How and why is the timing and occurrence of seasonal migrants in the Gulf of Maine changing due to climate?

Fiscal Year: 
Project Leader: 
Research Partners: 
Daniel Pendleton (John H Prescott Marine Laboratory, New England Aquarium, Central Wharf, Boston, MA)
Project Fellows: 
Science Themes: 

Plants and animals undergo certain recurring life-cycle events, such as migrations between summer and winter habitats or the annual blooming of plants. Known as phenology, the timing of these events is very sensitive to changes in climate (and changes in one species’ phenology can impact entire food webs and ecosystems). Shifts in phenology have been described as a “fingerprint” of the temporal and spatial responses of wildlife to climate change impacts. Thus phenology provides one of the strongest indicators of the adaptive capacity of organisms (or the ability of organisms to cope with future environmental conditions).

Phase I:

In this study, researchers are exploring how the timing and occurrence of a number of highly migratory marine animals is changing due to a series of climatic and ecological shifts. First, using existing long-term historical data series, they will determine the direction and magnitude of how migration, abundance, or other phenological factors have changed for marine mammals, sea turtles, and fishes that migrate into the Gulf of Maine on a seasonal basis. Because marine animals are inherently difficult to detect, the team will apply dynamic occupancy models to evaluate seasonal migration patterns and habitat use across multiple habitats in the Gulf of Maine region. The project team will also synthesize regional information on a key, ecologically-important prey fish, Sandlance, whose timing and abundance is a strong predictor of the occurrence and behavior of predator species targeted in this study as well as a range of other regional fish and wildlife of conservation and management concern. Results from this component of the project will identify coastal fish and wildlife species that are relatively more or less able to adapt and thus potentially vulnerable to climate change; determine the likely primary drivers of those changes; and identify data gaps and future monitoring needs. Ultimately, this information will be available and useful for regional coastal management and adaptation decisions that will allow managers to effectively plan for the future.

Phase II:

In a second component of the project, researchers will focus specifically on changes in migration patterns of the endangered North Atlantic right whale. While shifts in the distribution and time of recurring life events are adaptive responses that may help species cope with climate impacts, they can also lead to changes in how species interact with humans. The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered whale species on the planet. In the North Atlantic Ocean, ship strikes and entanglements with commercial fishing gear represent fatal threats to right whales. Recent reports suggest that North Atlantic right whale migration patterns have changed. Many researchers posit that shifts in migration are responsible for recent increases in the overlap between right whales and human activities, especially fishing. To help understand how changes in right whale movements and behaviors may overlap with ship traffic, and thus put the animals at risk of encountering vessels, we will combine right whale habitat models with ship traffic maps. The end result will be a set of maps identifying risk levels.


  • Staudinger, M., D. Pendleton, and A. Jordaan. "Climate-induced shifts in phenology: Case studies of fish, whales, and seabirds in the Gulf of Maine." The Effects of Climate Change on the World's Oceans, Session 8 -Understanding the impact of Abrupt Ocean Warming and Continental Scale Connections on marine productivity and food security via Western Boundary Currents. Washington DC. June 2018
  • Daniel Pendleton "Changing distributions of large whales: How climate, oceanography and biology influence movement of the largest animals on Earth Location: New England Aquarium – Brown bag lecture series" January 25, 2018.
  • Daniel Pendleton “Changing distributions of large whales: How climate, oceanography and biology influence movement of the largest animals on Earth” New England Aquarium IMAX theater, Lowell Lecture Series. November 8, 2017
  • Daniel Pendleton "Tracking phenological changes for North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of Maine using multi-season occupancy models" Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, Halifax, Nova Scotia. October 23-27, 2017
  • Kate Jones, Greater Atlantic Region Stranding Conference (GARSCON), Hull, MA. October 10-13, 2017
  • D. Pendleton presented at the 2017 Right Whale Consortium meeting, October 2017.
  • D. Pendleton presented at the Society for Marine Mammalogy Biennial conference, October, 2017.
  • On September 29 2017, D. Pendleton participated in the New York regional Species Distribution Modeling group meeting at the American Museum of Natural History. He met with Morgan Tingley of the University of Connecticut and worked through the details of the [then] current occupancy model.
  • D. Pendleton presented at the American Museum of Natural History in the fall of 2017.
  • On July 18 2017 we held a one-day meeting at the New England Aquarium (NEAq) to discuss NOAA seal stranding data and Shoals Marine Lab harbor and grey seal data. Kate Jones presented her work on seal stranding data and Gabrielle Calandrino presented her work on SML seal data.
  • D. Pendleton presented plans and research complete date at the NE CASC Regional Science Meeting Incorporating Climate Science in the Management, May 15-17, 2017.
  • Michelle Staudinger, "The ecological role of sand lance in the Gulf of Maine through a climate change lens" at the Sand Lance in the Northeast Workshop Parker River NWR, Newburyport MA. May 8 & 9th, 2017 
  • Mila Calandrino (UMass) presented her honors thesis "Environmental and ecological factors affecting gray seal (Halichoerus grypus) and harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) haul-out behavior on Duck Island, ME" at the UMass Undergraduate Research Conference. April 28, 2017.
  • National Wildlife Magazine published story on the sandlance workshop and working group activities for the summer 2018 issue.
  • Michelle Staudinger was invited to participate as a member of an Expert Working Group for NOAA’s Protected Species Climate Vulnerability Assessment that has developed assessment criteria and attributes for assessing 90 marine mammal stocks located in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico as well as all global sea turtle populations.
  • As a result of Mendy Garron's participation in our seal meeting at NEAq in July, and her ongoing involvement in our project, we are better able to focus our seal stranding research on issues that will improve NOAA's to response to seal stranding events.
  • Michelle attended the Roseate Tern Recovery Working group meeting in November 2017 and provided updates on the sandlance working group activities and lead a discussion on formalizing a broader forage fish working group that spanned ROST and AMBC.
  • On December 20 our team (M. Staudinger, D. Pendleton, C. Sutherland) hosted a conference call with staff at the NOAA Greater Atlantic Region Office and at NOAA headquarters.
  • Maps of habitat use are in development and will be produced as the last step in the habitat modeling process. 2-page communication product on sandlance synthesis completed and USGS FSP approved.