Work Achieved in 2020 – MERS Report

What a year it’s been!

Below we report on what we have achieved to date in 2020 despite you-know-what. We want you to know how far your contributions go to reduce threats to marine life and that we could not have succeeded without the support of those united in knowing the value of this work.

Jigger lunge-feeding, October 22nd, 2020

We’re very grateful for what you have done to make this possible, be it by contributing data; sharing our educational messaging; making tax-deductible donations; sponsoring whales; helping with signage to reduce threats to whales and boaters; flying the Whale Warning Flag; educating yourself about reducing threats to marine life; and/or purchasing sustainable goods from our online Ocean Store.

Hoping it is of use, we have summarized how meaningful end-of-year giving supports our work at this link. Candidly, we have a budget shortfall due to not being able to have our Courses nor our annual fund-raising trip. 

Wishing you health, happiness and a world of whales,

The MERS Team

Neptune trap-feeding, October 22nd, 2020

MERS Report
Highlights of work achieved in 2020 

Educational and Outreach

  • Adapting to the necessity for online, virtual education, including:
  • Strategic positioning of 102 additional “See a Blow? Go Slow!” signs to educate boaters on how to reduce risk to whales for a total of more than 350 signs now posted on British Columbia’s coast (see map at this link);  
  • Coordinating an initiative focused on incorporating Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations into both Transport Canada’s and the Canadian Power Squadron’s boater courses;
  • Promoting and distributing Whale Warning Flags;
  • Creating an educational member-only online resource for our Humpback Whale sponsors; and
  • In development: animations to raise awareness of, and reduce, marine debris.

Research

  • Over 1,400 database entries for sightings of Humpbacks in 2020 with an additional 1,000+ entries for sightings from previous years;
  • Further data collection and analysis of scars on Humpback Whales that indicate they have survived entanglement(s) and drafting a manuscript focused on the scope of this threat to Humpbacks in BC waters for publication (work conducted in collaboration with DFO);
  • Continued data collection for Humpback Whale population studies and feeding strategy research;
  • Coordinating the efforts of those studying Humpback Whales off the coast of British Columbia to consolidate data sets and develop a Province-wide Humpback Whale catalogue to enable further research collaboration;
  • Conducting multi-species marine mammal surveys to inform seasonal and annual changes in distribution;
  • Compiling Mola / Ocean Sunfish sightings to support a study into species distribution off the coast of British Columbia; and
  •  Addition of Humpback Whale mouth ID photos to our cataloguing efforts, to allow identification of trap-feeding whales by their distinctive mouth markings.

Marine Mammal Rescue and Response

  • 9.5 days of monitoring commercial fisheries overlapping with areas of high whale density, to improve reporting of incidents and to respond, or provide support to rescue efforts, when needed;
  • 5.5 days of support for whale entanglement response by coordinating and undertaking search efforts for known entangled Humpback Whales; and
  • Communication / coordination for 23 marine mammal incidents, ranging from violations of the Marine Mammal Regulations to marine mammal entanglement.

Staffing

 

Currently Entangled Whales off the Coast of BC

The following will be updated as information becomes available. Last update: September 11, 2020. 

Whales known to be entangled of the coast of BC:
1. Checkmate – no longer entangled.  DFO got drone footage on September 10th that shows that Checkmate no longer is entangled. The rope that was through Checkmate’s mouth with a trap under the right pectoral fin, has fallen off. 
2. X-Ray – entangled near Campbell River, has not be found
3. Unknown whale #1 on Central Coast, has not been found, photo now available
4. Unknown whale #2  on the Central Coast, has not been found

See this link for our schedule for free webinars on our research and how to reduce threats to whales. 


There are currently 4 Humpback Whales known to be entangled off the coast of British Columbia. They may not be the only ones. These are just the whales who have been seen and reported. Note that it is the law that entanglements must be reported.

