Recently, when expected to choose a wildlife species for behavioral observation for one of my Oregon State University graduate courses, I immediately chose harbor seals as my focus. Harbor seals (Fig 1) are an abundant species and in proximity to the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) (Steingass et al., 2019) where I will be spending much of my time this summer, making logistics easy. Studying pinnipeds (marine mammals with a finned foot, seals, walrus, and sea lions) is appealing due to their undeniably cute physique, floppy nature on land, and super agile nature in the water. I am working to iron out my methods for this study, which I hope to work through in this initial phase of my research project.
At times it can appear that the most interesting harbor seal behaviors occur under water, and the haul out time is simply time for resting. During mating season, most adult seal behaviors take place in the water, such as the incredible vocal acoustics displayed by the males to attract the females (Matthews et al., 2018). However, I hypothesize that young pups can capitalize on haul out time by practicing becoming adults (while the adults are taking that time to rest) and therefore I plan to observe their haul out behaviors in their first summer of life. Specifically, I will document seal pup vocal behavior to evaluate how they are learning to use sound. I am beginning this study in late July, which is just after pupping season (Granquist et al., 2016). This should give me the opportunity to find pups along the Oregon coast near HMSC, so I intend to visit several locations where harbor seals are known to frequently haul out. Knowing that field work and animal behavior is unpredictable, there is no telling what behaviors I will observe on a given day, or if I will see seals at all. Some days I could come home with lots of seal data and great photos, and other days I could come home with little to report. This will be my first hurdle combined with my time limit (strictly completing this observation in the next five weeks). I intend to schedule at least eight hours of field observation at haul-out sites over the next two weeks and will adjust my schedule based on my success in data collection at that point.
Prior knowledge on harbor seal haul-out sites along the Oregon coast is clearly important for this project’s success, but I must also pay close attention to the tide cycles. During low tides, haul out locations are exposed and occupied by seals. When the tide is high, the seals are less likely to haul-out (Patterson et al., 2008). Furthermore, according to a recent study conducted on harbor seals residing on the Oregon coast, these seals spend on average 71% of their time in the water and will haul-out for the remainder of their time (Steingass et al., 2019). Therefore, it is crucial to maximize my observation time of hauled out pups wisely.
Concerning timing, I also need to observe locations and periods without too many tourists who can get near the haul-out site. As I learned recently, when children show up and start throwing rocks into the water near where harbor seals are swimming, the seals will recede from the area and no longer be available for observation. As an experiment, I waited for the noisy crowds with unchecked children to leave and only myself, my trusty sidekick (my daughter), and one quiet photographer were left on the beach. Once that happened, we noticed more and more seal heads popping up out of the water. Then they came closer and closer to the beach, splashing around doing somersaults visibly on the surface of the water. It was quite a show. I will either need to account for the presence of humans when evaluating seal behavior or assess only periods without disturbance. Seal pups are easily disturbed by humans, so I will keep a non-invasive distance while positioning myself to hear the vocals.
Data Collection and Analysis Approach:
The aspect of this project I am still working out is how to quantify pup vocalizations and their associated behaviors. As I mentioned, I will go out each week for eight hours and record each time I notice a pup exhibiting vocal behavior. I will categorize and describe the sound produced by the pup, and document any associated behavior of the pup or behavioral responses from nearby adult seals. Prior research has found that harbor seals are much attuned to vocal behavior. Mother harbor seals learn to quickly distinguish their own pup’s call within a few days of their birth (Sauve et al. 2015). I hypothesize that pups themselves can discern and use vocalizations, and I am excited to watch them develop over the course of my field observations.
Granquist, S.M., & Hauksson, E. (2016). Seasonal, meteorological, tidal, and diurnal effects on haul-out patterns of harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) in Iceland. Polar Biology, 39 (12), 2347-2359.
Matthews, L.P., Blades, B., Parks, S. (2018). Female harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) behavioral response to playbacks of underwater male acoustic advertisement displays. PeerJ, 6, e4547.
Patterson, J., Acevedo-Gutierrez, A. (2008). Tidal influence on the haul-out behavior of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) At all time levels. Northwestern Naturalist, 89 (1), 17-23.
Sauve, C., Beauplet, G., Hammil, M., Charrier, I. (2015). Mother-pup vocal recognition in harbour seals: influence of maternal behavior, pup voice and habitat sound properties. Animal Behavior, 105 (July 2015), 109-120
Steingass, S., Horning, M., Bishop, A. (2019). Space use of Pacific harbor seals (Phoca vitulina richardii) from two haulout locations along the Oregon coast. PloS one. 14 (7), e0219484.
About 10 months have passed since I started working on OPAL, a project that aims to identify the co-occurrence between whales and fishing effort in Oregon to reduce entanglement risk. During this period, you would be surprised to know how little ecology I have actually done and how much time has been devoted to data processing! I compiled several million GPS trackline positions, processed hundreds of marine mammal observations, wrote several thousand lines of R code, downloaded and extracted a couple Gb of environmental data… before finally reaching the modeling phase of the OPAL project. And with it, finally comes the time to look more closely at the ecology and behavior of my species of interest. While the previous steps of the project were pretty much devoid of ecological reasoning, the literature homework now comes in handy to guide my choices regarding habitat use models, such as selecting environmental predictors of whale occurrence, deciding on what seasons should be modeled, and choosing the spatio-temporal scale at which the data should be aggregated.
Whale diversity on the US west coast
The productive waters off the US west coast host a great diversity of cetaceans. Eight species of baleen whales are reported to occur there by NOAA fisheries: blue whales, Bryde’s whales, fin whales, gray whales, humpback whales, minke whales, North Pacific right whales and sei whales. Among them, no less than five are listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Whether they are only passing by or spending months feeding in the region, the timing and location where these animals are observed varies greatly by species and by population.
During the 113 hours of aerial survey effort and 264 hours of boat-based search conducted for the OPAL project, 563 groups of baleen whales have been observed to-date (up to mid-May 2021 to be exact… more data coming soon!). Among the observations where animals could be identified to the species level, humpback whales are preponderant, as they represent about half of the whale groups observed (n = 293). Blue (n = 41) and gray whales (n = 46) come next, the latter being observed in more nearshore waters. Finally, a few fin whale groups were observed (n = 28). The other baleen whale species reported by NOAA in the US west coast species list were very rarely or not observed at all during OPAL surveys.
The OPAL aerial surveys conducted in partnership with the United States Coast Guard (USCG) were specifically designed to study whales occurring on the continental shelf along the coast of Oregon. Hence, most of this survey effort is located in waters from 800 m to 30 m deep, which may explain the relatively low number of gray whales detected. Indeed, gray whales observed in Oregon may either be migrating along the coast to and from their breeding grounds in Baja California, or be part of the small Pacific Coast Feeding Group that forage in Oregon nearshore and shallow waters during the summer. This group of whales is one the main GEMM lab’s research focus, being at the core of no less than three ongoing research projects: AMBER, GRANITE, and TOPAZ.
