Kelp, the Multi-purpose Plant: Whale Loofahs, Calf Refuge, and Food Supply

By Luke Donaldson, incoming OSU freshman, Department of Forestry, GEMM Lab intern

When I was a toddler, my grandma took me to the Face Rock viewpoint in Bandon, Oregon during summer to look for migrating whales. Even though we never spotted a blow or fluke, it was a great memory, one that helped spark my ever-growing interest in biology and the environment.

As soon as I was old enough, I volunteered to help scientists at the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve (SSNERR) work on a variety of research projects, including European green crab (Carcinus maenas) removal in the Coos Estuary. The removal process of the invasive European green crabs from the Coos estuary is similar to current culling efforts of purple sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) by the Oregon Kelp Alliance (ORKA) of here in Port Orford. Both efforts hope to reduce the negative ecological impacts caused by a lack of natural predators on the Oregon coast. Without natural predators, green crabs and sea urchins dominate food sources and reproduce exponentially in their respective ecosystems. In Port Orford, the decline in population of several species of sea stars since 2013 has led to an abundance of sea urchins, an estimated 350 million alone at Orford Reef (Sommer & Kastelnik, 2021). Read Lisa Hildebrand’s blog for more information about how the cycles of potential phase shifts between sea urchins and kelp impact both the ecology and economics along the Oregon coast. 
In addition to collecting long term data on gray whale activity and zooplankton abundance, the TOPAZ/JASPER projects have accumulated a yearly inventory of bull kelp canopies in order to record biogeographic changes and monitor areas of concern related to urchin abundance.

After multiple opportunities to hone my skills on the theodolite during our two training weeks, I spent several hours at our cliff observation site helping map kelp beds (read more about the theodolite and its purposes in Nichola’s recent blog). Not only does operating the theodolite require practice and careful precision, but weather also poses a challenge to mapping the surface expression of kelp effectively. Sunlight itself strains the eye and causes a glare in the theodolite objective lens. Wind gusts, tidal changes and swell can all distort kelp patches, so consistent timing is essential. Some areas of Tichenor Cove and Mill Rocks are obstructed by sea stacks, vegetation, and man-made structures, so for these areas we use a Garmin GPS to mark waypoints via kayak to create the perimeter of each kelp patch. With over 1,500 fixes and 120 kelp patches mapped, it was our first formal assessment of kelp this year within our two study areas, Tichenor Cove and Mill Rocks (Figure 1). While kelp cover in Tichenor appears to have increased a little since 2021, the kelp in Mill Rocks shows a great recovery.

Figure 1. Study site map with kelp cover from 2021 and 2022 shown in green. The gray areas represent land and each kayak sampling station is denoted within a bounding box. Map by A. Dawn

Not only is the kelp different between study years and areas, but our zooplankton catches are also showing signs of recovery. The large kelp beds of Mill Rocks support a sustained population of zooplankton, unlike in 2021 or in Tichenor Cove. Last year’s GEMM lab intern Damian Amerman-Smith noted the decline of kelp also appeared to correlate with decreased zooplankton abundance and gray whale foraging activity in Port Orford. However, not only does Mill Rocks yield higher amounts of zooplankton this year, but their average size, especially the mysid Holmesmysis sculpta, appears larger this year than in 2021.  

Consequently, this increase in food availability may be the cause of our higher frequency of gray whale observations in Mill Rocks this year. Despite the continued abundance of sea urchins in our study areas, I am optimistic that the current amount of kelp compared to past year’s data might be indicating a recovery of the ecosystem (Figure 2).

Figure 2. A comparison between Mill Rocks Station 17 in 2021 (left) and 2022 (right). Observe the difference in kelp and mysid shrimp abundance.

The first gray whale that we observed this year was consistently foraging within the kelp beds of Mill Rocks, which was very encouraging for our team. Through this internship I have learned many interesting things about kelp, including how kelp supplies more than just primary productivity, but also a wide range of services directly and indirectly to gray whales. In addition to being a foundation species of Oregon’s coastal ecosystems, bull kelp specifically provides zooplankton with nutrient-rich detritus, protection from predators, and a buffer from strong ocean currents (Schaffer & Feehan, 2020). Kelp provides gray whales not only with habitat for their prey, but keeps them hygienic as well. Gray whales have been observed “kelping”, where they brush against kelp with their skin like a loofah (Morris, 2016). Although kelping is relatively under-investigated, there are claims that this behavior can double as another foraging method (Busch, 1998). When swimming through kelp, gray whales may scrape off tiny crustaceans clinging to the kelp fronds. It has also been noted that gray whale mothers will hide their calves in kelp to conceal them from predators (Busch, 1998).

Ask anyone who has been to Port Orford and they will attest to the abundance and diversity of marine fauna that thrive in the nutrient-rich coastal waters. I hope this will continue, and that we will see a stable bull kelp canopy kelp ecosystem return here in Port Orford. Stay tuned for more results when the team maps kelp canopies again at the end of August!

Figure 3. Kayak sampling at a large patch of kelp in Mill Rocks. Photo credit: Nichola Gregory

This Gray whale foraging ecology (GWFE) internship has prepared me for college in many ways. Being able to study this dynamic ecosystem is any marine science intern’s dream; and, my decision to pursue Natural Resources as my major has been affirmed through this summer’s field and lab experience. It inspires me to focus on ecology and possibly attend graduate school in the future. The college-like environment of living at the field station has conditioned me for dorm life in the fall; and, the opportunity to meet leading experts in a variety of marine science fields has expanded my knowledge of possible career pathways. With the inspiration and guidance of Dr. Leigh Torres, field station manager Tom Calvanese, team leader Allison Dawn, and the rest of the whale team, I am excited to begin my journey as a natural resource student and future scientist.

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References

Busch, R. (1998). Gray Whales: Wandering Giants. Orca Book Publishers.

Feehan, C. J., Grauman-Boss, B. C., Strathmann, R. R., Dethier, M. N., & Duggins, D. O. (2017, October 25). Kelp detritus provides high-quality food for sea urchin larvae. Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography. Retrieved August 13, 2022, from https://aslopubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/lno.10740

Kastelnik, T. (2021, August 18). Kelp. Oregon Kelp Alliance. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://www.oregonkelp.com/

Morris, A. (2016, October 17). We Can’t Kelp But Smile At This Incredible Humpback Footage. Awesome Ocean. Retrieved August 12, 2022, from http://awesomeocean.com/whales/cant-kelp-smile-humpback-whale-footage/

Schaffer, J. A., Munsch, S. H., & Cordell, J. R. (2020, January 21). Kelp Forest Zooplankton, Forage Fishes, and Juvenile Salmonids of the Northeast Pacific Nearshore. American Fisheries Society. Retrieved August 3, 2022, from https://afspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/mcf2.10103Sommer, L. (2021, March 31). In Hotter Climate, ‘Zombie’ Urchins Are Winning And Kelp Forests Are Losing. NPR. Retrieved August 3, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/2021/03/31/975800880/in-hotter-climate-zombie-urchins-are-winning-and-kelp-forests-are-losing#:~:text=In%202013%2C%20 sea%20star%20 wasting,Red%20List%20of%20Endangered%20Species.&text=With%20their%20predator%20largely%20gone%2C%20purple%20urchins%20boomed

