Marine Mammal Commission

2021 Grant Awards

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Projects Funded by the Marine Mammal Commission in Fiscal Year 2021

Topic A: Research/Projects

Assessing the status of two coastal cetacean species in a marine biodiversity hotspot off the west coast of India

Bopardikar, I.

Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER)

Two non-migratory cetacean species, the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin (Sousa plumbea) and the Indo-Pacific finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides), occur along the Sindhudurg coastline off western India.  Both species are vulnerable to chronic anthropogenic pressures from co-occurring human activities that could result population-level impacts, including documented fisheries entanglement. This study aims to assess the population densities, space use, and spatiotemporal occurrence patterns of humpback dolphins and finless porpoises along the Sindhudurg coast, India using passive acoustic monitoring. This information is urgently needed to develop effective local and regional conservation strategies for these species to mitigate increasing anthropogenic pressures.

Whales from space: Designing a standardized workflow to annotate whales and confounding features in very high resolution satellite images to assist the development of  automated whale detection systems

Cubaynes, H.

British Antarctic Survey

Monitoring whales is of broad interest to government agencies, academic, and commercial institutions around the globe. However, it is difficult to monitor animals in remote regions and during seasons when traditional survey platforms are not effective or are cost prohibitive. The recent advancements of very high resolution (VHR) satellite imagery and recent trials to use this emerging technology show tremendous potential for monitoring cetaceans. To use this novel technology to its full potential, an artificial intelligence (AI) approach is needed to automatically detect cetaceans in large volumes of imagery. However, automation requires a large annotated dataset of whales and confounding features to train and test the algorithms. This project aims to develop a standardized workflow for annotating images and creating a database of annotations, which will facilitate collaboration across research groups towards the development of an operational system for whale detection in VHR satellite imagery.

Initiation of a long-term Guadalupe fur seal (Arctocephalus townsendi) population monitoring program

Elorriaga-Verplancken, F.

Pacific Marine Mammal Center

Guadalupe fur seals were exploited to near extinction in the 1800s and early 1900s. This is the only pinniped species inhabiting the California Current System that is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) as “threatened” and catalogued as “endangered” by Mexican law. One of the main threats for this species is that it only has one established breeding location, at Guadalupe Island, México, increasing its vulnerability to climate change and stochastic natural and anthropogenic events. This project aims to initiate a long-term Guadalupe fur seal population monitoring program that will provide tools for improved management and conservation of this species and enhance collaborations among scientists, students, government agencies, and fishing communities in México and the United States. See link to workshop report.

Advancing whale conservation and outreach with sustainable infrastructure for WhaleMap

Johnson, H.

New England Aquarium

Many research and conservation activities rely upon knowledge of the distribution of baleen whales. The software system WhaleMap is the only existing tool that provides an efficient and effective means of collating and displaying whale survey results from the entire east coast of the US and Canada in near real-time (within ~1 day). Since its launch in 2018, WhaleMap has improved conservation outcomes for baleen whales, especially the endangered North Atlantic right whale, in numerous ways including informing more efficient monitoring efforts and directly facilitating all dynamic risk mitigation actions in Canada. It also serves as a critical outreach and engagement tool by making the latest whale survey results available to a diverse group of stakeholders including those from industry, research, government, non-governmental organizations, and the general public. The goal of this project is to develop the infrastructure to maintain WhaleMap in perpetuity by migrating the system from its current host institution, Dalhousie University, to the New England Aquarium (NEAq) and integrating the database with existing NEAq databases and resources, including curation expertise, infrastructure, and network platforms.

Migratory patterns and overwintering areas of the world’s rarest whale, the North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica)

Newsome, S.

University of New Mexico

The North Pacific right whale (NPRW) is one of the world’s most endangered cetacean species, comprising of two recognized populations: the endangered western population (n=low hundreds of animals) and the critically endangered eastern population (n<35 animals). Important gaps exist in the basic knowledge of this species––overwintering areas, migratory routes, and locations of calving grounds––but the extreme rarity of these whales precludes traditional approaches to acquiring this knowledge. This project aims to assess the historical and contemporary distributions of NPRWs via bulk tissue and compound-specific (amino acid) carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) stable isotope analysis of baleen and skin to disentangle isotopic variation associated with movement across oceanic isoscapes from potential shifts in diet composition (trophic level). Results will enable reconstruction of the historical migratory patterns of NPRWs from the analysis of baleen samples, as well as quantify potential shifts in distribution and resource use between historical and contemporary animals by incorporating isotope data from skin tissue. Improving the understanding of the historical ecology of this species during a period of commercial exploitation, when genetic diversity and population size were higher than today, will provide necessary context for interpreting contemporary findings and improving management efforts of current populations. Results of this project will better inform monitoring efforts, including along migratory routes and on calving grounds.

Design for an International Virtual Fishing Gear Marking System to Reduce Whale Entanglements

Sawicki, K.

Sustainable Seas Technology, Inc.

