Fin Whales to Receive Less Protection?

Announced yesterday,  the protection of Fin Whales off Canada’s Pacific Coast is being reconsidered.

The independent panel of experts tasked with assessing species potentially at risk in Canada is the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Their May 2019 recommendations include that Fin Whales off Canada’s Pacific coast be down-listed from “Threatened” to of “Special Concern”. If this reassessment is accepted by the Federal Government, it means the population would receive less protection under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) e.g. critical habitat would not be assigned and there would be no prohibitions under SARA that make it “an offence to kill, harm, harass, capture, or take an individual of the species”

While it is very positive that Fin Whale numbers appear to be increasing after having been intensely whaled prior to their protection in 1976, the reassessment is based on the data for Fin Whale abundance in US waters. There is no population estimate nor confirmed trend for the number of Fin Whales in Pacific Canadian waters.

Based on US Marine Mammal Stock Assessments, the estimate for the California / Washington / Oregon population is approximately 9000 individuals. But, as per the SARA Recovery Strategy (2006) “Fin whales frequent Pacific Canadian waters year round, with highest numbers seen in the summer months. However, it is not known to which population they belong.”

A population estimate is pending as a result of the 2018 PRISMM survey (Pacific Region International Survey for Marine Megafauna).

This current absence of information is a concern were the decision to be made now to change the status of Fin Whales under SARA. It is all the more a concern since ship strikes are known to be a significant threat for Fin Whales and that vessel traffic off the coast of British Columbia is increasing.

Also from the SARA Recovery Strategy:Blue and Fin whales often occupy shelf-break locations that frequently coincide with shipping lanes, which concentrate large vessel traffic. In a review of 292 records of ship strikes, Jensen and Silber (2004) reported that Fin Whales were the most commonly struck species . . . However, ship strikes offshore are more likely to go undetected. The mortality rate associated with ship strikes is 70-80% (Jensen and Silber 2004).”

From Nichol and Ford (2018)Ships travelling at speeds above 10 knots in close proximity to Fin Whales have a relatively high probability of colliding with whales (Vanderlaan and Taggart 2007). Although it is difficult to quantify the frequency with which ship strikes involving Fin Whales occur, evidence (in the form of dead carcasses) confirms this species is struck by fast moving ocean going vessels. It is not known whether the possibility of being struck affects the behaviour of Fin Whales, but it is possible that expending energy to avoid ships displaces Fin Whales from important life activities of foraging and breeding (McKenna et al. 2015). Shipping traffic that results in a loss of foraging opportunities and mating opportunities in otherwise important habitat, should be considered a reduction in the area available for foraging and mating in the critical habitat.”

And from Nichol et al (2017) “Ship traffic is predicted to increase as a result of port expansions and developments in both BC and Washington State. We therefore tested future shipping projections from two sources and incorporated these predicted increases in ship traffic into our models to estimate the change in relative risk of ship strike and lethal ship strike by 2030 . . .” There was estimated to be a “10.5-fold difference in average lethal strike risk between high-risk locations and the remainder of the study area in 2030.”

We will update here as more information becomes available about what process there might be to provide input into these concerns.






We’re Hiring! MERS Summer Jobs.

Job Posting
Marine Education and Research Society
Summer Positions:
Data Analysts/Outreach Assistants (2) 

The Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting conservation and understanding of marine ecosystems through scientific research, environmental education, and marine wildlife response.  We are based in Port McNeill, on NE Vancouver Island, British Columbia. For information about MERS’ research, education and wildlife response efforts, see

The Whale Data Analysts / Outreach Assistants will be essential in MERS’ efforts to study and protect marine mammals in British Columbia. The focus is on Humpback Whales with our research dating back to before 2004. With Humpback Whales having made an astounding comeback to the coast of BC, it necessitates a better understanding of this population. This includes education for boaters about how to mitigate the threats of entanglement and vessel strike to Humpbacks, as this species behaves very differently than the Killer Whales most boaters are accustomed to. Key to understanding the population is for the whales to catalogued and identified as individuals.

The work of the Data Analysts / Outreach Assistants includes conducting preliminary analyses of Humpback Whale sighting and photo-identification data as part of our collaboration to update the province-wide catalogue for Humpback Whales off the coast of British Columbia. This project is being conducted in collaboration with DFO and with colleaguescataloguing Humpbacks in other parts of coastal British Columbia andwill allow for enhanced knowledge of the abundance, habitat use, social associations, movements, and threats of Humpbacks in B.C., for the purpose of conservation. In addition, the Data Analysts / Outreach Assistants will contribute to expanded educational outreach in local communities by promoting MERS’ “See a Blow? Go Slow!” campaign ( to educate about the presence of Humpback Whales around Vancouver Island, help promote boater safety, and provide information about the Marine Mammal Regulations.