Seeing the future through a new lens

By Nichola Gregory, B.S. Earth Science, College of Earth, Ocean, & Atmospheric Sciences, GEMM Lab Port Orford Intern

As a recent OSU graduate from the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS), I gained both knowledge regarding oceanographic and biological concepts through my coursework, and also a passion to be involved in projects that work towards bettering the natural world. Currently, I am pursuing a GIS (Geographic Information System) certificate from Portland Community College. The choice to continue my education with this certification was driven by its applicability as well as my desire to equip myself with skill sets that are applicable in addressing questions in marine science. This desire leads to the primary reason I was drawn to the TOPAZ/ JASPER projects that I am fortunate to be a part of this summer. These projects located in Port Orford have allowed me to become more familiar with various softwares and instruments used within marine sciences, and the instrument that I have been most excited to learn more about this summer is the theodolite.

My first introduction to the theodolite was during my biology of marine mammals course in Newport where PhD student Lisa Hildebrand (then Master’s student and graduate student leader of the Port Orford project since 2018) visited us in Depoe Bay with the instrument. That day, I was intimidated yet intrigued by how theodolites work and learned from Lisa that it can be used to create ‘tracklines’ of gray whale movements. 

Now that the 2022 field season is underway, I’ve spent the last couple weeks at the Port Orford Field Station under the guidance of Master’s student Allison Dawn where I have gained familiarity with operating the theodolite (or as we affectionately call it, the Theo). I have also learned how vital of a tool it can be in helping us understand the habits and ecology of PCFG gray whales that visit the Oregon coast. 

Figure 1: Four out of five members of the 2022 team pictured during cliff training. From left to right: Charlie watches whales with binoculars, Zoe learns how to use Pythagoras software for trackline creation, and Allison instructs me on how to use the theodolite. Photo credit: Luke Donaldson

Figure 2: A basic diagram of a digital theodolite. Top “Theo” pictured is facing out toward the object while the bottom “Theo” shows the user side. Diagram credit: Johnson Level & Tool Mfg. Co

Theodolites became popular in the early 1800’s and have been used for land surveying since. They combine optical plummets, a bubble level, and graduated circles to find vertical and horizontal angles while surveying. For a more visual introduction to theodolite and some of its uses, check out this link to a youtube video.  

When the cliff team begins the day, their primary objective is to set up the theodolite and be prepared to track the locations and movements of gray whales. First, the surveying point (which is used to ensure repeatability of station location) is placed on the ground to position the tripod and theodolite. Then, once the tripod is set up and theodolite attached, leveling the instrument takes place. The 3 screws on the base plate of the Theo allow for leveling, which is of utmost importance so that the instrument is perfectly level with the horizon. The Theo has two bubble levelers to promote accuracy while moving the tripod legs as well as the leveling screws. Once the instrument is level, we complete the “start fix”, which is our first data point for each day and used as our reference point. The telescope includes an eyepiece for the user and an objective lens with internal mirrors to magnify the object(s) being viewed. Now we are ready to start fixing whale locations! And while the set up involved with “Theo” can be difficult to remember and tedious (leveling specifically) it has become somewhat automatic after a few weeks of practice.  

After a productive day with many whale fixes, a small map (Figure 3) is made on the associated computer program “Pythagoras”. This map shows the station (“Theo”), the reference point, and the relative location and coordinates of each fix made. The tracklines are then analyzed to learn more about movement and behavior of specific whale individuals (read Lisa’s blog  here for more information!). We also carefully outline kelp patches with many “fixes” so we can create maps of kelp cover in our study areas. This year we are seeing more bull kelp compared to 2021, but stay tuned for more details about these changes from intern Luke Donaldson’s upcoming blog!

Figure 3: An example of a trackline map made in Pythagoras after gray whale fixes are made. This specific trackline shows a whale coming into Mill Rocks to forage, moving past the cliff station toward Tichenor Cove, and then making its way back to Mill Rocks. 

Due to this amazing instrument, the GEMM lab has non-invasively tracked many whales over the many previous field seasons. Two whales that this year’s team has grown particularly fond of are named “Buttons” and “Rugged”. Both have visited Port Orford numerous times over the past couple weeks, giving us the chance to get practice with creating tracklines while also capturing up-to-date ID photos. Buttons is regularly documented along the Oregon coast and is such a local favorite that there is an honorary Port Orford Public Library Card in his name! Rugged also showed up two weeks ago with a brand new marking that is likely a propeller scar. In addition to seeing a greater number of kelp patches, we have already obtained more whale trackline data than the entirety of  last year’s season. I hope this means we are observing a recovering ecosystem, and a positive future for Port Orford, through the lens of the Theodolite.

Figure 4: A photo captured of Rugged, our first whale sighting of the 2022 season. Photo credit: Allison Dawn 

After being in Port Orford for a couple weeks now, with the first few days of proper sampling behind me, I can tell my time here will be time well spent. Not only have I become familiar with a new instrument, I have learned a great deal in how science in the field is conducted and how broad a project can become. Specifically, I am impressed by the volume of data that is collected at the 12 unique kayak sampling stations on any given field day –secchi depth, water depth & chemistry, underwater footage, and zooplankton. These data complement the data cliff team provides, which, in addition to whale movement data, includes Beaufort Sea State, tidal height, and weather. I now appreciate how important it is to gather as much information as possible in order to find connections between the environment, gray whales, and their prey, even if those connections are not obvious to us today. 

Another lesson I’ve found invaluable during this experience is my growing belief in myself and abilities. Prior to this summer, I had minimal experience on the water, mostly limited to rivers and lakes. But after being in Port Orford for a few weeks, I have learned that something that once seemed daunting can become enjoyable. I think almost every young person in science finds themselves in a state of “imposter syndrome” at some point, where despite great education and experiences, they fall short in self confidence. Time spent on the cliff, kayak and lab has helped affirm that marine science is where I belong. Perhaps even more impactful are the experiences I have had while navigating the learning curve of these skills. I hope to keep this growth-mindset and push through future experiences that feel awkward or scary in order to reach my goals and find my place in marine sciences. 

