Marine Mammal Commission

2022 Grant Awards

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Projects Funded by the Marine Mammal Commission in Fiscal Year 2022

Topic A: Research/Projects

Quantifying humpback whale health across Hawaii and Southeast Alaska in the face of climate change

Bejder, L.

University of Hawai’i Manoa

Between 2013 and 2019, marked declines in humpback whale (HBW) abundance and reproductive success were documented throughout the North Pacific. These declines coincided with a trifecta of climatic events, including the longest lasting marine heatwave globally exacerbated by strong El Niño and positive Pacific Decadal Oscillation phases. These events were responsible for abundance declines across entire trophic chains, including important HBW forage species such as Pacific herring and krill. This project aims to improve our understanding of HBW population health (i.e. body condition) via Unoccupied Aerial Systems (UAS; drone)-photogrammetry of the Hawaii Distinct Population Segment of HBWs. Maintaining this large-scale, longitudinal effort is critical to elucidate effects of climate change on marine ecosystems, with emphasis placed on quantifying intra- and inter-annual variability on whale health. Findings will inform decision- and policy makers on the effects of climate change on whale populations and ecosystem health.

Linking climate indices to southern right whale body condition and vital rates

Christiansen, F.

Aarhus University

Climate change is predicted to lead to changes in ocean productivity, which is likely to impact marine top predators, including baleen whales. Southern right whales (SRWs, Eubalaena australis) are still recovering from last century whaling, and changes in prey availability resulting from climate change are likely to impede the recovery of the species by negatively affecting female body condition and vital rates. The aim of this study is to determine the relationship between various climate indices and SRW body condition and reproductive rates. Annual variations in female body condition will be related to four different climate indices (SST anomaly around South Georgia, Oceanic Niño Index, Antarctic Oscillation and Antarctic sea ice anomalies), while accounting for the body size and the timing in the reproductive cycle of the females. A second model will be developed to predict SRW calving intervals from maternal body length and condition. By combing the two models, changes in ocean productivity resulting from climate change will be examined in relation to SRW body condition and vital rates. This will further the understanding of how climate change indirectly affects the reproductive success of baleen whales, and capital breeding marine mammals more broadly.

Initiation of long-term evaluation of the effects of climate change on Indigenous marine mammal hunting in the Chugach Region using traditional ecological knowledge

Cunningham, R.

Chugach Regional Resources Commission

Climate change is affecting subsistence harvesting through changes in species abundance, distribution, and health. Subsistence practices must continue to be shared with younger generations to ensure continuation of traditional Alaska Native marine mammal use. Co-management is an important part of ensuring that marine mammals are used by future generations, and involvement of the people who live around and depend on marine mammals contributes critical and integral data to the management process. Chugach Regional Resources Commission (CRRC), a Tribal natural resources management entity, is comprised of seven regional Tribes. There are over a thousand represented Tribal Members in Prince William Sound and lower Cook Inlet, known as the Chugach Region of Alaska. The region is experiencing detrimental impacts from extreme tides, coastal erosion, glacial melt, and ocean acidification. Evaluating the effects of a changing climate from a firsthand, Indigenous viewpoint will ensure a better understanding of general health, body condition, population sizes, hunting seasons, behavior, and activity of marine mammals. The project research will inform future research prioritization and strategies to prevent and reverse harm to the marine ecosystem and species.  Assessment of how changes affect marine ecosystems, marine mammals, and Tribal users will allow a better understanding of how to manage the resources. This project is the first standalone phase of a comprehensive plan to inform new co-management strategies for the Chugach Region in partnership with Federal agencies.

Quantifying the impacts of a marine heatwave on individual growth and reproductive success in a recovering population of killer whales

Durbin, J.

North Gulf Oceanic Society

Understanding how climate change is impacting, or expected to impact, marine mammals is a critical aspect in developing management measures that reduce risk from direct human impacts and increase recovery potential. Marine mammals can be considered as sentinels for detecting ecosystem changes, especially top predators that reflect the integrated status of the trophic levels that support them. This project will focus on elucidating the impacts of climate change on the apex marine predator, specifically a population of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the northern Gulf of Alaska that is still recovering from declines after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The abundance of these Alaska Resident killer whales (fish predators) declined in Prince William Sound and adjacent coastal waters during a multi-year heatwave (intense 2014-2016, warming conditions continued through 2019), with correlated declines in survival across pods. This heatwave led to abrupt and prolonged changes across trophic levels in the Gulf of Alaska, including declines in commercial catches of Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), known prey for Resident killer whales in this region. This work will investigate additional sub-lethal effects on killer whales that might be more prolonged, specifically effects on reproductive success and interacting effects on female size. A 40-year (1984-2023) photo-identification dataset will be used to investigate temporal trends in fecundity, specifically examining changes during and following the heatwave. Drone-based aerial photogrammetry will be used to investigate changes in the size of adult females relative to their growth years. These two elements will be combined to investigate the relationship of female size on reproductive success and to test the hypothesis that prolonged and ongoing climate impacts on these killer whales disrupt their slow reproductive schedules, which may have been exacerbated by a reduction in female size and subsequent fecundity.

Understanding the impacts of climate change on the reproductive performance of humpback whales around the Antarctic Peninsula using long-term multidisciplinary data

Friedlaender, A. S.

