Whales! Researchers. You? Join us!

There are two opportunities to have the adventure of a lifetime and contribute to our work at the Marine Education and Research Society. We are so grateful to Stubbs Island Whale Watching and Ocean EcoAdventures for making these opportunities possible (September 30 from Cowichan Bay and October 7th from Telegraph Cove).  We’ve tried to give a sense of the wildlife in the fall with the slideshow below. All photos were taken in October.

These are very significant fund-raisers for what we do to reduce risks to whales. They are an opportunity for us as researchers to share our work directly with you and for you to see and learn from the astounding beauty of this coast.

Details for how to sign on for the trips are in the table below. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions at jackie@mersociety.org.

Sponsor Ocean EcoVentures Stubbs Island
Whale Watching
 
Date Saturday September 30th  Saturday October 7th 
Departure Location Cowichan Bay Telegraph Cove
Time 10:00 am to 1:30 pm
Minimum of 3.5 hours
Meet at 09:30
9:00 am to 4:30 pm
Minimum of 7.5 hours
Meet at 08:30
Lunch included No Yes  Generous sponsor  – the Sportsman Restaurant in Port McNeill
Vessel Type Three open vessels (12 passengers each). Two are rigid hull inflatables and one is a hard-sided cruiser. Two have washrooms. One vessel, the MV Lukwa – 18 m closed vessel with washrooms.
See this link. 
Cost per person $130 $225
MERS researchers attending Christie McMillan, Jackie Hildering, Jared Towers.
To reserve a spot Please email jackie@mersociety.org with the names and email addresses of those who will be attending and provide a phone number in case we need to contact you. Reservation secured with one of the payment options below.
Payment options: 1.     E-transfer to mersociety@gmail.com indicating “MERS trip Cowichan Bay”.
Please use password humpback.
2.     Cheque made out to “Marine Education and Research Society” Box 1347, Port McNeill, V0N 2R0 with “MERS trip Cowichan Bay” in the memo line.
1.     E-transfer to mersociety@gmail.com indicating “MERS trip Telegraph Cove”.
Please use password humpback.
2.     Cheque made out to “Marine Education and Research Society” Box 1347, Port McNeill, V0N 2R0 with “MERS trip Telegraph Cove” in the memo line.
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Who You Gonna Call? Helping BC’s Marine Mammals.

We are very pleased to launch a series of four short videos aimed at increasing knowledge of how to help marine mammals in British Columbia.

These resources provide background on threats like disturbance and entanglement and provide information on what to do, and who to call, when incidents of concern are witnessed.

See below for the following videos:
#1 Marine Mammal Disturbance                #2 Whale Entanglement
#3 Seal and Sea Lion Entanglement           #4 Injured, Stranded or Dead Marine Mammals

Marine Mammal Disturbance
By Jackie Hildering; Marine Education and Research Society

Whale Entanglement
By Christie McMillan; Marine Education and Research Society

Seal and Sea Lion Entanglement
By Wendy Szaniszlo; Vancouver Aquarium

Seal and Sea Lion Entanglement
By Lisa Spaven; Fisheries and Oceans Canada

 

Our gratitude to all who made these resources possible.
Habitat Stewardship Program (HSP) funding was provided through the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF) / Canadian Marine Animal Response Alliance (CMARA).
Videography was so generously provided by April Bencze.

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“Reel” Solution – balloon releases and impacts to wildlife

This is very inspirational. So often, you don’t get to know if your efforts have an impact but this time  . . .

Ashley Hasgawa is a student at Shawinigan Lake School. She attended one of our “Humpback Comeback” presentations. We always make quick mention of our work around endangered Leatherback Turtles – that they belong off the coast of British Columbia, coming all the way from Indonesia and that a risk to them is that they cannot discern plastics and balloons from their jellyfish prey.  (See leatherbacksinbc.org.)

Ashley later took up contact asking for data around this risk to wildlife, explaining that her school had a balloon-release at their Closing Day ceremony. She had done the work to know that, while they use biodegradable balloons, these can take a very long time to breakdown (over 6 years, see this link).

