Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

Science News: Major advance in whale protection and much more…

Encouraging News for Whales

Photo: A grey whale spout near the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Rhett Finley, former Farallon Volunteer Biologist with Point Blue.

We’re thrilled to report a major advance in our collaboration to protect whales. For over a decade, reducing deadly collisions between cargo ships and whales has been a priority for the Point Blue Oceans team. In 2017, we published a seminal paper showing that the actual number of whale deaths from collisions was likely as much as eight times the federal limit for blue whales, and far greater than previous estimates. We’ve maintained that simple changes could eliminate many whale deaths: moving shipping lanes farther off-shore, encouraging vessels to slow down when passing through whale feeding hotspots, and identifying areas to avoid altogether. In recent years, we’ve provided science-based recommendations to NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries and the collaborative efforts that guide new approaches to decrease whale mortality. Earlier this month, NOAA, with support from the US Coast Guard and EPA, announced that the annual vessel speed reduction program for cargo ships in the bay area will increase in size and duration. Thanks, in part, to our research and recommendations, the program will now apply to the full Cordell Bank and Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries and will be in place from May 1 – December 15, a full month longer than before, as described in this recent San Francisco Chronicle article. As an increasing number of whales are calling the Bay Area home, it is great to be able to help make it a safer place for them.

Good Fire Movement

Photo: Point Blue Fire Stewardship Ecologist Taj Hittenberger (second from left) and fellow crew members monitor a controlled burn. Credit: Sashwa Burrous.

Point Blue is continuing to make significant strides in fire ecology. In response to greater challenges like increased temperatures and more drought brought on by climate change, we’ve added a new staff position–Fire Stewardship Ecologist. This role gives us more capacity to address the challenge of how Californians interact with fire. Similar to our Partner Biologist positions, it not only includes a base of rigorous science, but also an essential human element. The Fire Stewardship Ecologist position, filled by former Sonoma-Marin Partner Biologist Taj Hittenberger, will play a community-building role that aims to expand the use of ecologically beneficial fire in managing lands across Northern California. Read more in our recent blog post, featuring an interview with Taj.

We also continue to contribute to the scientific understanding of the effects of an increase in high severity fire on forest ecosystems. Read our publication brief which summarizes a recently published peer-reviewed journal article that was featured on the cover of Diversity and Distributions in March. It evaluates the effects of high severity burn patches on the Sierra Nevada avian community. And check out this recent article from Knee Deep Times interviewing one of the co-authors of that publication, Point Blue’s Alissa Fogg, on the impact of fire to bird habitat.

A Story Map to Shore Up International Conservation

Photo: Yellowlegs species forage in flooded agricultural fields in California’s Central Valley. Credit: Jak Wonderly Photography.

Shorebird conservation is big, in both geography and effort. In Point Blue’s work, it stretches from Alaska to Chile, spanning the northern and southern hemispheres and all of the Americas. Because shorebirds migrate along and live in habitat that spans this entire region, the work of conserving species and habitats requires extensive partnerships as well. The challenges that affect and intersect with shorebird conservation are not small either: sea level rise, drought, water conservation, food production, oil spills and other coastal pollution, irresponsible development, and more. Along with the huge geographic area and big challenges also comes the opportunity to have a positive, course-altering impact at a pace and scale that no one region could accomplish on its own. To help potential partners, stakeholders, and the conservation-minded community understand and visualize these efforts, the Pacific Americas Shorebird Conservation Initiative, of which Point Blue is a partner, recently released a collection of story maps. Scroll through major accomplishments like the first comprehensive shorebird surveys of Guatemala’s Pacific Coast (2018-2020), accompanied with photos that will take you on a journey through wetlands and wildlife up and down the Pacific coast of the Americas. Explore all of the story maps here to understand, get inspired, and get involved.

Cows and Meadows: How do they Mix?

Photo: Steer in a field of native sky lupine, Monterey County, CA. Credit: David A. Litman, Adobe Stock.

Mountain meadows play a critical role in ecosystem health and wellbeing in California. They are biodiversity hotspots that purify, store, and then release cold water, and sequester large amounts of carbon in their soil. Unfortunately, many Sierra meadows are degraded. There is currently a large partnership-driven effort underway to restore degraded meadows to meet state, federal, and global goals that aim to fight climate change and secure a healthy future for human and wildlife communities. Point Blue is a major part of this effort through our leadership of the Sierra Meadows Partnership. Our scientists recently published an extensive literature review in Environmental Management synthesizing the effects of grazing on Sierra meadows. The peer-reviewed studies we evaluated reported 42 negative impacts on resource areas of interest, 7 neutral, and 4 positive. These results suggest restoration goals may be challenging to achieve under the conditions and grazing practices evaluated in these studies, which are common throughout Sierra meadows. These findings can help guide grazing management in Sierra meadows to ensure restoration goals are achieved. Read more in our publication brief.

News Bites

An Update on Sound Science. Get the latest on our partnership project Soundscapes to Landscapes in this 2022 peer reviewed publication and this Bay Nature article. Spoiler alert: bioacoustics looks like a promising new tool to assess and manage for biodiversity at the large scales we need to be working at!

Data-Driven Wind Energy Exploration. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is preparing an Environmental Assessment to review a proposed Humboldt Wind Energy Area related to offshore wind leasing, and potentially, development activities. We want to see offshore wind developed in a way that minimally impacts wildlife and ecosystems. In line with this goal, we created a data catalog that synthesizes the most relevant and accessible environmental datasets within the vicinity, including the nearshore coastal areas of Humboldt County. Read more here.

The First Tribally Nominated Sanctuary. NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has initiated the designation process for the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary off the central coast of California. Point Blue has provided information relevant to supporting this new sanctuary designation, including 20 years of breeding seabird data, analyses on seabird and marine mammal hotspots, and human threats to whales in the region. Learn more here and here.

Supporting Diversity in Polar Research. Polar Impact is an inclusive network of racial & ethnic minorities and allies in the polar research community. Since 2019, they have helped change the face of polar exploration. Read a recent Polar Impact highlight of Point Blue’s GIS Specialist and Polar Explorer Dennis Jongsomjit.

New Tool for Resilience on Working Lands. California FarmLink and longtime Point Blue partner TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation have published a new resource for landowners and the grazing community: A Guide to Regenerative Grazing Leases: Opportunities for Resilience.

What’s Wind Got to Do with It? The base of the ocean food chain which supports charismatic megafauna, like whales and dolphins, and the fish many of us eat, is composed partly of tiny winged animals called pteropods. Some of them need to form shells (like snails) to survive. Changes in the ocean’s chemistry are affecting their ability to access the resources they need to grow these protective components. Read more in a recent publication co-authored by Point Blue scientists.


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