(previous newsletters: 1998 | 1999 | 2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009)
30 years and counting in 2011.
This newsletter describes our activities in the previous two years (2009 and 2010) and outlines plans for the current year (2011).
Table of Contents:
Copepod multi-year energy content study.
The copepod Calanus finmarchicus is an tiny (2.5-3 mm) marine invertebrate closely related to shrimp, lobsters, and crabs. Large swarms of these copepods (and other species of invertebrates collectively known as zooplankton) can reach into the trillions of individuals in the Bay of Fundy during the summer months. Seabirds, fishes, and marine mammals rely on C. finmarchicus for food in the Bay. Caitlin McKinstry thesis research was the first in the Bay of Fundy to investigate the nutritional quality of C. finmarchicus based on fat (lipid) and energy content (similar to calories) over multiple summers (2006-2010) data which are necessary to investigate annual trends in this marine ecosystem. Researchers have previously found evidence of changes in C. finmarchicus quality over the summer in the Bay of Fundy but had only examined a single year (2002).
Copepod collection in this study using vertical plankton tows included was initially collected during Zach Swaim’s investigation of right whale lipid (fat) metabolism for his Master’s thesis. Without proper assessment of the variation in energetic content of these copepods little can be done to understand how variable the prey supply is for planktivorous foragers (those relying on zooplankton for food such as herring and right whales) in the Bay of Fundy. Changes in quality of the prey for right whales can affect their reproduction. Thin right whale females do not get pregnant, while those with adequate fat reserves may.
These zooplankton samples have been analyzed in Dr. Koopman’s lab, Caitlin’s supervisor, at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) for nutritional quality. Overall, the average energy content of C. finmarchicus only (excluding other zooplankton species collected) was 6.49 ± 0.80 kJ/g wet weight. To put this into perspective, this is about the same energy density as a chicken egg! C. finmarchicus energy and lipid content was highest during the summer of 2007 compared to other years (2006: 6.62 ± 0.69, 2007: 6.77 ± 0.65, 2008: 6.67 ± 0.44, 2009: 5.82 ± 0.90, 2010: 6.38 ± 0.76 kJ/g), but did not show significant variation throughout the summer months. The annual energy content of C. finmarchicus was always higher than those of the overall zooplankton by at least 10%.
Caitlin’s investigation did not support the previous study from the Bay that reported an increasing trend in copepod energy content from spring to early fall. In contrast, the most striking observation was the significant variation in copepod quality (as a prey item) from year to year. C. finmarchicus energy content was 13% lower in 2009 than 2006-2007, which could significantly impact the ability seasonal predators such as the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale to find quality food. These whales visit the Bay each summer to feed on C. finmarchicus. Pregnant female whales must store enough fat from their copepod diet not only for the pregnancy, but for nursing the rapidly growing calf. Yearly variation in the nutritional value of C. finmarchicus could impact female right whales' ability to produce young. Also, variation in the environment, specifically temperature, can impact C. finmarchicus causing variation in size, lipid, and energy content. This could be used as a measure of global climate change.
Caitlin successfully defended her thesis in March 2011, “Annual variation in the energy content and lipid composition of the copepod Calanus finmarchicus from the Bay of Fundy, Canada.”
Funding for this project came from graduate support of Caitlin at UNCW and donations from Friends of the GMWSRS.
Nature’s Seagoing Oil Refineries.
In 2009 also finished the 5th consecutive year of shearwater diet sampling started in 2005. These results were published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series showing subtle partitioning of diet between Great and Sooty Shearwaters. Both species fed mainly on herring and krill, staples of the Bay of Fundy, but from 2007 onward there was an increase in squid in their diets, perhaps marking a change in the ecosystem of the Bay. We continued our diet sampling in 2010 and hope to follow with long-term, 10-year, monitoring of shearwater diets to examine possible fluctuations in the Fundy prey base.
This work was funded by the New Brunswick Wildlife Trust Fund, The Ocean Fund, Environmental Damages Fund, and the National Geographic Society, the latter awarded to Dr. Koopman.
