Clara Bird, PhD Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab
Greetings from the NOAA research vessel Shimada! As you may know from previous blogs, usually one member of the GEMM Lab goes on the Northern California Current (NCC) ecosystem survey cruises as a marine mammal observer to collect data for the project Where are whales in Oregon waters? But for this September 2020 cruise we have two observers on-board. I’m at-sea with fellow GEMM lab student Dawn Barlow to learn the ropes and procedures for how we collect data. This research cruise is exciting for a few reasons: first, this is my first cruise as a marine mammal observer! And second, this is the first NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center research cruise since the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States.
Our job as observers involves surveying for marine mammals from the flying bridge, which is the upper most deck of the ship, above the Bridge where the officers command the vessel. Here, we are referred to as the “birds in the nest” by the officers (something I find fitting given my last name). We spend our time looking out at the water with our binoculars searching for any sign of a marine mammal. These signs include: a blow, a fluke, a flipper, or the splash of a dolphin. Surveys involve long stretches of time staring at the ocean seeing nothing but blue waves, punctuated by exciting moments. The level of excitement of these moments can range from finally seeing a blow in the distance to seeing a whale breach! As of the time I’m writing this blog, we’ve been at sea for six days and have four more to go, so I will describe the things we’ve seen and my experience being on a primarily oceanographic research cruise.
We started day one transiting offshore of Newport, right into some whale soup! What started as a few distant blows quickly became an ocean full of whales. Dawn and I were some-what frantic as we worked to keep track of the many humpback and blue whales that were around us (I saw my first blue whale!). We even saw a humpback whale breaching! This introduction to marine mammal observation was an exciting exercise in keeping track of blows and rapid species identification. Day two was pretty similar, as we spent the day travelling back inshore along the same path we had followed offshore on day one. It was cool to see that there were still many whales in the same area.
On day three we woke up to dense fog, and overall pretty poor conditions for marine mammal observing. One of the challenges of this work is that not only does bad weather make it hard to see, but it also makes it hard for us to be able to say that mammals were truly absent. In bad observation conditions we cannot know if we did not see anything because the animals were not there or if we just could not see them through the swell, fog or white-caps. However, by the late afternoon the fog cleared and we had a spectacular end of the day. We saw a killer whale breach (Image 1) and a humpback whale tail lobbing (smacking it’s fluke against the surface of the water) in front of a stunning sunset (Image 2).
Day four was a bit of a marine mammal work reality check. While spectacular evenings like day three are memorable and exhilarating, they tend to be rare. The weather conditions on day four were pretty poor and we ended up surveying from the bridge for most of the day and not seeing much. Conditions improved on day five and we had some fun dolphin sightings where they came and rode on the wake from the bow, and observed a sperm whale blow in the distance!
The weather was not great today (day six), especially in the morning, but we did have one particularly exciting sighting right along the edge of Heceta Bank. While we were stopped at an oceanographic sampling station, we were visited by a group of ~30 pacific white sided dolphins who spent about half an hour swimming around the ship. We also saw several humpback whales, a fur seal, and a Mola mola (Ocean sunfish)! It was incredible to be surrounded by so many different species, all so close to the ship at the same time.
Overall, it has been wonderful to be out at sea after the many isolating months of COVID. And, it has been an exciting and interesting experience being surrounded by non-whale scientists who think about this ecosystem from a different perspective. This cruise is focused on biological oceanography, so I have had the great opportunity to learn from these amazing scientists about what they study and what oceanographic patterns they document. It’s a good reminder of our interconnected research. While it’s been cool to observe marine mammals and think about something totally different from my research on gray whale behavior, I have also enjoyed finding the similarities. For example, just last night I had a conversation with a graduate student researching forams (check out this link to learn more about these super cool tiny organisms!). Even though the organisms we study are polar opposites in terms of size, we actually found out that we had a good bit in common because we both use images to study our study species and have both encountered similar unexpected technical challenges in our methods.
I am thoroughly enjoying my time being one of the “birds in the nest”, contributing data to this important project, and meeting these wonderful scientists. If you are curious about how the rest of the cruise goes, make sure to check out Dawn’s blog next week!
By Alejandro Fernandez Ajo, PhD student at the Department of Biology, Northern Arizona University, Visiting scientist in the GEMM Lab working on the gray whale physiology and ecology project
Two years ago, in August 2018, I came to Newport and visited the Hatfield Marine Science Center for the first time with an NSF/RCN-founded laboratory exchange with the GEMM Lab and met Dr. Leigh Torres. My goals during this exchange where to learn about non-invasive fieldwork techniques for studying free-range whales while interacting, exchanging ideas, and networking with the GEMM Lab members; also, to discuss some projects and thoughts for future collaborations with Dr. Torres. During those two weeks in Newport, I had the opportunity to help with field work on the project “Evaluation of gray whale ecology and physiology in response to variable ambient ocean noise conditions”, which aims to evaluate the hormonal variability and health of the gray whales that forage along the Oregon coast in the context of multiple stressors. I would return during the summers of 2019 and 2020 as a visiting scientist and research assistant to work on this project. This year the experience has been a bit different in terms of interactions with the HMSC community due to COVID-19; however, we were able to successfully start the field season in time and now we are wrapping up our second month of surveys with many new and interesting data gathered, and many new, unforgettable memories to be treasured. Working with these animals is incredibly fascinating because there are so many things we don´t know about them, and the questions can become both overwhelming and exciting.
An essential part of this project, and arguably any research project done with cetaceans, is the identification of individuals. Hence, considerable effort is expended each year attempting to photograph every gray whale possible within our study region and to identify each whale we encounter. The GEMM Lab maintains a catalog of the gray whales that visit the Oregon coast, a sub-population known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG). This catalog currently consists of 173 individuals. which we frequently compare with a larger catalog of gray whales that includes 2060 individuals observed since 1977 (Cascadia Research Collective). These methods allow us to know who is who among the whales we encounter each day at sea.
The different species of cetaceans can be individually identified by markings on their bodies, very much like fingerprints in humans. Some features on these animals are unique and conserved through life. For example, Southern and Northern right whales are identified by the callosity patters in their heads (Picture 1), while humpback whales are mostly identified individually by the shape and the patterns of black and white pigmentation on the underside of their fluke (Picture 2). Gray whales have very mottled skin coloration, so we use a combination of markings and features to identify individuals: pigmentation patterns, scars, shape and pigmentation of their fluke, and sometimes the shape of their knuckles, which are a series of “humps” that gray whales have instead of a dorsal fin on their back. It might sound very difficult to do, and it can be a tedious task, however as you train your eye it becomes easier, and features that at first seemed undistinguishable become recognizable and unique (Picture 3). As a reward, it is such a joy to find a match and recognize old friends when they arrive from their long journeys in the vast ocean each year to the Oregon coast.