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References

All about theodolites. Levels, Laser Levels and Measuring Tool Mfg Company Johnson Level. (n.d.). Retrieved August 1, 2022, from https://www.johnsonlevel.com/News/TheodolitesAllAboutTheodo

 Leonid Nadolinets, Eugene Levin, Daulet Akhmedov. 12 Jun 2017, Theodolites from:

Surveying Instruments and Technology CRC Press

Retrieved August 1, 2022, from

https://www.routledgehandbooks.com/doi/10.4324/9781315153346-3
NMAH: Surveying & geodesy: Theodolite. NMAH | Surveying & Geodesy | Theodolite. (n.d.). Retrieved August 2, 2022, from https://amhistory.si.edu/surveying/type.cfm?typeid=19

Land unlocked: From the Midwest to the west coast

By Zoe Sax, Drake University senior, Department of Environmental Science & Sustainability, GEMM Lab NSF REU intern

My name is Zoe and I am from land-locked Minnesota… so how did I end up on the west coast this summer? Well, I am a rising senior at Drake University studying environmental science on the biological conservation track with a zoo and conservation science concentration and a math minor. Despite the wordy title, there is one thing missing from my education — the ocean. This summer, I am dipping my toes into the field of marine biology as a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) student — and I am loving it. As an REU student in the GEMM lab, I am doing both lab and field work surrounding the TOPAZ/JASPER project. In June, I arrived at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) in Newport to outline my project with master’s student Allison Dawn, and start data analysis before the busy field season began.

Since 2016, the Port Orford project has collected Secchi disk measurements and GoPro video footage at each kayak sampling station. A Secchi disk is a simple tool with black and white quadrants that we lower into the water until it cannot be seen anymore. As we raise the disk out of the water, we count the marks on the line to calculate a measurement of water clarity (Figure 1). This long time-series of Secchi measurements is an excellent dataset, but what do these Secchi measurements actually reflect? Productivity in the water column, increased turbidity from river runoff, changes in zooplankton abundance? Additionally, what, if anything, does GoPro video color represent? My REU project aims to address these specific questions that the GEMM Lab needs answered. I will compare the Secchi disk measurements to the water color in GoPro video footage, collected at the same time and place, and satellite chlorophyll-a concentrations from MODIS. The goal is to understand if there is a relationship between video color and visibility (Secchi disk data), or a relationship between video color and chlorophyll-a concentrations.

Figure 1. Secchi disk deployment (top) Secchi disk (bottom).

I am using a programming language called Python to take screenshots of the GoPro footage at certain depths and extract color information. Originally, I extracted RGB values from each pixel and converted them to hex color codes. RGB stands for “red, green, blue” and represents the amount of each color present to achieve the color seen. Hex codes are unique codes for every color and contain six letters or numbers; the first two represent red, the second two represent green, and the final two represent green (Figure 2). However, to relate color to numeric data, I need to quantify the color values into a scale. Hex color codes do not have an obvious scale because they are so distinct and use both letters and numbers. On the other hand, RGB values have a numeric scale from 0–255 for each of the three colors, so we ultimately decided to only use these.

Figure 2. Screenshot from MR17 GoPro video footage on August 23rd, 2021 and the hex color code extraction. The donut plot (left) shows the frequency of each hex code in the center GoPro image, and the table (right) lists the hex codes.

Figure 3. Screenshot from TC6 GoPro video footage on August 12th, 2021 (a) and its RGB color extraction histogram (b).

Every image has millions of pixels, and each pixel has an RGB value. My code separates the red, green, and blue values of each pixel and plots a histogram with the RGB color value on the x-axis and the number of pixels where that value is present on the y-axis (Figure 3). I am currently in the process of determining the best mode of summarizing the color values, whether that be the mean, maximum, or range of values. Once determined, the summarized values will be compared to Secchi disk values and satellite chlorophyll-a concentrations. I still have to iron out the code, but I am proud of what I have done so far and cannot wait for it to all come together!

Along with learning new methods of analysis, I am being challenged to learn new field techniques, such as self-rescue in a tandem kayak (Figure 4). I also have enjoyed performing the data collection that, until now, I have only been watching on my laptop. As this year’s team collects data and reviews GoPro footage, which seems to be showing higher zooplankton abundance than in previous years, I get excited at the prospect of analyzing the data after the field season is complete.

Figure 4. Kayak safety training with the whale team and Marcus from South Coast Tours.

At the beginning of the summer, I felt overwhelmed. Yet, I have come to realize that it is okay to not understand something as long as I put in the effort to learn and am not afraid to ask for repeated explanations. I have also learned what it is like to be part of a lab and that lab mates can be a great source of support and knowledge. The GEMM lab is collaborative and members enjoy helping each other brainstorm. I am very thankful that Clara Bird, a GEMM lab PhD candidate, provided base code and additional guidance throughout my analysis. Additionally, I attended a lab meeting where many others provided helpful comments and suggestions that were crucial for my project.

My experience as a GEMM lab intern has allowed me to see my REU project through many phases. I have gained confidence in my R and Python programming skills, and confidence in my capabilities overall. Living and working at both the HMSC and Port Orford field stations has exposed me to a multitude of areas in marine science, from GEMM lab research on foraging behavior or acoustics, to other REU students’ and mentors’ research on seabird behavior or plankton ecology. Although there is still a month left of my internship, I have already affirmed my interest in marine biology, and hands-on exploration, and have a greater sense of what I may want to do in graduate school.

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Updates from the 2022 Port Orford Gray Whale Foraging Ecology Project

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

Hello, GEMM Lab blog readers! I am writing to you from the Port Orford Field Station, aka the “South Coast Outpost” as our esteemed field station manager, Tom Calvanese, calls it. I am so excited to be back this year leading a new group of interns into our 8th consecutive year of the integrated TOPAZ and JASPER projects. The field station is much busier than last year, as it houses not only our team of five, but an additional five other interns representing OSU, either through NSF REU projects or MSI internships. I continue to be amazed at the depth and breadth of work that is facilitated by the field station, from our gray whale foraging observations to urchin gonad analysis to creative community engagement efforts and even sustainable seafood distribution. The Port Orford Field Station is truly a haven for those passionate about coastal Oregon conservation.  

The whale team has just wrapped up our first full week of training and I am excited to share a few updates. For those who are not familiar with the project, in addition to our busy field work projects in Newport (GRANITE & HALO), the GEMM lab has also been anchored in Port Orford every summer for the past eight years. With Leigh at the metaphorical helm, and a master’s student as first Mate (previously Florence Sullivan followed by Lisa Hildebrand), we have established a legacy of gray whale research, local collaborations, science communication and hands-on learning for budding young scientists. From this work we have investigated vessel disturbance, prey preference and potential trophic cascades, and now my research aims to investigate the environmental drivers of prey abundance. Many exciting developments are underway that you will learn more about in the coming weeks, but first I’d like to introduce the interns that are helping make this year possible! 

Figure 1. Zoe takes her first peek at Redfish Rocks Marine Reserve through the theodolite. 

