It’s getting hot in here: studying the impacts of marine heatwaves on krill, life-blood of the ocean

By Kim Bernard, Associate Professor, Oregon State University College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Euphausiids, commonly known as “krill”, represent a globally distributed family of pelagic crustacean zooplankton, spanning from tropical to polar oceans. These remarkable organisms inhabit a vast range of marine habitats, from nearshore coastal waters to the expansive open ocean, and from the sea surface to abyssal depths. Notably, they claim the title of the largest biomass among non-domestic animal groups on Earth! Beyond their sheer abundance, euphausiids play a pivotal role in shaping global marine food webs, supporting both economically significant fisheries and extensive populations of marine megafauna.

Figure 1: Nyctiphanes australis. Photo credit: A. Slotwinski, CSIRO.

As our planet continues to warm, the ongoing and anticipated shifts in the distribution and biomass of krill populations herald potential disruptions to marine ecosystems and food webs globally. Marine heatwaves, which are expected to increase in frequency, intensity, and duration in the coming decades, have a significant impact on global krill populations, with knock-on effects through food webs. At our home-base off the coast of Oregon, a severe marine heatwave in 2014-2016 resulted in altered krill distributions and reduced biomass, causing a suite of ecological implications ranging from decline in salmon health to increased occurrence of whale entanglements in fishing gear (Daly et al. 2017; Santora et al. 2020).

Figure 2: (A) Simrad EK80 transducers (the larger one is a 38kHz transducer, the smaller is a 120kHz transducer) mounted to a pole that gets lowered into the water during our daily surveys. The transducers emit sound waves that bounce off objects, like krill, in the water and return to the instrument’s transceiver, allowing us to map krill within the water column. (B) The acoustic data collected by the echosounder appears in real-time on our computer screen allowing us to find krill that we can then target with the Bongo net. Photo credits: Kim Bernard.

Here, off the coast of New Zealand, the krill species Nyctiphanes australis (Figure 1) is an important prey item for many marine predators, including slender tuna (Allothunnus fallai), Australian salmon (Kahawai, Arripis trutta), Jack mackerel (Trachurus declivis), short-tailed shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris) (O’Brien 1988), and of course, the reason we are out here, blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda) (Torres et al. 2020). In a precursor study to the SAPPHIRE project, members of our current research team demonstrated the potential negative impacts that marine heatwaves can have off the coast of New Zealand. During that study, our team noted declines in the abundance and changes in the distribution patterns of Nyctiphanes australis during a marine heatwave compared to normal conditions, with subsequent negative impacts on the distribution and behavior of the local New Zealand blue whale population (Barlow et al. 2020). The impetus of the SAPPHIRE project is to improve our understanding of the physiological mechanisms underlying the observed changes in both krill and blue whale populations, with the goal to better predict future changes.

As a zooplankton ecologist and “kriller”, my role on the SAPPHIRE project is to further our knowledge on the prey, Nyctiphanes australis. There are several components to this part of our research: (1) mapping distribution patterns of krill, (2) measuring the quality of krill as prey to whales, and (3) running experiments to test how warming affects krill physiology. To map the krill distribution patterns, we are using active acoustics (Figure 2). To measure the quality of krill, we first need to collect them, and we do that using a Bongo net (Figure 3) that gets towed behind the boat targeting krill we find using the echosounder.

Figure 3: Kim Bernard and Ngatokoa Tikitau empty the contents of one of the Bongo net cod-ends into a bucket to examine the catch. Unfortunately, it was not filled with krill as we had hoped, but rather a gelatinous zooplankton known as Salpa democratica. Photo credit: KC Bierlich.

Once we have the krill, we’ll flash freeze them in liquid nitrogen and take them back to Oregon where we’ll measure the amount of protein, fats (lipids), and calories each one contains. Finally, for the experiments on temperature effects, we will use live krill collected with the Bongo net placed individually into 1L Nalgene bottles, each outfitted with oxygen sensors so that we can measure the respiration rates of krill at a range of temperatures they would experience during normal conditions and marine heatwaves (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Respiration experiment set-up with two circulating waterbaths in the foreground feeding two temperature treatments in coolers (aka “chilly bins”) behind. Once we catch krill (which has yet to happen), we will use this set-up to test the effects of warming on krill respiration rates. Photo credit: Kim Bernard.


Barlow DR, Bernard KS, Escobar-Flores P, Palacios DM, Torres LG (2020) Links in the trophic chain: modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Marine Ecology Progress Series 642:207-225.

Daly EA, Brodeur RD, Auth TD (2017) Anomalous ocean conditions in 2015: impacts on spring Chinook salmon and their prey field. Marine Ecology Progress Series 566:169-182.

O’Brien DP (1988) Surface schooling behaviour of the coastal krill Nyctiphanes australis (Crustacea: Euphausiacea) off Tasmania, Australia. Marine Ecology Progress Series 42: 219-233.

Santora JA, Mantua NJ, Schroeder ID, Field JC, Hazen EL, Bograd SJ, Sydeman WJ, Wells BK, Calambokidis J, Saez L, Lawson D, Forney KA (2020) Habitat compression and ecosystem shifts as potential links between marine heatwave and record whale entanglements. Nature Communications 11(1):536. doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-14215-w.