As a result of our photo-identification efforts and the high site-fidelity of the whales we study, the large majority of the gray whales we observe here in Oregon are known individually. For many whales, we also have detailed sightings records that can span years and decades, that document calving history, lactation, appearance of scars indicative of injury or entanglement, minimum age, sex, habitat-use patterns, behaviors, etc. Holding such detailed information of individual whales provides incredible contributions to our understanding of the basic patterns in life history of whales, such as reproduction rates, calving intervals, age of first reproduction, etc. Moreover, when these life history events are linked with physiological sample collection large steps can be made in the development and validation of physiological methods. Many endocrine assays currently in use for whales are based on non-traditional sample types including feces, respiratory vapor, and baleen, which have been validated using the catalogs of well-known individuals to verify that measured hormones reflect patterns expected for various physiological states. For example, we can compare endocrine data of confirmed pregnant females, known mature males, and known-injured whales to learn how whale physiological responses are different during different life history events (e.g., Burgess et al. 2017, 2018, Corkeron et al. 2017, Hunt et al. 2006, 2016, 2018, Lysiak et al. 2018, Rolland et al. 2005).
Here in Oregon we are learning from the lives of the gray whales we study, and here I want to share with you two of their stories, one happy and one not-so-happy.
Let´s start with the not-so-happy story so we can end with some brighter news. On June 24 this year, we encountered a whale near Cape Foulweather, which is a very tricky area to work as there are many rocks and shallow water that make the sea conditions very choppy even with low swell. We started documenting the sighting as usual, taking pictures of the left side, the right side and ideally also the fluke of the whale. As we approached this whale, we started noting that something was wrong with its fluke. With the challenging sea conditions, it was not easy to approach the whale and the whale was not exposing its fluke when diving. When we put our drone up to collect photogrammetry and behavior data we gained a much better perspective. This whale has a bad injury on it fluke (Picture 4.C). On the boat we started making conjectures about the cause of this terrible injury that had basically amputate most of its left fluke lobe. Once back on shore, we sorted out the photos and compared the field images captured during the day with the photo-ID catalog and we made a match. This whale is known in our catalog as “ROLLER SKATE”, is a female, and was first sighted in 2015, so she is at least 5 years old today.
The story unfolded when we reviewed Roller Skate’s sighting history. Interestingly we observed this same whale in the same location last September 2019. Unfortunately, it was a very brief encounter but enough for photo documentation of the whale and an interesting observation. Here I quote the field notes that Dr. Torres wrote from this sighting: “September 6th, 2019. Sighting 9: Scattered whales feeding and/or traveling across area to north of Cape Foulweather. One whale had recently chopped fluke; tried to re-find to get better photos but could not (looking at photos now, this whale is clearly entangled in line!). Ceiling too low for UAS [drone flight].” (Picture 4.B).
Roller skate’s story is an example of how essential is to keep an ID catalog. After a close-up examination of the 2019 picture, we can clearly see a rope entanglement (Picture 4.B). Photos from previous years show how beautiful and healthy her fluke was before this event (Picture 4.A). This event is heart breaking to witness, but this whale could be considered lucky because she was able to shed the gear and survive this entanglement, at least in the short term. Additionally, we can learn from Roller Skate’s misfortune to help us understand what the consequences of such an injury (stressor) may be on the physiology of a whale. We have been eager to collect a fecal sample from Roller Skate to analyze how her hormone levels compare to non-injured whales. Fortunately, we got lucky a couple weeks ago and collected this sample, so now we need to get in the lab and analyze the samples. But more questions remain: Will this injury impact her ability to reproduce? If so, for how long? And at a larger scale, what are the population consequences of such events? If we can understand the magnitude of lethal and sublethal human caused impacts on individual whales and their populations from events such as entanglements, we can develop better methods to mitigate and limit such hazards for whales in their environments.
As I promised, there is also some good news to share. A very well-known PCFG whale, almost a celebrity I dear to say, is “Scarback”, or as we like to call her “Scarlett”. Scarlett is a female known since 1996, making her at least 24 years old, and she also has a very bad injury of unknown origin. Scarlett has a terrible scar on her back that is theorized to have been caused by an explosive harpoon, or maybe a bad ship-strike (Picture 5), but we really do not know. However, we do know she survived this injury and this year she brought a new calf into the population (Picture 6). This is the second calf we have documented from Scarlett, with her previous calf sighted during the 2016 field season and we call it “Brown”. Scarlett is an example of how resilient these amazing giants can be; however, it is likely that while she was recovering from this injury, she was unable to reproduce. How many calves from Scarlett did the PCFG population “lose” due to such a tragedy? We can´t know, but we are learning, and her story will also help us understand whale physiology as we will analyze her fecal hormones and body condition during pregnancy, lactation, and resting phases.
Scarlett is a survivor. We need to recognize that we are sharing the ocean with different forms of life. We need to acknowledge their existence and understand how our use of the oceans is affecting them, and, more importantly, work toward improving their conditions. I hope that with our research we highlight and communicate how amazing are these animals, and how important are they for marine ecosystems. And ultimately, I hope our work helps minimize the impacts that affect other forms of ocean life that coexist with us, both above and below the surface.
Burgess, E., Hunt, K. E., Kraus, S. D. and Rolland, R. M. (2016). Get the most out of blow hormones: validation of sampling materials, field storage and extraction techniques for whale respiratory vapor samples. Conservation Physiology, 4, cow024.
Burgess, E. A., Hunt, K. E., Kraus, S. D. and Rolland, R. M. (2018). Quantifying hormones in exhaled breath for physiological assessment of large whales at sea. Scientific Reports, 8, 10031.
Corkeron, P. J., Rolland, R. M., Hunt, K. E. and Kraus, S. D. (2017). A right whale PooTree: Fecal hormones and classification trees identify reproductive states in North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis). Conservation Physiology, 5, cox006. DOI: 10.1093/conphys/cox006.
Hunt, K., Lysiak, N., Moore, M. and Rolland, R. (2017). Multi-year longitudinal profiles of cortisol and corticosterone recovered from baleen of North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis). General and Comparative Endocrinology, 254, 50-59. DOI: 10.1016/j.ygcen.2017.09.009.
Hunt, K., Lysiak, N. S. J., Matthews, C. J. D., et al. (2018). Multi-year patterns in testosterone, cortisol and corticosterone in baleen from adult males of three whale species. Conservation Physiology, 6, coy049. DOI: 10.1093/conphys/coy049.
Hunt, K. E., Rolland, R. M., Kraus, S. D. and Wasser, S. K. (2006). Analysis of fecal glucocorticoids in the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis). General and Comparative Endocrinology, 148, 260-272.
Lysiak, N., Trumble, S., Knowlton, A. and Moore, M. (2018). Characterizing the duration and severity of fishing gear entanglement on a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) using stable isotopes, steroid and thyroid hormones in baleen. Frontiers in Marine Science. DOI: 10.3389/fmars.2018.00168.
Rolland, R. M., Hunt, K. E., Kraus, S. D. and Wasser, S. K. (2005). Assessing reproductive status of right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) using fecal hormone metabolites. General and Comparative Endocrinology, 142, 308-317.