Duties will include:

  1. Conducting comparative analyses of BC Humpback Whale catalogues to determine the identification of individual whales;
  2. Data entry and database management for Humpback Whale sighting and photographic data;
  3. Assisting in supervising volunteers during data entry and photographic data analysis in order to maintain the quality of the MERS databases;
  4. Aiding in MERS’ work to serve as a resource to the local community (with a focus on local ecotourism and boat operators) in order to enhance the economics/value of wildlife viewing experiences and contribute to boater safety;
  5. Conducting community outreach at local events, marinas and docks to increase awareness of threats to whales and how to mitigate them.
  6. Other office-based work as needed. The Data Analysts/Outreach Assistants will gain experience with Microsoft Excel, Photo Mechanic, Filemaker, and Adobe Lightroom computer programs.This is an office-based position but there may also be some opportunities for the Data Analyst to accompany MERS researchers on boat-based surveys to collect Humpback Whale photo-identification data.

Successful candidates:

  • Are Canadian citizens, permanent residents or have refugee protection under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
  • Have graduated from or are undertaking post-secondary education in scientific fields, especially biology, environmental science, resource management or related field.
  • Have knowledge of the biology and ecology of marine mammals in British Columbia.
  • Are between 15-30 years of age (funding requirement).
  • Have strong computer skills. Previous experience with some or all of the following programs an asset: Microsoft Excel, Photo Mechanic, Filemaker, Adobe Lightroom, and QGIS.
  • Work well independently and with minimal supervision.
  • Have experience with data entry.
  • Have exceptional organizational skills.
  • Are able to demonstrate strong abilities in matching whale flukes and fins for identification.
  • Have proven successful experience with public outreach and science communication.
  • Have proven dedication to reducing impacts to the environment.
  • Are able to reside in Port McNeill for the duration of the contract.


Work term:
8-week contract at 35 hours/week with an anticipated start date of June 3rd, 2019

Hiring priorities:
Youth who self-identify as being part of underrepresented groups or have additional barriers to the labour market e.g. women in STEM, Indigenous youth, and youth who are recent immigrants or refugees.

Application deadline:
May 10, 2019

Application format:
Applications must include a cover letter specifically addressing position requirements, resume, and 3 references (name, position and email address) with a minimum of 2 being employment contacts.   Applications should be emailed to MERS Operations Director:

Selection procedure: 

  1. References of short-listed candidates contacted.
  2. Short-listed candidates interviewed via SKYPE.
  3. Final interviews held in person in Vancouver, Victoria or Port McNeill. Candidates will be asked to complete an exercise to assess their ability to match whale IDs.

Please note that only short-listed applicants will be contacted and that this would happen before May 17th.  

To Kill Seals and Sea Lions?

The following is intended as a fact-based resource with regard to considerations around killing seals and sea lions off the coast of British Columbia. This resource will be updated with additional research and sources. 

It has been catalyzed by our being asked questions by media and members of the public due to:

(1) The “Proposal for Commercial Harvesting of Pinnipeds* in British Columbia” which has been put forward to Fisheries and Oceans Canada by the Pacific Balance Pinniped Society (PBPS). *”Pinnipedia” is the group name (infraorder) to which seals, sea lions and walruses belong.  The target pinniped species in the Proposal are Pacific Harbour Seals, Steller Sea Lions and California Sea Lions.

(2) Recent shootings and disturbances of pinnipeds leading to increased public attention to seal and sea lion populations in British Columbia.

Examples of March 2019 headlines:

What is the “Proposal for Commercial Harvesting of Pinnipeds in British Columbia”? 

While the Proposal is not currently available to the public, there has been considerable media attention to the Proposal and the Pacific Balance Pinniped Society allowing for the following insights:

  • The Proposal is for a harvest, not for sustenance hunting. Considerations include marketing the meat to China and Europe (Zussman, 2018 and PBPS, 2019). 
  • The rationale provided for the harvest includes the thinking that killing seals and sea lions would leave more Chinook salmon for endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (currently at only 75 members).
  • Quotes provided by Pacific Balance Pinniped Society board members indicate that the proposal is for killing up to 50 percent of BC’s seals and sea lions (Rasmussen, 2018). 
  • The Proposal would have to receive Federal approval to be exempted from the Marine Mammal Regulations under which it is illegal to harm or disturb a marine mammal. 
  • The Pacific Balance Pinniped Society “was established in July 2018 and includes a number of First Nations, commercial and sport fishers and fur industry representatives” (Larsen, 2019). 
  • The online presence of the Society is via Facebook at this link.

