Marine Life

Just keep swimming

This little critter is a limpet.  From the photo they may not look like the most exciting of creatures.  If you’ve ever been down to the coast and taken a look at them yourself… your opinion may not have changed.  They don’t seem to move around a lot, or do a lot.  Of course looks can be deceiving.  Under that shell is the limpet’s squishy body – and their big, muscular foot which, alongside a pretty amazing adhesive secretion, they use to cling onto rocks and other hard surfaces.  Anyone who has ever had a go at trying to get a limpet off a rock knows how good a grip they can have.  This fabulous foot isn’t just used to stop them from drying out when the tide leaves them exposed to the air, or keep pesky predators (or nosy humans) at bay.  Limpets are grazers, feeding on tiny algae on the surface of rocks with their raspy “tongue” (called a radula).  See that empty space behind the limpet in the photo?  That’s where it’s been grazing.  Once they have grazed an area they need to find more food.  That foot gets to work, and along moves the limpet, munching up all the algae in its path.  Some limpet species even appear to have a home – a particular crevice that they return to just before the tide will expose them to the air.

But this isn’t a post about how amazing limpets are.  This is a post about animal movements in the ocean.. Or at least 3 different types of animal movement.  Some of them move a lot further than you think.  Yes, even limpets.

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Conservation & Sustainable Management

”Blue Whales have a subtle and not very convincing ability to get out of the way of oncoming ships”

Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) truly are the giants of the ocean.  Actually, they are the giants of the whole planet.  Reaching around 30 metres in length and more than 190 tonnes, they are the largest animal currently existing and, to the best of our knowledge, the heaviest animal that has ever existed.  Being so huge, risk of predation is low so they seem not to have really developed much of a threat-response system.  Of course that all changed with humans who became extremely capable predators, but on an evolutionary timeframe, that is an extremely recent event.  Hunting has largely ceased, but many endangered whale populations still face threats to their recovery and long-term persistence, threats like collisions with ships.  Research by Megan McKenna from the Marine Mammal Commission, alongside colleagues from Cascadia Research Collection, NOAA, and Stanford University​ reveals just why the blue whales are so vulnerable to ship strikes.

Continue reading “”Blue Whales have a subtle and not very convincing ability to get out of the way of oncoming ships””

Technology for Ocean Science

Eavesdropping on an underwater world: Technology for Ocean Science

The ocean is not a quiet place.  Water can move rocks and sediment, even sufficiently to create underwater landslides.  Bivalves make clapping noises, fish make sounds during courtship, and cetaceans communicate with clicks and whistles, just to name a few.  And of course there is human activity – like shipping, drilling, and sonar, which all add to the sounds of the ocean.  There are many different reasons why we might want to hear these noises.  Thanks to acoustic monitoring technology we can.

There are many different types of acoustic monitoring equipment but you will tend to find one type of sensor at their heart – the hydrophone.  Hydrophones are microphones that can be dropped into the water and listens for sounds coming from any direction.  If you have been on a whale-watching boat you may very well have seen one of the crew drop one of these into the water.  With the hydrophone, the crew can hear a noisy whale and even work out their location.  In some places, hydrophones are anchored to the sea floor and float in the water column recording any sounds within their range, until their battery runs out and/or they are picked up again by boat.

Continue reading “Eavesdropping on an underwater world: Technology for Ocean Science”

Conservation & Sustainable Management

Are we really protecting North Atlantic right whales?

With its common name originating from whalers who, because of their tendency to float on the surface once dead, decided that they were the ‘right whale’ hunt, the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) has had a somewhat difficult past with people.  By 1530s Basque whalers where happily taking these whales (and others too) off Labrador and Newfoundland in the Northeast Atlantic.  By the mid-1600s, shore-based whaling took off down the east coast of the USA.  Between 1634 and 1951, it is estimated that somewhere between 5,500 and 11,000 right whales were killed by hunters.  1935 saw the introduction of the Convention for the Regulation of Whaling – the first protection afforded to these critters but many – but not all – whaling nations (Japan and the then Soviet Union being the exceptions).  Protection was bolsters in 1949 with the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (IWC), which banned signatories from hunting them for commercial purposes.  In the US, they were listed under the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1970, and the subsequent Endangered Species Act of 1973.  Canada, who is not a signatory of the IWC, has listed them under their Species At Risk Act (SARA) as Endangered.  Today it is estimated that there are somewhere between 300 – 400 individuals left, and whilst commercial whaling has ceased, they are still under threat primarily from ship strikes or entanglement in shipping gear.