By Hunter Warick, Research Technician, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab, Marine Mammal Institute
When monitoring the health of a capital breeding species, such as whales that store energy to support reproduction costs, it is important to understand what processes and factors drive the status of their body condition. Information gained will allow for better insight into their cost of reproduction and overall life history strategies.
For the past four years the GEMM Lab has utilized the perspective that Unoccupied Aerial Systems (UAS; or ‘drones’) provide for observations of marine mammals. This aerial perspective has documented gray whale behavior such as jaw snapping, drooling mud, and headstands, all of which shows or suggest foraging (Torres et al. 2018). However, UAS is limited to a bird’s eye view, allowing us to see WHAT whales are doing, but limited information about the reasons WHY. To overcome this hurdle, Leigh Torres and team have equipped their marine mammal research utility belts with the use of GoPro cameras. They developed a technique known as the “GoPro drop” where a GoPro camera mounted to a weighted pole is lowered off the side of the research vessel in waters < 20 m deep via a line to record video data. This technique allows the team to obtain fine-scale habitat and prey variation information, like what the whale experiences. Along with the context provided by the UAS, this dual camera perspective allows for deeper insight into gray whale foraging strategies and efficiency. Torres’s GoPro data analysis protocol examines kelp density, kelp health, benthic substrate, rock fish density, and mysid density. These characteristics are graded along a scale (Figure 1), allowing for relative comparisons of habitat and prey availability between where whales spend time and forage. These GoPro drops will also help create a fine-scale benthic habitat map of the Newport field area. So, why are these data on gray whale habitat and prey important to understand?
The foraging grounds are the first step in the life history domino chain reaction for many rorqual whales; if this step doesn’t go off cleanly then everything else fails to fall into place. Gray whales partake on a 15,000-20,000 km (round trip) migration, which is the longest of any known mammal (Swartz 1986). During this migration, whales spend around three months fasting in their breeding grounds (Highsmith & Coyle 1992), living only off the energy stores that they accumulated in their feeding grounds (Næss et al. 1998). These extreme conditions of existence for gray whales drive the need to be a successful forager and is why it is so crucial for them to forage in high prey density areas (Newell, C. 2009).
Mysids are a critical part of the gray whale diet in Oregon waters (Newell, C. 2009; Sullivan, F. 2017) and mysids have strong predator-prey relationships with both top-down and bottom-up control (Dunham & Duffus 2001; Newell & Cowles 2006). This unique tie illustrates the great dependency that gray whales have on mysids, further showing the benefit to looking at the density of mysids where gray whales are seen foraging. The quality of mysids may also be as important as quantity; with higher water temperatures resulting in lower lipid content in mysids (Mauchline 1980), suggesting density might not be the only factor for determining efficient whale foraging. The overall goal of gray whales on their foraging grounds is to get as fat as possible in order to reproduce as often as possible. But, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Gray whales typically have a two-year breeding interval but can be anywhere from 1-4 years (Blokhin 1984). The longer time it takes to build up adequate energy stores to support reproduction costs, the longer it will take to breed successfully. Building back up these energy stores can prove to be difficult, especially for lactating females (Figure 2).
Being able to track the health and behavior of gray whales on an individual level, including comparisons between variation in body condition, foraging behavior, and fine scale information on benthic communities gained through the use of GoPros, can provide a better understanding of the driving factors and impacts on their health and population trends (Figure 3).
By Alejandro Fernandez Ajo, PhD student at the Department of Biology, Northern Arizona University, Visiting scientist in the GEMM Lab working on the gray whale physiology and ecology project
Whales are among the most amazing and enigmatic animals in the world. Whales are not only fascinating, they are also biologically special. Due to their key ecological role and unique biological traits (i.e., their large body size, long lifespans, and sizable home ranges), whales are extremely important in helping sustain the entire marine ecosystem.
Working towards the conservation of marine megafauna, and large charismatic animals in general, is often seen as a mere benevolent effort that conservationist groups, individuals, and governments do on behalf of the individual species. However, mounting evidence demonstrates that restoring populations of marine megafauna, including large whales, can help buffer marine ecosystems from destabilizing stresses like human driven CO2 emissions and global change due to their ability to sequester carbon in their bodies (Pershing et al. 2010). Furthermore, whales can enhance primary production in the ocean through their high consumption and defecation rates, which ultimately provides nutrients to the ecosystem and improves fishery yields (Roman-McCarthy, 2010; Morissette et al. 2012).
Relationships between humans and whales have a long history, however, these relationships have changed. For centuries, whales were valued in terms of the number of oil barrels they could yield, and the quality of their baleen and meat. In the North Atlantic, whaling started as early as 1000 AD with “shore whaling” of North Atlantic right whales by Basque whalers. This whaling was initially limited to the mother and calve pairs that were easy to target due to their coastal habits and the fact that calves are more vulnerable and slower (Reeves-Smith, 2006). Once the calving populations of near-shore waters off Europe were depleted, offshore whaling began developing. Whalers of multiple nations (including USA, British, French, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Dutch, among others), targeted whales around the world, mainly impacting the gray whale populations, and all three right whale species along with the related bowhead whale. Later, throughout the phase of modern whaling using industrialized methods, the main target species consisted of the blue, fin, humpback, minke, sei and sperm whale (Schneider- Pearce, 2004).
By the early twentieth century, many of the world´s whale populations where reduced to a small fraction of their historical numbers, and although pre-whaling abundance of whale stocks is a subject of debate, recent studies estimate that at least the 66%, and perhaps as high as 90% for some whale species and populations (Branch-Williams 2006; Christensen, 2006), where taken during this period. This systematic and serial depletion of whale papulations reduced the biomass and abundance of great whales around the world, which has likely altered the structure and function of the oceans (Balance et al. 2006; Roman et al. 2014; Croll, et al. 2006).
After centuries of unregulated whale hunting, commercial whaling was banned in the mid-twentieth century. This ban was the result of multiple factors including reduced whale stocks below the point where commercial whaling would be profitable, and a fortunate shift in public perception of whales and the emergence of conservation initiatives (Schneider- Pearce, 2004). Since this moratorium on whaling, several whale populations have recovered around the world, and some populations that were listed as endangered have been delisted (i.e., the Eastern North Pacific gray whale) and some populations are estimated to have re-bounced to their pre-whaling abundance.
Although, the recovery of some populations has motivate some communities or nations to obtain or extend their whaling quotas (see Blog Post by Lisa Hildebrand), it is important to acknowledge that the management of whale populations is arguably one of the most complicated tasks, and is distinguished from management of normal fisheries due to various biological aspects. Whales are long living mammals with slow reproduction rates, and on average a whale can only produce a calf every two or three years. Hence, the gross addition to the stock rarely would exceed 25% of the number of adults (Schneider- Pearce, 2004), which is a much lower recovery rate that any fish stock. Also, whales usually reach their age of sexual maturity at 6-10 years old, and for many species there are several uncertainties about their biology and natural history that make estimations of population abundance and growth rate even harder to estimate.
