The GEMM Lab has been studying blue whales in New Zealand since Dr. Leigh Torres first hypothesized the existence of an undocumented foraging ground in the South Taranaki Bight in 2013. Three years of comprehensive vessel-based data collection took place in the summers of 2014, 2016, and 2017, and hydrophones deployed in the STB recorded blue whale vocalizations for two full years. Drawing on multiple lines of evidence, we documented a population of blue whales in New Zealand that are genetically distinct and present year-round, and provided managers with a first population abundance estimate. The South Taranaki Bight (STB) region of New Zealand appears to be a critically important feeding ground for this unique population of blue whales. However, it is also a region heavily exploited by industry, with active oil and gas extraction, seismic surveying, shipping traffic, and proposed seabed mining activity. The discovery of the New Zealand blue whale population has garnered considerable attention from scientists, managers, and stakeholders, leading to a proposal to designate the STB as a marine mammal sanctuary.
Our ongoing multidisciplinary research efforts will enhance our understanding of this recently documented blue whale population through the following objectives:
With the progression of this research project into the data analysis phase we continue building a robust understanding of blue whale ecology in the region. Our findings are providing environmental decision makers in New Zealand and the region with the necessary information on blue whale ecology and biology to effectively manage potential anthropogenic threats.
Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Branch TA, Torres LG (2023). Environmental conditions and marine heatwaves influence blue whale foraging and reproductive effort. Ecology and Evolution, 13(2): e9770.
Barlow DR, Klinck H, Ponirakis D, Holt Colberg M, Torres LG (2022). Temporal occurrence of three blue whale populations in New Zealand waters from passive acoustic monitoring. Journal of Mammalogy, 104(1): 29-38.
Barlow DR, Bernard KS, Escobar-Flores P, Palacios DM, Torres LG (2020) Links in the trophic chain: Modeling functional relationships between in situ oceanography, krill, and blue whale distribution under different oceanographic regimes. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 642:207–225.
Barlow DR, Torres LG, Hodge KB, Steel D, Baker CS, Chandler TE, Bott N, Constantine R, Double MC, Gill P, Glasgow D, Hamner RM, Lilley C, Ogle M, Olson PA, Peters C, Stockin KA, Tessaglia-hymes CT, Klinck H (2018) Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger Species Res 36:27–40.
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Funding for this project was provided by The Aotearoa Foundation, The New Zealand Department of Conservation, The National Geographic Society Waitt Foundation, The Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies (NOAA/CIMRS), Greenpeace New Zealand, OceanCare, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, The International Fund for Animal Welfare, The Thorpe Foundation, and an anonymous donor.
Drawing on multiple lines of evidence, the GEMM Lab has documented a population of blue whales in New Zealand that are genetically distinct and present year-round. Ongoing research efforts will enhance our understanding of this recently documented population and inform management.