How and why is the timing and occurrence of seasonal migrants in the Gulf of Maine changing due to climate?
Plants and animals undergo certain recurring life-cycle events, such as migrations between summer and winter habitats or the annual blooming of plants. Known as phenology, the timing of these events is very sensitive to changes in climate (and changes in one species’ phenology can impact entire food webs and ecosystems). Shifts in phenology have been described as a “fingerprint” of the temporal and spatial responses of wildlife to climate change impacts. Thus, phenology provides one of the strongest indicators of the adaptive capacity of organisms or the ability of organisms to cope with future environmental conditions.
In this study, researchers explored how the timing and occurrence of a number of highly migratory marine animals is changing due to a series of climatic and ecological shifts. First, using existing long-term historical data series and dynamic occupancy models, the team determined how patterns in seasonal occurrence changed for large migratory whales in the Gulf of Maine. Additionally, a synthesis was conducted of regional information on a key, ecologically-important prey fish, sand lance, whose timing and abundance is a strong predictor of the occurrence and behavior of regional fish and wildlife of conservation and management concern. Results from this component of the project identified coastal fish and wildlife species that are more potentially vulnerable to climate change, determined the primary drivers of those changes, and identified data gaps and future monitoring needs.
In a second component of the project, researchers focused specifically on changes in migration patterns of the endangered North Atlantic right whale, which is one of the most endangered species on the planet. In the North Atlantic Ocean, ship strikes and entanglements with commercial fishing gear represent fatal threats to right whales. Right whale habitat models were combined with shipping traffic data to evaluate how changes in right whale movements and behaviors affect their risk of encountering shipping vessels. This information is anticipated to guide regional coastal management and adaptation decision making.
News: National Wildlife Federation, "Circle of Life" magazine article in Aug-Sept 2018 Edition.
Report: Developed assessment criteria for marine mammal stocks in NOAA’s Protected Species Climate Vulnerability Assessment