So today, let’s turn our eyes to the sea horizon and talk about some other members of the baleen whale community: rorquals. Conveniently, the three species of baleen whales (gray whales aside) most commonly observed during OPAL surveys are all part of the rorqual family, a.k.a Balaenopteridae: humpback whales, blue whales and fin whales (Figure 1). They are morphologically characterized by the pleated throat grooves that allow them to engulf large quantities of food and water, for instance when lunge-feeding. Known cases of hybridization between these three species demonstrate their close relatedness (Jefferson et al., 2021). They all have worldwide distributions and display unequally understood migratory behaviors, seasonally traveling between warm tropical breeding grounds and temperate-polar feeding grounds. They occur in great numbers in productive waters such as the upwelling system of the California Current.
The three accomplices
Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are easily differentiated from other rorquals because of their long pectoral fins (up to one third of their body length!), which inspired their scientific name, Megaptera, « big-winged » (Figure 1). Individuals observed in Oregon mostly belong to a mix of two Distinct Population Segments (DPS): the threatened Mexico and endangered Central American DPS. Although humpback whales from different DPS do not show any morphological differences, they are genetically distinct because they have been mating separately in distinct breeding grounds for generations and generations. This genetic differentiation has great implications in terms of conservation since the Central American DPS is recovering at a lesser rate than the Mexican and is therefore subject to different management measures (recovery plan, monitoring plan, designated critical habitats). Humpback whales migrate and feed off the US west coast, with a peak in abundance in the mid to late summer. Compared to other rorquals that are found in the open ocean, humpback whales are mostly observed on the continental shelf (Becker et al., 2019). They are considered to have a relatively generalist diet, as they feed on a mix of krill (Euphausiids) and fishes (e.g. anchovy, sardines) and are capable of switching their feeding behavior depending on relative prey availability (Fleming, Clark, Calambokidis, & Barlow, 2016; Fossette et al., 2017).
Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) are the largest animals ever known (max length 33 m, Jefferson et al., 2008), and sadly the most at risk of global extinction among our three species of interest (listed as « endangered » in the IUCN red list). They have a distinctive mottled blue and light gray skin, a slender body and a broad U-shaped head (or as some say « like a gothic arch », Figure 1). Blue whales tend to be open ocean animals, but they regroup seasonally to feed in highly productive nearshore areas such as the Southern California Bight (Becker et al. 2019, Abrahms et al. 2019). Blue whales migrating or feeding along the US west coast belong to the Eastern North Pacific stock and are subject to great research and conservation efforts. Contrary to their other rorqual counterparts, blue whales are quite picky eaters, as they exclusively feed on krill. This difference in diet leads to resource partitioning facilitating rorqual coexistence in the California Current (Fossette et al., 2017). These differences in feeding strategies have important implications for designing predictive models of habitat use.
Fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) are nicknamed « greyhounds of the sea » due to their exceptional swim speed (max 46 km/h). They are a little smaller than blue whales (max length 27 m, Jefferson, Webber, & Pitman, 2008) but share a similar sleek and streamlined shape. Their coloration is their most distinctive feature: the left lower jaw being mostly dark while the right is white. V-shaped light-gray « chevrons » color their back, behind the head (Figure 1). The California/Oregon/Washington is one of the three stocks recognized in the North Pacific (NOAA Fisheries, 2018). Within this region, there is genetic evidence for a geographic separation north and south of Point Conception, CA (Archer et al., 2013). Like other rorquals, they are migratory, but their seasonal distribution is relatively less well understood as they appear to spend a lot of time in open oceans. For instance, a meta-analysis for the North Pacific found little evidence for fin whales using distinct calving areas (Mizroch, Rice, Zwiefelhofer, Waite, & Perryman, 2009). In the California Current System, satellite tracking has provided great insights into their space-use patterns. In the Southern California Bight, fin whales show year-round residency and seasonal shifts in habitat use as they move further offshore and north during the spring/summer (Scales et al., 2017). The Northern California Current offshore waters appeared to be used during the summer months by the whales tagged in the Southern California Bight. Yet, fin whales are observed year-round in Oregon (NOAA Fisheries, 2018).
Towards predictive models of rorqual distribution
Enough observations have now been collected as part of the OPAL project to be able to model the habitat use of some of these rorqual species. Based on 12 topographic (i.e., depth, slope, distance to canyons) and physical variables (temperature, chlorophyll-a, water column stratification, etc.), I have made my first attempt at predicting seasonal distribution patterns of humpback whales and blue whales in Oregon. These models will be improved in the coming months, with more data pouring in and refined parametrizations, but they already bring insights into the shared habitat use patterns of these species, as well as their specificities.
Across multiple cross-validations of the species-specific models, sea surface temperature, sea surface height and depth were recurrently selected among the most important variables influencing both humpback and blue whale distributions. Predicted densities of blue whales were relatively higher at less than 40 fathoms compared to humpback whales, although both species’ hotspots were located outside this newly implemented seasonal fishing limit (Figure 2). Higher densities were generally predicted off Newport and Port Orford, and north of North Bend.
Once our rorqual models are finalized, we will work with our partners at the Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife to overlay predicted whale hotspots with areas of high crab pot densities. This overlap analysis will help us understand the times and places where co-occurrence of suitable whale habitat and fishing activities put whales at risk of entanglement.
Becker, E. A., Forney, K. A., Redfern, J. V, Barlow, J., Jacox, M. G., Roberts, J. J., & Palacios, D. M. (2019). Predicting cetacean abundance and distribution in a changing climate. Diversity and Distributions, 25(4), 626–643. https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.12867
Fleming, A. H., Clark, C. T., Calambokidis, J., & Barlow, J. (2016). Humpback whale diets respond to variance in ocean climate and ecosystem conditions in the California Current. Global Change Biology, 22, 1214–1224. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.13171
Fossette, S., Abrahms, B., Hazen, E. L., Bograd, S. J., Zilliacus, K. M., Calambokidis, J., … Croll, D. A. (2017). Resource partitioning facilitates coexistence in sympatric cetaceans in the California Current. Ecology and Evolution, 7, 9085–9097. https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.3409
Jefferson, T. A., Palacios, D. M., Clambokidis, J., Baker, S. C., Hayslip, C. E., Jones, P. A., … Schulman-Janiger, A. (2021). Sightings and Satellite Tracking of a Blue / Fin Whale Hybrid in its Wintering and Summering Ranges in the Eastern North Pacific. Advances in Oceanography & Marine Biology, 2(4), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.33552/AOMB.2021.02.000545
Jefferson, T. A., Webber, M. A., & Pitman, R. L. (2008). Marine Mammals of the World. A comprehensive guide to their identification. Elsevier, London, UK.
Mizroch, S. A., Rice, D. W., Zwiefelhofer, D., Waite, J., & Perryman, W. L. (2009). Distribution and movements of fin whales in the North Pacific Ocean. Mammal Review, 39(3), 193–227. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2907.2009.00147.x
NOAA Fisheries. (2018). Fin whale stock assessment report ( Balaenoptera physalus physalus ): California / Oregon / Washington Stock.