Canada Day balloons found drifting off the west coast of Vancouver Island on July 21, 2017. They were retrieved by the crew of the Canadian Coast Guard Ship JP Tully. We would later see a Leatherback Turtle. In a global study of 408 dead Leatherback Turtles, more than 30% had plastics in their intestines (Mrosovsky et al, 2009).

She wanted to ensure she had solid facts before having a discussion at her school about how the risk could be further reduced.

We provided the data and some links to alternatives for such ceremonies. The lowest risk would be not to release balloons.

Never could we have anticipated the ingenuity of the compromise agreed upon by the graduating class and school management.

Biodegradable balloons clipped securely to fishing line, released, reeled back in, and then popped and put into the compost. That’s ingenuity. Photo by Becky Han, Shawinigan Lake School. 

Here is Ashley’s recent email describing what they did:

” . . .  We attached a carabiner to each balloon, as a grad class, we all clipped the balloons onto a fishing line like a kite. As you can see in the pictures [see below], they all flew out together. Later on, we brought it back down again after the graduation ceremony. Unfortunately, there were still about 3-4 balloons failed on clipping onto the fishing line, but most of the balloons did get brought down, got popped by our school and dumped to our own compost facility. This could not have happened without the support of our headmaster, David Robertson, and the teachers, especially, my fine art instructor, Scott Noble for always helping me. Thank you so much for your fantastic presentation, I will never forget it. I am so happy that I went and made a difference for the environment.”

Imagine how happy we are.

Thank you Ashley and all those who made it possible for a student’s concern to lead to empowerment. Our great hope is that this approach to balloon releases will go widely into the world, creating further awareness of the risk to wildlife.

For sustainable alternatives to balloon release ceremonies, please see this link by “Balloons Blow”.

Photo provided by Ashley Hasegawa.

 

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Trap-Feeding – A new humpback feeding behaviour!

One of the best things about researching individual whales is that, no matter how long we study them, we keep being reminded of how much more there is to learn…

In 2011, MERS researchers observed a humpback whale named “Conger” (BCY0728), a whale that we have documented off northeastern Vancouver Island since 2009, doing something that we had never seen a humpback do before. Conger was remaining at the water’s surface with his mouth wide open, and he stayed like this for an extended period of time.

TF7

With his mouth open, he spun slowly in place for about a minute, and then used his flippers to push fish toward his mouth!

TF8

After observing this feeding behaviour several more times, we named it “trap-feeding”, because it reminded us of the way that Venus flytraps catch flies. Humpbacks were remaining stationary and waiting for prey to enter their mouths. By studying the behaviour further, we have learned that, in addition to often using their long flippers to direct fish toward their mouths, humpbacks also benefit from diving birds that are chasing the same prey. While trying to escape the birds, the small fish appear to school in or next to the whales’ mouths.

We know of only two whales who used this trap-feeding behaviour in 2011 –  Conger and “Moonstar” (BCY0768), who was three years old at the time. But by the end of 2015, sixteen of the humpback whales that feed off northeastern Vancouver Island had been documented using this strategy at least once. In some cases, humpbacks even trap-fed side-by-side!

TF9.jpg

Aided by the many people that have contributed photos, videos, and sightings of trap-feeding over the past six years, MERS researchers have concluded that when whales trap-feed, they are feeding in the same locations and on the same prey species (juvenile herring) as when they lunge-feed. BUT there is a big difference in the size and density of the schools of fish that humpbacks consume when they trap-feed vs. when they lunge-feed…

fish.001

The schools of herring that humpback whales trap-feed on are much smaller and less dense than the schools that they lunge-feed on.  We believe that trap-feeding is an energetically efficient way to feed on these smaller schools of fish. When whales are lunge-feeding, they accelerate toward their prey, then open their mouths – an energy-intensive strategy that only makes sense if schools of fish are large and dense enough to result in a net energy gain for whales.  But while trap-feeding, whales open their mouths while stationary or near-stationary, and therefore use much less energy.

