 2020. Relationships between long-term ocean warming, marine heat waves and primary production in the New Zealand region. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research.

A Summer of Crustacean Investigation

By Matoska Silva, OSU Department of Integrative Biology, CEOAS REU Program

My name is Matoska Silva, and I just finished my first year at Oregon State University studying biology with a focus in ecology. This summer will be my first experience with marine ecology, and I’m eager to dive right in. I’m super excited for the opportunity to research krill due to the huge impacts these tiny organisms have on their surrounding ecosystems. The two weeks I’ve spent in the CEOAS REU so far have been among the most fun and informative of my life, and I can’t wait to see what else the summer has in store for me.

Figure 1. Matoska presents his proposed research to the CEOAS REU program.

I’ve spent most of my life in Oregon, so I was thrilled to learn that my project would focus on krill distribution along the Oregon Coast that I know and love. More specifically, my project focuses on the Northern California Current (NCC, the current found along the Oregon Coast) and the ways that geographic distribution of krill corresponds to climatic conditions in the region. Here is a synopsis of the project:

The NCC system, which spans the west coast of North America from Cape Mendocino, California to southern British Columbia, is notable for seasonal upwelling, a process that brings cool, nutrient-rich water from the ocean depths to the surface. This process provides nutrients for a complex marine food web containing phytoplankton, zooplankton, fish, birds, and mammals (Checkley & Barth, 2009). Euphausiids, commonly known as krill, are among the most ecologically important zooplankton groups in the NCC, playing a vital role in the flow of nutrients through the food web (Evans et al., 2022). Euphausia pacifica and Thysanoessa spinifera are the predominant krill species in the NCC, with T. spinifera mainly inhabiting coastal waters and E. pacifica inhabiting a wider range offshore (Brinton, 1962). T. spinifera individuals are typically physically larger than E. pacifica and are generally a higher-energy food source for predators (Fisher et al., 2020). 

Temperature has been previously established as a major factor impacting krill abundance and distribution in the NCC (Phillips et al., 2022). Massive, ecosystem-wide changes in the NCC have been linked to extreme warming brought on by the 2014-2016 marine heatwave (Brodeur et al., 2019). Both dominant krill species have been shown to respond negatively to warming events in the NCC, with anomalous warm temperatures in 2014-2016 being linked to severe declines in E. pacifica biomass and with T. spinifera nearly disappearing from the Oregon Coast (Peterson et al., 2017). Changes in normal seasonal size variation and trends toward smaller size distributions in multiple age groups have been observed in E. pacifica in response to warming in northern California coastal waters (Robertson & Bjorkstedt, 2020). 

The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a worldwide climatic pattern that has been linked to warming events and ecosystem disturbances in the California Current System (McGowan et al., 1998). El Niño events of both strong and weak intensity can result in changes in the NCC ecosystem (Fisher et al., 2015). Alterations in the typical zooplankton community accompanying warm water conditions and a decline in phytoplankton have been recorded in the NCC during weak and strong El Niño occurrences (Fisher et al., 2015). A strong El Niño event occurred in 2023 and 2024, with three-month Oceanic Niño Index means reaching above 1.90 from October 2023 to January 2024 (NOAA Climate Prediction Center, https://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/data/indices/oni.ascii.txt).   

Figure 2. A graph of the ONI showing variability across two decades. Retrieved from NOAA at https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-variability-oceanic-nino-index 

While patterns in krill responses to warming have been described from previous years,  the effects of the 2023-2024 El Niño on the spatial distribution of krill off the Oregon coast have not yet been established. As climate models have predicted that strong El Niño events may become more common due to greenhouse warming effects (Cai et al., 2014), continuing efforts to document zooplankton responses to El Niño conditions are vital for understanding how the NCC ecosystem responds to a changing climate. By investigating krill spatial distributions in April 2023, during a period of neutral ENSO conditions following a year of La Niña conditions, and April 2024, during the 2023-2024 El Niño event, we can assess how recent ENSO activity has impacted krill distributions in the NCC. In addition to broader measures of ENSO, we will examine records of localized sea surface temperatures (SST) and measurements of upwelling activity during April 2023 and 2024.