With the very fortunate increase in the number of Humpback Whales off our coast, comes this reality that there is a greater overlap between fishing gear and these giants feeding off our coast.

This page is to serve as: 
(1) The go-to for information on currently entangled whales so that there is a greater chance that they may be found so that rescue attempts can be undertaken / resumed;

(2) A resource for media and coastal British  Columbians regarding the severity / frequency of this threat and knowing what to do (and not to do).

(3) Increasing knowledge of why identifying whales as individuals is so important. Not only is it the foundation of all our research, if you want to find a whale in trouble, you need to be able to recognize the whale and know where it most often can be found.

How big a threat is entanglement to Humpbacks?
The preliminary results of our research, conducted in collaboration with DFO, shows that approximately half the Humpbacks off the coast of British Columbia have scarring that shows they have been entangled. This provides an indication of how much the following are needed: boater education, resources for disentanglement, and understanding of how to reduce the threat. But please know, that entangled whales so often escape detection and most dead whales sink.

How you can help:
You can help by being alert for the possibility of entangled whales and educating yourself about what to do with the information we have provided at
www.HowToSaveAWhale.org. This includes insight into how disentanglement are conducted and why it is not only extraordinarily dangerous to attempt disentanglement but were one to do so, you might be dooming the whale by removing the ability to see the the whale is entangled (because what is visible at the surface has been removed) and by removing the ability to attach a geo-tag to the gear so that the whale can be  found and the expertise and equipment can be used to attempt rescue.

Know that the whales are most often not in immediately danger of dying from entanglement. It is the longterm impacts of infection and not being able to feed and/or move properly that will kill them.

The biggest limiting factor in rescuing the whales is finding them back as the realities of the following four whales will make very clear. But know too we can never detect or find back all the entangled whales off our coast. The problem of entanglement must ultimately be dealt with at the source for the sake of the whales, the fishing community re. impacts due to lost gear; and for the sake of fisheries trade with the United States (see end fo the page for the court ruling in that regard). .


Entangled Humpback #1
Checkmate – NO LONGER ENTANGLED 


Checkmate was documented as entangled on July 25th due to the vigilance of a member of the whale watching community around Campbell River. It was immediately called in to the Incident Reporting Line at 1-800-465-4336. Expertise was dispatched to Campbell River with Straitwatch maintaining watch on the whale.

It is known that a member of the public removed rope at the surface. This was a terrible mistake, and also illegal. The gear at the surface would have allowed ease of recognizing this whale as entangled. It would have allowed for a tracking tag to be attached so that the whale could be relocated. And, it would have allowed far better possibility of being able to remove the entangling gear below the surface. The prognosis for Checkmate is very poor. Rope from a trap is through Checkmate’s mouth, trailing over the right pectoral fin. 

Because there is nothing at the surface, it was also not possible to attach a tracking tag to the rope so that Checkmate could be found whereby disentanglement attempts by DFO could continue.

Checkmate was relocated by Straitwatch on the afternoon of August 19th in the Campbell River area and again on the late afternoon August 22nd. DFO got drone footage on September 10th that shows that Checkmate is no longer entangled. So fortuitously, the rope that was through Checkmate’s mouth with a trap under the right pectoral fin, has fallen off. 


Entangled Humpback #2
X-Ray

X-Ray was last seen near Kelsey Bay with an adult whale, Slits on July 26. May no longer be traveling together. DFO has been able to remove some of the entangling gear. Whale needs to be found back  in the hopes of removing the remaining gear. 

Rope from a trap is through X-Ray’s mouth and trailing  under the right pectoral fin. 


Entangled Humpback #3

The photo below was taken on the late afternoon of July 29th near Ashdown Island. This Humpback has netting over its head which is unlikely to be evident at the surface. Colleague Humpback researchers have also reviewed this photo and we do not know this individual. This suggests the whale is more often in an area where we do not get ID photos. The whale has not been relocated since July 29th. It is know that there were multiple interactions between Humpbacks and netting during this seine fishery. These entanglements are of course also a problem for the human fishers striving to make their living. 