Continue reading “Are we really protecting North Atlantic right whales?”

Conservation & Sustainable Management

Are we really protecting North Atlantic right whales?

With its common name originating from whalers who, because of their tendency to float on the surface once dead, decided that they were the ‘right whale’ hunt, the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) has had a somewhat difficult past with people.  By 1530s Basque whalers where happily taking these whales (and others too) off Labrador and Newfoundland in the Northeast Atlantic.  By the mid-1600s, shore-based whaling took off down the east coast of the USA.  Between 1634 and 1951, it is estimated that somewhere between 5,500 and 11,000 right whales were killed by hunters.  1935 saw the introduction of the Convention for the Regulation of Whaling – the first protection afforded to these critters but many – but not all – whaling nations (Japan and the then Soviet Union being the exceptions).  Protection was bolsters in 1949 with the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (IWC), which banned signatories from hunting them for commercial purposes.  In the US, they were listed under the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1970, and the subsequent Endangered Species Act of 1973.  Canada, who is not a signatory of the IWC, has listed them under their Species At Risk Act (SARA) as Endangered.  Today it is estimated that there are somewhere between 300 – 400 individuals left, and whilst commercial whaling has ceased, they are still under threat primarily from ship strikes or entanglement in shipping gear.

To help tackle the ship strike threat, Seasonal Management Areas (SMAs) were introduced off the east coast of America in 2008.  The rules are fairly straight forward, limiting speeds to under 10 knots (18.5 km/hour) for commercial vessels larger than 65 feet (20 meters) long.  There are currently 10 SMAs, which become active seasonally to capture when right whales are actually in the area, and then deactivate when the whales should have moved off.  Alongside the SMAs, Dynamic Management Areas (DMAs) were also brought it.  These zones are implemented when aggregations of the whales are detected in areas outside the SMAs.  For 15 days after detection, mariners are asked to avoid DMAs.  If they do pass through, they are asked to voluntarily reduce their speeds.  So do these zones work to reduce ship strikes on the right whales – and indeed any other large whale population that may find itself inside these zones?  According to this latest study lead by Julie van der Hoop from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution… sort of.

Julie and her fellow researchers obtained confirmed mortality data for a whole host of whale species – not just right whales – that were reported along the American east coast between 1990 and 2012, alongside cause of death (if identified).  They also obtained sighting data from North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium database from 1990 to 2008.  This, the team report, will help them assess the whales’ occurrence inside – and indeed outside – the SMAs.  Some statistical, spatial, and temporal analysis later, and the team were able to tell us a little more about the effectiveness of these SMAs.

First to the mortalities.  Between 1990 and 2012, 1,198 confirmed mortalities were reported along the US east coast.  Most of the whales species were identified too – good news for the researchers, but cause of death was only confirmed with certainty in 458 cases.  In line with other study findings, entanglement was the leading cause of death, followed by vessel strikes.

The sightings data indicated that just 17% of the right whale sightings between 1990 and 2008 were outside the areas that would become SMAs.  In other words, when the SMAs were implemented in 2008, they were located in areas where 83% of sighting had previously occurred.  Not bad – its tricky to capture every individual in a management zone when those individuals tend to move around a lot.  So what of the strikes themselves… are they reduced?  Well the good news is that over the years right whale ship-strikes have shown a decline… though not directly coincident with the introductions of the SMAs (the decline started from 2007, the zones were implemented in 2008).  The researchers also note that active SMAs only encompass 36% of historical right whale strikes.  32% of the historical strikes occurred when the SMAs were active, but not in the areas the SMAs covered.