Scales, K. L., Schorr, G. S., Hazen, E. L., Bograd, S. J., Miller, P. I., Andrews, R. D., … Falcone, E. A. (2017). Should I stay or should I go? Modelling year-round habitat suitability and drivers of residency for fin whales in the California Current. Diversity and Distributions, 23(10), 1204–1215. https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.12611
As a GEMM lab post-doc working on the OPAL project, my main goal for 2021 will be to produce accurate predictive models of baleen whale distribution off the Oregon coast to reduce entanglement risk. For the past months, I have been compiling, cleaning, and processing about two years of data collected by Leigh Torres and Craig Hayslip during monthly repeat surveys conducted onboard United States Coast Guard (USCG) helicopters. These standardized surveys record where and when whales are observed off the Oregon coast. These presence and absence data may now be modeled in relation to habitat, while accounting for effort and detection (as several parameters, such as weather and sea state, can affect the capacity of observers to detect whales at the surface). Considering that several baleen whale species (namely, humpback, fin, blue and gray whales) are known to feed in the area, prey availability is expected to be a major driver of their distribution.
As prey distribution data are frequently the lacking component in the habitat model equation, whale ecologists often resort to using environmental proxies. Variables such as topography (e.g., the depth or slope of the seafloor), water physical and chemical characteristics (e.g., temperature, salinity, oxygen concentration) or ocean circulation (e.g., currents, turbulence) have proved to be good predictors for fish or krill distribution, and in turn potential predictors for whale suitable habitats. In my search for such environmental variables to be tested in our future OPAL models, I have been focusing my research on a fascinating ocean feature: sea height.
Sea height varies both temporally and spatially under the influence of multiple factors, from internal mass of the solid Earth to the orbital revolution of the moon. After reading this blog you will realize that the flatness of the horizon at sea is a deceiving perspective (Figure 1) …
Gravity and the geoid
We all know of Newton’s s discovery of gravity: the attraction force exerted by any object with a given mass on its surroundings. Yet, it is puzzling to think that the rate of acceleration of the apple falling on Newton’s head would have been different if Newton had been anywhere else on Earth.
Why is that and what does it have to do with sea height? On Earth, the standard gravity g is set at 9.80665 m/s2. This constant is called a “standard” because in fact, gravity varies at the surface of our planet, even if estimated at a fixed altitude. Indeed, as gravity is caused by mass, any change in relief or rock composition results in a change in gravity. For instance, magmatic activity in the upper mantle of the Earth and the crust causes a change in rock density and results in a change in gravity measured at the surface.
Gravity therefore is the first reason why the ocean surface is not flat. Gravity shapes an irregular surface called the “geoid”. This hypothetical ocean surface has equal gravitational potential anywhere on Earth and differs from the ellipsoid of reference by as much as 100 m! So to the question whether Earth is round or flat, I would say it is potato shaped (Figure 2)!
The geoid is an essential reference for understanding ocean currents and monitoring changes in sea-level. Hypothetically, if ocean water had equal density everywhere and at any depth, the sea surface should match with the geoid… but that’s not the case. Let’s see why.
Ocean dynamic topography
Not unlike the hills and valleys covering landscapes, the ocean surface also has its highs and lows. Except that in the ocean, the surface topography is ever changing. Sea surface height (SSH) measures the average height difference between the observed sea level and the ellipsoid of reference (Figure 3). SSH is mostly affected by ocean circulation and may vary by as much as ±1 m. Indeed, just like the rocks inside the Earth, the water in the ocean varies in density. The vertical and horizontal physical structuring of the ocean was extensively discussed by Dawn last November while she was preparing for her PhD Qualifying Exams. Temperature clearly is at the core of the processes. As thermal expansion increases the space between warming water particles, the volume of a given amount of liquid water increases with increasing temperature. Warmer waters therefore take up “more space” than cooler waters, resulting in an elevated SSH.
SSH may therefore be used as an indicator of oceanographic phenomena such as upwellings, where warm surface waters are replaced by deep, cooler, and nutrient-rich waters moving upwards. The California Current that moves southwards along the North American coast is known as one of the world’s major currents affiliated with strong upwelling zones, which often triggers increased biological productivity. Several studies conducted in the California Current system have found a link between the variations in SSH and whale abundance or foraging activity (Abrahms et al. 2019; Pardo et al. 2015; Becker et al. 2016; Hazen et al. 2016).
SSH is measured by altimeter satellites and is made freely available by the European Space Agency and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Lucky me! Numerous variables are derived from SSH, as shown in Figure 3. Among other things, I was able to download the daily maps of Sea Surface Height Anomaly (SSHa, also referred to as Sea Level Anomaly: SLA) over the Oregon coast from February 2019 to December 2020. SSHa is the difference between observed SSH at a specific time and place from the mean SSH field of reference calculated over a long period of time. Negative values of SSHa potentially suggest upwellings of cooler waters that could be associated with higher prey availability. Figure 4 shows an example of environmental data mining as I try to match SSHa with whale observations made during OPAL surveys. Figure 4B suggests increased whale occurrence where/when SSHa is lower.
Although encouraging, these preliminary insights are just the tip of the modeling iceberg. Many more testing and modeling steps will be required to determine confounding factors and relevant spatio-temporal scales at which these oceanographic variables may be influencing whale distribution off the Oregon coast. I am only at the start of a long road…
Abrahms, Briana, Heather Welch, Stephanie Brodie, Michael G. Jacox, Elizabeth A. Becker, Steven J. Bograd, Ladd M. Irvine, Daniel M. Palacios, Bruce R. Mate, and Elliott L. Hazen. 2019. “Dynamic Ensemble Models to Predict Distributions and Anthropogenic Risk Exposure for Highly Mobile Species.” Diversity and Distributions, no. December 2018: 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.12940.
Becker, Elizabeth, Karin Forney, Paul Fiedler, Jay Barlow, Susan Chivers, Christopher Edwards, Andrew Moore, and Jessica Redfern. 2016. “Moving Towards Dynamic Ocean Management: How Well Do Modeled Ocean Products Predict Species Distributions?” Remote Sensing 8 (2): 149. https://doi.org/10.3390/rs8020149.
Hazen, Elliott L, Daniel M Palacios, Karin A Forney, Evan A Howell, Elizabeth Becker, Aimee L Hoover, Ladd Irvine, et al. 2016. “WhaleWatch : A Dynamic Management Tool for Predicting Blue Whale Density in the California Current.” Journal of Applied Ecology 54 (5): 1415–28. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.12820.
Pardo, Mario A., Tim Gerrodette, Emilio Beier, Diane Gendron, Karin A. Forney, Susan J. Chivers, Jay Barlow, and Daniel M. Palacios. 2015. “Inferring Cetacean Population Densities from the Absolute Dynamic Topography of the Ocean in a Hierarchical Bayesian Framework.” PLOS One 10 (3): 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0120727.