Moreover, while today´s whales are generally not killed directly by hunting, they are exposed to a variety of other increasing human stressors (e.g., entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, shipping noise, and climate change). Thus, scientists must develop novel tools to overcome the challenges of studying whales and distinguish the relative importance of the different impacts to help guide conservation actions that improve the recovery and restoration of whale stocks (Hunt et al. in press). With the restoration of great whale populations, we can expect positive changes in the structure and function of the world’s oceans (Chami et al. 2019; Roman et al. 2010).
So, why it is worth keeping whales healthy?
Whales facilitate the transfer of nutrients by (1) releasing nutrient-rich fecal plumes near the surface after they have feed at depth and (2) by moving nutrients from highly productive, polar and subpolar latitude feeding areas to the low latitude calving areas (Roman et al. 2010). In this way, whales help increase the productivity of phytoplankton that in turn support zooplankton production, and thus have a bottom up effect on the productivity of many species including fish, birds, and marine mammals, including whales. These fertilization events can also facilitate mitigation of the negative impacts of climate change. The amount of iron contained in the whales’ feces can be 10 million times greater than the level of iron in the marine environment, triggering important phytoplankton blooms, which in turn sequester thousands of tons of carbon from, and release oxygen to, the atmosphere annually (Roman et al. 2016; Smith et al. 2013; Willis, 2007). Furthermore, when whales die, their massive bodies fall to the seafloor, making them the largest and most nutritious source of food waste, which is capable of sustaining a succession of macro-fauna assemblages for several decades, including some invertebrate species that are endemic to whale carcasses (Smith et al. 2015).
Despite the several environmental services that whales provide, and the positive impact on local economies that depend on whale watching tourism, which has been valued in millions of dollars per year (Hoyt E., 2001), the return of whales and other marine mammals has often been implicated in declines in fish populations, resulting in conflicts with human fisheries (Lavigne, D.M. 2003). Yet there is insufficient direct evidence for such competition (Morissette et al. 2010). Indeed, there is evidence of the contrary: In ecosystem models where whale abundances are reduced, fish stocks show significant decreases, and in some cases the presence of whales in these models result in improved fishery yields. Consistent with these findings, several models have shown that alterations in marine ecosystems resulting from the removal of whales and other marine mammals do not lead to increases in human fishery yields (Morissette et al. 2010; 2012). Although the environmental services and benefits provided by great whales, which potentially includes the enhancement of fisheries yields, and enhancement on ocean oxygen production and capturing carbon, are evident and make a strong argument for improved whale conservation, it is overwhelming how little we know about many aspects of their lives, their biology, and particularly their physiology.
This lack of knowledge is because whales are really hard to study. For many years research was limited to the observation of the brief surfacing of the whales, yet most of their lives occurs beneath the surface and were completely unknown. Fortunately, new technologies and the creativity of whale researchers are helping us to better understand many aspects of their lives that were cryptic to us even a decade ago. I am committed to filling some of these knowledge gaps. My research examines how different environmental and anthropogenic impacts affect whale health, and particularly how these impacts may relate to cases of large whale mortalities and declines in whale populations. I am applying novel methods in conservation physiology for measuring hormone levels that promise to improve our understanding of the relationship between different (extrinsic and intrinsic) stressors and the physiological response of whales. Ultimately, this research will help address important conservation questions, such as the causes of unusual whale mortality events and declines in whale populations.
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Leigh Torres, Assistant Professor,PI of the GEMM Lab, Marine Mammal Institute,Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon Sea Grant, Oregon State University
Writing a blog post this week that focuses on marine mammals seems inappropriate amidst the larger social justice issues that our country – and our global community – are facing. However, I have been leaning on my scientific background recently to help me understand these events, how we got here, and where we can go. But first I want to acknowledge and thank the people on the front lines around the world who are giving a voice to this fight for equality. Equality that is deserved, inherent, and just.
There is a concept in ecology, and in particular in fisheries management, termed shifting baselines, which was developed by the brilliant scientist Dr. Daniel Pauly in 1995 (who, by the way, is a person of color but that’s not the point here). Shifting baselines has to do with how humans judge change based on their own experiences and perceptions, and not necessarily on objective data collected over a longer period than a lifetime. Over one generation, knowledge is lost about ‘how the state of the natural world used to be’, so people don’t perceive the change that is actually taking place over time.
This article has a nice description of the shifting baseline theory: …due to short life-spans and faulty memories, humans have a poor conception of how much of the natural world has been degraded by our actions, because our ‘baseline’ shifts with every generation, and sometimes even in an individual. In essence, what we see as pristine nature would be seen by our ancestors as hopelessly degraded, and what we see as degraded our children will view as ‘natural’.
The concept of shifting baselines explains so much about why convincing policy makers to protect natural resources is challenging. People with short-term goals (political election cycles) and short-term memories don’t see the long-term trends of environmental degradation.
This week I have been thinking about how the concept of shifting baselines can also be applied to the social injustice we are grappling with today and for centuries. Yet, rather than shifting baselines, its more akin to uncommon baselines.
In school, we hopefully learn about the realities of slavery, the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, Fredrick Douglas, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and more. Often, this information comes to us in an incomplete, white-washed, biased fashion. So, if we are white and privileged in this country, we may pat ourselves on the back for what we’ve been taught is progress; for example, we might be proud of seeing integration in schools, and feel good about regularly using words like diversity and inclusion. But my baseline is very different from a black American’s baseline. Where I see progress relative to an old standard, black Americans continue to suffer from a legacy of slavery, poverty, and discrimination. My baseline cannot just be progress while people of color are still experiencing the same race inequality, police bias, economic injustice and an imbalanced power structure as their grandparents and great grandparents.
Our uncommon baselines are shaped by our previous experiences, which are culturally based, and create different perceptions of where we are in the trajectory of social and economic justice. When scientists want to adjust for the influence of shifting baselines in ecology, we first need to recognize the influence of shifted baselines and then probe for ‘historical data’ (e.g., whaling records of the actual numbers of whales killed) or speak with those who know what it was like “before” (e.g., traditional ecological knowledge) to help us account for a broader scale of change. Thus, we can use a better baseline. Perhaps in this social justice context, to achieve more common baselines of race equality across cultures, we need more conversations with people of color to share past and present experiences and perceptions.
While these recent events have been heart wrenching to witness, I do feel this period is a critical reality check, forcing those of us who are privileged and powerful to acknowledge our uncommon baselines. I hope to learn by reading and talking honestly with others so we can all work toward a common baseline of equality and justice for all.
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 BendandColumbia Riverwere 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.
By Alejandro Fernánez Ajó, PhD student at NAU and GEMM Lab research technician
commercial whaling is currently banned and several whale populations show
evidence of recovery, today´s whales are exposed to a variety of other human
stressors (e.g., entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, shipping noise,
climate change, etc.; reviewed in Hunt et al., 2017a). The recovery and
conservation of large whale populations is particularly important to the
oceanic environment due to their key ecological role and unique biological
traits, including their large body size, long lifespan and sizable home ranges
(Magera et al., 2013; Atkinson et al., 2015; Thomas and Reeves, 2015). Thus,
scientists must develop novel tools to overcome the challenges of studying
whale physiology in order to distinguish the relative importance of the different
impacts and guide conservation actions accordingly (Ayres et al., 2012; Hunt et
To this end,
baleen hormone analysis represents a powerful tool for retrospective assessment
of patterns in whale physiology (Hunt et al., 2014, 2016, 2017a, 2017b, 2018;
Lysiak et. al., 2018; Fernández Ajó et al., 2018; Rolland et al., 2019).