If you see humpback whales exhibiting this feeding behaviour, we would love to know! Sightings and photos can be sent to info@mersociety.org

Additionally, MERS researchers are in the process of publishing a study focused on trap-feeding – so a lot more information about this new humpback whale feeding strategy will be available soon!

~ Christie, Jackie, Jared and the MERS Team

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MERS Presentations on Humpback Whales


From urban centres to remote communities, if you live on BC’s coast, we are striving to be of use to you.

We’re going far and wide to share our work on the return of Humpback Whales from the brink of extinction – all the good news, their remarkable feeding strategies, and the need for raised awareness for the sake of whale AND boater safety.

Presenter is MERS Education Director and Humpback Researcher – Jackie Hildering.

April 4th – Powell River; 7 PM; Cranberry Seniors Centre; host Malaspina Naturalists; (all welcome; donations welcome).

April 5th – Sechelt; 7 PM; Sunshine Coast Arts Centre; host Sunshine Coast Conservation Association; (all welcome; entry by donation). 

April 8th – Gabriola Island; 7 PM; The Roxy; hosts Gabriola Rescue of  Wildlife Society, Gabriola Streamkeepers, and Gabriola Land & Trails Trust; (all welcome; free entry).

April 11th – Nanaimo; 7 PM;  Vancouver Island University’s Malaspina Theatre; host Vancouver Island Sustainability; (all welcome; free entry).

April 26th – Courtenay; 8 PM; Florence Filberg Centre – Upper Floor Hall;  host Cape Lazo Power and Sail Squadron AGM.

April 27th – Duncan; 7 PM;  Vancouver Island University Cowichan – Lecture Hall; hosts Cowichan Naturalists, Cowichan Watershed Board, VIU Cowichan.

April 28th – Nanaimo (Nanaimo Yacht Club members and invitees); 7:30 PM; location and host Nanaimo Yacht Club; (all welcome; free entry). 

June17 – Kitimat; 7 PM; location and host Kitimat Valley Institute; (all welcome; free entry). 

June 21, 22 or 23 – Klemtu; 7 PM; location to be finalized; host Spirit Bear Lodge.

June 24 – Bella Bella; 7 PM; location to be finalized; hosts Qqs (Eyes) Projects Society
and Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department.

June 28 – Bella Coola; 7 PM;  Bella Coola Valley Inn.

September 22 – Quadra Island; details to follow; host Sierra Club – Quadra.

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Puzzle Pieces

Want a glimpse into the world of trying to study Humpbacks as individuals?

It’s key to everything we do. If we can’t recognize the whales as individuals, we can’t count them; or know their range; or determine rate of entanglement; or study what feeding strategies they use, etc. etc. etc.!

Often it’s easy. Sometimes it’s not.

In this blog we share two examples of how puzzle pieces come together so that we can better understand Humpback Whales. It’s hoped that these examples give a sense of how much effort and collaboration is involved in studying these far-ranging giants and – how the contribution of sightings can provide us with essential puzzle pieces.

Puzzle #1 

On the evening of August 25th two Humpbacks were in Comox Harbour and generated a lot of concern. Boats and jet skis were reportedly travelling at high speed near the whales. Public concern about the safety of the whales led to media attention and additional opportunities for us to provide education about safe boater behaviour around Humpbacks. We are so grateful too that people cared enough to sponsor MERS “See a Blow? Go Slow!” signage for Comox Harbour.

It was an important sighting and we hoped to be able to determine who the whales were. Thankfully, Peter Hamilton of Lifeforce contacted MERS with photos of the whales.

fb-memes-004
The following fluke shot allowed Alison Ogilvie of MERS to ID one of the whales.

fb-memes-005The photo shows enough features of the whale’s tail for Alison to recognize “Towers” (BCX1239).

We nickname the Humpbacks for distinctive features. In this case, see the two distinctive peaks on the right side of the trailing edge of the tail that inspired the name “Towers”? (See our ID photo above).

But the second whale – who was s/he? While we can often recognize individual Humpbacks from their dorsal fins, we had never documented a whale with this dorsal fin before.