The screen shot above shows abundant sea lions during the fishery for Pacific Herring. It is from a video by Shalaine Lawson posted on social media on March 15th, 2019 . It is included  here to help provide understanding of why there are frustrations and further negative emotions regarding seals and sea lions during these localized events where the overlap between humans and pinnipeds is extreme.

Emotions may be amplified as a result of concern for the endangered Southern Residents and the potential of additional fishing restrictions impacting livelihoods. 

Great caution is required where emotions run high on both sides of an issue and may include animosity and vilification. In such cases, decisions with far-reaching consequences have high risk of  being impacted more by politics and perception, than by facts and precaution.

Are seals and sea lions responsible for the decline in the numbers of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales?

The number of Pacific Harbour Seals off the coast of British Columbia has not increased  in 20 years. Yet the population of endangered Southern Residents has declined significantly. In fact, the total number of Southern Residents increased for a few years after the number of seals reached carrying capacity. See graphs below. 

The current population size of Pacific Harbour seals, now at carrying capacity, appears to be similar to pre-exploitation levels that occurred in the 1880s when salmon would have been plentiful (Olesiuk, 2010). 

Source of above graph: Chandler et al, 2017.

Image result for graph southern resident killer whales

Source of above graph: Centre for Whale Research, 2019

Above two graphs combined showing Southern Resident Killer Whale population fluctuating while Pacific Harbour Seal population remains constant at carrying capacity.

Steller Sea Lions are protected as a species of Special Concern under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. This means that they are an at-risk species that may become threatened or endangered because of a combination of biological characteristics and identified threats (Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2010 with reassessment in 2013 and Chandler et al, 2017).

It is worthy of note that research near the Scott Islands, BC (Spalding, 1964) found that there was little evidence that historical culls had positive effects on salmon stocks. As quoted in COSEWIC, 2013 “there is little evidence that Steller Sea Lion control programs had any beneficial effect on fisheries as salmon catches did not increase noticeably following the reduction of sea lion numbers.”

California Sea Lion numbers have increased steadily since the 1970s. The population is reported to have reached carrying capacity as of 2008.  However, research also found that population growth can decrease dramatically with increases in sea surface temperatures (research from NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center and Southwest Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Fisheries, 2018 and Laake et al, 2018).

Source of above graph: NOAA Fisheries, 2018. Caption provided: “California Sea Lion numbers have grown steadily since the 1970s . . . The yellow band reflects the approximate population size, while K represents carrying capacity and MNPL is maximum net productivity level (the population level for maximum growth). The range above MNPL and below K is the optimum sustainable population, which the Marine Mammal Protection Act [USA] sets as the goal for protected species.” 

See further detail on population numbers near the end of this blog.

What are potential unintended impacts for other species?

Impacts to Mammal-Eating Killer Whales

Seals and sea lions are of great importance in the diet of mammal-eating Killer Whales known as Bigg’s Killer Whales (also known as “West Coast Transients”).

This is a distinct population protected as threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. They are genetically, acoustically, and culturally distinct from other Killer Whale populations.

It is believed that reductions in pinniped populations negatively impacted Bigg’s Killer Whales and that their recent resurgence is directly correlated to the number of seals. 

From Ford et al. 2013: “Large scale culls and harvests of pinnipeds in the late 1800s to mid 1900s depleted populations of Harbour Seals and Steller Sea Lions (COSEWIC 2003; Olesiuk 2010). This likely had a major effect on the abundance and distribution of WCT whales [West Coast Transients] in BC waters. Occurrence of WCT whales in the Strait of Georgia has shown a strong increase over the past four decades, associated with the return of Harbour Seal abundance to historical levels in this area (Ford et al. 2007).”
The Recovery Strategy for Bigg’s Killer Whales (West Coast Transients)  includes the following as a recommended approach to address threats and aid in the recovery of this population, indicating that a seal and sea lion harvest would be in violation of this recommendation: “Maintain current harvest restrictions and ensure research, nuisance seal, or other authorized removals do not cause pinniped population level reductions” (Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2007). 
Harbour Seals compose 52% of Bigg’s Killer Whales’ diet, and Steller Sea Lions compose 13% .Thereby, these two species alone make up 65% of the prey consumed by these whales (Ford et al 2013). 
Though Bigg’s do consume other marine mammal species  (e.g. Harbour Porpoises, Dall’s Porpoises, Pacific White-Sided Dolphins, Minke Whales), the foraging efficiency and energetics for different prey types are not well understood. The size and speed of other potential prey may make it less energetically profitable for Bigg’s Killer Whales to forage on these prey types instead of seals and sea lions. Seals are predictable in where they can be found and do not have defences like the speed of dolphins and porpoises.

