Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab

New and Improved: Mapping Updated Biologically Important Areas for Cetaceans 

MGEL has played a large role in the mapping of Biologically Important Areas (BIAs) for cetaceans, a project that aims to expand on previous BIA work. This second iteration, BIA II, has resulted in a series of publications, four of which MGEL has contributed to. In this context, Biologically Important Areas represent areas and times in which cetaceans are known to concentrate for activities related to reproduction, feeding, and migration, as well as ranges of small and resident populations.  

The four BIA types and their definitions.  

BIA II’s work builds on the work of Ferguson et al. 2015, which described anthropogenic activities of concern for marine mammals, the associated impacts, and how the spatiotemporal contextual information in BIAs is important in evaluating potential effects of those impacts on cetaceans. This new project incorporates feedback from the first iteration to improve upon the process and make the BIAs more useful. In the original project, there was no way to rank the different sites and compare their importance or the quality of data to support the delineation. The new BIAs incorporate such scores for Intensity, Data Support, Importance, Boundary Certainty, and Spatiotemporal Variability, developing a higher level of specificity. This project also added a “watch list” for areas without sufficient support from the data. These are areas that experts think may be BIAs but are unable to reliably delineate and score due to lack of data.  

Arctic region watch list areas. 

BIAs for seven regions around the U.S were created using the same methodology. Regional leads with cetacean expertise were chosen to oversee the identification, delineation, and scoring in each region. These leaders had a wide range of institutional backgrounds, including academics, governmental agencies, and nongovernmental organizations. Regional leads engaged with additional subject matter experts and participated in an introductory workshop as well as additional regional check-ins to ensure the criteria and scoring were being applied consistently across the regions.  

The data for the project is sourced from aerial, land, vessel-based surveys, satellite telemetry, passive acoustic monitoring, Indigenous knowledge, photo-identification, aboriginal subsistence harvests (including catch and sighting locations and stomach contents), and prey studies, although specific sourcing varies from region to region.  

The new BIAs are publicly accessible on the NOAA’s website. Check them out here.  

Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea region bowhead whale BIAs and watch list areas. 

BIAs do not have inherent regulatory power, but they have been used by federal agencies to support marine mammal impact assessments and are often used by nongovernmental organizations in litigation. Sarah DeLand, a research associate at MGEL who worked on this project, emphasized the importance of BIAs “as a very useful tool.” With this new methodology and scoring criteria, Sarah is “very excited to see if these new BIAs are more applicable and more helpful.” 

Ei Fujioka, a lead developer at MGEL, was also a big part of this project. Ei created a BIA description tool for region leads to easily add BIA scoring criteria, text for justification, references, and other attributes to a database.  

A screenshot of the user-friendly BIA scoring portal created by Ei Fujioka. 

Jess Ozog, a master’s student in Costal Environmental Management, was able to work on BIAs along the East coast of the US. Her work used MGEL’s species density models to understand abundance in active BIAs. Jess recently presented her work as a master’s thesis project in April. 

The BIA model can be applied to other taxa such as pinnipeds, fissipeds, and sea turtles. “There has also been some talk of expanding the cetacean BIAs in the high seas, areas beyond the jurisdiction of any country,” says Sarah. The team hopes to reevaluate the BIAs every five years by considering and incorporating new information to maintain their relevance.  

Sarah is hopeful that the future of this work includes some sort of process in which particular BIAs can be updated on a more regular basis given the structure of the new criteria. “It would be great to have a fairly expedited process for individual BIAs so they don’t go out of date as quickly and aren’t static,” Sarah says, “For example, there is a lot of constantly updated data on North Atlantic right whales, a critically endangered species. It would be great to update BIAs for North Atlantic right whales more frequently to aid conservation efforts.” 

Sarah and Ei are authors on recent publications on BIAs for the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea and the Arctic region, while Sarah is also on the Gulf of Alaska region paper. Other papers on the other regions will continue to come out this year.