First, I’d like to introduce you to Zoe Sax. Zoe is the first REU student to intern on the whale team for the Port Orford Project. She is a rising senior at Drake University majoring in Environmental Science with a Zoology and Conservation Science minor. Last spring, Zoe interned at the Blank Park Zoo where she worked with a range of mammals – even rhinos! This is her first marine mammal internship, but in just a few short weeks, Zoe has demonstrated enthusiasm for fieldwork’s most challenging tasks as well as perseverance through tricky Python/R code. Prior to our arrival at the Field Station, she has been working with me in Newport investigating whether our secchi disk data can serve as a proxy for chlorophyll-a, to ultimately understand patterns of visibility and nutrient abundance. I will let her tell you more about her project’s journey and preliminary results in her blog next week!   

Figure 2. Nichola smiles through kayak sampling training day while learning how to use the GPS to navigate and stay on station in Tichenor Cove.  

Next up is Nichola Gregory. Nichola is an OSU alumni with a bachelors in Ocean Science and a minor in Biology and Ecology. She is currently taking a self-paced certification course in GIS at Portland Community College and is preparing to apply for graduate schools this fall. With a background in phytoplankton identification using the Imaging Flow Cytobot (IFCb) in the Seascape Ecology Lab at OSU, Nichola has a passion for the tools that allow us to investigate smaller marine organisms. She is particularly excited to explore data from our new oceanographic sensor and strengthen her coding skills to help understand the relationships between nutrients and zooplankton. Once a competitive swimmer, she is also excited to be strengthening her water sport skillset and has met every new on-the-water task with a great attitude, humor, and attention to detail. 

Figure 3. Luke investigates the season’s first gammarid prey under a microscope during zooplankton ID training. 

Luke Donaldson is one of the team’s two interns who grew up on the southern Oregon Coast, where he recently graduated from Coquille High School. He is eager for new challenges before he enters his freshman year at the OSU-Cascades campus as a major in Natural Resources. Luke has already established himself as a keen observer. First, he spotted a river otter running into the surf on our team bonding beach walk, and then he spotted the first blow of the season during our kayak sampling training day! From bush-whacking in search of lamprey populations at South Slough Reserve, green crab trapping, and even hay-baling, Luke’s previous volunteer and internship work has equipped him with transferable skills that I know will be integral in the weeks to come.

Figure 4. Charlie looks toward MR17 where we had just observed the first gray whale of the season surface. 

Last, but certainly not least – our other “coastie” intern is Charlie Ells. Charlie graduated from Bandon High School this past spring and plans to attend the University of Oregon as an Environmental Science major. He has earned the nickname “Mr. Safety” from his peers due to his commitment to fieldwork best practices and his catchphrase “Never turn your back on the ocean”. He has taken great initiative in learning every new task, and his familiarity with the water has made him an essential part of the team as an excellent kayak navigator. Charlie already has a demonstrated passion for conservation and is eager to gain experiences that will help him explore his future career pathways. 

Figure 5. The 2022 TOPAZ / JASPER team after a long yet rewarding morning of kayak sampling training. 

With week one under our belts, I know I speak for the whole team when I say we are as excited as ever for the season. With the exception of one foggy day, we have been fortunate to have favorable weather conditions that I hope will continue. Collaborators in Port Orford and I have noticed there have been new kelp patches in Mill Rocks where we spotted our first whale of the season, which makes us hopeful there will be some quality zooplankton prey in the area for our PCFG whales. This week, the team will tackle Basic Life Safety Training (BLS) and complete several more cliff/kayak practice days to prepare us for the first week of August where we will officially begin data collection. Stay tuned for more exciting updates from the Port Orford team! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References:

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

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

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

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

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

Grad school growing pains

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

“What if I’m wrong? What if I make a mistake?” When I began my career after completing my undergraduate degree, these questions echoed constantly in my head as the stakes were raised and my work was taken more seriously. Of course, this anxiety was not new. As a student, my worst fear had been poor performance in class. Post-undergrad, I was facing the possibility of making a mistake that could impact larger research projects and publications. 

Gaining greater responsibility and consequences is a fact of life and an intrinsic part of growing up. As I wrap up my third year of graduate school, I’ve been reflecting on how learning to take on this responsibility as a scientist has been a crucial part of my journey thus far.  

A scientist’s job is to ask, and try to answer, questions that no one knows the answer to – which is both terrifying and exciting. It feels a bit like realizing that grown-ups don’t have all the answers as a kid. Becoming comfortable with the fact that my work often involves making decisions that no one definitively can say are wrong or right has been one of my biggest challenges of grad school. The important thing to remember, I’ve learned, is that I’m not making wild guesses – I’m being trained to make the best, most informed decisions possible. And, hopefully, with more experience will come greater confidence. 

Through grad school I have learned to take on this responsibility both in the field and the lab, although each brings different experiences. In the field, the stakes can feel higher because the decisions we make affect not just the quality of the data, but the safety of the team (which is always the top priority). I felt this most acutely throughout my first summer as a drone pilot. As a pilot, I am responsible for the safety of the team, the drone, and the quality of the data. As a new pilot, I intensely felt this pressure and would come home feeling more exhausted than usual. Now, in my second field season in this role, I’ve become more comfortable and am slowly building confidence in my abilities as I gain more and more experience. 

Video 1 – Two gray whales foraging together off Newport, Oregon, USA. I recorded this footage during my first season as a pilot – a flight I’ll never forget! NOAA/NMFS permit #21678.

I have also had a similar experience in the lab. Once it’s time to work on the analysis of a project, I choose how to clean, analyze, and interpret the data. As a young scientist, every step of the process involves learning new skills and making decisions that I don’t feel entirely qualified to make.  When I started analysis for my first PhD chapter, I felt overwhelmed by deciding how to standardize my data, what kind of analysis to perform, and what indices to calculate. And, since it’s my first chapter, I felt further overwhelmed by the worry that any decision I made would become a later regret in a future part of my PhD. 

Recently, the most daunting decision has been how to standardize my data. For my first chapter, I am investigating individual specialization of gray whale foraging behavior. The results of this question are not only important for conservation, but for my subsequent work (check out these previous blogs from January 2021and April 2022 for more on this research question). While there is a wealth of literature to draw analysis inspiration from, most of these studies use discrete prey capture data, while I am working with continuous behavior data. So, to make my data points comparable to one another, I need to standardize the behavior observation time of each drone flight to account for the potential bias introduced by recording one individual for more time than another. After experiencing an internal roller coaster of having an idea, thinking it through, deciding it was terrible and restarting the cycle, I was reminded that turning to lab mates and collaborators is the best way to work through a problem.

Image 1 – Comic from phdcomics.com, source: https://phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=2008

So, I had as many conversations as I could with my advisor, committee members, and peers. My thinking clarified with every conversation, and I gained confidence in the justification behind my decision. I cannot fully express the comfort that comes from hearing a trusted advisor say, “that makes ecological sense to me”. These conversations have also helped me remember that I am not alone in my worry and that I am not failing because I have these doubts.  While I may never be 100% convinced that I’ve made the right decision, I feel much better knowing that I’ve talked it through with the brilliant group of scientists around me. And as I enter an analysis-intensive phase of my PhD, I am extremely grateful to have this community around to challenge, advise, and support me. 