So whats going on here?  Well the team believe that the decline is right-whale strikes is likely down to a combination of measures introduced earlier – like voluntary and mandatory routing changes in the Bay of Fundy.  They also suggest that the SMAs themselves may not be as effective as they could be because of low vessel compliance (estimated to be around 21 – 33% between 2009 & 2011).  They also suggest that there is insufficient monitoring to detect just how effective these management areas are…meaning the management strategy could never adapt to be ‘better’ because no one knew that there was a potential issue.  The last major issue the researchers highlight is the timing and location of the SMAs.  The SMAs cover critical habitat and calving areas for the right whales but they are missing in the ‘migratory corridor’ that run along the east coast.  It is in this corridor where whales are most often sighted, and it in this corridor where strikes were frequent outside the active SMAs.  In essence, the SMAs are “spatially insufficient in certain seasons”.

Because the researchers only included records of animals found dead (either at sea or on shore) and not those found with serious injuries that most likely lead to death, actual mortality could be underestimated…and likely is – not all dead whales end up on shore, or float on the surface until spotted.  Which brings up another point.  Where the dead whales were spotted is not necessarily where they died (especially on shore).  The researchers recognise this, but note that drift data dead whales that were struck by ships is limited, and that drift would differ with location, making it difficult to determine where the whales actually died.

The paper which was published in Conservation Letters , and has been made open access.  You can have a read of it here http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/conl.12105

 

Image: North Atlantic Right Whale.  Credit Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Conservation & Sustainable Management, Marine Life

Whale Watch Out (ship strikes on whales)

Humans have always had an impact on whales.  From prehistoric times, whaling was a key feature of many human communities.  Meat, skin, and organs provided food.  Bones became tools, and baleen a strong fibrous material for fishing lines, roofs, and baskets.  With the industrialization of an unregulated commercial whaling industry, whale numbers plummeted across the globe.  On 2nd December 1942 the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling which was signed.  The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established to ensure “the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry”.  Today, whaling has largely declined, undertaken by just a handful of countries and whale-dependent communities.  Never-the-less the human impact on this enigmatic group has not ceased.  Like many marine species, whales can be impacted through overfishing their prey, ocean warming and acidification, noise pollution, toxins in the water, and loss of essential habitat.  Perhaps most noticeable to the public is when whales come into contact with vessels, seemingly often with fatal results.

 

A number of cases of whale strikes have made the news.  In September 2010 a blue whale was found on a cargo ship bow in the Port of Oakland.  April 2014, a fifty-five foot fin whale was found on a container ship bow in New York Harbour.  It’s not just commercial shipping that poses a strike risk to whales.  Going through historical reported strikes on humpback whales in Hawaiian waters, researcher Dr Marc Lammers from the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology discovered that 61% of the strikes involved tour boats – whale watchers, snorkelers, and divers.  This only reflects reported strikes, with “The lack of incidents reported involving large ships [being] somewhat curious“.  Not everyone reports strikes, even when they are supposed to do so.  With the data we do have, the impact of strikes on some whale populations appears somewhat minimal.  The endangered North Pacific humpback population, Dr Lammers notes, is currently experiencing an estimated 6% annual increase in population size.  More recently, University of Washington Doctoral student Cole Monnahan noted that the endangered eastern North Pacific blue whale population has also experienced an increase, with ship strikes having little impact on their recovery.  More so, Cole and colleagues estimate that an 11-fold increase in strikes would result in a 50% change that the long-term population would drop below ‘depleted’ levels.   Not all whale populations have experienced recovery though.  Despite commercial whaling of the Antarctic blue whale ceasing in 1972, analysis lead by aquatic and fisheries scientist Dr Trevor Branch of the University of Washington estimated that the population continues to remain just under 1% of its pre-hunted abundance.  For such populations, strikes may impede population recovery.

 

Regardless of population status, strikes are undesirable.  “Nobody wants to hit a whale” states John Berge, Vice President of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, “for the same reasons that nobody driving down the highway wants to hit a deer, or a possum, or a skunk”….

The full article was published and can be read in The Marine Professional – a publication of the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology (IMarEST)

Image: By Pier Nirandara/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)