Whale #2. Even though the whale has a very distinctive dorsal fin, we could not ID the whale as we had not documented it before.

Whale #2. Even though the whale has a very distinctive dorsal fin, we could not ID the whale as we had not documented him/her before.

Months passed. Then, on December 11th, we got reports of two Humpbacks travelling past Alert Bay to the north. Jared Towers of MERS and volunteer Muriel Halle were able to get ID photos. Look at the distinctive dorsal fin! It’s the same whale that had been in Comox Harbour on August 25th.

fb-memes-001They were able to get a fluke shot whereby we now have the ability to recognize this whale in the future (see below). S/he has been nicknamed “Bullet” for the distinctive circle-like shape on the trailing edge of the right fluke (upper third).

fb-memes-009Even though this is an adult Humpback, the August 25th sighting in Comox Harbour may be the first known documentation of this whale. To date we do not know of any prior sightings by our colleagues studying Humpbacks in other areas on BC’s coast. We anticipate however that we will get more pieces of the puzzle in the future.

Puzzle #2

Here’s a puzzle with pieces dating back to 1996! That’s the first known documentation of “Kappa” (BCX0158). The knowledge comes from a photo given to MERS by data contributor, Bruce Paterson. Kappa was nicknamed by for the “K” marking

Through the work of others we know :

  • Kappa migrates to Hawaii! Documented in March 2004 in Maui as part of the SPLASH Project.
  • Kappa is female! She was sighted with a calf in Maui in 2004 and was seen repeatedly with the calf in BC as well from July to September 2005. This includes documentation off SW Vancouver Island by Brian Gisborne for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
  • Addition sightings include her repeatedly being in Washington State.
    • The first documentation there was in October 1997 as reported by the Cascadia Research Collective (catalogued as CRC-13576).
    • The last known documentation of Kappa in Washington was on December 4, 2016 by Heather McIntyre of Maya’s Whale Watching as relayed to the citizen science site known as “Happy Whale“.

And then .  . then there was this past December 30th. Again we got reports of two Humpbacks traveling past Alert Bay, heading north. Again, Jared was able to get photos.

When those photos were relayed, one of us may almost have fallen off her chair. It was Kappa, the first known sighting of her around NE Vancouver Island in 20 years!

See below for the ID photos resulting from that sighting.

fb-memes-002

Kappa was nicknamed  for the marking in the shape of a “K” on the lower left part of her tail.  Kappa is Greek for the letter K. See the marking?

BUT who was the whale with her on December 30th? That whale didn’t fluke. We only have a flank shot.

Sound familiar?

Here we go again –  another puzzle we will hopefully be able to solve.

Piece by piece by piece  . . .  contributing to the important and intriguing picture of understanding – and protecting – North Pacific Humpbacks.

fb-memes-001

Unknown Humpback traveling with Kappa (BCX0158) on December 30, 2016.


[Update: As a result of this blog, another puzzle piece has been delivered. “Bullet” was documented off Port Angeles, Washington on July 29th, 2016. S/he was photographed by Alethea Leddy of Island Adventures. Information was relayed by Tasli Shaw.]

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Whale Species at Risk and the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Project

As a result of the November 29th announcement by Prime Minister Trudeau giving conditional approval to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Project, we have been receiving questions about what this might mean for whale species recognized to be at risk and protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA).

We have written the following in order to answer these questions related to the potential increase in tanker traffic and whale species at risk by summarizing available information from federal documents including Recovery Strategies and Action Plans.

In addition to this review of federal documents, MERS research on Humpback Whales and the risk of vessel strike is pertinent to the potential of increased tanker traffic. Our extensive experience with Humpback Whales provides us with the knowledge of how incredibly unaware Humpbacks can be of boats and how very unpredictably they can surface. This has made our “See a Blow? Go Slow!“campaign a necessity to raise awareness about reducing the risk of collision for the sake of whale and boater safety. Our work with Humpback Whales makes us all too aware that large vessels like tankers cannot divert course fast enough to avoid hitting humpbacks.