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Reflections from this year’s 27th Annual Markham Research Symposium

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

The 27th Annual Markham Research Symposium was hosted at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) last week. During the event, students who have been awarded funds and scholarships through HMSC present their research via poster presentations or 5-minute “ignite” talks. Given how isolated and mostly remote academic events have been during the COVID pandemic, it was invigorating to have an in-person research event. The timing of the symposium was also strategically planned to occur during the first week of Hatfield’s REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) students’ arrival, and it felt special to have such a diversity of ages and career stages coming together to discuss science. While I was certainly expecting to have good conversations about research and receive feedback on my work, I was most surprised by how much this event inspired me to reflect on my first year as a graduate student. For this week’s blog I’d like to share some of these reflections I had while listening to the excellent keynote address and interacting with students during the poster session.

The symposium began with a keynote address by Dr. Elizabeth Perotti who identifies as a scientist, communicator, and a parent. Dr. Perotti works as the Education and Outreach Coordinator for NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program (OAP). I was expecting to hear a 45-minute presentation on the latest ocean acidification efforts, but I was surprised and appreciated that Dr. Perotti spent her time mainly focused on discussing career development through the lens of her own winding career path. While I would have been equally excited to hear about her science communication and outreach work, I am glad she took the time to share her story and give advice based on her experiences. As someone who used to feel insecure about my non-linear path to science, it was validating and inspiring to hear about the variety of experiences that prepared her to take on her current position at NOAA. Dr. Perotti describes her career path as “clear as mud”, but acknowledged that there were several key mentors who helped her identify and shape her specific interests. 

One of those mentors was the late Dr. Marian Diamond, who is renowned for her work on brain plasticity research. She was the first female science professor at Cornell and is considered one of the founders of modern neuroscience. She and her team pioneered the idea that the brain can change, and even improve, with the right stimulation. Dr. Diamond was the first person to study Einstein’s brain in the hopes of uncovering the secret to his high intelligence. She found that Einstein’s brain had more glial cells (which are now sometimes called “genius cells”) than the average person. These glial cells are known to nourish strong neuron connections and build a more complex brain structure. Dr. Diamond hypothesized that Einstein’s brain had more of these cells due to the high stimulation he put on his neurons. From the synthesis of this study and other fascinating experiments during her life’s work, Dr. Diamond suggested five core things the brain needs to continue development, regardless of age: diet, exercise, challenges, newness, and love. A healthy diet fuels the brain, exercise builds better brain cells, challenges and newness stimulate brain function, and love enriches our lives  – each of these factors are shown to contribute to the neuroplasticity of our brains (Diamond, 2001). During the keynote, Dr. Perotti asked the audience to contemplate if they are pursuing a career that is fulfilling at least one of those core requirements. As I contemplated these “brain essentials”, I realized how my experience as a Master’s student in the GEMM lab actually fulfills each one of these, and I am excited by the science that suggests I may be producing more “genius cells” because of it! 

Figure 1: Illustration showing Dr. Diamond’s suggested 5 core essentials for a healthy brain. Taken from: ​​https://blog.stannah-stairlifts.com/society/marian-diamond-women-in-science/

First, the diet I’ve had over the past year has certainly been nurturing. During the field season in Port Orford, one of my favorite meals is when we are given locally-sourced and sustainably caught fish from Port Orford Sustainable Seafood in exchange for helping them process orders. When I am back in Newport and Corvallis, my lab mates and peers are always sharing homemade snacks and we frequently get together for meals (and when the weather is nice – picnics!)

Figures 2 & 3: To the left: Locally sourced salmon cooked by Lisa Hildebrand for one of the many 2021 Port Orford team dinners; To the right: Colorful plates on an impromptu sunny day picnic with Rachel Kaplan. 

For exercise – it almost goes without saying that the field season in Port Orford is physically demanding. During data collection we are constantly alert and on our feet on the cliff site, or paddling continuously to stay on station to obtain good zooplankton and oceanographic samples.

Figure 4: Lisa Hildebrand and A. Dawn enjoying one of the last days of kayak sampling for the 2021 Port Orford field season.

Challenges – there are a variety of challenges to face as a new graduate student. Not only are there difficult, yet exciting questions to tackle, and new analysis skills to learn, but as Dr. Perotti discussed in her talk, there are also soft skills (communication, time/conflict management, task prioritization) that I am sharpening, which are equally important to master. 

Newness – as a graduate student, almost everything feels new. I frequently feel I am out of my comfort zone. Especially during the past three terms, I find myself in the mental “growth zone” consistently. Between my coursework and getting to attend exciting seminars, I consistently learn something new on a daily basis. Despite having completed a field season last year, leading the team this year will also be new, and I anticipate a steep learning curve where I am excited to learn how to be a better scientist and mentor.

Lastly, the love I have experienced since starting my Master’s degree has been one of my most treasured aspects of my life here – love for my lab family and for the opportunity I have to be here. After the symposium I got together with a few lab mates and we journeyed to Nye Beach to watch the sunset. I appreciate that despite our busy schedules, we all make time to connect with each other and explore the beautiful coast we are privileged to call home.

Figure 5: Watching the sunset on Nye Beach never gets old, especially when you are with good friends. Photo credit: C. Bird.

Just as I incorrectly assumed the keynote would be solely research focused, I anticipated answering in-depth questions about my preliminary Master’s thesis analysis results at the poster session. While I did receive great questions and valuable feedback from mentors, which has already helped shape the next steps in my analysis, the interactions I had with the REU student cohort was very different. These budding scientists were more interested in my personal outlook on graduate school, and asked many questions that felt familiar to me. I let the undergraduates know that it was only a year ago that I graduated with my B.S., and shared many of those same, daunting questions about the next chapter of my career: “How do you know if a program is right for you?”, “How do you pick the right advisor?”, “What type of working environment should I be looking for?”. It was fulfilling to be able to echo the great advice Dr. Perotti gave during the keynote address, in which she encouraged students to find mentors, know their talents, learn how to communicate, and take a challenge.

Figure 6: Posing next to my Markam Symposium poster, excited to share my proposed research with peers and mentors. Photo credit: Lisa Hildebrand

I am extremely grateful to have received one of this year’s Mamie Markham awards, and for the opportunity to interact with younger career scientists who I can share my journey and experiences with. The symposium was good practice in communicating my work and stimulating food for thought as I move forward with my second year in graduate school.

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References

Diamond, Marian (2001) Successful Aging of the Healthy Brain. Conference of the American Society on Aging and The National Council on the Aging March 10, 2001, New Orleans, LA

The Rockhopper: Interesting birds and technological advancements in marine bioacoustics research.

Imogen Lucciano, Graduate student, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab.