Understanding spatial distribution of krill aggregations is both ecologically and economically relevant, with implications for both marine conservation and management of commercial fisheries. Modeling patterns in the distribution of krill species and their predators has potential to inform marine management decisions to mitigate human impacts on marine mammals like whales (Rockwood et al., 2020). The data used to identify krill distribution were originally collected as part of the Marine Offshore Species Assessments to Inform Clean Energy (MOSAIC) project. The larger MOSAIC initiative centers around monitoring marine mammals and birds in areas identified for possible future development of offshore wind energy infrastructure. The findings of this study could aid in the conservation of krill consumers during the implementation of wind energy expansion projects. Changes in krill spatial distribution are also important for monitoring species that support commercial fisheries. Temperature has been shown to play a role in the overlap in distribution of NCC krill and Pacific hake (Merluccius productus), a commercially valuable fish species in Oregon waters (Phillips et al., 2023). The findings of my project could supplement existing commercial fish abundance surveys by providing ecological insights into factors driving changes in economically important fisheries.

Figure 3. The study area and transect design of the MOSAIC project, during which active acoustic data was collected (MOSAIC Project, https://mmi.oregonstate.edu/marine-mammals-offshore-wind). 

I’m very grateful for the chance to work on a project with such important implications for the future of our Oregon coast ecosystems. My project has a lot of room for additional investigation of climate variables, with limited time being the main constraint on which processes I can explore. There are also unique methodological challenges to address during the project, and I’m ready to do some experimentation to work out solutions. Wherever my project takes me, I know that I will have developed a diverse range of skills and knowledge of krill by the end of the summer.

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References

Brinton, E. (1962). The distribution of Pacific euphausiids. Bulletin of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 8(2), 51-270. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/6db5n157 

Brodeur, R. D., Auth, T. D., & Phillips, A. J. (2019). Major shifts in pelagic micronekton and macrozooplankton community structure in an upwelling ecosystem related to an unprecedented marine heatwave. Frontiers in Marine Science, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2019.00212 

Cai, W., Borlace, S., Lengaigne, M., van Rensch, P., Collins, M., Vecchi, G., Timmermann, A., Santoso, A., McPhaden, M. J., Wu, L., England, M. H., Wang, G., Guilyardi, E., & Jin, F. F. (2014). Increasing frequency of extreme El Niño events due to greenhouse warming. Nature Climate Change, 4, 111–116. https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2100 

Checkley, D. M., & Barth, J. A. (2009). Patterns and processes in the California Current System. Progress in Oceanography, 83, 49–64. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pocean.2009.07.028 

Evans, R., Gauthier, S., & Robinson, C. L. K. (2022). Ecological considerations for species distribution modelling of euphausiids in the Northeast Pacific Ocean. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 79, 518–532. https://doi.org/10.1139/cjfas-2020-0481 

Fisher, J. L., Peterson, W. T., & Rykaczewski, R. R. (2015). The impact of El Niño events on the pelagic food chain in the northern California Current. Global Change Biology, 21, 4401–4414. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.13054 

Fisher, J. L., Menkel, J., Copeman, L., Shaw, C. T., Feinberg, L. R., & Peterson, W. T. (2020). Comparison of condition metrics and lipid content between Euphausia pacifica and Thysanoessa spinifera in the Northern California Current, USA. Progress in Oceanography, 188, 102417. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pocean.2020.102417

McGowan, J. A., Cayan, D. R., & Dorman, L. M. (1998). Climate-ocean variability and ecosystem response in the Northeast Pacific. Science, 281, 210–217. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.281.5374.210 

Phillips, E. M., Chu, D., Gauthier, S., Parker-Stetter, S. L., Shelton, A. O., & Thomas, R. E. (2022). Spatiotemporal variability of Euphausiids in the California Current Ecosystem: Insights from a recently developed time series. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 79,   1312–1326. https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsac055 

