Phil Bouchet, PhD candidate – CWR/University of Western Australia (UWA)
Phil has been collaborating with the centre for the past five years on a number of projects, combining fieldwork with his academic studies both in Australia and abroad. Having graduated with an MRes in Marine Mammal Science from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, Phil is now enrolled in a PhD at the UWA’s Oceans Institute, with joint supervision by Curt and Micheline Jenner. Phil’s Thesis is titled “Predictive Models of Mobile Oceanic Predator (MOP) Hotspots in the Eastern Indian Ocean”.
His interests lie in the modelling of animal abundance, distribution, movements and habitat usage, especially with respect to rising anthropogenic pressures.
For his PhD degree, Phil is developing statistical models to predict ‘hotspots’ (aggregations) of marine predators (e.g. tunas, sharks, seabirds, turtles or cetaceans) in relation to prominent features of the ocean floor such as offshore seamounts, submarine canyons, or oceanic bank and shoal systems. His research has direct implications for current and future marine spatial planning efforts and the management of threatened species in Australia. Part of his work involves the use of satellite tags as a tool for describing the migration habits of pygmy blue whales in Western Australian waters in relation to seabed topography.
Life is not found randomly across the oceans. Because the survival of many species is conditional on maximising food intake and finding refuge and mates without becoming someone else’s prey, marine animals commonly aggregate into “hotspot” areas as a result of conspecific attraction, niche partitioning, predator avoidance, sheltering or foraging behaviours. In recent years, mapping these regions for protection from anthropogenic disturbances has become a central tenet of biological conservation. While patterns of landscape complexity have long been known to dictate the patchy distributions of free-ranging terrestrial carnivores, whether such topography-driven clustering effects also occur in the pelagic environment remains to be defined.
Phil’s research aims to examine the influence of bathymetric heterogeneity and prominent seafloor structures (e.g. seamounts, submarine canyons, shelf breaks, and offshore islands) on the abundance, distribution, diversity and movements of a broad array of mobile oceanic predators (MOPs), including various species of mammals, seabirds, teleosts, elasmobranchs and reptiles. His goal is to construct statistical models to predict the location, persistence, and extent of wildlife aggregations in the Eastern Indian Ocean and gain a better understanding of their dynamics and relationships with physical features of the ocean floor. This will be achieved using a combination of complementary research techniques, including satellite tagging, baited remote underwater video systems (BRUVS), and vessel-based line transect surveys.
Why this research is important
In recent years, rarefying resources on land and a rapidly growing world population have spurred the need for an increasingly greater share of goods and services to be sourced from the seas. This has led to flourishing demands for both ocean space and access. However, no strategic plan for the spatial usage and sharing of the Indian Ocean currently exists, and the lack of such a framework triggers recurring co-use conflicts between stakeholders and marine wildlife (e.g. bycatch, competition for food, vessel strikes). As numerous biologically, economically and culturally valuable populations of marine predators have been reduced to dangerously low levels, serious concerns have arisen regarding the ecological and societal footprints of a range of recreational, industrial and commercial fishing activities. This study will provide critically needed information on the mechanistic drivers behind wildlife aggregations, and generate a robust tool to assist marine spatial planning in forecasting areas where wildlife and human interests may overlap.
Janelle Braithwaite – PhD candidate – CWR/University of Western Australia (UWA)
Janelle has been involved with whale research and CWR since 2009 and is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Western Australia with co-supervision by Curt Jenner. Janelle completed her undergraduate studies at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.
Her thesis, entitled “Identifying Critical Cetacean Habitats for Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) off the Northwest Coast of Australia” is a core CWR research priority and is an extension of the Jenners earlier studies which resulted in the establishment of the Camden Sound Marine Park, an area encompassing the primary calving grounds for Stock D humpback whales. Her first publication as a result of this work is available in our publications section
During southward migration, the West Australian population of humpback whales (breeding stock D) aggregate in sheltered areas along the coast, called resting areas. Janelle’s research is quantifying the importance of these resting areas to the humpback whale population, and if they can be classed as critical cetacean habitat. The first part of this research is to understand the behavioural ecology of resting areas, including habitat preference and carrying capacity within these areas. The second part will use mathematical modeling to determine if there is an energetic advantage to resting. While humpback whales are migrating, they do not actively feed and rely on their blubber stores to meet the energetic demands of migration and breeding. Any changes in energy budget use over the migration cycle could impact the ability to reach the foraging grounds in the Southern Ocean before these energy stores run out. The model of whale energetics developed in this research aims to determine the impact to this energy budget if the whales could no longer use the resting areas, and so assess how essential resting areas are to whales and if these areas can be defined as critical habitats.
Why this research is important
The WA population of humpback whales is growing quickly, with numbers reportedly increasing by at least 10% every year. At the same time, the WA coastline is becoming more developed for residential and industrial purposes. Therefore, it is important to manage the co-use of ocean space between humans and whales as the demand for space from both sides continues to increase. This study will investigate the space requirement of whales while using resting areas and the implications of future space use with an expanding population. Furthermore, the energetic modeling will provide a new approach in assessing the importance of habitat to a population, providing a quantitative measure of impact under scenarios of disturbance.