At this year’s virtual State of the Coast conference, I enjoyed tuning into a range of great talks, including one by Zach Penney from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. In his presentation, “More Than a Tradition: Treaty rights and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission,” Penney described a tribal “covenant with resources,” and noted the success of this approach — “You don’t live in a place for 15,000 years by messing it up.”
Indigenous management of resources in the Pacific Northwest dates back thousands of years. From oak savannahs to fisheries to fires, local tribes managed diverse natural systems long before colonial settlement of the area that is now Oregon. We know comparatively little, however, about how Indigenous groups in Oregon interacted with whale populations before the changes brought by colonialism and commercial whaling.
I’m curious about how this missing knowledge could inform our understanding of the coastal Oregon ecosystems in which many GEMM Lab projects take place. My graduate research will be part of the effort to identify co-occurrence between whales and fishing in Oregon, with the goal of helping to reduce whale entanglement risk. Penney’s talk, ongoing conversations about decolonizing science, and my own concerns about becoming the scientist that I want to be, have all led me to ask a new set of questions: What did humans know in the past about whale distributions along the Oregon coast? What lost knowledge can be reclaimed from history?
As I started reading about historical Indigenous whale use in Oregon, I was struck by how little we know today, and how this learning process became a multidisciplinary treasure hunt. Clues as to how Indigenous groups interacted with whales along the Oregon coast lie in oral histories, myths, journals, and archaeological artifacts.
Much of what I read hinged on the question: did Indigenous tribes in Oregon historically hunt whales? Many signs point to yes, but it’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer conclusively. Marine systems and animals, including seals and whales, remain an important part of cultures in the Pacific Northwest today – but historically, documentation of hunting whales in Oregon has been limited. Whale bones have been found in coastal middens, and written accounts describe opportunistic harvests of beached whales. However, people have long believed that only a few North American tribes outside of the Arctic regularly hunted whales.
But in 2007, archaeologists Robert Losey and Dongya Yang found an artifact that started to shift this narrative. While studying a collection of tools housed at the Smithsonian Institution, they discovered the tip of a harpoon lodged in a whale flipper bone. This artifact came from the Partee site, which was inhabited around AD 300-1150 and is located near present-day Seaside, Oregon.
Through DNA testing, Losey and Yang determined that the harpoon was made of elk bone, and that the elk was not only harvested locally, but also used locally. This new piece of evidence suggested that whaling did in fact take place at the Partee site, likely by the Tillamook or Clatsop tribes that utilized this area.
Several years later, this discovery inspired Smithsonian Museum of Natural History archaeologist Torben Rick and University of Oregon PhD student Hannah Wellman to comb through the rest of the animal remains in the Smithsonian’s collection from northwest Oregon. Rick and Wellman scrutinized 187 whale bones for signs of hunting or processing, and found that about a quarter of the marks they inspected could have come from either hunting or the opportunistic harvest of stranded whales. They examined tools from the midden as well, and found that they were more suited to hunting animals, like seals and sea lions, or fishing.
However, Wellman and Rick also used DNA testing to identify which whale species were represented in the midden – and the DNA analyses suggested a different story. Genetic results revealed that the majority of whale bones in the midden came from gray whales, a third from humpback whales, and a few from orca and minke. Modern gray whale stranding events are not uncommon, and so it follows logically that these bones could have simply come from people harvesting beached whales. However, humpback strandings are rare – suggesting that such a large proportion of humpback bones in the midden is likely evidence of people actively hunting humpback whales.
These results shed new light on whale harvesting practices at the Partee Site, and, like so much research, they suggest a new set of questions. What does the fact that there were orca, minke, gray, and humpback whales off the Oregon coast 900 years ago tell us about the history of this ecosystem? Could artifacts that have not yet been found provide more conclusive evidence of hunting? What would it mean if these artifacts are found one day, or if they are never found?
What we learn about the past can also change how we understand this ecosystem today, and provide new context as we try to understand the impacts of climate change on whale populations in Oregon. I’m interested in how learning more about historical Indigenous whaling practices could provide more information about whale population baselines, ideas for management strategies, and a new lens on the importance of whales in the Pacific Northwest. Even if we can’t fully reclaim lost knowledge from history, maybe we can still read enough clues to help us see both the past and present more fully.
Braun, Ashley. “New Research Offers a Wider View on Indigenous North American Whaling.” Hakai Magazine, November 2016, www.hakaimagazine.com/news/new-research-offers-wider-view-indigenous-north-american-whaling/.
Eligon, John. “A Native Tribe Wants to Resume Whaling. Whale Defenders Are Divided.” New York Times, November 2019.
Hannah P. Wellman, Torben C. Rick, Antonia T. Rodrigues & Dongya Y. Yang (2017) Evaluating Ancient Whale Exploitation on the Northern Oregon Coast Through Ancient DNA and Zooarchaeological Analysis, The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, 12:2, 255-275, DOI: 10.1080/15564894.2016.1172382
Losey, R., & Yang, D. (2007). Opportunistic Whale Hunting on the Southern Northwest Coast: Ancient DNA, Artifact, and Ethnographic Evidence. American Antiquity, 72(4), 657-676. doi:10.2307/25470439
Sanchez, Gabriel (2014). Conference paper: Cetacean Hunting at the Par-Tee site (35CLT20)?: Ethnographic, Artifact and Blood Residue Analysis Investigation.
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 Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management
By now, I’m sure you’re aware of recent interests to reintroduce sea otters to Oregon. To inform this effort, my research focuses on predicting suitable sea otter habitat and investigating the potential ecological effects if sea otters are reintroduced in the future. This information will help managers gain a better understanding of the potential for sea otters to reestablish in Oregon, as well as how Oregon’s ecosystems may change via top-down processes. These analyses will address some sources of uncertainties of this effort, but there are still many more questions researchers could address to further guide this process. Here, I note some lingering questions I’ve come across in the course of conducting my research. This is not a complete list of all questions that could or should be investigated, but they represent some of the most interesting questions I have and others have in Oregon.
The questions, and our associated knowledge on each of these topics:
Is there enough available prey to support a robust sea otter population in Oregon?
Sea otters require approximately 30% of their own body weight in food every day (Costa 1978, Reidman & Estes 1990). With a large appetite, they not only need to spend most of their time foraging, but require a steady supply of prey to survive. For predators, we assume the presence of suitable habitat is a reliable proxy for prey availability (Redfern et al. 2006). Whereby, quality habitat should supply enough prey to sustain predators at higher trophic levels.
In making these habitat predictions for sea otters, we must also recognize the potential limitations of this “habitat equals prey” paradigm, in that there may be parcels of habitat where prey is unavailable or inaccessible. In Oregon, there could be unknown processes unique to our nearshore ecosystems that would support less prey for sea otters. This possibility highlights the importance of not only understanding how much suitable habitat is available for foraging sea otters, but also how much prey is available in these habitats to sustain a viable otter population in the future. Supplementing these habitat predictions with fishery-independent prey surveys is one way to address this question.