Further, maintaining sufficient prey availability for Bigg’s Killer Whales depends on more than just the overall number of seals, seal lions, and other prey species. They also need a sufficiently wide distribution of prey to be able to forage effectively.

Research from Ford et al 2013 that provides insight into why this is needs to be a consideration includes that Bigg’s Killer Whales most often hunt by stealth and surprise attack. Once the element of surprise is gone, with prey knowing their predators are in the area,  it is likely more profitable for a group of Bigg’s Killer Whales to a new area in search of new prey unaware of their presence.
Note that there is considerable misunderstanding of the total number of Bigg’s Killer Whales (West Coast Transients) off the coast of British Columbia. The last published population estimate is 304 individuals in the inner coast subpopulation (DFO, 2013). In addition to this and, importantly, not included in previous WCT population estimates, is knowledge about additional mammal-eating killer whales that are typically much further off BC’s coast i.e. “an additional 217 rarely-seen individuals are considered to be members of the outer coast WCT subpopulation. The inner coast subpopulation appears to be increasing. The status of the outer coast subpopulation is unknown. (DFO, 2013)

Other considerations regarding potential ecosystem impacts? 

Seals and sea lions are opportunistic predators that feed on other fish species, including Hake and Pacific Herring (Barrett-Lennard, 2018)

Hake feed on juvenile salmon. Thereby, a reduction in the number of pinnipeds could lead to an increase in the number of Hake, and thereby fewer salmon. (Barrett-Lennard, 2018)

Pacific Herring compete with juvenile salmon. Thereby, a reduction in the number of pinnipeds could lead to an increase in this salmon predator at salmon at a critical stage of their development. (Barrett-Lennard, 2018)

Note that there are more than 135 other species that predate on salmon in addition to seals and sea lions (Wallace, 2018).

For further understanding of how to assess potential success of harvests or culls, please see the video and table below from the presentation Will Seal Culls Save the Southern Resident Killer Whales by Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard of the Coastal Ocean Research Institute provided at the 26th Annual BC Marine Mammal Symposium on November 24th, 2018.


Do seals and sea lions eat a lot of salmon? 

Some seals and sea lions in some areas eat a lot of salmon (and herring).

However, caution is very much needed in extrapolating these localized and seasonal studies to inform management decisions across larger geographic areas for larger units of time.

For example: Preliminary research by Sheena Majewski, DFO,  using DNA analysis of non-estuary seal scat samples, reveals the following shift in diet between spring and fall. (Pynn, 2018).

Further research is being conducted to better inform coast-wide and year-round understanding of seal and sea lion diet to address knowledge gaps. As per the information above however, due to the complexity of marine food webs, there will always be some uncertainty about their diet and how it impacts other species.

Further detail on population numbers and history of culling pinnipeds in British Columbia:

Updated estimates based on 2016-17 data anticipated for this fall/winter (2019). 

“The Pacific Harbour Seal population in B.C. suffered significant declines as a result of commercial fur harvests (1879- 1914, 1962-1968) and predator control programs (1914-1964). By the time the species was first protected in B.C. in 1970, the coast-wide population had been reduced to an estimated 10,000 seals, but it has since increased dramatically (Majewski & Ellis In press). Current coast-wide abundance (approximately 105,000 seals) is considered to represent a successful recovery to pre-exploitation levels (Majewski & Ellis In press). In the Strait of Georgia, Harbour Seal numbers grew at a rate of 11.5% annually (95% CI 10.9-12.6%) from 3,600 individuals in 1973 to 39,000 in the mid-1990s, when numbers stabilized (Majewski & Ellis In press; Figure 25-3).”  (Chandler et al, 2017).

“Steller Sea Lions were depleted by commercial harvesting and predator control programs that removed 55,000 animals between 1912 and 1968. By the 1970s, the B.C. breeding population had been reduced to 25-33% of peak historic levels (Olesiuk, 2018). The population began rebounding in the early 1970s, with non-pup numbers shifting from stable to 4.9% growth annually in the early 1980s (Figure 25-4). Pup abundance also exhibited an increase in annual growth rate in the mid-1980s, up from about 1.7 to 7.0% per year (Olesiuk In press). The summer 2013 breeding season survey estimated 39,200 (95% CI 33,600-44,800) Steller Sea Lions coast-wide, slightly lower than the winter 2009-2010 population estimate of 48,000 (95% CI 38,100-58,900) (Olesiuk, 2018). The Steller Sea Lion was designated as Special Concern by COSEWIC in both 2003 and 2013, and has also been legally listed under SARA at the same level” (Chandler et al, 2017).

