Marine Mammal Commission

2020 Grant Awards

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Projects Funded by the Marine Mammal Commission in Fiscal Year 2020

Topic A: Research/Projects

Mortality reduction of vaquita, Phocoena sinus, through removal of abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) and deterrence of illegal fishing in the Vaquita Protection Refuge

Gonzalez Olimon, C.

Cat Action Treasury, Inc.

Vaquitas are at extreme risk of extinction, with an estimated minimum population of fewer than 20 individuals.  This project aims to reduce fishery-related mortality of vaquita by deploying teams of local fishers to locate and remove ALDFG  (primarily gillnets) that are a direct entanglement threat to the surviving vaquitas. It is anticipated that the presence of these gear-removal teams will have a complementary deterrent effect on illegal fishing.

Evaluating the efficacy of using broad-scale ship speed restrictions in the U.S. East Coast Exclusive Economic Zone for reducing large whale mortalities

Knowlton, A.

New England Aquarium

Lethal vessel strikes of large whales are of considerable concern along the U.S. East Coast, especially for the endangered North Atlantic right whale and the threatened Atlantic humpback whale populations. Although numerous voluntary and mandatory measures have been put into place to protect right whales, the effectiveness of these mitigation measures has been reduced by changing right whale distributions and variable surveillance efforts. In addition, humpback whales are facing an Unusual Mortality Event and many of these deaths are due to vessel strikes. This project will involve in-depth data processing to create vessel transits and estimate vessel speeds from the AIS data points, assessing the present risk based on speed and the probability of a lethal strike within the U.S. East Coast Exclusive Economic Zone (USEC-EEZ), and estimating the percentage change in the risk of a lethal strike assuming reduced vessel speeds. General patterns of large whale distributions within the USEC-EEZ will be used to evaluate where such speed reduction might be most effective at reducing risk (e.g., on the shelf). Findings will be provided to U.S. agencies, such as NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Coast Guard, and shared internationally with Canada and the International Maritime Organization via U.S. delegates for consideration as a tool for addressing the threat of ship traffic to large whales.

Evaluating the utility of Protected Species Observer data to address cetacean management and conservation

Redfern, J.

New England Aquarium

Protected Species Observers (PSOs) are commonly used worldwide to monitor and protect marine mammals and sea turtles during anthropogenic activities. These observers play an important role in species monitoring and mitigation, but they also collect a broad suite of data that have the potential to expand our understanding of species distributions, the effectiveness of mitigation measures, and the effects of industrial activities on protected species. The Massachusetts and Rhode Island (MA/RI) wind energy areas (WEAs) off the southern coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island represent an important opportunity to evaluate the use of PSO data because collection of PSO data in these areas has occurred in the same time window as collection of systematic, line-transect aerial surveys. This project will summarize the PSO data available in the MA/RI WEAs and compare the PSO data to data collected by aerial surveys. The results of this project will include recommendations about how PSO data can be collected to provide the greatest conservation value for protected species and recommendations about how PSO data can be utilized for regulatory/management and scientific purposes. These recommendations will help inform the development of a protocol that standardizes the collection of PSO data and enables the use of PSO data in scientific analyses that evaluate the effectiveness of management and mitigation efforts for future activities regulated under both the ESA and MMPA for the conservation of protected species.

Systematic analysis of injuries sustained by rorquals (humpback, fin and minke whales) from documented entanglements off the U.S. East Coast

Robbins, J.

Center for Coastal Studies

Entanglement in fishing gear is a documented source of human impact on baleen whales; however, the frequency of events can be challenging to assess. This project will conduct a systematic analysis of injuries on rorquals witnessed carrying gear off the U.S. East Coast, focusing on over 400 cases involving humpback, fin and minke whales observed while entangled since 2001. Those with suitable image data will be scored as to the nature and body location of injuries relative to gear configuration and gear deployment history. The results of this study will be submitted for publication with an image-rich guide to entanglement injuries to assist practitioners in accurately identifying entanglement injuries in rorquals. These methods will allow comparison to scar-based entanglement rates among North Atlantic right whales, but will also be applicable to a wider range of species and populations worldwide.

Protecting the sentinels of the Peruvian Sea: Electronic monitoring and mitigation measures to reduce cetacean bycatch in the most important fishery of Peru

Vargas, E.

World Wildlife Fund, Inc.

Bycatch in fisheries is a conservation threat to several species of marine mammals in the waters of Peru, including dusky dolphins, Burmeister’s porpoises, longbeaked common dolphins, and common bottlenose dolphins. This project will focus on development of a monitoring and mitigation pilot project that will support the use of digital logbooks, remote electronic monitoring (REM) cameras, and best practices for handling and releasing bycaught cetaceans. These actions will be developed with the participation of the fishing vessel crew, and will be reflected in the preparation of an instruction manual for companies and their crew, which will allow registering, quantifying and establishing mitigation measures to address the cetacean bycatch in these fisheries.  Results of this pilot project will be presented to the Peruvian government (Ministry of Production of Peru and the Institute of the Peruvian Sea) along with policy recommendations to minimize bycatch.

Support for surveys and necropsies of gray whales in México during an Unusual Mortality Event

Urbán Ramírez, J.

Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur

In 2019, there was a significant increase in the number of gray whales stranded along the west coast of North America, ranging from Mexico to Alaska. Immediately preceding this increase in strandings, the number of calves born in the lagoons of Baja California in January 2019 was unusually low.  These changes resulted in the declaration of an Unusual Mortality Event of gray whales by the National Marine Fisheries Service. As with previous events at the end of the 1990’s this event is likely to continue into 2020 if it is linked to changing environmental conditions in Arctic seas. To ensure adequate data are collected in 2020, field researchers along the west coast of North America are increasing efforts to count whales, assess their nutritional condition and necropsy stranded animals includes government and academic entities in Mexico and Canada.