Moreover, hormonal panels, which include multiple hormones, are helping to
better clarify and distinguish between the physiological effects of different
sources of anthropogenic and environmental stressors (Ayres et al., 2012;
Wasser et al., 2017; Lysiak et al., 2018; Romero et al., 2015).
What is Baleen? Baleen is a stratified epithelial tissue consisting of long, fringed plates that grow downward from the upper jaw, which collectively form the whale´s filter-feeding apparatus (Figure 1). This tissue accumulates hormones as it grows. Hormones are deposited in a linear fashion with time so that a single plate of baleen allows retrospective assessment and evaluation of a whales’ physiological condition, and in calves baleen provides a record of the entire lifespan including part of their gestation. Baleen samples are also readily accessible and routinely collected during necropsy along with other samples and relevant information.
Why are the
Southern Right Whales calves (SRW) dying in Patagonia?
I am a Fulbright Ph.D. student in the Buck Laboratory at Northern Arizona University since Fall 2017, a researcher with the Whale Conservation Institute of Argentina (Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas) and Field Technician for the GEMM Lab over the summer. I focus my research on the application and development of novel methods in conservation physiology to improve our understanding of how physiological parameters are affected by human pressures that impact large whales and marine mammals. I am especially interested in understanding the underlaying causes of large whale mortalities with the aim of preventing their occurrence when possible. In particular, for my Ph.D. dissertation, I am studying a die-off case of Southern Right Whale (SRW) calves, Eubalaena australis, off Peninsula Valdés (PV) in Patagonia-Argentina (Figure 2).
2000, annual calf mortality at PV was considered normal and tracked the
population growth rate (Rowntree et al., 2013). However, between 2007 and 2013,
558 whales died, including 513 newborn calves (Sironi et al., 2018). Average
total whale deaths per year increased tenfold, from 8.2 in 1993-2002 to 80 in
2007-2013. These mortality levels have never before been observed for the
species or any other population of whales (Thomas et al., 2013, Sironi et al.,
Among several hypotheses proposed to explain these elevated calf mortalities, harassment by Kelp Gulls, Larus dominicanus, on young calves stands out as a plausible cause and is a unique problem only seen at the PV calving ground. Kelp gull parasitism on SRWs near PV was first observed in the 1970’s (Thomas, 1988). Gulls primarily harass mother-calf pairs, and this parasitic behavior includes pecking on the backs of the whales and creating open wounds to feed on their skin and blubber. The current intensity of gull harassment has been identified as a significant environmental stressor to whales and potential contributor to calf deaths (Marón et al., 2015b; Fernández Ajó et al., 2018).
Figure 3: The significant preference for calves as a target of gull attacks highlights the impact of this parasitic behavior on this age class. The situation continues to be worrisome and serious for the health and well-being of newborn calves at Península Valdés. Left: A Kelp Gull landing on whale´s back to feed on her skin and blubber (Photo credit: Lisandro Crespo). Right: A calf with multiple lesions on its back produced by repeated gull attacks (Photo credit: ICB).
Quantifying gull inflicted wounds
Photographs of gull wounds on whales taken during necropsies and were quantified and assigned to one of seven objectively defined size categories (Fig. 4): extra-small (XS), small (S), medium (M), large (L), extra-large (XL), double XL (XXL) and triple XL (XXXL). The size and number of lesions on each whale were compared to baleen hormones to determine the effect of the of the attacks on the whales health.
hormones are applied
factors such as injuries, predation avoidance, storms, and starvation promote
an increase in the secretion of the glucocorticoids (GCs) cortisol and
corticosterone (stress hormones), which then induce a variety of physiological
and behavioral responses that help animals cope with the stressor. Prolonged exposure
to chronic stress, however, may exceed the animal’s ability to cope with such
stimuli and, therefore, adversely affects its body condition, its health, and
even its survival. Triiodothyronine (T3), is the most biologically active form
of the thyroid hormones and helps regulate metabolism. Sustained food
deprivation causes a decrease in T3 concentrations, slowing metabolism to
conserve energy stores. Combining GCs and T3 hormone measures allowed us to
investigate and distinguish the relative impacts of nutritional and other
sources of stressors.
Combining these novel methods produced unique results about whale physiology. With my research, we are finding that the GCs concentrations measured in calves´ baleen positively correlate with the intensity of gull wounding (Figure 4, 1 and 2), while calf’s baleen thyroid hormone concentrations are relative stable across time and do not correlate with intensity of gull wounding (Figure 4 – 3). Taken together these findings indicate that SRW calves exposed to Kelp gull parasitism and harassment experience high levels of physiological stress that compromise their health and survival. Ultimately these results will inform government officials and managers to direct conservation actions aimed to reduce the negative interaction between Kelp gulls and Southern Right Whales in Patagonia.
Baleen hormones represent a powerful tool for
retrospective assessments of longitudinal trends in whale physiology by helping
discriminate the underlying mechanisms by which different stressors may affect
a whale’s health and physiology. Moreover, while most sample types used for
studying whale physiology provide single time-point measures of current
circulating hormone levels (e.g., skin or respiratory vapor), or information
from previous few hours or days (e.g., urine and feces), baleen tissue provides
a unique opportunity for longitudinal analyses of hormone patterns. These
retrospective analyses can be conducted for both stranded or archived
specimens, and can be conducted jointly with other biological markers (e.g.,
stable isotopes and biotoxins) to describe migration patterns and exposure to pollutants.
Further research efforts on baleen hormones should focus on completing
biological validations to better understand the hormone measurements in baleen
and its correlation with measurements from alternative sample matrices (i.e.,
feces, skin, blubber, and respiratory vapors).
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Frustrating. Exhausting. Time-consuming. Repetitive. Draining. De-Motivating. A sine wave of cautious excitement followed by the crash of disappointment at another rejection. The longer my job search continues, the more adjectives I have to describe it.
Last spring, I got rejected from a marine mammal and bird survey technician position because I didn’t have enough experience identifying birds. I found this immensely frustrating. So, fueled by the desire to prove “them” wrong, I embarked on my journey of revenge. First, I registered for a free online bird ID course at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Then, I got my bird books out, and started paying more attention to the species I encountered in my neighborhood. Next, I attended a training session for the Puget Sound Seabird Survey with the Seattle Audubon Society, and joined a citizen science monitoring team. We are responsible for documenting seabird habitat use at 3 beaches in the South Puget Sound on the first Saturday of each month. Most of my team members have been birding for decades, and they have been helpfully pointing out ID tricks like flight patterns, wing shapes, and color bands to distinguish one species from another. I feel like my marine bird ID is coming along nicely, but there are SO MANY bird species out there…. I know I learn better, and am more focused, when I am working for a team effort, so two weeks ago I attended a training for the Secretive Wetland Bird Monitoring project with the Puget Sound Bird Observatory. We’ll be doing playback surveys for species like American Bittern, Virginia Rail, and Green Herons during three survey windows from April to June. I’m excited for this project because even if I don’t learn to ID the birds by sight (they are secretive after all), it’s a chance to improve my ‘birding by ear’ skills! With all this, I think the next time a job application asks about my experience with birds, I’ll be able to give some more informed answers.