It is the law that entanglements must be reported. Exact language from Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations is included below.  Click to enlarge. 


Entangled Humpback #4 

There are currently no photos known to us that would allow confirmation of the identities of this whales. The entanglement was not reported until well after it happened whereby it will be far more challenging to find the whale. If there are no photos to aid the identification of the whales, this further confounds chances of finding them, especially if there is not evidence of entanglement at the surface.


With regard to entanglement of whales impacting the economics of fisheries trade with the USA:

The Marine Mammal Import Provisions Rule, went into effect on January 1st, 2017 (with a 5-year grace period). To comply with this regulation by January 1st, 2022, countries importing seafood into the United States must be able to prove their fisheries monitor and limit marine mammal bycatch with the same standards as U.S. fisheries are required to do under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. 

Whale Matching Games

By Chloé Warren, 2nd season MERS Summer Team 

For those of you coming here via a matching challenge we posted on our social media, please scroll to the end  of the blog for the answers to the #ChloesWhaleMatchingGame challenges. Each week the answers to the present week’s game will be added to the list. But first, read on if you’d like to learn a little bit more about what we do as Data Analysts for MERS and how we process the data sent to us.

This was the first weekly challenge. Try matching the Humpback Whales on the left with one of the whales on the right. 

 


Background on the work of matching whales:

As a summer team member for MERS, one of my main duties is to review both the Humpback pictures collected by our team and those sent to us by our wonderful data contributors, be it pleasure boaters or whale watching operators.

The first thing we do when we receive a picture of a Humpback Whale is to try to identify the individual (and believe me, this very quickly become a reflex; I can’t look at a video or photo of a whale anymore without wondering if I may be able to identify the individual). Being able to determine the ID of the individual whale and relay who the whale is to our data contributors adds to connection and care for the whales.

It is also the foundation of all our work from population studies to feeding strategies and entanglement rates,. When we recognize them as individuals, we can better follow their movements, area use, behaviours, associations, feeding strategies, diet, family ties, survival rates, injuries, and so much more.

The trailing edge of the whale’s tail (the edge at the extremity of the tail), with all its bumps and ridges, is arguably the most consistent feature of a Humpback.Unless the whale suffers some sort of injury, in which case a new nick can appear or a piece of the tail can go missing, the trailing edge will barely change, even when the whale grows bigger. By using the trailing edge, one can also identify a Humpback from a “reverse fluke shot” which is a photo of the topside of the tail. However, it can be quite tedious to scrutinize the trailing edge of a fluke.

It is much easier to identify a Humpback Whale through colouration and markings on the underside of their fluke / tail. The pigmentation there can vary greatly between whales, and tends to change relatively slowly over time (although it still does change, especially in younger whales, and scars can obviously appear and change with time).

However, Humpbacks do not always lift their tails and/or contributed photos show just the side of the whale. Thus, it is very useful to catalogue the dorsal fins of Humpbacks as well (the fins on their backs).

 

Again, the overall shape of a dorsal tends not to change, but severe transformations of individual dorsal fins do regularly happen as the result of injuries e.g. from vessel strikes or male competitive behaviour. Scars will appear, change, and disappear quite frequently there too, so it can be quite tricky to identify whales that way. Plus, much like human noses, there’s not that much variation in  the shape of dorsal fins, and several individuals will have dorsal fins that look extremely similar. At MERS, we’ve all spent way too many hours looking at dorsal fins, looking for any type of clue that may indicate which whale we are looking at.

Identifying the whale is only the first step in the data processing process though. After we’ve determined the ID, in the photo’s metadata, we’ll add the ID of the whale, the photographer, the date, the time and the location. We’ll also rate the quality of the picture.