How will Oregon’s oceanographic seasonality alter or impact habitat suitability?
Sea otters along the California coast exist in an environment with persistent Giant kelp beds, moderate to low wave intensity, and year-round upwelling regimes. These environmental variables and habitat factors create productive ecosystems that provide quality sea otter habitat and a steady supply of prey; thus, supporting high densities of sea otters. This environment contrasts with the Oregon coast, which is characterized by seasonal changes in bull kelp and wave intensity. Summer months have dense kelp beds, calm surf, and strong upwellings. While winter months have little to no kelp, weak upwellings, and intense wave climates. These seasonal variations raise the question as to how these temporal fluctuations in available habitat could impact the number of sea otters able to survive in Oregon.
In Washington – an environment like Oregon – sea otters exhibit seasonal distribution patterns in response to intensifying wave climates. During calm summer months, sea otters primarily forage along the outer coast, but move into more protected areas, such as the Strait of Juan de Fuca, during winter months (Laidre et al. 2009). If sea otters were reintroduced to Oregon, we may very well observe similar seasonal movement patterns (e.g. dispersal into estuaries), but the degree to which this seasonal redistribution and reduction in foraging habitat could impact sea otter reestablishment and recovery is currently unknown.
In the event of a reintroduction, do northern or southern sea otters have a greater capacity to adapt to Oregon environments?
In the early 1970’s, Oregon’s first sea otter translocation effort failed (Jameson et al. 1982). Since then, hypotheses on the potential ecological differences between northern and southern sea otters have been proposed as potential factors of the failed effort, potentially due to different abilities to exploit specific prey species. Studies have demonstrated that northern and southern sea otters have slight morphological differences – northern otters having larger skulls and teeth than southern otters (Wilson et al. 1991). This finding has created the hypothesis that the northern otter’s larger skull and teeth allow it to consume prey with denser exoskeletons, and thereby can exploit a greater diversity of prey species. However, there appears to be a lack of evidence to suggest larger skulls and teeth translate to greater bite force. Based on morphology alone, either sub-species could be just as successful in exploiting different prey species.
A different direction to address questions around adaptability is to look at similarities in habitat and oceanographic characteristics. Sea otters exist along a gradient of habitat types (e.g. kelp forests, estuaries, soft-sediment environments) and oceanographic conditions (e.g. warm-temperature to cooler sub-Arctic waters) (Laidre et al. 2009, Lafferty et al. 2014). Yet, we currently don’t know how well or quickly otters can adapt when they expand into new habitats that differ from ones they are familiar with. Sea otters must be efficient foragers and need to acquire skills that allow them to effectively hunt specific prey species (Estes et al. 2003). Hypothetically, if we take sea otters from rocky environments where they’ve developed foraging skills to hunt sea urchins and abalones, and place them in a soft-sediment environment, how quickly would they develop new foraging skills to exploit soft-sediment prey species? Would they adapt quickly enough to meet their daily prey requirements?
In Oregon, specifically, how might climate change impact sea otters, and how might sea otters mediate climate impacts?
Climate change has been shown to directly impact many species via changes in temperature (Chen et al. 2011). Some species have specific thermal tolerances, in which they can only survive within a specified temperature range (i.e. maximum and minimum). Once the temperature moves out of that range, the species can either move with those shifting water masses, behaviorally adapt or perish (Sunday et al. 2012). It’s unclear if and how changing temperatures will impact sea otters, directly. However, sea otters could still be indirectly affected via impacts to their prey. If prey species in sea otter habitat decline due to changing temperatures, this would reduce available food for otters. Ocean acidification (OA) is another climate-induced process that could indirectly impact sea otters. By creating chemical conditions that make it difficult for species to form shells, OA could decrease the availability of some prey species, as well (Gaylord et al. 2011).
Interestingly, these pathways between sea otters and climate change become more complex when we consider the potentially mediating effects from sea otters. Aquatic plants – such as kelp and seagrass – can reduce the impacts of climate change by absorbing and taking carbon out of the water column (Krause-Jensen & Duarte 2016). This carbon sequestration can then decrease acidic conditions from OA and mediate the negative impacts to shell-forming species. When sea otters catalyze a tropic cascade, in which herbivores are reduced and aquatic plants are restored, they could increase rates of carbon sequestration. While sea otters could be an effective tool against climate impacts, it’s not clear how this predator and catalyst will balance each other out. We first need to investigate the potential magnitude – both temporal and spatial – of these two processes to make any predictions about how sea otters and climate change might interact here in Oregon.
There are several questions I’ve noted here that warrant further investigation and could be a focus for future research as this potential sea otter reintroduction effort progresses. These are by no means every question that should be addressed, but they do represent topics or themes I have come across several times in my own research or in conversations with other researchers and managers. I think it’s also important to recognize that these questions predominantly relate to the natural sciences and reflect my interest as an ecologist. The number of relevant questions that would inform this effort could grow infinitely large if we expand our disciplines to the social sciences, economics, genetics, so on and so forth. Lastly, these questions highlight the important point that there is still a lot we currently don’t know about (1) the ecology and natural behavior of sea otters, and (2) what a future with sea otters in Oregon might look like. As with any new idea, there will always be more questions than concrete answers, but we – here in the GEMM Lab – are working hard to address the most crucial ones first and provide reliable answers and information wherever we can.
Chen, I., Hill, J. K., Ohlemuller, R., Roy, D. B., and C. D. Thomas. 2011. Rapid range shifts of species associated with high levels of climate warming. Science. 333: 1024-1026.
Costa, D. P. 1978. The ecological energetics, water, and electrolyte balance of the California sea otter (Enhydra lutris). Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz.
Estes, J. A., Riedman, M. L., Staedler, M. M., Tinker, M. T., and B. E. Lyon. 2003. Individual variation in prey selection by sea otters: patterns, causes and implications. Journal of Animal Ecology. 72: 144-155.
Gaylord et al. 2011. Functional impacts of ocean acidification in an ecologically critical foundation species. Journal of Experimental Biology. 214: 2586-2594.
Jameson, R. J., Kenyon, K. W., Johnson, A. M., and H. M. Wight. 1982. History and status of translocated sea otter populations in North America. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 10(2): 100-107.
Krause-Jensen, D., and C. M. Duarte. 2016. Substantial role of macroalgae in marine carbon sequestration. Nature Geoscience. 9: 737-742.
Lafferty, K. D., and M. T. Tinker. 2014. Sea otters are recolonizing southern California in fits and starts. Ecosphere.5(5).
Laidre, K. L., Jameson, R. J., Gurarie, E., Jeffries, S. J., and H. Allen. 2009. Spatial habitat use patterns of sea otters in coastal Washington. Journal of Marine Mammalogy. 90(4): 906-917.
Redfern et al. 2006. Techniques for cetacean-habitat modeling. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 310: 271-295.