Great Shearwater. Journey to Inaccessible
Island. Rob Ronconi
Rolanda Steenweg, Environmental Science honours student from Dalhousie University, joined the team in 2009 to launch a new study with GMWSRS research biologist Rob Ronconi. They ventured to Kent Island using Bowdoin Scientific Station as their research based to study the diets of Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls during incubation and early chick rearing.
During late May and all of June, they diligently collected more than 80 pellets (regurgitated hard parts of prey remains) from nests and captured 72 gulls for sampling. From captured birds they collected measurements, weight, and samples of feathers and blood. Back in the lab pellets were classified into prey types (a messy and smelly job) and blood/feather samples were subjected to stable isotope analysis of carbon and nitrogen used to assess the diets of birds.
Not surprisingly, fish and crabs made up the bulk of gull diets followed by lesser amounts of krill, mussels, urchins, insects, and even small birds like sparrows and storm-petrels. Stable isotope analysis provided some interesting and unexpected information about how food is partitioned between adults and chicks of both species. Great Black-backed Gull adults consistently fed at higher trophic levels (higher up the food chain) than Herring Gulls. But, both species provisioned their young from lower trophic level food types, most likely lots of krill – this is different from most other seabirds that provision their young with higher trophic level food.
In 2009 we also deployed the first ever satellite tags on Herring Gulls in the Bay of Fundy. Three birds were tagged on Kent Island in May allowing us to follow their movements during nesting, migration, and back to Fundy again the next year(s). All three birds over-wintered on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay between Maryland and Virginia, USA. The solar powered tags allow long-term tracking – one individual has been continuously tracked for just shy of 2 years now!!! To see more visit: www.seaturtle.org/tracking/?project_id=428
Rolanda graduated with her honours in 2010 and is publishing this work in the journal Condor. This work was funded by the New Brunswick Wildlife Trust Fund, The Ocean Fund, and Environment Canada’s Environmental Damages Fund.
Basking Sharks—Diving Profiles
The basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) is the second largest fish in the world found throughout the temperate waters of the western North Atlantic. Their ‘basking’ nature also makes them susceptible to ship strikes. Basking sharks are currently recognized as Vulnerable worldwide by the IUCN and on the eastern seaboard of Canada were recently assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as a species of Special Concern because “this ... species is particularly susceptible to population declines because it takes up to 18 years to reach maturity and females are pregnant for about two and half years, one of the longest periods of any animal. The total population is estimated to be about 5 000 adults. The Pacific population of Basking Shark, which was once abundant and now rarely seen, was assessed as Endangered in 2007. This highlights the vulnerability of the wildlife species as a whole. "(COSEWIC Website).
During the summer months large numbers are seen in the Bay of Fundy. Their primary prey, Calanus copepods, are found in dense deep layers during the day and in shallower, more diffuse layers at night. It is believed that sharks congregate in the Bay to take advantage of this predictable prey base. Given that ecological information on basking sharks in both Canadian and US waters is currently lacking, and their status currently unknown, the GMWSRS began a research program to learn more about basking shark behaviour and the conservation risks these animals face while summering in the Bay of Fundy.
The first objective of the project was to record, for the first time, the detailed diving behaviour and movement patterns of basking sharks in the temperate waters of the western North Atlantic. Despite the fact that basking sharks are the largest fish found in this region, huge gaps remain in our understanding of their foraging behaviour, movement patterns, abundance, and vulnerability to negative human interactions. We designed and built a device that attaches to the dorsal fin that incorporates both a time-depth-speed recorder (TDR), and a satellite/VHF radio transmitter. The TDR collects time-stamped depth, water temperature and swimming speed data and the radios provide animal locations during the deployments, as well as a means to recover jettisoned tags. A calibrated galvanic release corrodes in seawater (1 -7 days) allowing the tag to detach, float to the surface, and be recovered. Each tag is capable of multiple deployments. Between 2008 and 2010 we have had six successful deployments and have collected over 500 hours of data (Figure 1). While detailed analyses await, one interesting fact has already emerged from this work. Our data show that basking sharks spend a great deal of time at the surface which makes them more vulnerable to collisions with ships than previously thought. This conservation threat, long suspected, has never been documented. If you look at figure 2 you can see positions that were obtained from a tagged shark in 2009. This shark spent one night right in the commercial shipping lanes (white dots within the pink lines) and during this time spent about 80% of the time at the surface. This is the area of the Bay that is frequented by large container and tanker traffic.