But wait, there’s more!  Not only does all the information for EVERY sighting get entered into our database, there is further processing needed for pictures that suggest entanglement scaring, that may allow for determination of gender, or pictures of previously undocumented whales.

Needless to say, this can be a very time-consuming job: every single picture needs to be analyzed and processed. We quite often run into whale mysteries, where we can’t quite figure out which dorsal goes with which fluke or that the quality of the photo makes ID more difficult.

It sometimes takes 5 pairs of eyes, and a couple more encounters with the whale for us to figure out who they are. Last summer, about a month went by before the puzzle pieces came together and I was able to ID a whale. And check out this blog post to see how much work was put into identifying the Humpback Whale seen in Vancouver this past May (I was not involved in that mystery). It’s the story of Halfpipe at this link. 

While it can be frustrating, the satisfaction of finally solving a whale puzzle always leaves me wanting more. How did you make out with the challenges?

For more information on how the whales receive catalogue numbers and nicknames, please see our Education Coordinator’s blog “Beethoven the Humpback Whale! What’s in a name?” at this link.

To obtain the MERS Humpback Catalogue for Northern Vancouver Island, please click here. 


Here are the answers to Chloe’s Whale Matching Games:

Week 1 – July  23, 2020:

 

Answers for Week 1:

A is Guardian (BCYuk2011#4),

B  is Argonaut (BCY0729)

C  is Bumpy (BCYuk2016#11)

D is Inukshuk (BCZ0339, Inukshuk)


Week 2 – July  30, 2020:

Flukes:

Flanks:

Answers Week 2:

Flukes:

A is Sponge Bob (BCYuk2019#8)

B  is Whiskers (BCZ0200)

C  is Poseidon (BCZ0200 calf 2019)

D is Terry (BCX1100)

E is Hammerhead (BCYuk2019#4)

Flanks:

A is Sponge Bob (BCYuk2019#8)

B  is Whiskers (BCZ0200)

C  is Poseidon (BCZ0200 calf 2019)


Week 3 – August 6th, 2020

This week we’re exploring the art of nicknaming Humpback Whales. You might have noticed that we often reference Humpbacks by 2 names: their alphanumeric ID & their nickname.

The alphanumerical ID is relatively straightforward:

  • BC = British-Columbia
  • X, Y or Z = % of white on the underside of the tail (fluke)
    X = mostly black
    Y = intermediate amount of white
    Z = mostly white
  • A 4 digit number = the order in which the whales are documented.

    Thus, BCZ0200 is the 200th Humpback documented off BC whose tail is mostly white.

Until the whales are assigned a provincial ID, there is a temporary designation. We use a system whereby BCYuk2019#8 is the 8th whale with an intermediate amount of white on their fluke, documented in 2019. Not a new paragraph. Calves get the ID of their mother, followed by “calf” and the year they were born, so “BCZ0200 calf 2019” is BCZ0200’s 2019 calf.

We assign nicknames for 2 reasons: to provide greater potential for public engagement & they’re easier to remember! They are based on distinguishing features & allow for more efficient IDing.

When a new whale is documented, MERS often invites the data contributor to suggest nicknames. Sometimes, school groups or participants in MERS’ courses are invited to do so for whales who have yet to be nicknamed. MERS ultimately selects the name, to avoid confusion with other names & because we’re the ones who most often use them for identification!

This all requires a keen eye, lots of creativity & a good dose of imagination. Can you do it? 8 of the whales here were named for a distinguishing feature on their flukes & 6 for something on their flanks. Can you guess which nickname corresponds to which whale? 

Answers for the Week 3 Fluke Challenge:
:
A is #5 = Double Drop
See how the left trailing edge had two large jags?

B is #6= Loophole
See the hole on the right?

C is #3 = K-One
See the K1 marking on the right?

D is #4.= ‘Makwala
See the moon-like marking on the left?

E is # 7 = Notcho
See the notch in the trailing edge top left?