Reidman, M. L. and J. A. Estes. 1990. The sea otter (Enhydra lutris): behavior, ecology, and natural history. United States Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Biological Report. 90: 1-126.
Sunday, J. M., Bates, A. E., and N. K. Dulvy. 2012. Thermal tolerance and the global redistribution of animals. Nature: Climate Change. 2: 686-690.
Wilson, D. E., Bogan, M. A., Brownell, R. L., Burdin, A. M., and M. K. Maminov. 1991. Geographic variation in sea otters, Ehydra lutris. Journal of Mammalogy. 72(1): 22-36.
Mapping sociocultural data for ecosystem-based planning, like people’s values or cultural land use practices, has gained importance in conservation science, as reflected in the use of terms such as social-ecological systems (Lischka et al. 2018). The emergence of the geospatial revolution – where data have a location associated with it – has changed how scientists analyze, visualize, and scale their perceptions of landscapes and species. However, there is a limited collection of spatial sociocultural data compared to biophysical data.
To address the restricted spatial sociocultural data available, scientists (such as social scientists), community leaders, and indigenous groups have used various mapping methods for decision-making in natural resources planning to capture people’s uses, values, and interaction between people and landscapes. Some mapping methods are termed community values mapping (Raymond et al. 2009), landscape values mapping (Besser et al. 2014), public participation GIS (Brown & Reed 2009), and social values mapping (Sherrouse et al. 2011). Mclain et al. (2013) applies the umbrella term Human Ecology Mapping (HEM) to refer to all these mapping approaches that span across academic disciplines and sub-disciplines. HEM focuses on understanding human-environmental interactions, intending to gather spatial data on aspects of human ecology that can potentially be important to ecosystem-based management and planning. As an early career scientist, I embraced the opportunity to incorporate a HEM approach, more specifically the mapping of landscape values, into my thesis.
My research explores the human-black bear relationship in Oregon. The American black bear (Ursus americanus) is one species identified by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife with a stable or increasing population (25,000 to 35,000 individuals) where many human-black bear interactions occur (ODFW 2012). One component of my research incorporates understanding how recreationists use the landscape and the values they associate with different places. For 18 days in the summer of 2018, I was at various trailheads throughout Oregon, approaching people to request their interest in taking my survey (Image 1 & 2). The consenting participants were asked to identify on the digital map of Oregon the primary places they use or visit on the landscape. Participants had the option to draw a point, line, or polygon to identify up to three places within the state (Image 3). Then, participants were asked to choose the type of activity they prefer at each primary location from a list of 17 recreational activities (e.g., hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, etc.). Finally, they were asked to select one primary value they associate with each identified place from a list of five standardized landscape values (Brown & Reed 2009; Besser et al. 2014). The most important values for my study are aesthetic, economic, intrinsic, subsistence, and social. An example of an aesthetic value statement: “I value this area for its scenic qualities”.
Now that my data is collected, I am creating GIS layers of the various ways recreationists uses the landscape, and the values they assign to those places, showing the distribution of aggregated uses (Image 4) and their relationship to known human-black bear interaction areas. The approach I employed to collect social-spatial data is just one strategy out of many, and it is recognized that maps are never fully objective representations of reality. However, mapping landscape values is a useful tool for identifying and visualizing human-environment relations. The geographically referenced data can be used to map areas of high value (density) or associated with different types of values (diversity). Further, these maps can be overlaid with other biophysical and land use layers to help land managers understand the variety of landscape values and activities.
Besser, D., McLain, R., Cerveny, L., Biedenweg, K. and Banis, D. 2014. Environmental Reviews and Case Studies: Mapping Landscape Values: Issues, Challenges and Lessons Learned from Field Work on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington, Environmental Practice, 16(2): 138–150.
Brown, G., and Reed, P. 2009. Public Participation GIS: A New Method for Use in National Forest Planning. Forest Science, 55(2): 162-182.
Lischka, S., Teel, T., Johnson, H., Reed, S., Breck, S., Don Carlos, A., Crooks, K. 2018. A conceptual model for the integration of social and ecological information to understand human-wildlife interactions. Biological Conservation 225: 80-87.
McLain, R., Poe, M., Biedenweg, K., Cerveny, L., Besser, D., and Blahna, D. 2013. Making sense of human ecology mapping: An overview of approaches to integrating socio-spatial data into environmental planning. Human Ecology, 41(1).
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). 2012. Oregon Black Bear Management Plan.
Raymond, M., Bryan, A., MacDonald, H., Cast, A., Strathearn, S., Grandgirard, A., and Kalivas, T. 2009. Mapping Community Values for Natural Capital and Ecosystem Services. Ecological Economics 68: 1301–1315.
Sherrouse, B. C., Clement, J. M., and Semmens, D. J. 2011. A GIS Application for Assessing, Mapping, and Quantifying the Social Values of Ecosystem Services. Applied Geography, 31: 748–760.
By Leila Lemos, PhD Candidate in Wildlife Sciences, Fisheries and Wildlife Department / OSU
The avalanche of news on gray whale deaths this year is everywhere. And because my PhD thesis focuses on gray whale health, I’ve been asked multiple times now why this is happening. So, I thought it was a current and important theme to explore in our blog. The first question that comes to (my) mind is: is this a sad and unusual event for the gray whales that raises concern, or is this die-off event expected and simply part of the circle of life?
At least 64 gray whales have washed-up on the West Coast of the US this year, including the states of California, Oregon and Washington. According to John Calambokidis, biologist and founder of the Cascadia Research Collective, the washed-up whales had one thing in common: all were in poor body condition, potentially due to starvation (Calambokidis in: Paris 2019). Other than looking skinny, some of the whale carcasses also presented injuries, apparently caused by ship strikes (CNN 2019).
To give some context, gray whales migrate long distances while they fast for long periods. They are known for performing the longest migration ever seen for a mammal, as they travel up to 20,000 km roundtrip every year from their breeding grounds in Baja California, Mexico, to their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas (Calambokidis et al. 2002, Jones and Swartz 2002, Sumich 2014). Thus, a successful feeding season is critical for energy replenishment to recover from the previous migration and fasting periods, and for energy storage to support their metabolic needsduring the migration and fasting periods that follow. An unsuccessful feeding season could likely result in poor body condition, affecting individual performance in the following seasons, a phenomenon known as the carry-over effect(Harrison et al., 2011).
In addition, environmental change, such as climate variations, might impact shifts in prey availability and thus intensify energetic demands on the whales as they need to search harder and longer for food. These whales already fast for months and spend large energy reserves supporting their migrations. When they arrive at their feeding grounds, they need to start feeding. If they don’t have access to predictable food sources, their fitness is affected and they become more vulnerable to anthropogenic threats, including ship strikes, entanglement in fishery gear, and contamination.