Rockhopper Penguin. https://www.forestandbird.org.nz/resources/researcher-reveals-climate-impacts-eastern-rockhopper-penguins

Pursuing a graduate degree as a member of the Marine Mammal Institute (MMI) comes with many advantages. Developing associations with curious, industrious researchers and working with advanced technological methods are certainly two of them. Particularly, as a member of the HALO project, I have the pleasure of working alongside not only the GEMM’s, but also acoustician Dr. Holger Klinck and his bioacoustics team at the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at the Cornell Lab (CCB) who have made significant contributions to advance the field for marine mammal research.

When the HALO project kicked off in October, 2021, Holger and graduate student, Marissa Garcia, arrived for our initial voyage off the Oregon coast with three specialized acoustic recording devices, called Rockhoppers. We deployed each Rockhopper at their designated locations, where they will remain and be replaced every six months, to collect continuous passive acoustic data of cetacean vocalizations. These data are significant because they gather information on all vocalizing whales and dolphins within a detectable range of the Rockhoppers, supporting not only my thesis work concerning fin whale distribution in the Northern California Current (NCC) but has the potential to inform multiple other research projects as well.   

Figure 1. Craig Hayslip, Holger Klinck, and Marissa Garcia prepare a Rockhopper for deployment during the first HALO cruise off the Oregon coast.

Passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) is a non-invasive underwater method of recording acoustic output of cetaceans (Zimmer, 2011), and the Rockhopper is specialized for this task. The Rockhopper relatively small (each weighing ~90lbs.) and can be easily deployed with a minimal team from almost any vessel (Fig 1). The mooring is a simple system that anchors the Rockhopper to the sea floor after it sinks through the water column, tolerating depths up to 3,500 m (Klinck et al., 2020). The device can stay on the ocean floor for up to seven months continuously collecting high-frequency data (up to 197 kHz, 24 bits; Klinck et al., 2020). To recover the Rockhopper, the mooring system (Fig 2) includes an acoustic release; when the correct acoustic signal is transmitted by scientists from the vessel and received down at the seafloor, the Rockhopper is released. It’s positive buoyancy allows it to float to the surface where it is recovered. By developing the Rockhopper with these capabilities, the bioacoustics team at Cornell University have taken several steps to enhance cetacean research.     

According to one of it’s designers, David Winiarski, the Rockhopper development team, consisting of himself, Holger Klinck, Raymond Mack, Christopher Tessaglia-Hymes, Dmitri Ponirakis, Peter Dugan, Christopher Jones, and Haru Matsumoto, initiated it’s construction in 2015. Winiarski states that Jones developed the Rockhopper’s initial PAM electronics at Embedded Ocean Systems (EOS), Boston, MA and then the rest of the team developed the remainder of the device in 2017. The Rockhopper contains the electronic system and a 10.8 V Lithium battery pack in an oil-filled Vitrovex 43 cm glass sphere that is encased in hard polyethelene. Two 64 GB memory cards store the collected acoustic data. About every hour the internal processing unit moves the data to two 4 Terabyte solid-state drives in a process that ensures the data is not lost (Klinck et al., 2020). Winiarski attests that it was quite a hectic process to get six complete Rockhoppers ready for their initial deployment, however the team succeeded and in May 2018 they were deployed in the Gulf of Mexico. The Rockhoppers were recovered in 2019 after six months, returning an amazing 21,522 hours of continuous acoustic data (Klinck et al., 2020).

Learning this information about the acoustic devices that will be responsible for collecting my Master’s thesis data is encouraging. I am eager to see the fin whale energy captured within the Rockhopper records. The HALO team, along with myself, Holger, and Marissa, will head back out off the Oregon coast to retrieve our three HALO-designated Rockhoppers in early June (next month). We will then spend the summer at Cornell reading through our first six months of data.

So, why call this acoustic device, the “Rockhopper”? Winiarski explained that since the CCB is a subsect of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology their projects tend to be named after birds. The Rockhopper team thought that this device should respectively be named after a cool marine megafauna. Hence the rockhopper penguin was chosen. I do agree that such an outstanding device is well suited in relation with an equally remarkable marine species.    

Left: Rockhopper penguins on a New Zealand hillside. https://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/eastern-rockhopper-penguin Upper right: Chris Tessaglia-Hymes and David Winiarski with a Rockhopper acoustic device. Lower right: The first six complete Rockhopper acoustic devices developed at the Cornell Center of Bioacoustics in 2017.

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References

Klinck, H., Winiarski, D., Mack, R., Tessaglia-Hymes, C., Ponirakis, D., Dugan, P., Jones, C., Matsumoto, H. 2020. The Rockhopper: a compact and extensible marine autonomous passive acoustic recording system,” Global Oceans 2020: Singapore – U.S. Gulf Coast: 1-7. https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/9388970

Zimmer, W. 2011. Passive acoustic monitoring of cetaceans. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

New publication by GEMM Lab reveals sub-population health differences in gray whales 

Dr. KC Bierlich, Postdoctoral Scholar, OSU Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, & Conservation Sciences, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna (GEMM) Lab

In a previous blog, I discussed the importance of incorporating measurement uncertainty in drone-based photogrammetry, as drones with different sensors, focal length lenses, and altimeters will have varying levels of measurement accuracy. In my last blog, I discussed how to incorporate photogrammetric uncertainty when combining multiple measurements to estimate body condition of baleen whales. In this blog, I will highlight our recent publication in Frontiers in Marine Science (https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2022.867258) led by GEMM Lab’s Dr. Leigh TorresClara Bird, and myself that used these methods in a collaborative study using imagery from four different drones to compare gray whale body condition on their breeding and feeding grounds (Torres et al., 2022).

Most Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whales migrate to their summer foraging grounds in Alaska and the Arctic, where they target benthic amphipods as prey. A subgroup of gray whales (~230 individuals) called the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG), instead truncates their migration and forages along the coastal habitats between Northern California and British Columbia, Canada (Fig. 1). Evidence from a recent study lead by GEMM Lab’s Lisa Hildebrand (see this blog) found that the caloric content of prey in the PCFG range is of equal or higher value than the main amphipod prey in the Arctic/sub-Arctic regions (Hildebrand et al., 2021). This implies that greater prey density and/or lower energetic costs of foraging in the Arctic/sub-Arctic may explain the greater number of whales foraging in that region compared to the PCFG range. Both groups of gray whales spend the winter months on their breeding and calving grounds in Baja California, Mexico. 

Figure 1. The GEMM Lab field team following a Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whale swimming in a kelp bed along the Oregon Coast during the summer foraging season. 

In January 2019 an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) was declared for gray whales due to the elevated numbers of stranded gray whales between Mexico and the Arctic regions of Alaska. Most of the stranded whales were emaciated, indicating that reduced nutrition and starvation may have been the causal factor of death. It is estimated that the population dropped from ~27,000 individuals in 2016 to ~21,000 in 2020 (Stewart & Weller, 2021).

