Spatial ecology, abundance, life history, and population structure of humpback whales and other cetaceans along the US West Coast through the California Current Ecosystem Survey
Cascadia Research under a contract with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) took park in the California Current Ecosystem Survey (CalCurCea) this past summer and fall of 2018. This survey is part of a cetacean and ecosystem study in the California Current that NOAA’s Marine Mammal and Turtle Division has undertaken since 1991. The survey is broken into two phases and Cascadia took park in Phase 1 in conjunction with an SWFSC coastal pelagic fish survey. Cascadia operated our rigid hull inflatable vessels down along the U.S. West Coast, as NOAA’s research vessel, R/V Ruben Lasker conducted line transect surveys. On board the Lasker, experienced marine mammal observers collected visual line transect data along with passive acoustic data to aid in creating abundance estimates for all California Current cetacean species. During Cascadia’s small boat surveys, photo-identifications and biopsy samples were collected and in some cases tag deployments in areas of anticipated whale densities.
Cascadia started the surveys operating out of Neah Bay, Washington in early July of 2018 and continued south through September of 2018, ending our efforts in Santa Barbara, CA. During October and November 2018, Cascadia continued survey efforts in Washington and Northern California to cover areas that we were unable to survey earlier in the summer due to poor weather conditions. This effort ensured all areas of known whale concentrations were adequately covered in 2018.
Surveying the entire coastline using a rigid hull inflatable is a massive undertaking in itself, but even more difficult while trying to coordinate our efforts with a large NOAA ship that is able to continue their track-lines in almost all sea conditions. This project required a lot of planning and last minute adaptations but was made easier with our new mobile field station. We were able to process and preserve samples, we had enough space to bring tagging and disentanglement gear, and we were able to keep our gear and equipment well organized and powered up while trailering the boat from port to port.
In the beginning, Cascadia had two teams of researchers take on this effort, John Calambokidis and James Fahlbusch operated off of Washington hitting Neah Bay, La Push, and Westport, while Kiirsten Flynn and Jenn Tackaberry took on Oregon (Columbia River ports, Garibaldi, Newport, Winchester Bay, Charleston, Bandon, Gold Beach, and Brookings, Oregon) and Northern California (Eureka). Once we reached central and southern California, the teams grew and effort expanded as we coordinated our efforts with additional local projects. James Fahlbusch, Katie Harrington and Kiirsten Flynn worked out of Half Moon Bay, and Bodega Bay, California. In Monterey Bay, Cascadia operated two of their boats while combining CalCurCea photo-Id and biopsy sampling with a multi-organizational research effort lead by Stanford University to tag baleen whales. Jenn Tackaberry, Kiirsten Flynn, Doug Sandilands, and James Fahlbusch then continue on from Monterey Bay along the Big Sur coast to Morro Bay. And the initial survey effort was completed by James Fahlbusch and Kiirsten Flynn as they worked out of Santa Barbara, California for a few days in September. Later in the fall, Jeff Jacobson completed additional surveys out of Eureka, California for Cascadia to cover areas missed due to poor weather. And a final push to cover the Strait of Juan de Fuca (Seikiu, Neah Bay and Port Angeles, Washington) was completed in November by John Calambokidis, Dave Cade, Kiirsten Flynn, Doug Sandilands, and Hillary Foster.
While Cascadia has operated small boats out of many of these ports over the years, this was the most comprehensive continuous coverage completed in one field season. While we used old favorites like Bodega Bay (utilized by Cascadia since the early 90s), new launching areas were discovered including Brookings and Winchester Bay, Oregon. Surveys in Washington and Monterey Bay had killer whale sightings, while baleen whale species including, blue, fin, humpback and gray whales, were seen down the coast. There were some days filled with large feeding aggregations of humpbacks, birds, dolphins, and California sea lions that resulted in hundreds of photo-ids and biopsy samples, but we did have one day where we were skunked and had no marine mammal sightings at all. During our research efforts, we found four entangled humpbacks and helped search for an additional one off the coast of Washington. These efforts resulted in three successful disentanglements and a better understanding of entanglement risk along our coastline. Other highlights included crossing the Columbia River Bar, sightings of two different leatherback turtles, and covering more than 180nm in one day. All total Cascadia’s vessels covered just over 6000nm in their rigid hull inflatables and well over 5000 miles in their vehicle between all the ports.
Please click here to see our contract report of this project.