“Market hunting, bounties, pollutants such as DDT and other forces depressed [California] sea lion numbers in the middle of the last century . .  the species then rose from less than 90,000 animals in 1975 to an estimated 281,450 in 2008, which was roughly the carrying capacity for sea lions in the California Current Ecosystem at that time. It then fluctuated around that level, reaching a high of 306,220 in 2012 before declining below the carrying capacity in the years since as ocean conditions changed” (NOAA Fisheries, 2018).


Badelt, Brad. (2018, September 4). Are There Too Many Harbour Seals in British Columbia? Hakai Magazine.

Barrett-Lennard, L. (2018, November 24). Will Seal Culls Save the Southern Resident Killer Whales? Presentation provided at the 26th Annual BC Marine Mammal Symposium.

Center for Whale Research. (2019, January 16). Southern Resident Killer Whale Population. Retrieved from

Chandler, P.C., King, S.A., and Boldt, J. (Eds.). 2017. State of the physical, biological and selected fishery resources of Pacific Canadian marine ecosystems in 2016. Can. Tech. Rep. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 3225: 243 + vi p.

COSEWIC. 2013. COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Steller Sea Lion Eumetopias jubatus in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa. xi + 54 pp.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2007. Recovery Strategy for the Transient Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Vancouver, vi + 46 pp.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2010. Management Plan for the Steller Sea Lion (Eumetopias jubatus) in Canada [Final]. Species at Risk Act Management Plan Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. vi + 69 pp.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2010. Population Assessment Pacific Harbour Seal (Phoca vitulina richardsi). DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Sci. Advis. Rep. 2009/011.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2013. Information in Support of the Identification of Critical Habitat for Transient Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) off the West Coast of Canada. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Sci. Advis. Rep. 2013/025.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2018. Amended Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series, Fisheries & Oceans Canada, Ottawa, ix + 83 pp.

Ford, J.K.B., G.M. Ellis, and J.W. Durban. 2007. An assessment of the potential for recovery of West Coast transient killer whales using coastal waters of British Columbia. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Res. Doc. 2007/088. Iv + 34 pp.

Ford, John & Stredulinsky, Eva & Towers, Jared & M. Ellis, Graeme. (2013). Information in Support of the Identification of Critical Habitat for Transient Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) off the West Coast of Canada.

Gammon, Katherine. (2018, October 16). Herschel, the Very Hungry Sea Lion – It’s dangerous to blame the decline of one species on a single predator. We humans like to do it anyway. Hakai Magazine.

L. Laake, Jeffrey & S. Lowry, Mark & L. Delong, Robert & R. Melin, Sharon & Carretta, James. (2018). Population growth and status of California sea lions: Status of California Sea Lions. The Journal of Wildlife Management. 10.1002/jwmg.21405.

Larsen, Karin. (2019, February 7). B.C. group hopes commercial seal hunt gets green light. CBC News. Retrieved from

NOAA Fisheries. (2018, January 17). California Sea Lion Population Rebounded to New Highs. Retrieved from 

Olesiuk, P.F. 2010. An assessment of population trends and abundance of harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) in British Columbia. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Res. Doc. 2009/105. vi + 157 p.

Olesiuk, P.F. 2018. Recent trends in Abundance of Steller Sea Lions (Eumetopias jubatus) in British Columbia. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Res. Doc. 2018/006. v + 67 p.

Pynn, Larry. (2018, January 12). Behind the Blubber – Harbor seals are blamed for chinook and coho salmon declines, but ecosystems are more complicated than some suggest. Hakai Magazine.

Rasmussen, Greg. (2018, September 12). B.C. group wants to kill seals and sea lions to save the whales. CBC News. Retrieved from 

Ross, Peter & Barrett-Lennard, Lance. (2018, July 30). Peter Ross and Lance Barrett-Lennard: Harbour seals are easy scapegoats in Chinook salmon decline. Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from

Spalding, D. J. 1964b. Comparative feeding habits of the fur seal, sea lion and harbour seal on the British Columbia coast. Fisheries Research Board of Canada Bulletin 146:1-47.

Wallace, Scott. (2018, December 23). Island Voices: Ideology, not ecology, guiding sea-cull decisions. Times Colonist.

Zussman, Richard. (2018, July 20). New group calls for seal and sea lion cull on B.C.’s coast. Global News. Retrieved from


MERS Report for 2018

[Initial blog is from December 18th, 2018.
Update February 18, 2019 =  numbers are now 95 for Northern Vancouver Island; 86 for our core study area; 86 for the Campbell River / Comox area of which 23 have also been sighted around NE Vancouver Island. These updates are marked in red text below. Note too that our colleagues further to the south report at least 266 individuals documented in the Salish Sea at some time in 2018. A significant number of these are Humpbacks we too have documented further to the north.]