Characterizing the occurrence of manatees in northwestern Cuba and their interaction with fisheries

Alvarez-Aleman, A.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute

Commercial fishing in Cuba is an enormous industry, occurring on 69,881 km2 of the insular shelf. Furthermore, nearly 9,000 privately-owned boats operate from 196 fishing ports, of which 38% hold government permits to use large-scale fishing gear. Sharing Cuba’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) waters with this industry is an astonishing assemblage of marine mammals, the majority of which have remain unstudied both in terms of general species data and fisheries interactions. Manatees are known to have become entangled and poached from fishing nets in northern Cuba. This project will gather data on the interaction between fisheries and manatees in the Fauna Refuge Lanzanillo-Pajonal-Fragoso, Villa Clara, where vital marine habitats and heavy fishing activities overlap. Scoping trips to fishing ports and marine protected areas will be conducted to document interactions between fishing activities and manatees. Four surveys for manatees will be conducted in a marine protected area within Villa Clara in northern Cuba where illegal fishing and poaching is threatening the species’ survival. To better understand poaching in this region, information will be collected from fishing ports within Villa Clara to determine if a link exists between the fishing industry and the illegal take of manatees. This project will engage fishermen and coastal communities to work toward our ultimate goal of reducing fishery-related injuries and mortality of at-risk marine mammals.

Topic B: Conferences, Symposia, Workshops, Meetings, and Publications

Resource user outreach on Molokai for cooperative conservation and long-term management of Hawaiian monk seals

Jenkinson, R.

Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources

Hawaiian monk seals in the Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) are exposed to a variety of threats including entanglement, disease, fisheries interactions, and even intentional killings, which limit the species recovery. This project will enhance the conservation and recovery of Hawaiian monk seals in the MHI by mitigating interactions between the public and seals via continued outreach and information dissemination programs along the shoreline and at targeted fishing tournaments. Increased shoreline monitoring for seals and in-situ fisher outreach will occur on Molokai, and the continued support and promotion of barbless hook use will be encouraged.  This project will help increase monk seal management efforts, decrease seal disturbances and/or take, and an increase awareness of the conservation planning process by the public, particularly through relationship-building and outreach on Molokai.

Best Management Practices for reducing ship strikes in the San Francisco Bay region

Carver, M. C. and Morten, J.

Greater Farallones Association

San Francisco Bay region is home to seasonal feeding grounds and known aggregation areas for many species of endangered whales, including blues, fins, and humpbacks. Also, in the waters in and surrounding San Francisco Bay are large commercial vessels, thousands of which transit these whale-rich areas every year. Vessel Speed Reductions (VSR) efforts have demonstrated great success as a mitigation measure to reduce the risk of lethal ship strikes, as well as ocean noise and greenhouse gas emissions. Building upon prior work supported by the Marine Mammal Commission, Greater Farallones Association, and NOAA’s Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries will convene a working group with regional partners to develop Best Management Practices for reducing ship strikes in the San Francisco Bay Area region. The ship-strike reduction Best Management Practices guidelines, and its collaborative development, will serve as a model for other sanctuaries, ports, and management agencies to reduce ship strikes across the country.

Creating momentum for integrated conservation measures of narrow-ridged finless porpoise

Lee, Y.


Currently listed as Endangered at International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, the narrow ridged finless porpoise (NRFP), Neophocaena asiaeorientalis, is experiencing a decreasing population trend, with the main cause of decline attributed to fisheries bycatch. Recent interviews conducted by WWF-Korea indicate that as many as 5,000 finless porpoises are being caught in Korean stownet fisheries each year. To create momentum for currently fragmented national conservation efforts of the species and initiate necessary actions to mitigate threats faced by the species, a national platform is needed for stakeholders, including fisheries, to formulate a common understanding regarding the conservation of the species. Furthermore, a platform is needed to inquire and explore various means to safeguard the species with international expertise. WWF-Korea will create a platform for discussion and planning by holding a full day symposium with national stakeholders, including fisheries, and international experts for the conservation of the species. The symposium will contribute to the conservation management goals of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) by promoting an active discussion of measures to mitigate bycatch through knowledge and information sharing. Furthermore, with IUCN World Conservation Congress to take place within 2021 (tentative due to COVID-19), planned action is needed to address motion 110 which notes the decreasing population of the species and the need to form a working group.

A cooperative training workshop on seal-fisheries interactions for fishermen, scientists, marine mammal stranding network personnel and fisheries managers

Nichols, O. C.

Center for Coastal Studies

Marine animals routinely experience contact with fishing gear, whether it is gear currently in use or discarded, derelict gear. These interactions can lead to unintended injury, illness, and mortality to marine mammals. Platforms for communication among the various sectors involved in solving this complex problem are limited. These discussions are critical if practical solutions are to be implemented that may be utilized to further understand and mitigate these interactions. The Center for Coastal Studies will work with partners to convene a two-day workshop to share expertise between fisheries managers, field biologists and fishermen to address concerns about fisheries interactions with seals along the northeast U.S. and mid-Atlantic coastline. The goals of the proposed workshop are 1) to improve communication and increase cooperation between various stakeholders; 2) share lessons learned from previous community conversations; 3) introduce new technology and tools that may be useful for all sectors; and 4) broaden the discussion to include scientific and fishing community partners from the northeast Atlantic.