The more vessel traffic, the greater the risk becomes.

Questions:

What are the specifics of the tankers – size, number and route?

  • The Aframax tankers proposed to serve the pipeline are 245 m long and 42 m wide.
  • There would be an approximate sevenfold increase in the number of tankers – from 60 to 408 tankers annually.
  • The tankers would carry diluted bitumen to Asian and Californian refineries along the route in the figure below. Note that tanker route (red line) is shown relative to acknowledged critical habitat for the endangered southern resident killer whale population (purple area).
Figure 1: Red line is the tanker route. Purple area is acknowledged critical habitat for the endangered southern resident killer whale population. Click to enlarge. Source: www.wildernesscommittee.org/kinder_morgan_pipeline_route_maps

Figure 1: Red line is the tanker route. Purple area is acknowledged critical habitat for the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population. Click to enlarge. Source: Wilderness Committee.

How important is the tanker route area to whale species at risk?
The following whale species are recognized to be at risk and are commonly present along the tanker route. They are protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

  • Southern Resident Killer Whales – Endangered
    Area is designated critical habitat (see Figure 2)
  • Transient / Bigg’s Killer Whales – Threatened
    Area is proposed critical habitat (see Figure 3)
  • North Pacific Humpback Whales – Threatened
    In addition to the designated critical habitat (see Figure 4) there has been a recent dramatic increase in humpbacks in the Strait of Georgia and the Juan de Fuca Strait.

You will note that the area through which increased numbers of tankers would transit is designated or proposed critical habitat for all three at-risk whale species.

“Critical habitat” is defined under SARA as “the habitat that is necessary for the survival or recovery of a listed wildlife species that is identified as the species’ critical habitat in the recovery strategy or in an action plan for the species” (SARA s.2 (1)).”

Figure 2: “Critical habitat for southern resident killer whales. The hatched area in US waters shows the approximate areas designated as southern resident critical habitat under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA). Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2011. 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 + 80 pp. http://www.sararegistry.gc.ca/virtual_sara/files/plans/rs_epaulard_killer_whale_1011_eng.pdf

Figure 2: “Critical habitat for Southern Resident Killer Whales. The hatched area in US waters shows the approximate areas designated as Southern Resident critical habitat under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA).” Source: Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada.

Figure 3: “Map showing the habitat considered necessary for meeting recovery objectives for inner coast WCT killer whales [West Coast Transient]. Area includes marine waters bounded by a distance of 3 nautical miles (5.56 km) from the nearest shore. This area includes the locations of over 90% of all individual identifications and predation events documented in BC waters during 1990-2011.” Source: Ford, J.K.B, E.H. Stredulinsky, J.R. Towers and G.M. Ellis. 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. Res. Doc. 2012/155. iv + 46 p. http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/Csas-sccs/publications/resdocs-docrech/2012/2012_155-eng.pdf

Figure 3: “Map showing the habitat considered necessary for meeting recovery objectives for inner coast WCT Killer Whales [West Coast Transient]. Area includes marine waters bounded by a distance of 3 nautical miles (5.56 km) from the nearest shore. This area includes the locations of over 90% of all individual identifications and predation events documented in BC waters during 1990-2011.” Source: Information in Support of the Identification of Critical Habitat for Transient Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) off the West Coast of Canada.

Figure 4: “Locations of the four critical habitat areas [for humpback whales]: a. Southeast Moresby Island, b. Langara Island, c. Southwest Vancouver Island, d. Gil Island (DFO 2009). The existence of other areas of critical habitat for Humpback Whales in B.C. is likely.” Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2013. Recovery Strategy for the North Pacific Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. x + 67 pp. http://www.sararegistry.gc.ca/virtual_sara/files/plans/rs_rb_pac_nord_hbw_1013_e.pdf

Figure 4: “Locations of the four critical habitat areas [for Humpback Whales]: a. Southeast Moresby Island, b. Langara Island, c. Southwest Vancouver Island, d. Gil Island (DFO 2009). The existence of other areas of critical habitat for Humpback Whales in B.C. is likely.” SourceRecovery Strategy for the North Pacific Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Canada.