Marine animal entanglement in pot fishing gear has been a global concern for several decades. Research on the adaptation of “ropeless” devices for use within trap fisheries over the last two decades has identified “removal of end lines” as a promising mitigation measure that would lower entanglement risk to critically endangered species. This innovative gear, coupled with regulatory measures, will likely reduce both fishing gear loss and entanglement‐based mortality of marine animals. This project aims to contribute to the development of a virtual multi‐manufacturer (interoperable) gear marking system to replace traditional marker buoys at the sea surface. This system will allow fishermen to locate equipment quickly while also providing gear information to enforcement entities, enabling fishing with gear that can improve the protection and conservation of marine mammals through minimizing entanglement risk. This project will coordinate collaborative activities for seven leading ropeless fishing gear manufacturers and gear marking developers to create a comprehensive plan for data management, requirements, and integration parameters to develop an international virtual gear tracking system.

Preventing Whale Entanglements through Gear Innovations in the California Commercial Dungeness Crab Fishery

Wells, G.

National Marine Sanctuary Foundation

The Preventing Whale Entanglements through Gear Innovations in the Commercial Dungeness Crab Fishery project will test modified and innovative new fishing gear for the California Dungeness crab fishery. At least eight commercial fishermen will engage with Foundation staff and researchers in testing four pop-up gear types and a low-tech sleeve option during the 2021-2022 open fishing season. This project aims to further the conservation goals of the MMPA by reducing whale entanglements in fishing gear and line along the California coast and addressing threats to marine mammals including humpback whales, gray whales, blue whales (endangered), fin whales (vulnerable), sei whales (endangered), and killer whales.

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

Internships Program for Diversity and Inclusion in Marine Mammal Science

Cox, T.

Savannah State University

Marine mammal science, similar to other ocean sciences, is a field traditionally characterized by a lack of diversity. This is partially due to the culture of unpaid internship opportunities and a lack of scientists trained to mentor under-represented minorities. This proposal addresses this issue by establishing a network of Minority-Serving Institutions and research organizations with well-trained mentors committed to strengthening the pipeline of minorities into marine mammal research. Efforts will leverage existing partnerships and forge new collaborations to train interns in marine mammal research as well as increase interns’ professional skills and confidence. Key components of this proposal are: 1) early undergraduate participation (freshmen and sophomore), thus targeting students during a critical time in their STEM career; 2) paid academic year internships that will introduce interns to the research environment; 3) virtual programming that will provide opportunities for career development/ soft skill training, build cohort comradery, and train interns in marine mammal research; 4) paid summer internships with post-internship mentoring; and 5) training for mentors in effective mentorship approaches specifically targeted for minority student populations. By developing this critical infrastructure for STEM training for young undergraduate minority students and addressing the needs of these students entering the marine mammal field, this pilot program will improve the pipeline leading to improved diversity in marine mammal science.

Sixth International Conference on the Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life

Sisneros, J.

University of Washington

Support provided for the Sixth International Conference on “The Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life” held in Berlin, Germany from 10-15 July, 2022. The conference focuses on important issues of anthropogenic sounds that have substantial impacts on marine mammals. This international conference is intended to introduce participants to the most recent research on the effects of man-made noise on aquatic life, and to foster discussion of regulatory issues. Emphasis will be on the cross-fertilization of ideas and scientific findings across species and for different noise sources. The meeting will also afford a unique opportunity for participants to learn about issues facing decision takers, while industry and government regulators obtain the latest data from the scientists.  Funding for this conference will support bringing students, younger faculty, representatives of low income countries, and a few key speakers to the meeting who most likely could not attend otherwise.

Effects of Sound in the Ocean on Marine Mammals (ESOMM 2021)

Nowacek, D.

Duke University Marine Laboratory

Support provided for the 7th meeting on the Effects of Sound in the Ocean on Marine Mammals (ESOMM-2021), which will be held in Beaufort, North Carolina, USA. This long-running meeting, originally organized through NATO, has brought together researchers, program managers, and regulators to consider the impacts of Navy sonar as well as other ocean noise sources on marine mammals. All previous meetings have occurred in Europe, but this 7th meeting will occur for the first time in the United States, providing an opportunity for more U.S. federal government representatives and U.S. scientists to attend this event than in previous meetings. This international meeting will include discussions of goals of conservation and management regulations of primarily U.S. (MMPA) and European (MSFD) systems, although participants from other countries will be in attendance.

Support for the 24th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, Palm Beach, Florida, 1 – 5 August 2022

Moore, K.

Society for Marine Mammalogy

Support provided to the Society for Marine Mammalogy for student travel – specifically international student travel – to the 24th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, Palm Beach, Florida, 1 – 5 August 2022.  The Society for Marine Mammalogy holds biennial international meetings with the goal of enhancing collaboration, sharing ideas, and improving the quality of research on marine mammals within the scientific community.

Support for Funds to Publish Conference Proceedings of the Eleventh International Conference on Marine Mammals of the Holarctic, 1-5 March 2021

Burkanov, V.

North Pacific Wildlife Consulting, LLC

Support provided for translation services, as well as travel for students and international researchers, for the Tenth International Conference on Marine Mammals of the Holarctic, including real-time translation (Russian to English) of conference presentations, and dual-language printings of conference proceedings. The bilingual proceedings represent a key mechanism to disseminate important scientific results of marine mammal research – especially of such research conducted by Russian scientists, whose results only infrequently are published in English-language scientific journals.