Marine Mammal Commission

2024 Grant Awards

Grant Awards by Fiscal Year: 2024 | 2023 | 2022 | 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011Previous Years

Projects Funded by the Marine Mammal Commission in Fiscal Year 2024

Topic A(1): Research/Projects - Marine mammal health in a changing climate

Forecasting the ecology and epidemiology of avian influenza viruses in marine mammals

Johnson, C.

One Health Institute, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis

The Marine Mammal Commission’s 2024 Marine Mammal Health Surveillance Workshop Report lists influenza as a priority pathogen for every focal species and region in the US.  This project will combine empirical data and predictive modeling to characterize the transmission dynamics of high pathogenicity avian influenza (HPAI) H5N1 Gs/GD clade viruses (hereafter “H5N1”) in marine mammals across the Americas. The 2024 southern elephant seal breeding season in Península Valdés, Argentina, provides a critical opportunity to monitor marine mammal population health following a catastrophic H5N1 mortality event. Elucidating patterns of transmission will inform disease risks to numerous sub-Antarctic and Antarctic marine mammal species disproportionately vulnerable to climate change.  This project will measure molecular and serological prevalence of H5N1 in mother-pup elephant seal pairs, sea lions, and scavenging seabirds, perform phylogenetic analysis, and document contact networks to assess transmission mechanisms, differential susceptibility to disease, and potential for endemicity.  A large-scale ecological niche model characterizing HPAI spillover risk to marine mammals in current and projected climate scenarios will be built, as well a multi-species epidemiological model to simulate epizootics. The goal of this work is to improve the ability to target avian influenza surveillance and monitoring, understand factors contributing to outbreaks, and predict impacts to marine mammal population health in the face of climate change.

An integrated approach to estimate body condition for subsistence-harvested beluga whales in a changing Arctic

Kosma, M.

Kosma Collaborative, LLC

Beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) play a pivotal role in the Arctic marine ecosystem as the most abundant odontocetes. These marine mammals are crucial for the nutritional subsistence of Arctic coastal and island communities, holding deep cultural and spiritual significance for Indigenous peoples. Given the pronounced impact of climate change in the Arctic, it is imperative to comprehend how these changes will affect beluga whales. Previous declines in certain beluga stocks have spurred proactive efforts by co-management groups to monitor the status and health of current populations, particularly the Beaufort Sea and Eastern Bering Sea stocks. The use of unoccupied aerial systems (UAS) provides a noninvasive method to assess body condition of whales. This approach allows the incorporation of live animals into population health assessments and provides detailed information for life history parameters. The objective of this work is to validate body condition assessment methods for belugas and analyze trends in subsistence-harvested beluga stocks in Alaskan waters. This involves integrating direct morphometric measurements of harvested animals from well-established databases and methodology with those obtained through the new method of UAS-photogrammetry. Establishing the groundwork for a long-term health monitoring program of beluga whales will contribute to the ongoing efforts to conserve and manage these stocks. Furthermore, the integration of this new tool enhances our capacity to monitor marine top predators and observe changes in the Arctic ecosystem amidst climate change.

Developing a method to assess nutritional status of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in response to environmental change

Newsome, S.

University of Mexico

Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) populations in the northeast Pacific Ocean can be heavily influenced by environmental variation that reduces prey quantity/quality. This is evident in increased sightings of whales in poor body condition and a recent unprecedented mass mortality event (2019-2023). The goal of this project is to develop a method to assess the nutritional status of gray whales combining the use of stress hormone analysis (i.e., cortisol, corticosterone) with stable isotope analysis of bulk tissue and constituent amino acids (AAs), in baleen plates and skin biopsies collected from 1980-2023. Baleen can be used to generate a multi-month continuous record of the ecophysiology of whales prior to death. This project will use stress hormones, bulk baleen carbon (δ13 C) and nitrogen (δ15 N) isotopes, and body condition data of stranded whales to categorize them into three groups: (1) healthy, in good body condition; (2) stressed but in good body condition; and (3) stressed, in bad (emaciated) body condition. Subsequently, AA δ13 C and δ15 N in baleen will be measured to examine nitrogen balance and the use of endogenous stores (blubber) among these three groups to develop an isotope-based method for assessing nutritional status. Baleen isotope data will be compared to those from skin collected from whales with well-documented life histories as a first step towards applying this approach to skin samples that are much more ubiquitous than baleen in regional archives. It is anticipated that this approach could be used to assess the nutritional status of other baleen whales. The results will be disseminated through workshops provided to local communities that depend on whale-watching activities, and shared with researchers that monitor and manage gray whales.