We also wanted to enumerate the number of sharks in the Bay of Fundy during summer months. We conducted an aerial survey on Sept 11, 2009 (990.8 km or 2% of the lower Bay) in a high wing Cessna. We saw 12 basking sharks which were input into a computer model, correcting for areas not covered and sharks not seen because they were underwater, which resulted in an estimate 732 sharks (range 243-2208). Basking shark densities are probably not uniform in these waters so this is very likely an over-estimate of the true abundance. While this is only a single point estimate we feel it more accurately reflects typical densities of sharks that are found in the Bay in summer than the 4000 sharks suggested by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. We are hoping that we can repeat the survey in 2011 pending funding.
As a final initiative we proposed to expand our study and determine where basking sharks go in the winter and what routes they take to get there. Recent studies revealed that Cape Cod basking sharks migrated down the eastern seaboard with some individuals being tracked as far as Brazil. Another study showed trans-Atlantic migration of a basking shark from the U.K. to Newfoundland. By attaching archival pop-up data loggers to Bay of Fundy basking sharks (Figure 4) we can monitor their movements as they migrate to presently unknown wintering grounds. Revealing year round habitat preference will allow their conservation status to be more fully addressed and potential threats outside the summering grounds to be assessed. These data will also allow assessment of their population status i.e. whether they are contiguous with Gulf of Maine/Cape Cod populations or represent a unique stock. We had planned to deploy these tags during 2010 but the basking sharks did not cooperate. Despite over 40 hours of surveys last September, we did not see a single shark. Needless to say we will return to Grand Manan in August of 2011 to try again. So stay tuned for the next newsletter that will hopefully contain some exciting new migratory information!
Funding for this project came from New Brunswick Wildlife Trust Fund, Ocean Fund—Royal Caribbean to the GMWSRS, and from PADI Foundation and Center of Marine Science to Andrew Westgate and UNCW.
Lobster Egg Study
Heather Koopman has been carrying out research on reproductive output and measures of egg quality by female American lobsters since 2008. She has been working in cooperation with the local lobster fishermen of Area 38 (the Lobster Fishing Area into which Grand Manan falls) to examine reproductively active female lobsters and collect samples of their eggs. Female lobsters carry their eggs internally in the ovaries for a year, and then mate with a male at the time that they moult (grow a new, larger shell). After the moult, the eggs are extruded (spawned externally), and attached to the underside of the female’s tail to develop outside of her body for another 10-12 months. Fertilization occurs during the spawning process. Thus the reproductive cycle for American lobsters in this area takes two years, culminating in the hatching of the eggs in late summer of the second year. Females carrying eggs externally on their abdomen are referred to as “ovigerous” is scientific terms, but more commonly called “berried” as the eggs resemble clusters of berries underneath the female’s tail.
Lobsters are unusual invertebrates because they have a very long lifespan – potentially over 60 years and up to 100, although we don’t know for sure as there is no certain way to age a lobster. Size can be used as an approximation for age, but when lobsters get older this will be an underestimate, as they tend to moult less frequently as they age. This long lifespan, however, raises interesting questions about whether older females are able to keep producing as many eggs, and of the same quality, as younger lobsters. A decline in reproductive output with age, prior to mortality, is called “reproductive senescence”, a familiar concept to people, as we know that our grandmothers don’t reproduce anymore! However no one has ever examined this in lobsters, because all of the previous research on lobster reproduction has been carried out in places where really large (and presumably very old) lobsters are not found. The waters of Bay of Fundy are home to many very large males and females, and therefore LFA 38 is the perfect place to ask whether lobsters exhibit any signs of reproductive senescence. All published studies to date state that reproductive output increases as females get larger, but the largest lobsters examined in any one of these studies are those that actually fall into the “small” and “medium” part of the size range that lobsters have in the Bay of Fundy – so there is a lot we can learn from these large lobsters!