Another year (almost) over and what have we done?

Please find our report below for Humpback Whale numbers in our study area and a summary of the work achieved in 2018.

First, for clarity, we are not reporting on the full number of Humpback Whales estimated to feed in British Columbia marine waters.. The best estimate for that dates back to research by Ford et al which concluded that, in 2006, the  abundance for Humpback Whales in British Columbia waters was 2,145 whales.  This estimate does not include 1st year calves. There will be an updated estimate as a result of the 2018 Pacific Region International Survey of Marine Megafauna (PRISMM). 

How many Humpbacks did there used to be off our coast? As you can imagine, there is poor data for this as no one was studying whales as individuals prior to the early 1970s. The estimate is that a minimum of 4,000 Humpback Whales existed just off the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1905. Legal whaling for Humpbacks ended by international agreement in 1966 and it is estimated that, by the 1970s, there were only ~1,400 Humpbacks in the WHOLE North Pacific Ocean i.e. not just off our coast.

The area for which we are reporting is from the upper Strait of Georgia to northern Vancouver Island. To date, our team at the Marine Education and Research Society has identified 158 individuals who were in that area at some time in 2018 (this number may increase since we still have some data to process). 

The sub-area for which we have the longest dataset is northeastern Vancouver Island (upper Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait and the inlets of the Broughton Archipelago). The graph below shows how sudden the increase in Humpbacks has been. Numbers have increased from just 7 individuals documented in this area in all of 2003, to identifying 86 in 2018. Note too how many of the whales are returnees to the area each year (compare the purple bar in the graph to the red bar). This indicates how strong the site fidelity of Humpbacks is. They generally return to the same area(s) to feed year upon year. 

Number of photo-identified Humpback Whales sighted off Northeastern Vancouver Island – specifically for upper Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait and the inlets of the Broughton Archipelago. Data pre 2000 via Alexandra Morton. Note that we use both dorsal fins and the underside of the whales’ tails to determine ID. MERS Humpback Catalogue available at this link

For the Campbell River / Comox area, we catalogued 86 individuals that were there at some point in 2018.  Of this number, 
23 were also sighted around 
NE Vancouver Island.

We emphasize how this work would not be possible were it not for the contribution of photos from naturalists, boaters and others who care. The photos, together with the location of sightings, not only aid our Humpback Whale population studies but also help in understanding how the whales use the area. 

With the number of Humpbacks so predictably being around central to northern Vancouver Island, it is essential that boaters are aware of how to avoid collision and what to do (and not to do) if entanglement is witnessed. Humpback Whales are much more unpredictable than the Orca many boaters are accustomed too. Please see

Note that our research, conducted in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, shows that approximately 50% of the Humpbacks in BC waters have scarring from an entanglement. This indicates how widespread a risk entanglement is but does of course not allow us to know how many whales become entangled and die since dead whales usually sink to the bottom of the ocean.

It is even more difficult therefore to know how often whales die from injuries related to boat collision. It is now thankfully the law that collisions and entanglements must be reported.

We have included a photo at the end of this blog showing a whale injured as a result of a boat collision. This is a graphic image. It is easily understood how such collisions with whales are also a human safety issue.

Please see below for a summary of our further efforts to understand and reduce threats to whales for 2018. This has been achieved with less than three full-time paid positions. Such efficiency is possible as a result of extensive volunteer efforts from our team and a broad community of support. Thanks to all who made this possible. 

Highlights of work achieved by MERS in 2018:

  • 2,000+ data entries for sightings of Humpbacks;
  • 170 hours spent monitoring whales during commercial fisheries in case there is an entanglement and in order to better understand the risk;
  • 30 additionalSee a Blow? Go Slow!” signs for strategic positioning on British Columbia’s coast (many more signs are needed, possible to sponsor via this link);
  • 22 presentations on our research and reducing risks to whales, reaching more than 1,550 people from coastal BC; 
  • Publishing our research on trap-feeding in Marine Mammal Science;
  • Publishing on minke whale acoustics in Bioacoustics;
  • Training more than 95 people at two Marine Naturalist Workshops to enhance the calibre of conservation information provided on our coast;
  • Continued work to understand the proportion of humpbacks that have been entangled in BC, in partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada;
  • Collaborating with colleagues also documenting Humpbacks off the coast of British Columbia to update the BC province-wide Humpback catalogue; and
  • Co-hosting an entanglement workshop with the Coastal Ocean Research Institute / Ocean WiseFisheries and Oceans Canada and Sealife Response Rehabilitation and Research to help participants learn how to report, document and help assess entangled whales.