During this UME period, between 2017-2019, the GEMM Lab was using drones to monitor the body condition of PCFG gray whales on their Oregon coastal feeding grounds (Fig. 1), while Christiansen and colleagues (2020) was using drones to monitor gray whales on their breeding grounds in San Ignacio Lagoon (SIL) in Baja California, Mexico. We teamed up with Christiansen and colleagues to compare the body condition of gray whales in these two different areas leading up to the UME. Comparing the body condition between these two populations could help inform which population was most effected by the UME.

The combined datasets consisted of four different drones used, thus different levels of photogrammetric uncertainty to consider. The GEMM Lab collected data using a DJI Phantom 3 Pro, DJI Phantom 4, and DJI Phantom 4 Pro, while Christiansen et al., (2020) used a DJI Inspire 1 Pro. By using the methodological approach described in my previous blog (here, also see Bierlich et al., 2021a for more details), we quantified photogrammetric uncertainty specific to each drone, allowing cross-comparison between these datasets. We also used Body Area Index (BAI), which is a standardized relative measure of body condition developed by the GEMM Lab (Burnett et al., 2018) that has low uncertainty with high precision, making it easier to detect smaller changes between individuals (see blog here, Bierlich et al., 2021b). 

While both PCFG and ENP gray whales visit San Ignacio Lagoon in the winter, we assume that the photogrammetry data collected in the lagoon is mostly of ENP whales based on their considerably higher population abundance. We also assume that gray whales incur low energetic cost during migration, as gray whale oxygen consumption rates and derived metabolic rates are much lower during migration than on foraging grounds (Sumich, 1983). 

Interestingly, we found that gray whale body condition on their wintering grounds in San Ignacio Lagoon deteriorated across the study years leading up to the UME (2017-2019), while the body condition of PCFG whales on their foraging grounds in Oregon concurrently increased. These contrasting trajectories in body condition between ENP and PCFG whales implies that dynamic oceanographic processes may be contributing to temporal variability of prey available in the Arctic/sub-Arctic and PCFG range. In other words, environmental conditions that control prey availability for gray whales are different in the two areas. For the ENP population, this declining nutritive gain may be associated with environmental changes in the Arctic/sub-Arctic region that impacted the predictability and availability of prey. For the PCFG population, the increase in body condition across years may reflect recovery of the NE Pacific Ocean from the marine heatwave event in 2014-2016 (referred to as “The Blob”) that resulted with a period of low prey availability. These findings also indicate that the ENP population was primarily impacted in the die-off from the UME. 

Surprisingly, the body condition of PCFG gray whales in Oregon was regularly and significantly lower than whales in San Ignacio Lagoon (Fig. 2). To further investigate this potential intrinsic difference in body condition between PCFG and ENP whales, we compared opportunistic photographs of gray whales feeding in the Northeastern Chukchi Sea (NCS) in the Arctic collected from airplane surveys. We found that the body condition of PCFG gray whales was significantly lower than whales in the NCS, further supporting our finding that PCFG whales overall have lower body condition than ENP whales that feed in the Arctic (Fig. 3). 

Figure 2. Boxplots showing the distribution of Body Area Index (BAI) values for gray whales imaged by drones in San Ignacio Lagoon (SIL), Mexico and Oregon, USA. The data is grouped by phenology group: End of summer feeding season (departure Oregon vs. arrival SIL) and End of wintering season (arrival Oregon vs. departure SIL). The group median (horizontal line), interquartile range (IQR, box), maximum and minimum 1.5*IQR (vertical lines), and outliers (dots) are depicted in the boxplots. The overlaid points represent the mean of the posterior predictive distribution for BAI of an individual and the bars represents the uncertainty (upper and lower bounds of the 95% HPD interval). Note how PCFG whales at then end of the feeding season (dark green) typically have lower body condition (as BAI) compared to ENP whales at the end of the feeding season when they arrive to SIL after migration (light brown).
Figure 3. Boxplots showing the distribution of Body Area Index (BAI) values of gray whales from opportunistic images collected from a plane in Northeaster Chukchi Sea (NCS) and from drones collected by the GEMM Lab in Oregon. The boxplots display the group median (horizontal line), interquartile range (IQR box), maximum and minimum 1.5*IQR (vertical lines), and outlies (dots). The overlaid points are the BAI values from each image. Note the significantly lower BAI of PCFG whales on Oregon feeding grounds compared to whales feeding in the Arctic region of the NCS.

This difference in body condition between PCFG and ENP gray whales raises some really interesting and prudent questions. Does the lower body condition of PCFG whales make them less resilient to changes in prey availability compared to ENP whales, and thus more vulnerable to climate change? If so, could this influence the reproductive capacity of PCFG whales? Or, are whales that recruit into the PCFG adapted to a smaller morphology, perhaps due to their specialized foraging tactics, which may be genetically inherited and enables them to survive with reduced energy stores?

These questions are on our minds here at the GEMM Lab as we prepare for our seventh consecutive field season using drones to collect data on PCFG gray whale body condition. As discussed in a previous blog by Dr. Alejandro Fernandez Ajo, we are combining our sightings history of individual whales, fecal hormone analyses, and photogrammetry-based body condition to better understand gray whales’ reproductive biology and help determine what the consequences are for these PCFG whales with lower body condition.

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References

Bierlich, K. C., Hewitt, J., Bird, C. N., Schick, R. S., Friedlaender, A., Torres, L. G., … & Johnston, D. W. (2021). Comparing Uncertainty Associated With 1-, 2-, and 3D Aerial Photogrammetry-Based Body Condition Measurements of Baleen Whales. Frontiers in Marine Science, 1729.

Bierlich, K. C., Schick, R. S., Hewitt, J., Dale, J., Goldbogen, J. A., Friedlaender, A.S., et al. (2021b). Bayesian Approach for Predicting Photogrammetric Uncertainty in Morphometric Measurements Derived From Drones. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 673, 193–210. doi: 10.3354/meps13814

Burnett, J. D., Lemos, L., Barlow, D., Wing, M. G., Chandler, T., & Torres, L. G. (2018). Estimating morphometric attributes of baleen whales with photogrammetry from small UASs: A case study with blue and gray whales. Marine Mammal Science35(1), 108–139.