Koopman has been going out with some of the lobster fishermen during September, December and June of 2008-2010. On board she measures the size of every berried female lobster that comes up in a trap, the size of its egg clutch, and takes a sample of the eggs for further analysis. The lobsters are then immediately returned to the water. A total of 31 days at sea has yielded measurements of 947 berried females with egg samples collected from 596 of these. The egg samples have been analyzed for lipid content, fatty acid composition, energy content, size, and development rate by Koopman and some of her students at UNCW (Zach Siders and Emily Probst). Thus far the data are revealing two main conclusions: 1. some of the largest (oldest) females are producing fewer eggs, and eggs of lower quality, than are the “large” and “medium” sized lobsters. In other words, our measures of reproductive quality peak in the intermediate sized lobsters – similar to the pattern you see in most mammals. 2. To complicate point #1, there is significant annual variation in patterns of investment into eggs by females of different sizes from year to year, pointing to the need for a long term study and incorporation of environmental variables such as water temperature and weather patterns. Koopman recently presented the preliminary results at the Fishermen and Scientists Research Society Workshop on Lobster Biology in Truro, NS in March 2011 to a group of lobster fishermen, scientists, and government (DFO) representatives. The group showed great interest in the study and had some interesting suggestions. The lobster egg quality study will continue in 2011 and in years to come to increase our dataset and better measure annual differences as well as other aspects of the environment and of female lobster biology and behaviour – although Heather would certainly prefer to sample in June rather than December, she is ready for another winter of egg collection in 2011-2012!
Funding for this project was awarded to Dr. Koopman from Maine SeaGrant and North Carolina SeaGrant in 2008 and 2009 and the kind donations of GMWSRS Friends.
Harbour Porpoise Release Program
The HPRP was fully active during both summers, ready to assist local fishermen with the release of harbour porpoises and whales from their herring weirs. 2009 and 2010 represented the 19th and 20th years, respectively, of this important conservation partnership between researchers and fishermen.
In 2009 formal weir checks began on July 15th and were carried out well into August. A total of 17 porpoises were recorded in weirs in summer 2009. Most of these entrapments occurred in August, which is typically when we see the highest numbers of porpoise around and when most swim into weirs. Of the 17 entrapped porpoises, 10 swam out unassisted and 3 were actively released; the fate of the additional 4 porpoises was not documented – however we did not record any mortalities this year. In addition, 4 minke whales were reported in weirs, but all of these were also successfully released or swam out unassisted.
In 2010 weir checks started a bit later this summer, on August 6, but they continued longer and the last checks of weirs were made in early October. In 2010 we recorded 30 porpoises in weirs. Of these, 7 were released, 8 swam out on their own, 14 swam out when the fishermen lowered the top twine in the weir, and there was one mortality during seining, which occurred before we arrived on the island. The strategy of lowering the twine is extremely effective, as the porpoises can swim out on the high tide. This approach can only be used, however, when the weir is not full of fish. Nonetheless it is another useful way in which porpoises (and other animals) can be released from weirs with little risk to the animals and less effort on the part of the fishermen. The twine can be retied to the stakes on the next high water and the weir can once again fish for herring. We also recorded 2 minke whales in weirs in 2010 but fortunately both of these were able to swim out unaided.
We recorded more than ~25 porpoises in 2010, the first year since 2005, in weirs around Grand Manan (previous years: 2006 - 16 porpoises, 2007 - 21 porpoises, 2008 - 14 porpoises). Whether this represents a shift in porpoise distribution is unclear at this time. Herring landings from the weir fishery have been unpredictable and generally low in many regions for the past few years, indicating that there are fewer fish close to shore. This may explain why, even though 2010 represented a jump in entrapments at 30 animals, these numbers are far below the peaks we experienced of > 100 in 2004 and >300 in 2001.