Warning – graphic image alert.
The photo below is of Raza the Humpback Whale who is often around the Discovery Islands during the feeding season. The photo is from October 20th, 2018 in Calm Channel (between Sonora and Stuart Islands) with the propeller scars appearing to be recent. It is thanks to the observations of Ryan Stewart that the injury was noted, documented and reported. Presumably no boater wants to put themselves and whales at risk but too many are still unaware of how the increase in Humpbacks off our coast necessitates increased knowledge and modified boater behaviour. Every boater should have the Incident Reporting Line number 1-800-465-4336 programmed into their phones to report incidents of concern. All should be familiar with the further content at

We have shared Raza’s reality in the hopes that this image is compelling for more boaters to become aware.

Photos from one of the known vessel strike incidents in 2018.

Click here for examples of the severity of  human injuries and material damage resulting from collisions with Humpback Whales. 


Ford J.K.B., Rambeau A.L., Abernethy R.M., Boogaards M.D., Nichol L.M., and Spaven L.D. 2009. An Assessment of the Potential for Recovery of Humpback Whales off the Pacific Coast of Canada. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Res. Doc. 2009/015. iv + 33 p.

It’s a Girl! “Lucky” the Humpback Whale

Here’s another story of a survivor. It’s an update that will likely be of great interest as Lucky is one of the most easily identifiable Humpbacks in our study area. 

The latest that we can confirm, thanks to the photo below from Kurt Staples of Eagle Eye Adventures, is that Lucky is female.

But before we explain that, let us give you some of her backstory. 

Lucky? One thing that clearly makes her so easy to identify is the scarring on her tail. In this case, her misshapen tail with all scars is not the result of entanglement or vessel strike. Lucky is the survivor of an attack by Killer Whales / Orca. This attack happened well before she was first documented in 2012. 

MERS catalogue photos for Lucky. Catalogue is available at this link.

How do we know that? Because the spacing between the rake marks is wider than than the spaces between Killer Whales’ teeth i.e. the scars grew further apart as Lucky’s tail grew. Note that there has never been a confirmed case of Bigg’s Killer Whales (mammal-eating population) killing a larger Humpback but Lucky, who was attacked as a calf, is . . . lucky to be alive.

This very fitting nickname was put forward by Leah Robinson of OrcaLab who was the first to document Lucky back on November 14th, 2012. 

The other thing that makes Lucky more easy to ID as an individual is that she is the Humpback Whale in our study area that almost exclusively solo bubble-net feeds, using a net of bubbles to coral juvenile herring. For clarity: she is not the only one that uses this feeding strategy in the area but she IS the one that appears to do so almost exclusively

The other Humpback Whales primarily lunge-feed (with some individuals also occasionally trap-feeding and/or solo bubble net-feeding). Note that Humpbacks on other parts of our coast (British Columbia’s central coast, north to Alaska) are specialists in bubble-net feeding as a team but this is not a good strategy in an area with a lot of current since the bubbles will not remain intact. .

Since 2012, Lucky has very predictably been seen solo bubble-net feeding around NE Vancouver Island in back-eddies or on slack tide i.e. where/when the bubbles cannot be blasted away by current. She has also occasionally been sighted further to the south near Campbell River (this is where Kurt photographed her). 

The wonderful video below of Lucky solo  bubble net-feeding is from another of our OrcaLab colleagues, Megan Hockin-Bennett / Wild Sky Productions

And now – how can we now confirm Lucky is female?
Without DNA testing or the presence of a calf, it is very difficult to discern gender in Humpbacks. They do not have gender differences that can be easily seen. 
We have to get a look at their undersides and this opportunity does not present itself very often. Even when Humpbacks clear the water when they breach, the pelvic area is difficult to see because it is most often covered by water. See photo below. 
KC the Humpback breaching which shows how the pelvic area cannot be seen because of the “skirt” of water.

This is why we get very excited when Humpbacks lie on their backs and “tail-lob”. THEN, if the whale’s tail is far enough out of the water, the pelvic area is visible.

The females have a small feature known as the “hemispherical lobe”. Males do not. See below (click image to enlarge). 

In this story about Lucky, you’ll note again how the knowledge we have about a whale is so often the result of a  community of data contributors. We can put the pieces of the puzzle together but  could not do it without this community and the further support of many. Thank you.