For the past three years, I have been using drone-based photogrammetry to assess gray whale body condition along the Oregon coast, as part of my PhD project. Coincident to this current die-off event, I have observed that these whales presented good body condition in 2016, but in the past two years their condition has worsened. But these Oregon whales are feeding on different prey in different areas than the rest of the ENP that heads up to the Bering Sea to feed. So, are all gray whales suffering from the same broad scale environmental impacts? I am currently looking into environmental remote sensing data such as sea surface temperature, chlorophyll-a and upwelling index to explore associations between body condition and environmental anomalies that could be associated.
Trying to answer the question I previously mentioned “is this event worrisome or natural?”, I would estimate that this die-off is mostly due to natural patterns, mainly as a consequence of ecological patterns. This Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whale population is now estimated at 27,000 individuals (Calambokidis in: Paris 2019) and it has been suggested that this population is currently at its carrying capacity(K), which is estimated to be between 19,830 and 28,470 individuals (Wade and Perryman, 2002). Prey availability on their primary foraging grounds in the Bering Sea may simply not be enough to sustain this whole population.
The plot below illustrates a population in exponential growth over the years. The population reaches a point (K) that the system can no longer support. Therefore, the population declines and then fluctuates around this K point. This pattern and cycle can result in die-off events like the one we are currently witnessing with the ENP gray whale population.
According to the American biologist Paul Ehrlich: “the idea that we can just keep growing forever on a finite planet is totally imbecilic”. Resources are finite, and so are populations. We should expect die-off events like this.
Right now, we are early on the 2019 feeding season for these giant migrators. Mortality numbers are likely to increase and might even exceed previous die-off events. The last ENP gray whale die-off event occurred in the 1999-2000 season, when a total of 283 stranded whales in 1999 and 368 in 2000 were found displaying emaciated conditions (Gulland et al. 2005). This last die-off event occurred 20 years ago, and thus in my opinion, it is too soon to raise concerns about the long-term impacts on the ENP gray whale population, unless this event continues over multiple years.
Calambokidis, J. et al. 2002. Abundance, range and movements of a feeding aggregation of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) from California to southeastern Alaska in 1998. Journal of Cetacean research and Management. 4, 267-276.
Cascadia Research Collective (2019, May 10). Cascadia and other Washington stranding network organizations continue to respond to growing number of dead gray whales along our coast and inside waters. Retrieved from http://www.cascadiaresearch.org/washington-state-stranding-response/cascadia-and-other-washington-stranding-networkorganizations?fbclid=Iw AR1g7zc4EOMWr_wp_x39ertvzpjOnc1zZl7DoMbBcjI1Ic_EbUx2bX8_TBw
Conservation of change (2019, May 31). Limits to Growth: the first law of sustainability. Retrieved from http://www.conservationofchange.org/limits
CNN (2019, May 15). Dead gray whales keep washing ashore in the San Francisco Bay area.Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/15/us/gray-whale-deaths-trnd-sci/index.html
Gulland, F. M. D., H. Pérez-Cortés M., J. Urbán R., L. Rojas-Bracho, G. Ylitalo, J. Weir, S. A. Norman, M. M. Muto, D. J. Rugh, C. Kreuder, and T. Rowles. 2005. Eastern North Pacific gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) unusual mortality event, 1999-2000. U. S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS-AFSC-150, 33 p.
Harrison, X. A., et al., 2011. Carry-over effects as drivers of fitness differences in animals. Journal of Animal Ecology. 80, 4-18.
Jones, M. L., Swartz, S. L., Gray Whale, Eschrichtius robustus. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press, San Diego, 2002, pp. 524-536.
Paris (2019, May 27). Gray Whales Wash Up On West Coast At Near-Record Levels.Retrieved from https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/05/27/gray-whales-wash-up-record-levels
Sumich, J. L., 2014. E. robustus: The biology and human history of gray whales. Whale Cove Marine Education.
Wade, P. R., Perryman, W., An assessment of the eastern gray whale population in 2002. IWC, Vol. SC/54/BRG7 Shimonoseki, Japan, 2002, pp. 16.
By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management
I recently attended and presented at the 11th biennial Sea Otter Conservation Workshop (the Workshop), hosted by the Seattle Aquarium. As the largest sea otter-focused meeting in the world, the Workshop brought together dozens of scientists, managers, and conservationists to share important information and research on sea otter conservation issues. Being new to this community, this was my first time attending the Workshop, and I had the privilege of meeting some of the most influential sea otter experts in the world. Here, I recount some of my highlights from the Workshop and discuss the importance of this meeting to the continued conservation and management of global sea otter populations.
Sea otters represent one of the most successful species recovery stories in history. After facing near extinction at the close of the Maritime Fur Trade in 1911 (Kenyon 1969), they have made an impressive comeback due to intense conservation efforts. The species is no longer in such dire conditions, but some distinct populations are still considered at-risk due to their small numbers and persistent threats, such as oil spills or disease. We still have a ways to go until global sea otter populations are recovered, and collaboration across disciplines is needed for continued progress.
The Workshop provided the perfect means for this collaboration and sharing of information. Attendees were a mixture of scientists, managers, advocacy groups, zoos and aquarium staff, and graduate students. Presentations spanned a range of disciplines, including ecology, physiology, genetics, and animal husbandry, to name a few. On the first day of the Workshop, most presentations focused on sea otter ecology and management. The plenary speaker – Dr. Jim Estes (retired ecologist and University of California, Santa Cruz professor) – noted that one of the reasons we’ve had such success in sea otter recovery is due to our vast knowledge of their natural history and behavior. Much of this progress can be attributed to seminal work, such as Keyon’s 1969 report, which provides an extensive synthesis of several sea otter ecological and behavioral studies (Kenyon 1969). Beginning in the 1970’s, several other ecologists – such as David Duggins, Jim Bodkin, Tim Tinker, and Jim himself – expanded this understanding to complex trophic cascades, individual diet specialization, and population demographics.
These ecological studies have played an integral role in sea otter conservation, but other disciplines were and continue to be just as important. As the Workshop continued into the second and third days, presentations shifted their focus to physiology, veterinary medicine, and animal husbandry. Two of these speakers – who have played pivotal roles in these areas – are Dr. Melissa Miller (veterinarian specialist and pathologist with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife) and Dr. Mike Murray (director of veterinary services at the Monterey Bay Aquarium). Dr. Miller presented her years of work on understanding causes of mortality in wild southern sea otters in California. Her research showed that shark predation is a large source of mortality in the southern stock, but cardiac arrest, which has gained less attention, is also a large contributing factor.
Dr. Murray discussed his practice of caring for and studying the biology of captive sea otters. He provided an overview of some of the routine procedures (i.e. full body exams, oral surgeries, and radio transmitter implantation) his team conducts to assess and treat stranded wild otters, so they can be returned to the wild. Both presenters demonstrated how advances in veterinary medicine have helped us better understand the multitude of threats to sea otters in the wild, and what interventive measures can be taken to recover sick or injured otters so they can contribute to wild population recovery. By understanding how these threats are impacting sea otter health on an individual level, we can be better equipped to prevent population-wide consequences.