In Summer 2018, I had a rather tumultuous field research experience with a very disorganized project leader. I ended up leaving the project after a series of poor safety choices by the leadership culminated in the vessel running aground on a well-marked reef. Several of my colleagues and I were injured in the accident, and it was the first time in my 10 year maritime career that I grabbed my emergency bag and seriously thought I might have to abandon ship. In this case, we made it to shore, and there was a clinic nearby where we got treated, but what if there hadn’t been? The more I reflected on what happened, the more I realized how bad the situation could have been. My revenge on that feeling of helplessness was to sign up for a NOLS Wilderness First Aid Course. During the course, we practiced patient assessment, discussed the most common injuries when adventuring in the remote areas, and played out scenarios, as both patients and first responders. We discussed proper scene assessment, basic wound care and splints (those were fun to practice), situations like hypo and hyperthermia, and how to make a radio call for help that transmits the most relevant information. After this two day course, I feel much more confident in my ability to manage emergency situations for myself and any team I work with. Handily enough, many field technician jobs list ‘Wilderness First Aid/Wilderness First Responder” in their desired qualifications sections, so I can check that bullet off now too!
One of the best bits of finishing my grad degree has been getting my evenings and weekends back from the depths of homework and research fueled need-to-be-productive-all-the-time depression. I like making things. Shortly after turning in my thesis, I traded labor for a sheep fleece & two alpaca fleeces.
An acquaintance needed help shearing his small flock, and I saw the opportunity to try a “Sheep to Shawl” project – where you take the raw fiber, clean it, spin it into thread, and weave it into a shawl. I learned how to weave in high school, but I did not know how to spin my own thread. I borrowed a spinning wheel from my fiber arts mentor, found a spinning group at my local yarn store, and since January have been spinning my own thread!
I started with some practice wool to figure the whole thing out, and have just started to spin the fleeces I helped to harvest. It’s going to take me a while, but I’m more interested in the process than any sort of speed. There’s an unfortunate cultural dichotomy between “art” and “science”, but I find that the sort of thinking needed to plan how the threads will intertwine to make a solid and beautiful cloth, is the same sort of thinking needed to understand the myriad processes that inform how an ecosystem functions. If you think about it sideways, knitting & weaving pattern drafts are the first form of binary computer programs – repetitive patterns that when followed result in a product. The creativity needed to make beautiful art is the same creativity that helps problem solve in the field, and long term project planning, forethought and tenacity are all necessary in both research and in fiber arts. While the art itself may not be relevant to the jobs I apply for, the skills are transferable, and the actions recharge my batteries so I can keep solving problems creatively.
It’s an easy trap to fall into – the idea that learning only happens in the classroom, and that once you’ve finally finished school and thrown off the trappings of academia you’re done and never have to learn again.
But never learning anything new would get boring quickly, wouldn’t it?
I may be frustrated by how long it is taking me to find ‘a career’, but I can’t regret the lily pads that I have landed on in the mean-time, or the skills that I have had the opportunity to pick up.
Exciting. Inspiring. Educational. Opportunistic. Expanding my network. Hopeful. A sine wave of disappointment followed by renewed determination to keep trying. The longer my job search continues, the more adjectives I have to describe it.
Paul Lask teaches writing at Oregon Coast Community College, and is a faculty fellow with Portland State University’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions. His writing can be found at prlask.com.
I pulled my kayak down to the beach, where a woman stood pointing toward the ocean. A fin rose from the water about a hundred yards offshore.
“It’s an orca,” she said.
“Naw,” the man beside her said. “That’s a gray.”
I recalled a documentary scene of a group of orcas spy-hopping near a seal marooned on an ice chunk. After their pogoing taunts, they left it alone. Another clip showed the orcas band together and charge forward, pushing a big wave over the ice and knocking the seal in.
I brought myself back to the beach. I wanted it to be a gray. It was one of my first solo ocean paddles, and I stood in my dry suit, PFD and helmet, having checked my weather and swell apps, having spent many hours in pools and bays learning rolls and rescues, and many dollars on courses, gear and guidebooks, now arguing a dubious fin into goodness.
It had to be a gray.
I dragged my boat to the water. Small dumping waves sucked back dark gravelly sand. The fin flopped over.
Aspiring rough water sea kayakers are trained in safety and rescue. We learn about dealing with battering surf, longshore currents, T-rescues and re-entry rolls. We don’t learn about sea life. I grew up in northern Illinois, where the nearest sea animal was a river dragon fashioned out of a downed tree that got painted annually, and TV specials on Loch Ness.
I stuffed myself into my boat, suddenly remembering the shark story an instructor told me: They were out near Pacific City when the bad fin emerged. My instructor had a Go Pro on his helmet. His buddy dared him to roll to get a shot of their follower. My instructor declined.
Sealing my spray skirt over the cockpit, I focused on launch prep. I checked my radio. Made sure my extra paddle was secure. Confirmed I hadn’t sealed the skirt over my skeg rope. Here at North Fogarty Creek beach there was a gap between where the fin had been and a rock the size of a two story house. I waited for a set of waves to pass, then pushed off.
I saw the gray whale’s back split the water, heard the great sigh. A misty rainbow evaporated. I darted past the whale into the open sea. Other puffs dotted the horizon.
In time I would learn the kelp forest I had just paddled through hosted galaxies of tiny shrimp-like zooplankton. The gray was “sharking,” a foraging behavior in shallow water wherein it lays on its side with half its tail sticking out. Of the 20,000 gray whales that annually migrate from Mexico to Alaska, about 200 mysteriously break away and feed nearshore in Oregon. Scientists don’t know[i] for sure why this occurs, but the abundance of those shrimp-like animals is one theory.
The mavericks are good for the tourism industry. From late spring through summer Depoe Bay is a frenzy of camera clicks and selfie sticks. A gauntlet of vehicles cram both sides of Hwy 101. Whale watching boats enter and exit the “world’s smallest harbor” through a bottleneck I’ve heard can be sketchy for kayakers.
As I paddled I toyed with wishful thinking—because I was a non-motorized vessel, the whales might better appreciate my presence. I was not there to photograph them. I just liked being in the sway of the water. “No cradle is so comfortable,” Rudyard Kipling wrote, “as the long, rocking swell of the Pacific.”[ii] Especially on an uncharacteristically calm day like this.