What risks are associated with increased tanker traffic?
Below, we have summarized associated risks as specified in the SARA Recovery Strategies or Action Plans for whale species at risk (click to enlarge).

Figure 5: Summary of risks associated with tankers as specified in the SARA Recovery Strategies or Action Plans for whale species at risk. Click to enlarge.

Figure 5: Summary of risks associated with tankers as specified in the SARA Recovery Strategies or Action Plans for whale species at risk. Click to enlarge.

Further language from federal Recovery Strategies specifically referencing oil spills and/or tankers:

  • Resident Killer Whale Recovery Strategy (2011): The threat of a spill of oil or other toxic material within the areas of critical habitat pose not only an immediate and acute risk to the health of resident populations  . . . but have the potential to make critical habitat areas un-inhabitable for an extended period of time. . . . While the probability of either northern or southern resident killer whales being exposed to an oil spill is low, the impact of such an event is potentially catastrophic [Note that this Recovery Strategy dates back to 2011]. Both populations are at risk of an oil spill because of the large volume of tanker traffic that travels in and out of Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia (Baird 2001, Grant and Ross 2002) and the proposed expansion of tanker traffic in the north and central coast of BC. In 2003, 746 tankers and barges transported over 55 billion litres of oil and fuel through the Puget Sound (WDOE 2004). If the moratorium on oil and gas exploration and development is lifted in British Columbia, the extraction and transport of oil may put northern resident killer whales at additional risk.
    Killer whales do not appear to avoid oil, as evidenced by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Less than a week after the spill, resident whales from one pod were observed surfacing directly in the slick (Matkin et al. 1999). Seven whales from the pod were missing at this time, and within a year, 13 of them were dead. This rate of mortality was unprecedented, and there was strong spatial and temporal correlation between the spill and the deaths (Dahlheim and Matkin 1994, Matkin et al. 1999). The whales probably died from the inhalation of petroleum vapours (Matkin et al. 1999). Exposure to hydrocarbons can be through inhalation or ingestion, and has been reported to cause behavioural changes, inflammation of mucous membranes, lung congestion, pneumonia, liver disorders, and neurological damage (Geraci and St. Aubin 1982).”
  • Transient Killer Whale Recovery Strategy (2007): “Killer whales do not appear to avoid toxic spills, as indicated by the behaviour of a group of transients in the vicinity of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 in Prince William Sound, Alaska (and described in Section 1.4.3.8). This spill was associated with unprecedented mortality of both transient and resident killer whales, which likely died from the inhalation of petroleum vapours (Matkin et al. 1999). Spills on a smaller scale have occurred in British Columbia, such as the Nestucca oil spill (875 tonnes in December 1988) in Gray’s Harbor, Washington, which drifted into Canadian waters, and the more recent spill of 50 tonnes of bunker fuel into Howe Sound from a ruptured tanker in August 2006. There is currently a considerable amount of tanker traffic in and out of Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia, which poses a risk for killer whales (Baird 2001, Grant and Ross 2002). If the proposed 30-inch 400,000 barrel/day Gateway Pipeline is built near Kitimat, the risk of an oil spill associated with tanker traffic running from inshore waters to California and Asia will increase significantly.”
    [Note the Recovery Strategy was finalized prior to the announcement rejecting the Northern Gateway Project and developments with the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Project].
  • Humpback Whale Recovery Strategy (2013): “The recent oil platform blowout in the Gulf of Mexico released an estimated 5.2 million barrels of oil (Crone and Tolstoy, 2010) is a poignant reminder of the potential for failure in engineered infrastructure in the marine environment. Even with very low odds and excellent safety records, catastrophic events can lead to undesirable outcomes. Proposed pipeline projects, associated tanker traffic, and possible offshore oil and gas exploration and development in coastal British Columbia all increase the likelihood of toxic spills in Humpback Whale habitat in the future, and underscore the importance of protecting critical habitat and supporting mitigation measures and plans.
    In 1989 and 1990, following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Humpback Whales in Prince William Sound were monitored for resulting effects. A change in abundance could not be determined, no change in calving rate was observed, and distribution varied by year, possibly related to changing prey abundance or distribution. Since there were no reports of Humpback Whales directly exposed to the spill (i.e. swimming through oil slicks), or of dead stranded whales (Dahlheim and von Ziegesar 1993), it is difficult to conclude whether Humpback Whales are vulnerable to oil spills or whether there were simply no whales in the vicinity at the time of the spill. However, other cetaceans such as Killer Whales do not appear to avoid toxic spills, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill was associated with unprecedented mortality of both Resident and Transient Killer Whales, likely resulting from inhalation of petroleum vapours (Matkin et al. 2008). Toxic spills have occurred impacting marine habitat along the B.C. coast. For example, the Nestucca oil spill (1988) resulted in 875 tonnes of oil spilled in Gray’s Harbor, Washington. Oil slicks from this spill drifted into Canadian waters, including Humpback Whale habitat. In 2006, a tanker ruptured in Howe Sound, B.C. spilling approximately 50 tonnes of bunker fuel into coastal waters. In 2007, a barge carrying vehicles and forestry equipment sank near the Robson Bight-Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve within the critical habitat for Northern Resident Killer Whales, spilling an estimated 200 litres of fuel. The barge and equipment (including a 10,000L diesel tank) were recovered without incident. When the Queen of the North sank on March 22, 2006, with 225,000 L of diesel fuel, 15,000 L of light oil, 3,200 L of hydraulic fluid, and 3,200 of stern tube oil, it did so on the tanker route to Kitimat, which is currently the subject of a pipeline and port proposal and within the current boundaries of Humpback Whale critical habitat . . .
    Strong avoidance reactions to underwater noise by Grey, Humpback and Bowhead Whales has been observed at received levels of 160-170 dB re 1 µPa (Richardson et al. 1995; Frankel and Clark 2000; McCauley et al. 2000; Stone and Tasker 2006). The level of noise from a tanker may be as high as 190 dB re 1 µPa, and bathymetric features that reduce sound dissipation would further increase the level of disturbance. For this reason, fjords or channels may be particularly sensitive to noise propagation from vessel traffic. The disruption of access to these areas would limit or reduce foraging opportunities or alter behaviours that support other life processes, such as resting, socializing, and vocal interaction.
    Humpback Whales exhibit strong site fidelity for feeding along the B.C. coast (DFO 2009; Ford et al. 2009) and increased acoustic disturbance in these areas may be detrimental to the quality and accessibility of the feeding grounds.”