Topic A(2): Research/Projects - Changes in marine mammal distribution or habitat associated with a changing climate

Right whales as sentinels to assess the impacts of climate change on Southern Ocean ecosystems

Carroll, E.

School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland

Climate in the Southern Ocean (SO) displays high levels of temporal and regional variability. This has resulted in uncertainty regarding the future impacts of climate change on ecosystems, as well as potentially masking trends. In such environments, the use of sentinel species in improving our understanding about climate change is quickly gaining recognition. Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis; SRW) are one such sentinel, and are separated into distinct populations across the Southern Hemisphere. The level of connectivity varies between populations, with two, the Aotearoa New Zealand and South African populations showing very little overlap in foraging ranges and limited gene flow. This presents a valuable opportunity to compare foraging habitat preferences, as well as the susceptibility to climate change, between these two distinct populations with inferences for SO ecosystem changes. Therefore, this project aims to assess the heterogeneity of climate change impacts on SO productivity by describing and comparing changes in foraging ground habitat use for two distinct SRW population over time. To do this, this project will combine historical whaling data, stable isotope data, satellite tracking and habitat modelling, and conduct a comparative investigation into the trends in environmental variables quantifying foraging habitat quality and location. Such a comparative assessment will provide new and valuable insights into the ecosystem functioning of the SO, as well as into the potential drivers behind variable and changing foraging patterns observed in the two whale populations.

Environmental RNA (eRNA) metabarcoding to detect modification in distribution of marine mammal populations of the St John River (FL) driven by anthropogenic climate change

Mancia, A.

Department of Biology and Marine Science, Marine Science Research Institute, Jacksonville University

The goal of the project is the development of a novel, non-invasive and reliable monitoring program for marine mammals using eRNA technology. The hypothesis is that the eRNA analysis of water regularly sampled in the same locations will be informative of the presence and distribution of marine mammal populations. The location that will be sampled is the northeast section of the St Johns River, Florida, where the river also empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Two methods will be applied, identified here as A) barcoding and B) metabarcoding which will be put to test with water samples carrying RNA from different marine mammal species/populations/individuals. For A) barcoding, the two species are the bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus, TT) and the Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris, TML). TT is a carnivore, year-round resident, while TML is an herbivore and a seasonal resident of the river. For B) metabarcoding, the test group will be represented by the mixed populations of marine mammals (resident and transient species) detected at the mouth of the river, on the Atlantic coast. The lower basin of the St. Johns River is acknowledged as ecologically vulnerable watershed, threatened by rising salinity, pollution, and environmental hazards. These anthropogenic stressors exacerbate the effects of climate change affecting the river ecosystem and disrupting present patterns of plant and animal distribution. The development of eRNA (meta)barcoding method could significantly improve not only the detection and monitoring for marine mammal population of the St Johns River but has the greater potential to be applied to any species, worldwide.

Topic B: Research/Projects - Advancing Diversity, Equity, Inclusiveness, Belonging, Accessibility and Justice (DEIBAJ) in Marine Mammal Science

Expanding access through Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Inc. (WDC’s) Marine Mammal Conservation and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Fellowship Program

Asmutis-Silvia, R.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Inc. (WDC)

There is an imminent need to ensure that marine science is representative of all communities, especially those who are most impacted by marine-based research and policy decisions. WDC will run a 12-week paid internship to provide the development of transferrable skills (e.g. presentation skills, project management, etc.) and exposure to the components of a marine conservation organization. WDC will also create an additional 10-month paid DEI fellowship opportunity to move from exposure to experience in conservation and research. The fellow will gain credible experience in data collection, stranding response, formal and informal education, marine policy development, and project management. Specifically, the fellow will manage a project working with the WDC’s DEI Advisory Council which includes representatives from diverse backgrounds and regional marine conservation and research organizations. The goal of the project is to create a shareable pathway for WDC and its partners seeking to make this field more accessible and representative of all individuals.

Marine mammal fellowship to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion

Moore, D.

Mississippi State University, College of Veterinary Medicine

This project proposal seeks to provide and broaden participation in marine mammal science/medicine by offering a Marine Mammal Fellowship program to two Black third/fourth year veterinary students at Mississippi State University. The proposal plans to: a). provide diverse marine mammal veterinary medical experiences at U.S. marine mammal facilities, b). enhance direct exposure to the marine environment and concerns that threaten the species, c). develop long term mentorship opportunities and encourage engagement and sustained participation in the marine mammal community and d). make shareable the experience with other minorities to highlight unique opportunities to underserved veterinary communities. Two students will be selected for the fellowship program and they will participate in an immersive marine mammal veterinary medical experience at multiple facilities under the supervision of the Principal Investigator (PI) or other clinicians.