I have met paddlers who are indifferent to our resident grays. One referred to them as squirrels. Another claimed he got too near a spout, and was covered in the slime geyser, which he’d found disgusting. Others want to get close. A friend is interested in bringing snorkeling gear out next season, and a non-paddling acquaintance wants to get a kayak so he can sneak up and swim with one.
Dr. Roger Payne, the biologist famous for discovering that humpbacks sing, discusses Baja’s “‘friendly gray whale phenomenon’, wherein gray whales come so close to whale-watching boats that the tourists can reach out and pat them.”[iii] Grays weren’t always treated like housecats. When whaling was in full swing, Dr. Payne continues, they were referred to as “devil fish” by whalers in Scammon’s Lagoon in Baja. The whales were being routinely harpooned, so they fought back, earning a fierce reputation. Their numbers plummeted. Federal protections helped them recover, and in 1994 eastern Pacific gray whales were removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List.
U.S. federal law requires people keep a hundred yards away from whales. Natural law supports this precaution. Once paddling through my shark and orca anxiety, I developed an ambivalence about my proximity to the grays. It was not fear of aggression, but indifference. I was sneaking around the living room of 35-ton animals. Despite their boxcar bulk, they moved with quick snaky grace; regardless of my attempts at putting a football field between us, what was to keep one from accidentally rolling over me or smashing me with its tail?
With shipwrecks in mind, Herman Melville pondered the power of a whale fluke: “But as if this vast local power in the tendinous tail were not enough, the whole bulk of the leviathan is knit over with a warp and woof of muscular fibers and filaments, which passing on either side of the loins and running down into the flukes, insensibly blend with them, and largely contribute to their might; so that in the tail the confluent measureless force of the whole whale seems concentrated to a point. Could annihilation occur to matter, this were the thing to do it.”[iv]
Whale-caused shipwrecks didn’t end in the nineteenth century. Contemplating how his sloop went down, Steven Callahan, a sailor lost at sea for 76 days, recalls how his nineteen-ton, forty-three-foot schooner and a heavy cruiser were both sunk by whales in the 1970s.[v] Dr. Payne also has boat breaching stories. “There’s a woman who works in my laboratory who had a whale breach directly on top of her boat. Not a glancing blow, but a direct hit across the bow. The boat was totaled…”
In 2015, a 33-ton humpback breached onto a tandem kayak in Monterey Bay, California. Reanalyzing video footage, Tom Mustill, one of the struck kayakers, believes he can see the whale “sticking its eyes out and taking a look at us while he’s in the air.” He speculates that the whale may have calculated its landing so as to avoid full body impact. Mustill is currently making a BBC2 documentary about the incident titled “Humpback Whales: A Detective Story.”
How whales behave around vessels is still an open scientific question. OSU whale mammologist Dr. Leigh Torres asks: “Are there behavior differences based on boat traffic and composition? Whales might react to some boats, but perhaps not others based on speed, approach, motor type, etc.”[vi] The ocean is also getting noisier. One study shows that over the last sixty years ambient noise in the ocean has increased about three to five decibels per decade.[vii] To what extent is this noise stressing out whales, and what kind of reactions will we begin to see?
Dr. Torres told me whales were like a gateway drug for getting people hooked on marine ecology. Since that tricky fin at Fogarty Creek I’ve given them a good amount of thought. It’s partially their size that inspires awe and reflection. Writer Julia Whitty gets at their enormity by thinking about their deaths, comparing whales to old growth trees. She describes whalefall beautifully:
“…the downward journey takes place in the slow motion of the underwater world, as the processes of decomposition produce buoyant gases that duel with the force of gravity in such a way that the carcass rides a gentle elevator up and down on its way down” (178). Once the body hits the ocean floor it provides a “nutritional bonanza of a magnitude that might otherwise take thousands of years to accumulate from the background flow of small detritus from the surface.” A gray takes a year and a half to be “stripped to the bone by the scalpels and stomachs of the deep.” A blue whale can take as long as eleven years. [viii]
But I don’t think it’s just their size that hooks us. They’re mammals, nurse their young, sing to one another. “Flowing like breathing planets,” Gary Snyder writes,[ix] we can only wonder what a whale might know.
As I continue exploring our coast by kayak, I occasionally talk to whales. It no longer seems strange to want to hug one. I attempt to maintain the lawful distance, though now and then one rises close enough to see the individual barnacles studded among old scratches and scribbles. This wordless poetry is like a map into deep time. I realize I want to keep being humbled and a little afraid. I realize I’m hooked.
[i] Oregon State University. (2015, August 4). Researchers studying Oregon’s “resident population” of gray whales. Retrieved from https://today.oregonstate.edu/archives/2015/aug/researchers-studying-oregon’s-“resident-population”-gray-whales
[ii] Kipling, R. (1914). The Jungle Book (p. 145). New York, NY: Double Day. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=LO88AQAAIAAJ&rdid=book-LO88AQAAIAAJ&rdot=1
[iii] White, J. (2016). Talking on the Water (pp. 25-26). San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press.
[iv] Friends of the Earth. (1970). Wake of the Whale (p. 71). San Francisco, CA: Friends of the Earth, Inc.
[v] Steven, C. (2002). Adrift (p. 37). New York, NY: First Mariner Books.
[vi]Oregon State University. (2015, August 4). Researchers studying Oregon’s “resident population” of gray whales. Retrieved from
[vii] Lemos, L. (2016, April 6). Does ocean noise stress-out whales?. In Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Laboratory. Retrieved from http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/gemmlab/2016/04/06/does-ocean-noise-stress-out-whales/
[viii] Whitty, J. (2010). Deep Blue Home (pp. 178-181). New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
[ix] Snyder, G. (1974). Turtle Island. New York, NY: New Directions Publishing Group. Retrieved from https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/mother-earth-her-whales-0
In our modern world we often share space with people, but never really interact with them. Like right now, I am on a train in France with a bunch of people but I’m not interacting with any of them (maybe because I don’t speak French…). This situation extends to our efforts to understand the bycatch of marine predators in fisheries.
Productivity in the ocean is patchy, so both fishing vessels and marine predators, like seabirds and dolphins, may target the same areas to get their prey. This scenario can be considered spatial overlap, but not necessarily interaction because the two entities (predator and vessel) can independently chose to be in the same place at the same time. Also, overlap can happen at larger spatial and temporal scales than interaction events, which typically must occur at small scales. Again, consider me on this train: all my fellow passengers and I are overlapping on a 500 m long train for 2.5 hours (larger scale) but I only interact with the passenger in the seat 1 m across from me for a minute (smaller scale) while I explain that I don’t understand what they are saying.
Distinguishing overlap from interaction between seabirds and fishing vessels is important to help managers determine how to best direct their efforts to reduce bycatch. Different management approaches can be applied depending on whether seabirds are using the same habitat as fishing vessels (overlap) or are attracted to vessels for feeding opportunities (interaction) and then incidentally caught/injured in the fishing gear. Furthermore, if we can describe discrete interaction events we may also be able to identify the individual fishing vessel, fishing gear used, country of origin, and other such specific information that can help direct bycatch reduction efforts.
