Vulnerability of Arctic marine mammals to vessel traffic in the increasingly ice-free Arctic sea routes

Arctic sea ice has declined at unprecedented rates, leading to increasingly navigable Arctic sea routes. Transits of the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea route are and will be more common, but a comprehensive accounting of spatial and temporal overlap of these routes with important Arctic marine mammal habitat is currently lacking. We conducted a vulnerability analysis of 80 subpopulations of the seven endemic Arctic marine mammals to vessel traffic in the increasingly ice-free Arctic sea routes. Overall, narwhals are considered most vulnerable.

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A narwhal pod in a sea ice lead in West Greenland. Photo by Kristin Laidre, University of Washington.

Particular regions that are geographic “pinch points” create hotspots of vulnerability, representing obligatory pathways for both migratory marine mammals and vessels transiting sea routes. Our research explores several factors affecting the scale of exposure and sensitivity, and associated uncertainty, which ultimately determined each subpopulation’s vulnerability score.

Collaborators: Kristin Laidre (UW), Harry Stern (UW). Funding by NASA grant NNX16AG33G to H. S. and K. L., with additional support for D.H. from the Collaborative Alaskan Arctic Studies Program.

 

 

Collaborative, community-based science on coastal Arctic change

My research is increasingly collaborative with indigenous Alaskans, who traditionally rely on coastal marine resources for cultural, nutritional, and spiritual needs.

I serve as Science Lead for the Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub (AAOKH), a unique melding of individuals and organizations involved in community engagement, youth education, and equity through community-based coastal change observations. AAOKH is focused on community-based monitoring of sea ice, ocean, and wildlife observations by indigenous experts across northern Alaska coastal communities. Follow our latest observations on our facebook page!

 

Ikaaġvik Sikukun is another project that involves co-production of research goals among local indigenous experts and our science team (composed of an oceanographer, sea ice geophysicist, ethnographer, film maker, and me as a marine biologist). Our team of local advisors have helped guide the research questions as well as recent data collection, and they will contribute to the continued interpretation of our results as it relates to community concerns and interests.

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Two of our Ikaaġvik Sikukun elder advisory council members, Cyrus Harris and John Goodwin, consider research approaches to examine changes in ringed seal breeding lair structure integrity next to a ringed seal breathing hole during on-ice field work in Kotzebue Sound, May 2018.

Primary collaborators (AAOKH): Hajo Eicken (UAF), Oliva Lee (UAF), Josh Jones (UAF), and observers from Wales, Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wainwright, Utqiaġvik, and Kaktovik. We are recruiting more observers! See here.

Primary collaborators (Ikaaġvik Sikukun): Christopher Zappa (Columbia University), Andy Mahoney (UAF), Alex Whiting (Native Village of Kotzebue), Sarah Betcher (Farthest North Films), and elder advisory council: Cyrus Harris, Bobby Schaeffer, John Goodwin, and Ross Schaeffer. Funding from the Moore Foundation.

 

Beluga whale migration, distribution, and behavior in a changing Pacific Arctic: patterns and processes

Arctic marine ecosystems are experiencing some of the most prominent physical signals of global climate change, demonstrated as unprecedented rates of seasonal ice loss occurring over broad spatial scales. This research establishes benchmarks in the ecology of two beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) populations and considers the implications of dramatic physical changes at the highest trophic levels of Arctic marine ecosystems. The overarching questions involve behavioral responses of beluga whales to their highly seasonal and patchy environment, based on nearly 20 years of satellite-tagging data.

Our research has quantified summer-fall spatial and temporal distribution of Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea beluga populations (Hauser et al. 2014), as well as how habitat selection varies seasonally and among populations and males or females (Hauser et al. 2017).

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See Hauser et al. (2014) for details and additional acknowledgements of individuals, organizations, and funding supporting tagging efforts. Please contact me before using this animation.

Other recent work identified regional foraging behavior as well as associations with prey such as Arctic cod (Hauser et al. 2015). We found that belugas can dive deeply (>900 m) in basin habitats >3000 m – that’s over 1/2 a mile! Some recent press here and here based on this press release.

