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.

So far, we’ve quantified summer-fall spatial and temporal distribution of Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea beluga populations (Hauser et al. 2014).

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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. 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.

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.

Spatiotemporal overlap of Arctic marine mammal habitat and sea ice navigability

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 are using remotely sensed sea ice data combined with case studies of specific species as well as a broader conceptual model to investigate the intersection of key habitat and shipping routes. We intend to examine which species or populations may be disproportionally impacted.

Collaborators: Kristin Laidre (UW), Harry Stern (UW).

 

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), 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. I’m helping on one project to re-examine the number of beluga whales in Alaska’s Eastern Chukchi Sea population, a project led by Lloyd Lowry.

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: