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NOAA Scientists Collecting Information to Restore Marine Mammals and Seabirds in the Gulf of Mexico

June 23, 2023

A survey to update information on abundance and distribution to restore marine mammal and seabird populations in the Gulf of Mexico.

2 pilot whales swim at the ocean surface with dorsal fins exposed, a large white ship is seen on the horizon Pilot whales surface near the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Melody Baran (Permit # 14450)

Scientists recently departed from Pascagoula, Mississippi aboard the NOAA ship Gordon Gunter to collect data to help inform plans to restore marine mammal and seabird populations. The 2-month long vessel survey will be conducted in three legs between June 22nd and August 17th. It will survey more than 3,400 miles of trackline covering the deep waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico. Read our blog series from this survey

During the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, marine mammals and seabirds died and experienced negative health effects from exposure to oil. While restoration efforts are underway, there is limited data to inform planning, implementation, and evaluation of restoration for marine mammals and seabirds. The Vessel Surveys For Abundance and Distribution of Marine Mammals and Seabirds project (PDF, 20 Pages) will address these critical data gaps.

A man looks into a large pair of binoculars mounted on a ship.
Scientist Jesse Wicker observes through the big eyes in the Northern Gulf of Mexico. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Ellie Hartman

This survey will employ the same methods used 5 years ago during the Gulf of Mexico Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species study. The ship will survey along predetermined tracklines, and two observer teams will conduct visual surveys for marine mammals and seabirds. The marine mammal observers will spend most of their time looking through “big eyes” (giant binoculars) searching for animals. Once they spot a marine mammal, they will identify the species, determine the group size, and take photos. The seabird observers will perform similar tasks using handheld binoculars. There will also be an acoustic team listening for and recording marine mammal vocalizations using a towed array of hydrophones to help add to the data collected by the visual observers.

The Gulf of Mexico Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species study estimated the abundance of marine mammals. It used statistical models to create maps showing the spatial distribution of marine mammals and their habitats. The study also identified possible decreases in the abundance of some oceanic dolphins and changes in the spatial distribution of sperm whales during the last 10 years. This new survey will determine if these trends are continuing by gathering additional data on how many marine mammals and seabirds are in the area and where they are found.

5 dolphins swimming in deep blue water just ahead of white sea spray
Pantropical spotted dolphins riding the bow of the boat. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Laura Dias (Permit # 14450)

These data and updated models will inform long term conservation and management of marine mammal and seabird populations in the Gulf. This will improve the information available to natural resource managers as they try to limit the risks to marine mammal and seabird populations from activities such as aquaculture and wind energy development. The study will help improve restoration planning to make sure that projects are designed to provide the maximum benefits to the species injured during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

This survey is a joint effort between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center

A dark brown birds sits on the end of a long pole attached to a ship at sea.
A brown booby enjoyed the ride on the bow of the NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Last updated by Southeast Fisheries Science Center on July 12, 2023