Assessment of gray whale vessel response to inform community developed Oregon’s vessel operation guidelines around whales
Investigators: Florence Sullivan, Dr. Leigh Torres
Ecotourism is a movement that seeks to sustain local communities by uniting conservation, travel, and education. To minimize effects on critical animal behavior, ecotourism operations must be carefully managed. This integrative research and outreach project on the Oregon coast found significant differences in gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) behavior when interacting with vessels, and translated results into vessel operation guidelines.
A profitable and growing whale watch industry exists in Oregon, but prior to this project, no regional guidelines existed to protect animals and maintain sustainability of the industry. This study tracked whales and vessels in the summer 2015 using a non-invasive, shore based theodolite and photo-ID techniques. Two sites with differing levels of vessel traffic, Boiler Bay and Port Orford, were monitored for 4 weeks each. Whale focal follows were analyzed to assess behavior state changes relative to location, individual, and vessel presence, vessel type, and distance. We found significant differences in gray whale activity budgets between control and vessel impact conditions, and between study sites.
Concurrent with data collection and analysis, we held multiple community workshops where researchers and stakeholders collaboratively discussed results to create scientifically informed vessel operation guidelines that balance the economic and educational gains of a whale watch industry with adequate protection of the observed whale population. Participants included whale watch operators, fishermen, local NGOs and conservation groups, Oregon Parks and Recreation, community members and other interested parties.
The developed guidelines are based on NOAA’s guidelines, but specified toward Oregon coastal waters and gray whales. We produced a visually engaging brochure that has been distributed broadly along the Oregon coast to reach boaters of all kinds, and developed a website to communicate the guidelines and foundational research broadly.