F is #2 = Yogi
See the large white shape on the left? We think it looks like a bear’s head, facing left. Yes, it is like an ink blotch test!

G is #8 = Stripe
See the stripe on the left?

H is 1 = Lefty
See that the left part of the fluke is missing?

Answers for the Week 3 dorsal fin challenge:

A is #5 = Freckles
See all the white dots?

B is #4 = Claw
See how the shape of her dorsal fin is like a claw?

C is # 1 = Bumpy
See the bump in front of the dorsal fin?

D is #3 = Nick
See the nick in her dorsal fin?

E is #2 = Slash
See the lack of dorsal, and the propeller scars over her back?

F  is #6 = Hook
See how the shape of her dorsal fin is really hooked?


Week 4 – August 13th, 2020

This week, we will focus on an incredibly useful skill in any Humpback Whale data analyst’s toolkit: being able to match the trailing edge of a whale’s tail (the edge at the extremity of the tail). Just this week, I’ve relied on this skill to identify about a dozen whales, having nothing else to go off off it is challenging to scrutinize the bumps and ridges that define the trailing edge of a fluke. It’s usually much easier to recognize a whale when you can see the the markings and pigmentation on the underside of the tail (the fluke). But sometimes, one has to rely on the trailing edge to identify a whale. This can be due to the photo being of the front of the tail (reverse fluke) or of only a segment of the underside of the tail, poor lighting, or simply because it’s an all-black tail. The trailing edge of a fluke is a very consistent feature of a Humpback, so even when fluke markings seem to match, it is always good to check the trailing edge to confirm a match. So this week, I’m setting you up for a challenging but amusing exercise: on the left you have a picture of the topside of the tail of 4 different whales (reverse flukes), and on the right you have the flukes of those whales as they would appear in our catalogue. Can you match each reverse fluke to a whale? Good luck! 

Answers for Week 4 Reverse Fluke Challenge

A is Cutter
B is Tempest
C is Bumpy
D is Argonaut


Week 5 – August 20th, 2020

This week, for our second to last episode of #chloeswhalematchingame, we are honoring another part of MERS’s research: Minke Whales!

Minke Whales are the second smallest of the baleen whales. Their small size and limited surface activity make for a very cryptic species.

MERS co-founder Jared initiated Minke Whale research in the area over a decade ago. As with Humpbacks, the basis for understanding this species is to be able to identify them as individuals. The resulting very interesting discoveries from his efforts to recognize them include that it is now known that 6 individuals return to our core study area on NE Vancouver Island year upon year and, most likely, they are all females. See Jared and colleagues’ research on Minke Whales here www.mersociety.org/publications.

If you enjoy dorsal fin matching then you are in for a treat: Minke Whales do not lift their tails whereby they must be identified by their flanks. Make sure you put on your glasses because you’ll be looking for slight differences in scars, shapes, and dents to make the matches here!

The pictures on the left are those to ID, and the ones on the right are the Minkes as they are catalogued by Jared Towers in MERS’s “Minke Whales of the straits off northeastern Vancouver Island” (catalogue available via the link above). Good luck!


Answers Week 5 Minke Whale Challenge:


Week 6 – August 27th, 2020

Here you have the flanks & flukes of 3 Humpback Whales (whale A, B and C), all of which were featured in a matching game at some point this summer. Can you identify them? You may know them already, or you can put the pieces together by searching our previous games above. Also, remember nicknames can help. For the biggest challenge: look through the MERS catalogue to try & find them! If you don’t have it already, you can purchase at our #oceanstore. I hope this series of games may have enhanced how you observe the world around you; maybe thinking about animals more as individuals which opens the door further to learning about the life surrounding us!

 

 

Answers Week 6:

Who’s That Humpback? One-year-old “Halfpipe” near Vancouver.

Here’s a Humpback Whale identification mystery that became fully solved as a result of this happening on May 22nd . . .  