Christiansen, F., Rodrı́guez-González, F., Martı́nez-Aguilar, S., Urbán, J., Swartz, S., Warick, H., et al. (2021). Poor Body Condition Associated With an Unusual Mortality Event in Gray Whales. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 658, 237–252. doi:10.3354/meps13585

Hildebrand, L., Bernard, K. S., and Torres, L. G. (2021). Do Gray Whales Count Calories? Comparing Energetic Values of Gray Whale Prey Across Two Different Feeding Grounds in the Eastern North Pacific. Front. Mar. Sci. 8. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2021.683634

Stewart, J. D., and Weller, D. (2021). Abundance of Eastern North Pacific Gray Whales 2019/2020 (San Diego, CA: NOAA/NMFS)

Sumich, J. L. (1983). Swimming Velocities, Breathing Patterns, and Estimated Costs of Locomotion in Migrating Gray Whales, Eschrichtius Robustus. Can. J. Zoology. 61, 647–652. doi: 10.1139/z83-086

Torres, L.G., Bird, C., Rodrigues-Gonzáles, F., Christiansen F., Bejder, L., Lemos, L., Urbán Ramírez, J., Swartz, S., Willoughby, A., Hewitt., J., Bierlich, K.C. (2022). Range-wide comparison of gray whale body condition reveals contrasting sub-population health characteristics and vulnerability to environmental change. Frontiers in Marine Science. 9:867258. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2022.867258

Shifts in planktonic community composition due to marine heatwaves (MHWs)

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

As the first year of my Master’s is coming to an end, I am excited to have completed the first milestone of writing my research proposal. During the formation of my initial hypotheses, I have been thinking deeply about the potential drivers of zooplankton variability, and how these metrics relate to the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) of gray whales foraging in Port Orford. One topic that continues to appear in the literature and throughout my coursework is that of the extreme marine heat wave (MHW) event (2013-2016) in the Pacific Ocean, otherwise known as the “warm blob”. In Dawn’s (now Dr. Barlow!) blog about this MHW, she discusses how whale habitat in California was compressed due to shifts in prey availability, and how this led to an increased number of whale entanglements (Santora et al., 2020). While sea surface temperature (SST) is only one of many factors that influence prey metrics, it is nevertheless an important factor to consider, especially as these heat waves are expected to increase in intensity and duration due to climate change (Joh and Di Lorenzo, 2017). As Lisa mentioned in her last blog, the “warm blob” exacerbated the loss of kelp and sea stars, which is now impacting multiple trophic levels in Port Orford. For my first thesis chapter, I plan to dive into how SST anomalies impact the mosaic of interactions at our study site in Port Orford, and ultimately try to better understand food availability for the PCFG whales.

Cavole et al., 2016 is one of the early comprehensive studies to discuss the impact of the blob on a variety of planktonic marine species. Their sea surface temperature anomaly figure (Figure 1) shows where the anomaly began in 2013 and how it migrated from the Northern Pacific to the Southern Pacific coast.

Figure 1. Plots showing the SST anomalies as the “warm blob” migrated from the Northern Pacific to the Southern Pacific from 2013 until 2016.

Among many other impacts, this MHW caused a reduction in phytoplankton, the major food source for zooplankton. The decline of this food source subsequently caused significant changes in zooplankton populations. Specifically, studies on copepod diversity and biomass show that in a typical California Current System (CCS) there is a seasonal oscillation between warm-water with subtropical species and cold-water with subarctic species. In the winter, the CCS is characterized by a high diversity of subtropical species, due to a southern water source. In the spring, northern cold water advection brings low-diversity, subarctic copepods. While the timing of these shifts is subject to change due to changes in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), it remains that these subtropical copepod species are known to be smaller and less nutritious than subarctic copepod species regardless of arrival time (Kintisch, 2015; Leising et al., 2015). However, in 2015, this shift to cold water copepod species did not occur, but rather coastal sampling along the Oregon coast saw subtropical copepod species prevail. Specifically, there were 17 main subtropical copepod species that dominated the species composition while the nutrient-rich arctic species were rare. This occurrence of major copepod shifts alone points to the overall concern for the ecosystem imbalance, to the detriment of top predators like marine mammals and seabirds (the “losers”), and others gaining advantage (the “winners”) (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Figure showing the “losers” (right column) and “winners” (left column) of MHW impacts. Species are organized by trophic level, with top predators at the bottom. Taken from Cavole et al., 2016.

More recent studies found that in certain areas, impacts from the “warm blob” outlived the duration of the larger scale anomaly. In fact, large, positive SST anomalies have lingered on the Oregon shelf until at least September 2017 (Peterson et al., 2017). During this time period, anomalously high abundances of nearshore larval North Pacific krill (Euphausia pacifica) were collected off of the Newport Hydrographic Station (Morgan et al., 2019). Additionally, Brodeur et al. (2019) demonstrate that while indicator species in the nearshore have consistent annual variability, there were substantial differences between community composition between 2011-2014 (low diversity) and 2015-2016 (high diversity). This work also documented the shift from crustacean species (like krill and mysids) to more low-quality gelatinous taxa. As the authors acknowledge, this change in prey community assemblage could have major negative impacts on trophic interactions. This is especially true in the context of whales, as they are not known to rely on gelatinous taxa for energy.

Just like our summer sampling in Port Orford, these studies only provide a “snapshot” of plankton species abundance and composition during a particular time of year. However, even a snapshot can reveal significant changes in prey variability, which then may help us understand the drivers of PCFG habitat utilization. We are actively investigating whether there have been significant changes in the variability of several zooplankton metrics (abundance, distribution, size class, composition) relative to SST changes in Port Orford over the last 6 years (2016-2021).

We will also consider multiple other static and dynamic factors that could influence zooplankton patterns (e.g., upwelling strength, kelp health, tidal height, topography); however, given these documented strong relationships between the zooplankton community and SST across the North Pacific, we hypothesize similar impacts in our Port Orford study region. For example, in certain sampling years, net tows seemed to be comprised of smaller size classes of zooplankton than usual. We will consider how size class availability has changed and if this was driven by SST variability. Gray whales are drawn to this area for enhanced feeding opportunities, and understanding the drivers of zooplankton, especially high quality prey, is a key step to understanding whale use of the area.

Please stay tuned for more updates as we continue working towards the answer to these pressing questions!

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References

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, 212.

Cavole, L. M., Demko, A. M., Diner, R. E., Giddings, A., Koester, I., Pagniello, C. M., … & Franks, P. J. (2016). Biological impacts of the 2013–2015 warm-water anomaly in the Northeast Pacific: winners, losers, and the future. Oceanography, 29(2), 273-285.

Joh, Y., & Di Lorenzo, E. (2017). Increasing coupling between NPGO and PDO leads to prolonged marine heatwaves in the Northeast Pacific. Geophysical Research Letters, 44(22), 11-663.

Kintisch, E. (2015). ‘The Blob’ invades Pacific, flummoxing climate experts.

​​Leising, A. W., Schroeder, I. D., Bograd, S. J., Abell, J., Durazo, R., Gaxiola-Castro, G., … & Warybok, P. (2015). State of the California Current 2014-15: Impacts of the Warm-Water” Blob”. California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations Reports, 56.

Morgan, C. A., Beckman, B. R., Weitkamp, L. A., & Fresh, K. L. (2019). Recent ecosystem disturbance in the Northern California current. Fisheries, 44(10), 465-474.

NOAA Fisheries. 2015b. California Current Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (CCIEA) State of the California Current Report, 2015. NMFS Report 2.
Santora, J. A., Mantua, N. J., Schroeder, I. D., Field, J. C., Hazen, E. L., Bograd, S. J., … & Forney, K. A. (2020). Habitat compression and ecosystem shifts as potential links between marine heatwave and record whale entanglements. Nature communications, 11(1), 1-12.