Plans for 2011. In 2011 we will be ready, as usual, to check weirs and to assist fishermen with the release of porpoises from their weirs. The HPRP will be in its 21st season this year, and many of the original HPRP Team members will still be participating in the program this year. We would like to express our thanks to the weir fishermen, who are extremely cooperative and creative in efforts to safely release porpoises and other entrapped animals.
We are very grateful to Friends of the GMWSRS and to Connors Brothers for the long term support we have received for this program and hope to continue to receive in the future. We would like to upgrade some of the safety and navigation equipment on our weir check vessel this year, but this will require additional funding.
Right Whale Stewardship, Right Whales & Sperm Whales
Funding from the Government of Canada Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk helped us develop an educational program for schools and other community groups willing to learn more about right whales and how they can make a difference.—How to become a Right Whale Steward. The program can be found on our Adopt Right Whales website www.AdoptRightWhales.ca. It is fitting that this program was developed in a year (2009) when record numbers of right whale calves were born—39, of which many came into the Bay of Fundy with their mothers. A treat was to see Calvin and her second calf. Calvin was the right whale calf that was orphaned at eight months of age when her mother, Delilah, was killed in the Bay of Fundy.
In 2010, 19 calves were born and the right whale population was estimated at about 470 animals, a tremendous increase for this still highly endangered species, largely due to a continued “baby boom” and hopefully the conservation efforts that have been undertaken to protect right whales from premature deaths. While hope was high that right whales would be regulars in the Bay of Fundy, the summer and fall saw few right whales, but surprisingly sperm whales were regularly seen from late July through October in the deep Grand Manan Basin. This is the first time that this species of whale was resident in the Bay. and possibly seven or more individuals were present.
Humpbacks whales were also seen more frequently in 2009 and 2010. Humpback whales are common in the Bay of Fundy but they are often beyond the range of the whale watch vessel, “Elsie Menota” (Whales-n-Sails Adventures). Photographs of right whales taken by Laurie are sent to the New England Aquarium for inclusion in the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalogue. Humpback whale fluke photographs are sent to the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies and Allied Whale at the College of the Atlantic. The sperm whale photographs will be part of a note describing the occurrence of sperm whales in the Bay.
Laurie continued to work with the Fisheries and Oceans Species At Risk North Atlantic Right Whale Network and was a participant in the Fisheries and Oceans fall aerial surveys. These data were provided to a “Whale Hotline” for fishermen so they could be cautious when lobster fishing if right whales were in the area. Six surveys were conducted in 2009 beginning 28 October until 19 November but only one survey was done in 2010, 3 November, reflecting the low numbers of right whales.
Right whales continue to get entangled in ropes presumably from fishing gear, despite conservation efforts. Some whales do get out of the rope themselves but others need intervention. The case of the young right whale in the winter of 2011, Picasso’s 2009 calf, was heartbreaking. Despite valiant efforts to sedate the whale and remove much of the entangling rope, the whale’s condition was very poor and she did not survive.
Collisions with small vessels have continued to leave right whales with zipper like scars across their backs and even their heads. Right whales can not get out of the way of fast moving vessels. Collisions with large vessels are fatal.
Too many deaths of right whales occur every year. In a two month period in 2010 three dead whales were discovered. A dead male right whale drifted ashore in Nova Scotia August 15, 2010. Due to the advance decomposition, it was suspected but difficult to confirm that entanglement may have been the cause of death. The whale did, however, also have broken bones. A male found near Cape May, NJ, in June that had a chronic entanglement and a young female in early July near Jonesport, ME, had propeller cuts. Calves are not immune from entanglement or collision and several of the 2009 calves had open wounds from entanglement, including one that had a shark bite.
For more information about right whales you can access the quarterly editions of Right Whale News at www.narwc.org. We also try to keep our blog updated (www.AdoptRightWhales.blogspot.com) with right whale information, particularly about the whales in our adoption program.
Gift Shop, Museum & School Groups
We have begun to have the museum ready by mid-May in recent years for visiting groups but do not keep regular hours until the beginning of June. No significant additions were made to the museum collection, although we are hoping to finish a couple of skeletons for display and possibly get a set of fin whale jaws.