Phillips, E. M., Malick, M. J., Gauthier, S., Haltuch, M. A., Hunsicker, M. E., Parker‐Stetter, S. L., & Thomas, R. E. (2023). The influence of temperature on Pacific hake co‐occurrence with euphausiids in the California Current Ecosystem. Fisheries Oceanography, 32, 267–279. https://doi.org/10.1111/fog.12628

Peterson, W. T., Fisher, J. L., Strub, P. T., Du, X., Risien, C., Peterson, J., & Shaw, C. T. (2017). The pelagic ecosystem in the Northern California Current off Oregon during the 2014–2016 warm anomalies within the context of the past 20 years. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, 122(9), 7267–7290. https://doi.org/10.1002/2017jc012952 

Robertson, R. R., & Bjorkstedt, E. P. (2020). Climate-driven variability in Euphausia pacificasize distributions off Northern California. Progress in Oceanography, 188, 102412.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pocean.2020.102412

Are You Seeing Scars Too?: Examining Gray Whale Scars and Skin Conditions

By Serina Lane, GEMM Lab NSF REU Intern, Georgia Gwinnett College

Hello, everyone! My name is Serina and I’m a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Intern at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) this summer. I’ve had a love for the ocean for as long as I can remember. Honestly, it started off with just dolphins, but I soon started to realize that the ocean is full of fascinating creatures!

How I ended up here…well, I’ve never been to Oregon, I’m escaping the hot weather of Georgia, but I’m also getting to interact with like-minded marine biologists and experienced individuals at an amazing marine laboratory. At the age of 29, I’m also an older undergraduate student, and I will be graduating soon! I took a very long break from academics and coming back was hard, especially switching from business to biology. I have participated in surveys that asked how I felt about the statement “I am a scientist,” along with the degrees of agree and disagree. For most of my undergraduate career, I picked “slightly disagree”. I was getting great grades, but I did not feel like I was ever going to be able to accomplish the type of work scientific papers are written about. I really felt the need to gain more experience in the career path I intended to follow. All of these are the whirlwind ingredients that went into applying for the HMSC REU Internship at OSU! I’m being mentored by the lovely Natalie Chazal and Leigh Torres, and I am grateful for the opportunity and very excited to experience everything Hatfield has to offer. A little over a week of being here, I already feel my answer sliding from “neutral” to even “slightly agree”. There is still so much to learn!

The project I’m helping with is analyzing the scarring and skin conditions of Eastern North Pacific gray whales alongside the GRANITE team. My job will be analyzing over 100,000 pictures from the past eight years to detect various scars and potential skin conditions (yes, the comma is in the correct spot and no, there are no extra 0’s). Scars can come from a variety of sources such as boat propellers, fishing gear, and killer whales! A study conducted by Corsi et al. consisted of documenting killer whale rake marks (bites, essentially) on different types of whales in the eastern North Pacific. Their results showed that gray whales had the highest percentage of observed rake marks in sighted individuals, and provided insight into why body sections of observed marks are important. Most baleen whales had rake marks predominantly on their flukes, because they are often used for defense and if fleeing, are the closest area to bite. Fascinatingly, Corsi et al. consider that the higher occurrences of gray whale rake marks are due to killer whales adopting species-specific hunting approaches. Gray whales have predictable migratory routes, and we already know how intelligent killer whales can be. If I knew a truck had a specific delivery route and I could wait to intercept a fresh delivery of Krispy Kreme donuts, why wouldn’t I? 

Donuts aside, I’ll also be categorizing where the scars/skin conditions are located – for example, certain regions on the tail (like above) or on their left or right back (often due to boat collisions). Then I’ll define what I believe to be the source of scarring and rate my confidence in that decision based on the photo. Now, not all of the photos are clear enough for me to make informed decisions, so realistically I could end up with only a few hundred usable photos. At the end of the summer, we’ll gather the results and compare the different rates of scarring sources and the body parts where they occurred, and analyze any patterns in skin conditions, such as whether a skin condition has worsened or improved on an individual we have sighted multiple times over the years.

 Figure 1. A little look into a table I made to give examples of what scarring from different sources look like.