Note that Lucky’s temporary catalogue ID is “BCZuk2012#3”. We are working with colleagues to update the province-wide catalogue for Humpbacks sighted off the coast of British Columbia (which was maintained by Fisheries and Oceans Canada but has not been updated since 2010). Once we have finished the matching work involved with this, Lucky will get a permanent catalogue number in the province-wide catalogue.

New Research: Minke Whales Vocalize off the Coast of British Columbia

Have you ever wondered what sounds minke whales make? Given that they had never been acoustically recorded in the eastern North Pacific, we wondered too. Thanks to a collaboration with University of Victoria  marine mammal acoustics expert Katrina Nikolich and funding from Mountain Equipment Co-op and the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association, our research on this topic is now published! 

Minke whales DO vocalize while off the coast of British Columbia. 

Female minke whale M001 (Rapid) breaching in Cormorant Channel where over 1,500 hours of acoustic recordings were made in the presence of six minke whales. Photo ©Jared Towers, MERS, taken under Marine Mammal License MML-42. 

Spectrogram analysis revealed that the minke whales we studied off northern Vancouver Island occasionally emit very quick and barely audible downsweeps and pulse chains. Sexual segregation, predation risk and acoustic masking (vessel noise) are all proposed as reasons why this small cryptic baleen whale doesn’t have much to say.

Figure 2 from the paper shows spectrogram examples of pulse chain vocalizations that increased in pulse rate, decreased in pulse rate, and remained constant in pulse rate. To attempt to hear these vocalizations check out this link: 

For the full report, please click here. The first 50 downloads are free!

Note that our previous research reveals that rather than there being many minke whales off NE Vancouver Island, it’s the same individuals over and over again. Our minke whale catalogue is available via this link. 


Abstract: Nikolich and Towers 2018. Click the image to download the full paper. 
The first 50 pdf downloads at this link are free!. After that please contact us for reprints or purchase 24 hour access for $50 USD


MERS Minke Whale Research Papers: 



Gifts That Keep On Giving

It’s Giving Tuesday, and we’re hoping you’ll consider us in decisions around gift-giving and year-end donations.

Below we provide detail on 3 ways through which your support also leads to meaningful gifts for loved ones.

  1. Honorary donation – Note that MERS is a registered Canadian charity whereby donations are tax deductible.
  2. Sponsor a Humpback
  3. Sponsor a sign to reduce risk to whales

Please know that we could not achieve what we do without you . . . our work to understand and reduce risks to whales . . . the entanglement and feeding research, the education regarding how to reduce risk of collision and what to do if entanglement is witnessed, and our marine wildlife rescue efforts.

It’s because of people like you, that our small team can achieve what we do. For a summary of our work achieved in 2018, please click here. 

1. Make an Honorary Donation

When you indicate your donation to MERS is  a gift, we’ll send your giftee a message revealing your thoughtfulness and what work the donation supports. Oh, and YOU get a Canadian tax receipt.

Please click here to make a donation. 

Know that monthly donations are especially  valuable as they provide an indication of how many people see the value of our work and are committed to supporting it. These reoccurring donations are reliable income thereby allowing more effective planning and budgeting and being able to indicate in-kind support when applying for grants.

All contributions directly support our research, education, and marine wildlife response activities.

2. Sponsor a Humpback

For just $43 we will send a Humpback Whale sponsorship package with a personalized message to the gift recipient. The package includes a card featuring a photo of your chosen whale; a USB stick with a biography of your whale with photos and recordings of Humpback vocals; AND you and the giftee will receive at least two email updates every year about the sponsored whale. Yes, that’s right, there are no renewal fees.  Click here for details and during checkout indicate that the sponsorship is a gift. We will then contact you about personalizing the letter that accompanies the sponsorship package.


3. Sponsor a Sign?

We are striving to have “See a Blow? Go Slow!” signs all along BC’s coast to reduce the risk of collision for the sake of both boater and whale safety. This is essential now that Humpback Whales have thankfully returned from the brink of extinction and because they behave very differently from whales like Orca that boaters are more used to seeing on our coast. The awareness of how to reduce the risk of hitting a Humpback serves the other whale species well too. Signs costs approximately $70 each  (price depends on shipping costs) and the sign would include the name of your gift recipient (or the logo of your choosing). Please see example below.

A donation can be given in the amount of the sign’s value leading to your getting a tax receipt. See below and contact to discuss dedication and confirm price. Signs are made of super durable dibond with dimensions 18.5″ x 24″ (~47 cm x 61 cm).

Example of a sponsored sign in Comox, made possible by
Example of a sponsored sign in Comox, made possible by the Flying Dragons Dragon Boat Team. 

Thank you for considering MERS in your gift-giving and donations. 

Any questions? Please contact us via this link.