BAR HARBOR — Upcoming new research into the feeding habits of baleen whales in the Gulf of Maine – one of the fastest-warming bodies of water on the planet – could shed light on impacts of climate change on oceans worldwide.
The study of whale foraging ecology will be undertaken by members of College of the Atlantic’s Allied Whale marine mammal research program, in partnership with Cetos Research Organization, during a five-year project beginning in spring 2018.
Paired with data from a similar Allied Whale study done before temperatures began rising so dramatically in the gulf in 2004, this new research will give scientists their first broad picture of how the ocean’s top predators are adapting to a rapidly changing environment.
“The warming gulf has the potential to radically affect prey structure, and we have the control data from before the warming started to go by,” said Allied Whale Director Sean Todd, the Steven K. Katona Chair in Marine Science at COA and a principal investigator on the project.
“This study will provide important insights into the impacts of climate change on the ocean.”
Baleen whales — including minkes, fins, rights and humpbacks — are excellent sentinel species because they are positioned at the top of the ocean’s food chain, Todd said. These top marine predators depend on food resources, such as plankton, that are intimately linked to the ocean’s climate, and changes to their diet and feeding habits can tell scientists much about how climate change and warming waters are impacting ocean life.
The Gulf of Maine, with its rapid warming, is much like the canary in the coal mine — an early warning signal of widespread environmental problems, said Ann Zoidis, COA research associate and co-principal investigator.
“We’re seeing the changes here perhaps earlier and more dramatically than in other bodies of water, but what we’re seeing happen here is going to happen elsewhere — and it’s not just whales, but fish and seabird populations that are being affected,” Zoidis said.
Allied Whale was recently awarded a selective scientific research and enhancement permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to begin the project. The yearlong application process included a thorough vetting of all who will play lead roles in the project, along with Allied Whale’s research history, Zoidis said.
“Everyone involved had to submit a CV, and every individual who has been granted principal or co-principal investigator status has been through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s calculator, the Federal Register, the Marine Mammal Commission and the Office of Protected Resources for evaluation. It’s not an easy permit to get,” Zoidis said.
The NMFS permit allows key Allied Whale researchers to obtain skin samples from whales by using crossbow-delivered biopsy darts. With COA’s Edward McCormick Blair Marine Research Station on Mount Desert Rock, located 25 miles offshore, as their home base, staff and student researchers will use COA research boats to survey nearby whale feeding grounds.
Once researchers have photo-identified the whales, biopsies will be taken from a distance of 50-100 feet. The darts contain hollow-cored tips that core small sections of skin from the animals before falling into the water and floating on the surface for retrieval.
The nature of the study is very similar to one carried out by Todd at Allied Whale from 1999-2003, which broadly surveyed the dietary habits of the same whale species in the gulf. That snapshot in time will now provide a baseline against which to measure the current state of the Gulf food chain, Todd said.
“The opportunity to revisit this particular population of whales in the Gulf of Maine in a methodical fashion is exciting,” Zoidis said. “We all are seeing effects of the world changing rapidly, so to examine how these environmental changes might be affecting marine mammals right here in our backyard is going to be very interesting to all of us.”
Studies like these are necessary if we want to ensure the recovery of endangered whale species, Todd said, but the upcoming work will really have much broader implications.
“It is our sincere hope that by not only presenting our findings to the peer-science community, but also to the lay public, we can demonstrate how climate change can affect a set of iconic species. This can then perhaps influence our society to make better policy decisions to slow the rate of our impact,” Todd said. “In the end, it’s not just about saving whales, it’s about saving the ocean.”
Funding for the study comes from the Eppley Foundation for Research in the form of a $24,000 grant, as well as a grant from the Salisbury Cove Fund for $6,000.
The researchers on this project will comprise the only group collecting biological information from whales in the northern Gulf of Maine. They plan to share their samples with other Northeastern organizations, with potential collaborators such as the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and the New England Aquarium.
Allied Whale is one of the oldest marine mammal research organizations in the eastern United States. Founded in 1972 by Steven Katona and comprising COA faculty, staff, students, senior researchers and research associates, the organization has been instrumental in establishing essential research techniques that are now adopted worldwide. Allied Whale’s research promotes the effective conservation of marine mammal populations and their habitats while providing students with field-based educational opportunities.
Zoidis leads the Cetos Research Organization, a small marine mammal research group that has published precedent-setting findings, especially regarding humpback whales. Cetos has historically been focused on western tropical Pacific populations of whales in Hawaii and the Marianas Islands.