Surprisingly, cetaceans can heal deep wounds on their own without medical intervention. Scientists have discovered that compounds in their blubber layer, such as organohalogens and isovaleric acid, may naturally fight off infections and help wounds heal faster. Unlike humans and other terrestrial animals that form scabs when injured, cetaceans develop a different protective layer over their wounds. This layer consists of degenerative cells mixed with tiny bubbles and covers the injured area. This unique adaptation might help protect the wound from seawater and other environmental factors. While there have been studies on how surface wounds heal in captive dolphins and whales, there’s still much to learn about how these animals heal large, deep wounds. Understanding how wounds heal can help us to more accurately assess the frequency at which whales are wounded, whether it be from fishing gear or boats, to cookie cutter sharks or killer whales.

It seems like a lot, and it is, but our ultimate goal is to assess the effects that scarring and skin conditions can have in the ecology of marine megafauna. Assessing the individual gray whales in the photos can provide a bigger picture of the health of a whole population. We can also look for any patterns of skin conditions between mother and calf, individuals that are around each other often, adults and juveniles, or males and females. Scars may also play a role in a population’s health. If a gray whale had an open wound previously, did it develop into a skin condition? Did a skin condition worsen? Did it leave them more vulnerable to predators? These are the questions we would like to elaborate on with this research. A great read on this topic was conducted by Dawn R. Barlow, Acacia L. Pepper and Leigh G. Torres, which will be in the references below (Barlow et al., 2019). A better understanding of potential patterns is a better assessment of our current marine management practices. Is it enough, or do we need to change and do more?

Okay, lastly, let’s talk about artificial intelligence (AI). Would using AI methods for this project make our lives easier? Yes. If we could train AI to accurately identify specific scars and skin conditions, our 100,000 photos could be done within minutes. For my job security, woo no AI! But on a serious note, this approach could free up time that could be spent on other efforts, or speed up the process of assessing marine management. However, we gain so much by reviewing the photos ourselves which is still important to do when training AI on what specifics to search for. Over the summer, I’m going to get to know different whales and see how they may change over 8 years, just by their pictures. My excitement grew as soon as I looked at my first 3 gray whales and learned their names. It’s forever important to remember that we can always learn from sharing connections with the organisms we study and interact with. We share the same planet and we have to work together to preserve it. I thank you all for taking a trip through our summer research with me and I hope to meet some of you around Hatfield!

References

Barlow, D. R., Pepper, A. L., & Torres, L. G. (2019a). Skin deep: An assessment of New Zealand blue whale skin condition. Frontiers in Marine Science, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2019.00757 

Bradford, A. L., Weller, D. W., Ivashchenko, Y. V., Burdin, A. M., & Brownell, Jr, R. L. (2009). Anthropogenic scarring of Western Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus). Marine Mammal Science, 25(1), 161–175. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-7692.2008.00253.x 

Corsi, E., Calambokidis, J., Flynn, K. R., & Steiger, G. H. (2021). Killer whale predatory scarring on Mysticetes: A comparison of rake marks among blue, humpback, and gray whales in the eastern North Pacific. Marine Mammal Science, 38(1), 223–234. https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.12863 

NOAA. (2020, April 4). Fisheries of the United States. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/sustainable-fisheries/fisheries-united-states

Hamilton, P. K., & Marx, M. K. (2005). Skin lesions on North Atlantic right whales: Categories, prevalence and change in occurrence in the 1990s. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms, 68, 71–82. https://doi.org/10.3354/dao068071 

Pettis, H. M., Rolland, R. M., Hamilton, P. K., Brault, S., Knowlton, A. R., & Kraus, S. D. (2004). Visual health assessment of north atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) using photographs. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 82(1), 8–19. https://doi.org/10.1139/z03-207 

Silber, G. K., Weller, D. W., Reeves, R. R., Adams, J. D., & Moore, T. J. (2021). Co-occurrence of gray whales and vessel traffic in the North Pacific Ocean. Endangered Species Research, 44, 177–201. https://doi.org/10.3354/esr01093 Sun, L., Engle, C., Kumar, G., & van Senten, J. (2022). Retail market trends for Seafood in the United States. Journal of the World Aquaculture Society, 54(3), 603–624. https://doi.org/10.1111/jwas.12919