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

Marine heatwaves and their impact on marine mammals

By Dawn Barlow, PhD student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

In recent years, anomalously warm ocean temperatures known as “marine heatwaves” have sparked considerable attention and concern around the world. Marine heatwaves (MHW) occur when seawater temperatures rise above a seasonal threshold (greater than the 90th percentile) for five consecutive days or longer (Hobday et al. 2016; Fig. 1). With global ocean temperatures continuing to rise, we are likely to see more frequent and more intense MHW conditions in the future. Indeed, the global prevalence of MHWs is increasing, with a 34% rise in frequency, a 17%  increase in duration, and a 54% increase in annual MHW days globally since 1925 (Oliver et al. 2018). With sustained anomalously warm water temperatures come a range of ecological, sociological, and economic consequences. These impacts include changes in water column structure, primary production, species composition, marine life distribution and health, and fisheries management including closures and quota changes (Oliver et al. 2018).

Figure 1. Illustration of how marine heatwaves are defined. Source:

The notorious “warm blob” was an MHW event that plagued the northeast Pacific Ocean from 2014-2016. Some of the most notable consequences of this MHW were extremely high levels of domoic acid, extreme changes in the biodiversity of pelagic species, and an unprecedented delay in the opening of the Dungeness crab fishery, which is an important and lucrative fishery for the West Coast of the United States (Santora et al. 2020). The “warm blob” directly impacted the California Current ecosystem, which is typically a highly productive coastal area driven by seasonal upwelling. Yet, as a consequence of the 2014-2016 MHW, upwelling habitat was compressed and constricted to the coastal boundary, resulting in a contraction in available habitat for humpback whales and a shift in their prey (Santora et al. 2020; Fig. 2).

Figure 2. A figure from Santora et al. 2020 illustrating the compression in available upwelling habitat, defined by areas with SST<12°C (delineated by the black line), during the 2014-2016 marine heatwave in the California Current ecosystem.

Shifting to an example from another part of the world, the austral summer of 2015-2016 coincided with a strong regional MHW in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, which lasted for 251 days and had a maximum intensity of 2.9°C above the climatological average (Oliver et al. 2017). Subsequently, the conditions were linked to a significant shift in zooplankton species composition and abundance in Australia (Evans et al. 2020). Ocean warming, including MHWs, also appears to decrease primary production in the Tasman Sea and large portions of New Zealand’s marine ecosystem (Chiswell & Sutton 2020). In New Zealand’s South Taranaki Bight region, where we study the ecology of blue whales, we observed a shift in blue whale distribution in the MWH conditions of February 2016 relative to more typical ocean conditions in 2014 and 2017 (Fig. 3). The first chapter of my dissertation includes a detailed analysis of the impacts of the 2016 MHW on New Zealand oceanography, krill, and blue whales, documenting how the warm, stratified water column of 2016 led to consequences across multiple trophic levels, from phytoplankton, to zooplankton, to whales.

Figure 3. Maps showing monthly sea surface temperature (SST) in the South Taranaki Bight region of New Zealand during our three years of survey effort to document blue whale distribution (February 2014, 2016, and 2017). Vessel tracklines are shown in black, with blue whale sighting locations shown in dark red. Red circles are scaled by the number of blue whales observed at each sighting. The color ramp of SST values is consistent across the three maps, making the dramatically warmer ocean conditions of 2016 evident.

The response of marine mammals is tightly linked to shifts in their environment and prey (Silber et al. 2017). With MHWs and changing ocean conditions, there will likely be “winners” and “losers” among marine predators including large whales. Blue whales are highly selective krill specialists (Nickels et al. 2019), whereas other species of whales, such as humpback whales, have evolved flexible feeding tactics that allow them to switch target prey species when needed (Cade et al. 2020). In California, humpback whales have been shown to switch their primary prey from krill to fish during warm years (Fossette et al. 2017, Santora et al. 2020). By contrast, blue whales shift their distribution in response to changing krill availability during warm years (Fossette et al. 2017), however this strategy comes with increased risk and energetic cost associated with searching for prey in new areas. Furthermore, in instances when a prey resource such as krill becomes increasingly scarce for a multi-year period (Santora et al. 2020), krill specialist predators such as blue whales are at a considerable disadvantage. It is also important to acknowledge that although the humpbacks in California may at first seem to have a winning strategy for adaptation by switching their food source, this tactic may come with unforeseen consequences. Their distribution overlapped substantially with Dungeness crab fishing gear during MHW conditions in the warm blob years, resulting in record numbers of entanglements that may have population-level repercussions (Santora et al. 2020).

While this is certainly not the most light-hearted blog topic, I believe it is an important one. As warming ocean temperatures contribute to the increase in frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme conditions such as MHW events, it is paramount that we understand their impacts and take informed management actions to mitigate consequences, such as lethal entanglements as a result of compressed whale habitat. But perhaps more importantly, even as we do our best to manage consequences, it is critical that we as individuals realize the role we have to play in reducing the root cause of warming oceans, by being conscious consumers and being mindful of the impact our actions have on the climate. 


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