With this young Humpback being so near Vancouver and in the media like this, we hope that by sharing his/her story, more coastal British Columbians may become engaged and better aware of the extreme necessity to know that Humpbacks are a game changer on our coast. 

We are so fortunate to have a second chance with these giants. They were whaled up to 1966 in British Columbia and now have increased in number to the extent that boaters need to know that a Humpback could unexpectedly surface almost anywhere along our coast (note that the increased number is due to population growth as well as  whales moving into these waters from other areas).  

Many boaters are under the assumption that Humpbacks know where vessels are but baleen whales like Humpbacks do not have the biosonar of species like Orca. They can be oblivious of boats, especially when feeding and they are particularly hungry at this time of the year. They have recently come back from the breeding grounds of Mexico or Hawaii* where there is little to no food for them. Too often boaters assume Humpbacks are “in transit”, travelling in a straight line, rather than understanding that the whales are often on long, unpredictable dives when feeding or searching for food. 

Humpbacks’ size and unpredictability makes the threat of collision dangerous for boaters and for whales. So please dear reader, inform yourself of the Marine Mammal Regulations and best practices at www.SeeABlowGoSlow.org.

See examples of human injury resulting from collision with Humpbacks
at this link. 

[*Halfpipe very likely migrated from Mexico. This assumption is based on knowing that calves learn migration routes from their mothers and Halfpipe’s mother, older sibling and an aunt/uncle have been documented near Baja California – respectively Split Fluke, Valiant and Dalmatian.]

So who is this Humpback and how do we know? 

This is Halfpipe, nicknamed for a distinctive shape on the trailing edge of the tail. Halfpipe is one-year-old. We do not know gender but do know who Halfpipe’s mother and grandmother are. 

We now know that s/he is the whale that has been feeding near Bowen Island since at least May 11th.  

We’ll lay out how the mystery of this whale’s ID was solved as it gives a sense of how important citizen science is, and also, how much a whale’s appearance can change over time. 

This whale ID mystery began on May 11th by receiving a series of images of a Humpback Whale lunge-feeding near Bowen Island from resident artist Di Izdebski (the whale was likely feeding on concentrations of Northern Anchovy as these small schooling fish have recently been noted in large numbers by Bowen Island residents). Di is a significant supporter of our work and knew the importance of identifying the whale – for public engagement as well as for research. We humans do better when we think of whales are individuals and not as “look there’s another Humpback” feeding in the bay. We do better when we know if it is the same Humpback and know some detail about the whale’s life .In many areas of our coast too it is the same Humpbacks coming back to the same specific areas year-after-year. Like any good fisherman or woman, they have preferences for locations and strategies. 

We catalogue Humpbacks, not only by the underside of their tails, but also by their dorsal fins (the fin on their backs). This Humpback did not lift his/her tail. You’ll note that Di did get photos of both the whale’s flanks BUT there were no distinctive markings to be seen. The shape of the dorsal fin provided a shortlist of who this might be but we could not definitively ID the whale (note that Tasli Shaw of Humpbacks of the Salish Sea was also a  partner in trying solve this mystery). 

On May 16th, Di saw a Humpback exhale near her home and ran down to the beach to get photos (with 5-year-old child in tow). She again documented a Humpback Whale feeding. She got an even better photo of the dorsal fin (cropped image below) which allowed us to know that it was the same whale as on May 11th but we could still not provide a solid ID. Who was this mystery whale? 

Then came May 22nd, when Di relayed photos resulting from AGAIN running to the beach packing child and camera. These photos led to our sending Di the following email. 

“Based on the new photos, this may be a much younger whale than first thought. Also, to have this site fidelity, it is maybe more likely that this is a known whale i.e. a whale that has been previously documented off the coast of BC. This shaped our thinking in again tying to solve this ID mystery. The angle, lighting and resolution of these latest photos also reveals some additional  detail . We think this is Halfpipe who was born last year to Split Fluke (BCX1068) who was born in 2006 to Heather (BCY0160). These are the first known sightings of Halfpipe back off the coast of BC in 2020.” 