The Gaskin Museum of Marine Life had the lowest number of visitors since 1996 in 2009 (4829) reflecting a higher Canadian dollar, passport requirements, continuing poor economic situation in the U.S. and high gasoline prices keeping visitors away from Grand Manan. We were, however, able to keep our expenses lower by not purchasing as much stock. In 2010, the number of visitors increased to 5419 and the sales increased accordingly. Again we kept our expenses as low as possible but salary costs continue to rise as the provincial government increases the minimum wage every six months to bring it in line with other provinces. It takes careful managing to keep the gift shop supporting costs not covered by grants and other sources of funding and essentially keeping our doors open. We look forward to further improvements in the number of visitors and sales in 2011 with the arrival of the new Grand Manan ferry, the Grand Manan Adventure, but increasing gasoline prices, the Canadian dollar at par with the US dollar, and economic woes may prove to keep numbers low.
As usual, the kindergarten class and their reading buddies visited the museum in June of each year, after Laurie spoke to the classes. In 2010, Laurie also worked with the Grade 4/5 classes in the White Head and Grand Manan schools for an aquatic adventure at the Anchorage Provincial Park. This is part of the Ducks Unlimited school program, Webfoot Project.
In 2009 we had Jennie MacCosham, Diana Green, Adrienne Guptill, Michelle Martin, Jesse Gagne, Annie Gagne, and Brenda Bass staff the museum and gift shop. In 2010 Michelle Martin, Brenda Bass, Jesse Gagne, and Kate Richardson were the staff, with Laurie supervising and filling in during June, September and October. The federal Summer Placement Program paid for eight weeks of salary in both 2009 and 2010.
The GMWSRS is part of the Bay of Fundy Disentanglement Network and the Maritimes Marine Animal Response Network. We may be called upon to respond to a dead animal on the beach or an entangled whale at sea at any time. On July 27, 2010, the Whale Center of New England sighted an entangled humpback whale off the middle of Stellwagen Bank. The whale, identified as Sodapop, was not seen again until it was spotted by our research crew off Grand Manan on September 10 while they were looking for basking sharks. Without disentanglement equipment on board the small vessel, the sighting was called in but unfortunately due to the distance from responders (Campobello Whale Rescue Team) and time of day no response could be mounted. The whale could not be found in later days in the area. The whale was not seen until May 2, 2011, when the Center for Coastal Studies found it on Stellwagen Bank again. At some point during the winter the whale likely shed the entangling rope itself.
Each year to ensure its continuation and recognize its importance, we contribute to the University of Guelph’s Gaskin Medal in Freshwater and Marine Biology. It was established in 1999 by the University to honour our late founder, Dr. David Gaskin, and is awarded annually to the graduating student with the highest accumulative average. This year the University temporarily rescinded a number of their awards because of the current financial crisis. Fortunately the Department of Integrated Biology recognized the importance of this medal and went ahead with the award. Here is a list of the winners since its inception:
1999: Cheryl Tinson 2005: Stephanie Johnston 2011: Siobhan O'Sullivan
2000: David Hardie 2006: Roger Thiessen
2001: Noreen Kelly 2007: Jessica Van Zwol
2002: James Histed 2008: Alexander Dalton
2003: Daniel Lingwood 2009: Sarah Larocque
2004: Lindsay Jennings 2010: Heather Elizabeth Braid
THANK YOU for IN KIND
THE YEAR 2011
Adopt Right Whales — www.AdoptRightWhales.ca. We happily enclose a copy of our new program designed to provide information to those interested in helping right whales and raise funds at the same time. Donations can be made at three levels, individual whales ($40), mothers and calves ($75) and families ($100). You will receive a certificate suitable for framing, information about right whales, and an update about your whale(s) travels. Funding for development of this program has been from private donations, the Fairmont Algonquin Hotel, and Royal Caribbean International. Proceeds will help us continue our research and conservation work. We have added more whales to be symbolically adopted and have a blog, www.AdoptRightWhales.blogspot.com
(previous newsletters: 1998 | 1999 | 2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009)