Additional analyses are focused on assessing the impacts of changing sea ice regimes on belugas, including shifts in migration timing, diving behavior, and habitat selection. One recent paper in Global Change Biology shows that belugas can flexibly respond to changing Arctic conditions, but responses may not be uniform across populations. We also modeled few significant shifts in habitat selection by these beluga populations during 1990-2014, despite substantial changes in sea ice cover (Hauser et al. 2018). These results suggest that sea ice cover is not as important in determining
summer-fall habitat use as ocean features, which may allow belugas to adjust to sea ice loss. However, Chukchi belugas tagged during 2007-2012 dove deeper and for longer periods than those tagged during 1998-2002, presumably due to changing prey
distribution or availability occurring with sea ice changes. Deeper diving behavior takes more energy, but it is unclear what these behavioral changes mean
for the health of the population. Thus, predictions for the future are complicated and it is unclear what the long-term implications of responding (or not) are for population viability. Some coverage on this work here and video here.

Check out a summary of our recent beluga whale work here!

Primary collaborators: Kristin Laidre (University of Washington, UW), Robert Suydam (North Slope Borough), Pierre Richard (retired, Fisheries & Oceans Canada)
Additional collaborators: Harry Stern (UW), Kate Stafford (UW), Sue Moore (National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS), Sandra Parker-Stetter (NMFS), John Horne (UW).
Collaborating organizations: The Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, Village of Point Lay, North Slope Borough, Alaska Department of Fish & Game, and National Marine Fisheries Service have substantially supported and collaborated on the long-term tagging of Chukchi Sea belugas, as have communities within the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Fisheries Joint Management Committee, and researchers at Fisheries & Oceans Canada collaborated on studies of Beaufort Sea belugas. Funding for analyses from the UW School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences, UW IGERT Program on Ocean Change, and NASA.

 

 

Effects of disciplinary reporting on the interpretation of marine climate change

To understand how climate change in global oceans is interpreted among physical, chemical, and biological marine scientists, I have been involved in an extensive literature review as part of a National Science Foundation-sponsored Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) at the University of Washington. We recently published the first stage of our analysis identifying discipline-specific biases (Hauser et al. 2016), and we’re engaged in additional work to consider the spatial and temporal scales of investigation as well as trends in publications among disciplines. Some recent press here.

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Collaborators: Liz Tobin (University of Alaska Fairbanks, UAF), Kirsten Fiefel (Washington Department of Ecology), Vega Shah (UW), Diana Pietri (UW). Funding from UW IGERT Program on Ocean Change

 

Harbor seal ecology in Iliamna Lake, Alaska

A unique population of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) is considered resident in Iliamna Lake, Alaska, constituting only the second known population of harbor seal thought to remain in freshwater year-round (the other population occurring in Quebec, Canada). Iliamna Lake boasts one of the largest runs of spawning sockeye salmon in the world, and salmon make up the largest proportion of Iliamna seal diets during the summer (Hauser et al. 2008). img_0194

In 2015, I returned to the UW Alaska Salmon Program field camp in Iliamna Lake to collect scat samples and remote imagery of haulouts, in collaboration and under permit with NMFS. Scat samples are useful to not only build on our knowledge of seal diets, but also are being analyzed for fecal DNA to help identify the discreteness of this population from regional marine populations. Haulout images are being analyzed to examine the environmental factors influencing haulout patterns, specifically how they might vary from marine populations.

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Collaborators: Thomas Quinn (UW), Peter Westley (UAF), Marine Mammal Laboratory/National Marine Fisheries Service

 

Habitat use and population ecology of Arctic monodontids (belugas & narwhals) 

I’m also involved in several projects aimed at understanding shifting patterns of habitat use by the only endemic toothed whales of the Arctic (i.e. monodontids). For example, I’m contributing to an multidisiplinary project investing changes in narwhal (Monondon monoceros) attendance at West Greenland glaciers, led by Kristin Laidre (UW) and Twila Moon (University of Oregon). This figure is from our recent paper in Biology Letters, showing the different glacial variables we considered in attendance at glaciers by narwhals tagged with satellite-linked transmitters.

Similarly, there are uncertain and outdated population estimates for most of the >20 beluga populations around the Arctic and sub-Arctic. On recent project re-examined the number of beluga whales in Alaska’s Eastern Chukchi Sea population (see Lowry et al. 2017). I have also contributed to a recent synthesis of beluga whale research in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea (see Stafford et al. 2018).

Past research

I have been involved in several past research endeavors, some as a Marine Biologist for LGL Ltd., a contract biologist for the Fisheries and Oceans Canada or National Marine Fisheries Service, or as a Master’s student at the UW School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences. Some highlights:

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