However, studying the spatial and temporal relationships between seabirds and fishing vessels is challenging, and highly dependent on the quality of data we have, or can collect, about the movements of birds and boats at-sea. Tracking the movements of seabirds has evolved rapidly with the development of tagging technology and miniaturization, so that over the past 10 years seabird ecologists have collected a large amount of high-resolution GPS data of seabird foraging. While these data reveal fascinating patterns of seabird ecology, our ability to relate these seabird distribution data to fishing vessels has remained limited due to limited access to fishing vessel location data. Historically, fishermen have not wanted to divulge their fishing locations for fear of losing their ‘secret sweet spot’ or regulatory infractions. So, where fishing vessels fish has often been a mystery, at least fine scales. For a long time fishing effort data was only released at scales of 5 x 5 degree grid cells and monthly scales (Fig. 1) (Phillips et al. 2006), which is only broadly useful for assessment of overlap and not useful for assessing interaction events. The situation has improved in some countries where Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) data are available but even these GPS data are often too coarse to reveal interaction events (although it’s much better than what was previously available!). In fact, I wrote a paper about this topic in 2013 called “Scaling down the analysis of seabird-fisheries analysis” that called for higher resolution vessel position data to better evaluate and manage seabird and fishing vessel interactions (Torres et al. 2013).
Progress was made in 2016 with the release of Global Fishing Watch (globalfishingwatch.org) that has significantly increased transparency in the fishing industry and revolutionized our ability to monitor fishing vessel activities (Robards et al. 2016). Almost every fishing vessel in the world is required to use the Automated Identification System (AIS) that pings GPS quality position data to satellite and shore receiving stations around the world. AIS was originally developed to increase maritime safety by reducing collision risk, but Global Fishing Watch has developed methods to acquire these AIS data globally, distinguish fishing vessels (from cargo ships or sailing vessels), classify fishing vessels by fishing method, and disseminate these data in an accessible and visually understandable able format (de Souza et al. 2016; Kroodsma et al. 2018). When I saw the Global Fishing Watch website for the first time I actually let out a ‘Woohoo!’ because I knew this was the missing piece I needed to move from overlap to interaction.
So, I assembled a great team of collaborators including Dr. Rachael Orben – seabird movement ecologist extraordinaire – and colleagues who have collected GPS tracking data from three species of albatross in the North Pacific Ocean. Another important step was acquiring funding to support the research effort from the NOAA Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program, and to establish a collaboration with Global Fishing Watch. Fast forward a year and through many data analysis and R coding puzzles, and we have made the jump from overlap to interaction, with some preliminary results to share.
We compiled GPS tracks representing foraging trips conducted by Laysan (Phoebastria immutabilis) and black-footed (P. nigripes) albatrosses breeding in the Hawaiian islands, and juvenile short-tailed albatross (P. albatrus) from Japan. First we identified overlap between bird and boat at daily and 80 km scales. Next, we quantified encounter events at scales of 10 minutes and between 30 and 3 km, which was the assumed distance at which birds are able to perceive a boat. Finally, interaction events were identified when birds and boats were within 3 km and 10 minutes of each other.
At an absolute level, short-tailed albatross overlapped, encountered and interacted with many more fishing vessels than black-footed and Laysan albatross. However, it is important to point out that these results may be biased by the temporal sampling resolution of the GPS tracking data (how often a location was recorded), which we have not accounted for yet. Nevertheless, what is interesting is that when the percent of interaction events that derived from encounter events is assessed, black-footed and Laysan albatross demonstrate much higher rates of fisheries interactions. These results indicate that when a black-footed albatross encountered a fishing vessel engaged in fishing, nearly 50% of these opportunities turned into an interaction event. This rate was 39 and 26 percent for Laysan and short-tailed albatross respectively. This species-level difference between absolute and relative (percentage) interaction with fisheries may be due to the overall distribution patterns of the different albatross species, with short-tailed albatross using areas that overlap with fishing activity more frequently (coastal margins). Furthermore, these results indicate that short-tailed albatross may be more ‘vessel-shy’ than black-footed and Laysan albatross. The high black-footed albatross percent interaction rate aligns with the high by-catch rate of this species, and emphasizes the need to better understand and manage their interactions with fishing vessels.
While these results from our novel analysis are an interesting start to helping inform bycatch mitigation efforts, perhaps the most illustrative (and coolest!) output so far are the below animations that show the fine-scale movement tracks of an albatross and fishing vessel (Fig. 2 and 3). Both animations are a 24 hour period and show an albatross (red dot) and a fishing vessel (yellow dot). But, Figure 2 illustrates an overlap event, where the bird and boat clearly overlap spatially and temporally but do not interact. However, in Figure 3 we see how the albatross flies directly to the vessel and the bird and vessel remain spatially and temporally linked, demonstrating an interaction event. Our next steps are to improve our ability to distinguish these interaction events (assessment of duration and trajectory correspondence) and to describe the driving factors (e.g., albatross species, fishing vessel method and flag nation, environmental variables) that lead an albatross to move from overlap to interaction.
Figure 2. Fine-scale animation of overlap between the movement path of a Laysan albatross GPS track and the AIS track of a fishing vessel, overlaid on bathymetry. While the bird and boat overlap at this scale, the animation illustrates how the bird and boat do not interact with each other.
Figure 3. Fine-scale animation of overlap between the movement path of a Laysan albatross GPS track and the AIS track of a fishing vessel, overlaid on bathymetry. This animation illustrates how the bird and boat act independently at the start, and then the bird travels directly to the vessel’s location and the movements of the two entities corresponded spatially and temporally, demonstrating a clear interaction event.
de Souza, Erico N., Kristina Boerder, Stan Matwin, and Boris Worm. 2016. ‘Improving Fishing Pattern Detection from Satellite AIS Using Data Mining and Machine Learning’, PLoS ONE, 11: e0158248.
Kroodsma, David A., Juan Mayorga, Timothy Hochberg, Nathan A. Miller, Kristina Boerder, Francesco Ferretti, Alex Wilson, Bjorn Bergman, Timothy D. White, Barbara A. Block, Paul Woods, Brian Sullivan, Christopher Costello, and Boris Worm. 2018. ‘Tracking the global footprint of fisheries’, Science, 359: 904-08.
Phillips, R. A., J. R. D. Silk, J. P. Croxall, and V. Afanasyev. 2006. ‘Year-round distribution of white-chinned petrels from South Georgia: Relationships with oceanography and fisheries’, Biological Conservation, 129: 336-47.
Robards, MD, GK Silber, JD Adams, J Arroyo, D Lorenzini, K Schwehr, and J Amos. 2016. ‘Conservation science and policy applications of the marine vessel Automatic Identification System (AIS)—a review’, Bulletin of Marine Science, 92: 75-103.
Torres, Leigh G., P. M. Sagar, D. R. Thompson, and R. A. Phillips. 2013. ‘Scaling-down the analysis of seabird-fishery interactions’, Marine Ecology Progress Series, 473.