The photos above reveal that THIS is how much a whale’s appearance can change in one year. First year Humpback calves often have a lot of mottling (little white dots and patches) on their flanks. You’ll see above that those are gone but the dorsal fins shape and some very small markings made this match possible. 

And then came the additional May 22nd photo that made the news, taken by Robert Grant of the Vancouver Port Authority. Di immediately suspected this was the same whale that had been feeding near Bowen (only about 30 km away). . 

That’s Halfpipe alright! 

Halfpipe was tail-lobbing so we could now see the distinctive markings including that circular jag on the right of the tail that inspired the nickname (suggested by Kaitlin Paquette). We most often nickname Humpbacks for features that helps us recognize who they are. Thereby, the nickname serves as a hint or clue to the identity of the whale. This also allows for others to more easily connect to the whales as individuals. 

The following video is from the perspective of the sailboat in the above image, taken by Keanna Rink of Venture BC sailing school.


Considering that Halfpipe has repeatedly been documented near Bowen Island and now near Vancouver , it could be that s/he is the whale in this video from May 13th that ended up in the media, showing a Humpback breaching in Burrard Inlet  posted by anything kinder on Reddit). And no we cannot ID a whale at that distance so cannot know for sure! 🙂 


May Halpipe’s story inspire greater understanding that these whales are individuals. The Humpback Whales are giants with who we have a second chance, who need space AND a whole lot of humans who care. 


See the MERS catalogue photos of Halfpipe’s grandmother and mother below. Humpback Whale calves only stay with their mothers for one year, migrating up and, likely, back down to the breeding grounds with their mother. 
For the Humpbacks who do not group-bubble-net feed, it is the norm that they are most often on their own when in the feeding grounds. Group-bubble-net-feeding is a strategy used by some Humpbacks from BC’s central coast into Alaska. It is not a feeding strategy that works well in high current areas. Humpbacks who feed in high current areas lunge-feed” and some have learned to “trap-feed”. Sometimes, in a back eddy or when it is slack tide, some will also solo-bubble-net feed.  

 

 


Great thanks to ALL* who contribute to the citizen science and education that helps increase understanding and, thereby, decrease risk to the whales. 

*With a special shout out to Bowen Islanders in this case.  


Photo below: Baby breach! Halfpipe on August 14, 2019 near Campbell River / Quadra (west side of Mitlenatch Island). With very big gratitude to Kaitlin Paquette of Discovery Marine Safaris whose photos allowed us to ultimately recognize Halfpipe in these latest sightings.

The Good You Gave – highlights of MERS work in 2019

This is for all of you who helped our efforts in 2019: 

  • Donors;
  • Data contributors;
  • “See a Blow? Go Slow!” sign sponsors and those who help position the signs; 
  • Humpback Whale sponsors 
  • Auction sponsors and supporters; 
  • Fundraising trip sponsors and participants; 
  • Ocean Store customers; and/or
  • All those who help amplify our education / conservation messaging. 

Thank you for being part of our community and investing in the work of the Marine Education and Research Society. We take this trust and support very seriously and, with 2019 winding to a close, we are therefore reporting back on what your contributions have help make possible.

Please see below and  . . . . for 2020 and beyond, we wish you a world of whales and wellness. 


Highlights of what has been achieved by MERS in 2019:

Educational and Outreach

  • Development of the guide “Marine Mammals and Boaters” for use nation-wide with the Canadian Power Squadron in the #BoatBlue campaign; 
  • 106 additional See a Blow? Go Slow!” signs for strategic positioning on British Columbia’s coast to educate boaters on how to reduce risk to whales; 
  • 21 presentations aimed at reducing risks to whales, reaching 1,200+ people from coastal BC; 
  • 95 people trained through two Marine Mammal Naturalist Courses with information including actions to reduce risk to marine mammal and what do to in case of incidences of disturbance / injury / entanglement; and
  • For the first time, having an office space (in Port McNeill), which allowed for educating boaters through window displays and by directly engaging with the more than 750 people who visited the office. 

