Marine mammal research and discoveries earn federal scientist a Sammies nod

Everyone wants to save the whales, but Jay Barlow at the National Marine Fisheries Service has actually done it. For his work, he is a finalist in this year's S...

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Everyone wants to save the whales, but Jay Barlow has actually saved them. He’s developed new ways of tracking marine mammals, worked with the Navy and others to reduce noise damage, and even discovered a whole new whale species. He’s a senior scientist at the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program. Barlow joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to talk more about his work.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dr. Barlow, good to have you on.

Dr. Jay Barlow: Well, thank you. I’m very happy to be here.

Tom Temin: I don’t know quite where to begin here. But give us a general sense of what your activities are with respect to these marine mammals and NOAA, and how are we doing worldwide was protecting these large mammals?

Dr. Jay Barlow: Well, we’re doing a much better job in the United States than we are worldwide. Fortunately for us, and for the marine mammals, in 1972 we passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act. And this was in response to the decimation of the large whales by commercial whaling, including the U.S. — we were a whaling nation, and also the bycatch of dolphins in tuna nets. So there is this massive bycatch problem in the eastern tropical Pacific where we were getting most of our tuna. So, America was up in arms. They wanted some action, and unanimously, with support from both parties, they passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act. And because of that, NOAA, my agency, has been put in charge of assessing human impacts on the cetaceans, whales, dolphins, as well as the seals and sea lions in the U.S. waters.

Tom Temin: And besides human activity of the nature you describe, there’s also, and I’ve seen this over the years, Navy activity. Testing sonar that has a huge amount of energy, sent low into the water and ordnance testing. And these shockwaves, I guess, can harm the mammals also?

Dr. Jay Barlow: Yeah. Over the time I’ve been employed by NOAA, which is now 40 years, our mission has changed quite a bit. It used to be focused mostly on those direct effects, like harvesting, and unintentional harvesting as bycatch and fisheries. But recently, the other human impacts have been more important, and we’ve just learned new ways to study marine mammals and their impacts. So, you mentioned Navy sonar, we know that’s problem for some species of beaked whale, and other whales. We know that climate change is going to be a big force for affecting the marine mammal populations within our U.S. waters. And ship strikes are an increasing problem, because ship traffic has gone up, and the speed of ships has gone up. So there are new challenges. But as I said, overall, in the U.S., because we’ve been able to track most of the marine mammal populations, we know that most of them are doing pretty well. Either they’re maintaining their own or growing and still recovering from the effects of whaling.

Tom Temin: And describe some of the activities you do to aid in this research so you know what’s going on with the populations, you must spend a lot of time out on ships.

Dr. Jay Barlow: Yeah. So, NOAA has these great big white research vessels. And we’ve been able to get time on those. And one of the things we want to do is to monitor changes in abundance, because one of the best ways to figure out what’s going on is to monitor the populations over time. So we do, historically what we’ve been calling, visual sighting surveys, where we put expert marine mammal observers on the flying bridge of these decks while they’re driving around and doing the research. And, we’ve developed some pretty sophisticated statistical methods to estimate the density, and then the abundance of the marine mammals from these visual sighting surveys. But recently, the thing that I’ve been working on mostly in the last decade is methods to survey them more effectively using the sounds they make. So rather than relying on them coming up to the surface in order to breathe, and then being counted, we can actually detect them acoustically from the sounds that they make. And then we’ve been developing new methods to estimate their abundance using these sound methods.

Tom Temin: I’ve been convinced that birds speak to one another. And it’s true of marine mammals too, isn’t it?

Dr. Jay Barlow: Oh, absolutely, yeah. They communicate a lot of information acoustically. And they also, some of them use echolocation like bats. And so they couldn’t feed without this acoustic tool. So they produce sounds, wait for the echoes to come back, and find out where their prey is.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dr. Jay Barlow. He’s a senior scientist at the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of NOAA, and he’s a finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program. And tell us about the time you discovered a whole new species of a certain type of whale.

Dr. Jay Barlow: Yeah. That was just last November. We were on an expedition to try to nail down what sounds are made by a different species of beaked whale. So we have these sounds that we recorded on a previous survey, and we knew that we are going to an area of high density of this particular type of sound. And so we thought, well, maybe we can find out what’s making that sound. But what we found was in something entirely different. One early dawn, very calm conditions, a group of three beaked whales just surfaced right next to our research vessel. And they came up, we put some recording equipment in the water and they came and inspected that, they came over to our vessel, we got hundreds and hundreds of photographs of them. And they really didn’t match anything that was previously described. The animal we were looking for has only two teeth, like tusks, at the very tip of the jaw. And this had two teeth at mid-jaw position in the adult males and so, that was different. And the belly was lighter than any of the previously described beaked whales, so, we think we got something new here. And then we put the acoustic recording equipment in the water, and we didn’t hear anything right away, which is kind of common with these beaked whale species, because they don’t start to make sounds until they’re 500 meters deep. But then later, a couple of hours later, we started receiving signals from these whales. And the signals were also novel. They’re not signals that we had previously described, or anybody else’s has previously described, so. We think it’s very likely that this is something that’s either brand new to science, or is a geographic variation, so, sort of a subspecies of an existing species that no one’s described before.

Tom Temin: And have you personally been in the water say with scuba gear and encountered whales close up?

Dr. Jay Barlow: I have, skin diving, but that’s not a usual method for our research. The deal is that they’re a lot faster than us and you just get a momentary glimpse. The time that I actually was able to spend some time in the water with the cetaceans was I was doing some research near Malpelo Island off the coast of Colombia. And I started feeling these vibrations in my body. I was being inspected by something pretty big. I turned around and in the dim lurking murk, my saw these false killer whales approaching me. These are giant dolphins about 14 feet long. They eat some other dolphins, so, they’re pretty rough characters. So I felt a little bit nervous about that encounter. But that’s not how we normally study them, and I wouldn’t recommend that.

Tom Temin: You don’t want them to say, “Hey, I’ve never tried one of these before.” And they’re talking about you, I guess. And just briefly, you’ve been at NOAA, you said 40 years? How did you get into this work and what sustains you long term doing this?

Dr. Jay Barlow: Well, I like to say I fell in with the wrong crowd. But I was actually really, really lucky. So I was in graduate school at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where I got my PhD. And I started meeting and working with some people at the National Marine Fisheries Service laboratory there that was actually on our campus right there, in La Jolla, California. And, they were working on some very interesting applied problems. I wasn’t so much a pure theoretical biologist, I wanted to work on stuff that mattered to other people. And they were doing these really interesting studies of dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific and trying to assess human impacts on them and try to figure ways to keep them out of the nets. And that sounded great to me. So I signed up with them, first as a postdoc in ’81, and then later the full-time employee, and have been working at the same laboratory in La Jolla ever since.

Tom Temin: Yeah, I guess these creatures are sentient. And that knowledge can really keep you going for a lifetime, can’t it?

Dr. Jay Barlow: Yeah. They’re inspiring animals to work with. And, there’s no shortage of conservation problems. A lot of those conservation problems has shifted. So rather than just being a U.S. problem, or just being a European problem, where it was first recognized, it’s a worldwide problem now. And so we’re working on using ways to spread the knowledge that we get throughout the world. So, what we develop in the U.S. government has application around the world in terms of assessing the abundance and trends and marine mammal populations. And so what we’re trying to do is to educate the entire world on what we are doing and what can be done to help save these important animals.

Tom Temin: Dr. Jay Barlow is a senior scientist at the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of NOAA, and the finalist in this year’s Service to America Medals program. Thanks so much for joining me.

Dr. Jay Barlow: Well, thank you.

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