University of California Santa Cruz

Understanding the effects of climate change requires longitudinal and cross-disciplinary data. The NSF Palmer LTER program offers an exclusive opportunity to leverage unique data to study the impacts of interannual and long-term climate change on the reproductive performance, demography, and vital rates of recovering humpback whales around the Antarctic Peninsula. The goals of this project are to use the largest (n=~2,000) and longest-term data set of biopsy samples, collected since 2009, to determine the annual pregnancy rates of humpback whales around the Antarctic Peninsula, 94% of which represent a single breeding population (G), that breeds off of Central/South America. Leveraging in situ and remotely collected environmental data on sea ice cover, prey availability, primary productivity, and climatic indices collected as part of the LTER program, this project will aim to test for relationships among these and annual pregnancy rates for these whales. The results of this work will directly address management efforts within both the International Whaling Commission and Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, and these data will directly support the development of how environmental change impacts this population and can be used to also evaluate the impacts of human activities such as the growing commercial krill fishing industry. Because of the large sample size, continuous long-term time series, and rigorous methods that have been developed, these data and this project represent a model system for quantifying the impacts of human-induced climate variability on cetaceans in a rapidly changing environment.

Enhancing Pacific northwest sea otter reintroduction strategy by accounting for climate change

Laufer, A.

Sea & Shore Solutions, LLC

Sea otters are a keystone species in coastal ecosystems, directly supporting rocky subtidal habitats and submerged aquatic vegetation. Their absence from Oregon, since extirpation from the fur trade, has had detrimental impacts on these nearshore environments. As sea otter reintroduction efforts progress in the Pacific Northwest, understanding the potential impacts of climate change on the species will support evidence-based planning and help avoid a second unsuccessful reintroduction. This project will supplement the recently completed Oregon Sea Otter Restoration Feasibility Study with estimates of climate change’s potential impact on the Pacific Northwest nearshore environment, how impacts may alter sea otter feasibility, and critical implications for reintroduction efforts led by the Elakha Alliance. The sea otter population model will be leveraged to estimate sea otter survivorship under each climate change future by assessing three primary ecological factors that influence sea otter distribution, abundance, and overall health: availability of prey, bathymetry, and waters sheltered from ocean surge. Results will visually illustrate how climate change and related environmental changes in Oregon’s nearshore and estuarine environments may influence sea otter survival. Process and results will be synthesized and published alongside the existing Oregon Sea Otter Restoration Feasibility Study, so the Elakha Alliance and partners can inform reintroduction strategy and recommendations using data and best available science.

An international virtual fishing gear marking system to reduce whale entanglements

Sawicki, K.

Sustainable Seas Technology

Climate‐driven factors have altered the foraging environment and habitat use of marine mammal species worldwide. As our oceans warm, lethal, and chronic marine mammal entanglements in pot fishing gear are likely to continue and increase, especially in areas with recovering whale populations and thriving commercial fisheries. Regional fishery transition to subsea buoy retrieval systems1 (SBRS) or adjuncts (which remove vertical lines from the water column and store the entirety of active fishing gear at depth) can eliminate this danger. Management strategies utilizing these technologies require utilizing a system accessible by enforcement agencies to replace the function of traditional marker buoys at the sea surface. This requirement has driven our past work to design a virtual multi‐manufacturer (interoperable) gear marking portal. This project will support the physical build of this cooperative data‐sharing effort to produce the Ropeless Manufacturer’s Workgroup Hub (RMW HUB), which will bring to fruition their past collaborative activities. The RMW HUB will allow regional regulatory and enforcement bodies to determine their specific needs and preferences for data access and reporting without creating duplicative and costly programming changes between the manufacturer’s applications. This system will allow fishermen to locate equipment quickly and avoid activities that may cause unintended gear loss. Results from this project will enable federal and regional management bodies to create data management products and craft regulatory changes to allow ropeless fishing in areas where it is needed to conserve species such as the North Atlantic right whale.

Advancing ship strike and blue carbon management strategies for the protection of whales

Self, D.

Greater Farallones Association

Ship strikes are a major threat to whales across the globe, including endangered species like blues, fins, and humpbacks, particularly near ports with heavy shipping traffic. Vessel speed reduction (VSR) mitigates the risk of lethal ship strikes, while also reducing harmful air emissions—including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—from the global shipping industry. While whale populations are threatened by climate impacts related to food scarcity and changing ocean conditions, they are also increasingly considered part of the climate solution. In quantifying the blue carbon capacity of the habitats and oceanic processes in Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (GFNMS), Greater Farallones Association (GFA) has identified whales as a blue carbon process with considerable capacity to sequester carbon. Understanding and communicating the role of slowing ships to reduce emissions and conserve whales—while simultaneously communicating the role of whales in carbon sequestration—will advance the protection of threatened and endangered whales from ship strikes, bolster the need to protect whales as a carbon mitigation strategy, and further help the global community meet carbon emission reduction goals. This project aims to bring the topics of blue carbon and whale conservation to the forefront of global ocean climate dialog and bridge knowledge gaps for policy makers.

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

Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology Summer Marine Mammal Intensive Learning Experience (SMMILE) for Hawaiʻi High School Students

Pacini, A.

University of Hawai’i

This educational program will provide an opportunity for underrepresented, minority high school students to learn about marine mammal science, marine protected areas, and conservation. View report here.