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

Final Report
By: , and 



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).

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. 

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.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Other Report
Title How and why is the timing and occurrence of seasonal migrants in the Gulf of Maine changing due to climate?
Series title Final Report
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center
Contributing office(s) Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center
Description 18 p.
Country Canada, United States
Other Geospatial Gulf of Maine
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