Throughout the entire Workshop, experts with decades of experience presented their work. Yet, one of the most encouraging aspects of this meeting was that several graduate students also presented their research, including myself. In a way, listening to presenters both early and late in their careers gave us a glimpse into the past and future of sea otter conservation. Much of the work currently being conducted by graduate students addresses some of the most pressing and emerging issues (e.g. shark predation, plastic pollution, and diseases) in this field, but also builds off the great knowledge base acquired by many of those at the Workshop.
Perhaps even more encouraging was the level of collaboration and mentorship between graduate students and seasoned experts. Included in almost every graduate student’s acknowledgement section of their presentations, were the names of several Workshop attendees who either advised them or provided guidance on their research. These presentations were often followed up with further meetings between students and their mentors. These types of interactions really demonstrated how invested the sea otter community is in fostering the next generation of leaders in this field. This “passing of the mantel” is imperative to maintain knowledge between generations and to continue to make progress in sea otter conservation. As a graduate student, I greatly appreciated getting the opportunity to interact with and gain advice from many of these researchers, whom I’ve only read about in articles.
To summarize my experience, it became clear how important this Workshop was to the broader sea otter conservation community. The Workshop provided the perfect venue for collaboration amongst experts, as well as mentorship of upcoming leaders in the field. It’s important to recognize the great progress and strides the community has made already in understanding the complex lives of sea otters. Sea otters have not recovered everywhere. Therefore, we need to continue to acquire knowledge across all disciplines if we are to make progress in the future, especially as new threats and issues emerge. It will take a village.
Kenyon, K. W. 1969. The sea otter in the eastern Pacific Ocean. North American Fauna. 68. 352pp.
By Dominique Kone, Masters Student in Marine Resource Management
Species reintroductions are a management strategy to augment the reestablishment or recovery of a locally-extinct or extirpated species into once native habitat. The potential for reestablishment success often depends on the species’ ecological characteristics, habitat requirements, and relationship and effects to other species in the environment. While the science behind species reintroductions is continuously evolving and improving, reintroductions are still inherently risky and uncertain in nature. Therefore, every effort should be made to fully assess ecological factors before a reintroduction takes place. As Oregon considers a potential sea otter reintroduction, understanding these ecological factors is an important piece of my own graduate research.
Sea otters are oftentimes referred to as keystone species because they can have wide-reaching effects on the community structure and function of nearshore marine environments. Furthermore, relative to other marine mammals or top predators, several papers have documented these effects – partially due to the ease in observing their foraging and social behaviors, which typically take place close to shore. In many of these studies, a classic paradigm repeatedly appears: when sea otters are present, prey densities (e.g., sea urchins) are significantly reduced, while macroalgae (e.g., kelp, seagrass) densities are high.
While this paradigm is widely-accepted amongst researchers, a few key studies have also demonstrated that the effects of sea otters may be more variable than we once thought. The paradigm does not necessarily hold true everywhere sea otters exist, or at least not to the same degree. For example, after observing benthic communities along islands with varying sea otter densities in the Aleutian archipelago, Alaska, researchers found that islands with abundant otter populations consistently supported low sea urchin densities and high, yet variable, kelp densities. In contrast, islands without otters consistently had low kelp densities and high, yet variable, urchin densities. This study demonstrates that while the classic paradigm generally held true, the degree to which the ecosystem belonged to one of two dominant states (sea otters, low urchins, and high kelp or no sea otters, high urchins, and low kelp) was less obvious.
This example demonstrates the danger in applying this one-size-fits-all paradigm to sea otter effects. Hence, we want to achieve a better understanding of potential sea otter effects so that managers may anticipate how Oregon’s nearshore environments may be affected if sea otters were to be reintroduced. Yet, how can we accurately anticipate these effects given these potential variations and deviations from the paradigm? Interestingly, if we look to other fields outside ecology, we find a possible solution and tool for tackling these uncertainties: a systematic review of available literature.
For decades, medical researchers have been conducting systematic reviews to assess the efficacy of treatments and drugs by combining several studies to find common findings. These findings can then be used to determine any potential variation between studies (i.e. instances where the results may conflict or differ from one another) and even test the influence and importance of key factors that may be driving that variation. While systematic reviews are quite popular within the medical research field, they have not been applied regularly in ecology, but recognition of their application to ecological questions is growing. In our case of achieving a better understanding of the drivers of ecological impacts of sea otter, a systematic literature review is an ideal tool to assess variable effects. This review will be the focus of my second thesis chapter.
In conducting my review, there will be three distinct phases: (1) review design and study collection, (2) meta-analysis, and (3) factor testing. In the first phase (review design and study collection), I will search the existing literature to collect studies that explicitly compare the availability of key ecosystem components (i.e. prey species, non-prey species, and macroalgae species) when sea otters are absent and present in the environment. By only including studies that make this comparison, I will define effects as the proportional change in each species’ or organism group’s availability (e.g. abundance, biomass, density, etc.) with and without sea otters. In determining these effects, it’s important to recognize that sea otters alter ecosystems via both direct and indirect pathways. Direct effects can be thought of as any change to prey availability via sea otter predation directly, while indirect effects can be thought of an any alteration to the broader ecosystem (i.e. non-prey species, macroalgae, habitat features) as an indirect result from sea otter predation on prey species. I will record both types of effects.
In phase two, I will use meta-analytical procedures (i.e. statistical analyses specific to systematic reviews) to calculate one standardized metric to represent sea otter effects. These effects will be calculated and averaged across all collected studies. As previously discussed, there may be key factors – such as sea otter density – that influence these effects. Therefore, in phase three (factor testing), effects will also be calculated separately for each a priori factor to test their influence on the effects. Such factors may include habitat type (i.e. hard or soft sediment), prey species (i.e. sea urchins, crabs, clams, etc.), otter density, depth, or time after otter recolonization.
In statistical terms, the goal of testing factors is to see if the variation between studies is impacted by calculating sea otter effects separately for each factor versus across all studies. In other words, if we find high variation in effects between studies, there may be important factors driving that variation. Therefore, in systematic reviews, we recalculate effects separately for each factor to try to explain that variation. If, however, after testing these factors, variation remains high, there may be other factors that we didn’t test that could be driving that remaining variation. Yet, without a priori knowledge on what those factors could be, such variation should be reported as a major source of uncertainty.
Predicting or anticipating the effects of reintroduced species is no easy feat. In instances where the ecological role of a species is well known – and there is adequate data – researchers can develop and use ecosystem models to predict with some certainty what these effects may be. Yet, in other cases where the species’ role is less studied, has less data, or is more variable, researchers must look to other tools – such as systematic reviews – to gain a better understanding of these potential effects. In this case, a systematic review on sea otter effects may prove particularly useful in helping managers understand what types of ecological effects of sea otters in Oregon are most likely, what the important factors are, and, after such review, what we still don’t know about these effects.
 Seddon, P. J., Armstrong, D. P., and R. F. Maloney. 2007. Developing the science of reintroduction biology. Conservation Biology. 21(2): 303-312.
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