What mitigation measures has the federal government put forward?
On November 7th, the federal government announced the “Ocean Protection Plan” for which “Canada will invest $1.5 billion over five years in long-needed coastal protections, with an action plan to deliver results for the coming decade. This Plan will engage communities, first responders, and governing authorities to work together effectively to respond to emergencies.” Many details have not yet been released.

The announcement includes the following plans to address specific risks:

Collision: “The Government of Canada will . . .. Work with partners to implement a real-time whale detection system in specific areas of the species’ habitat to alert mariners to the presence of whales, which will allow them to better avoid interactions with this and other marine mammal species.”

Noise: “The Government of Canada will . . . Take action to better understand and address the cumulative effects of shipping on marine mammals, such as the southern resident killer whales pods . . . This includes work to better establish baselines for noise and consideration of options to mitigate these effects.”

Oil spills: “The Government of Canada will fund improved research capacity to seek safe, reliable, and more effective technologies to clean up oil spills. Research into new clean-up technologies is an essential part of a world-leading marine safety plan.
New investments will fund research to help improve emergency response to marine pollution incidents on the water drawing on the expertise and experience of the science community both in Canada and abroad.
New international partnerships will give Canadians access to the best technology available for spill clean-up. A program will build on the work of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s world-leading Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research and will encourage collaboration on scientific research with Indigenous and local communities, international research facilities and industry.”

Federal documents that have informed the above:

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