Research

  • Over 1,200 data entries for sightings of Humpbacks in 2019 (please note that sightings are not only obtained through our survey efforts; we are highly reliant on a community of data contributors many of whom are whale watch naturalists);
  • Further data collection and analysis of scarring in Humpbacks Whales indicative of a previous entanglement (study conducted in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada);
  • Data collection for research into Humpback Whale feeding strategies;
  • Continued collaboration with colleagues also documenting Humpbacks off the coast of British Columbia to update the BC province-wide Humpback catalogue (for completion in spring 2020); and
  • Publication of research on sightings rates of Minke Whales.  

Marine Mammal Rescue and Response

  • Ongoing data collection to inform areas of high entanglement risk off northern Vancouver Island and the central coast of BC; 
  • Monitored whales during 6 days when commercial fisheries overlapped with areas of high whale density, to improve reporting of incidents, and to respond or support responses when needed; and 
  • Communication / coordination for 17 incidents. 

Awards

  • Winner of the 2019 ECOSTAR Awards for Ecological Stewardship (non-profit) and Educational Leadership (individual). 

A Humpback With 11 Birds in His Mouth?

A Humpback With 11 Birds in His Mouth?
Humpback Whales and Their Bycatch

Over the years we at MERS have documented several cases of Humpback Whale bycatch; that is other animals that inadvertently end up in their mouths. This often occurs because Humpback Whales approach dense schools of Pacific Herring at great speed while other species are also feeding on them.

Juvenile Pacific Herring being pushed to the surface by Common Murres (diving birds) feeding on them from below. Gulls feeding on the Herring from above.

The other animals can thereby end up engulfed with the Herring. Then what happens? Consider that anything the size of a Gull or larger cannot be swallowed since the throats of Humpbacks are narrow and because, as baleen whales, they do not have teeth for chewing prey into smaller pieces.

We’ve previously shared the footage below of a Pacific Harbour Seal escaping from the mouth of a trap-feeding Humpback Whale. 

Video by Gord Thompson and Dennis and Stephanie Parsons.

We’ve also documented Humpback Whales opening their mouths to release birds like Common Murres. See photos below of a Common Murre escaping from Guardian the Humpback Whale’s mouth.

On many occasions, we have also documented bycaught Gulls. The afternoon of October 18th was no exception. 

From our research vessel Merlin we noticed in the distance an adult Humpback we know as Backsplash lunge feed at the surface on a large school of Herring that was being fed on from below the surface by Common Murres and from above by Herring and California Gulls.

When we arrived about three minutes later Backsplash was slowly circling the remains of the school of Herring and then lunged on it again, effectively capturing all or most of the remaining fish that were left over from the first lunge. Seconds later Backsplash opened his mouth at the surface, vigorously shook his upper jaw and 11 Gulls came floating up to the surface.

By-caught Gulls discarded from Backsplash’s mouth. Note the Herring scales on the surface. Photo ©Jared Towers, MERS. 

We approached the scene and could see all Gulls were completely saturated – 9 appeared dead (from impact or drowning), and 2 were clinging to what appeared to be their last moments alive. We immediately grabbed the two survivors, both immature Herring Gulls, and wrapped them in a dry towel that I happened to have aboard.

Elysanne Durand drying and warming the two immature Herring Gulls. ©Jared Towers, MERS.

We then noticed that one of the birds we previously thought was dead was resting itself on the floating body or another. There was no room in the towel for this bird, a young California Gull, so I texted our colleagues at nearby OrcaLab on Hanson Island and we raced over for some support.

Gulls that had been in Backsplash’s mouth. Photo ©Jared Towers, MERS.

Moments later we were met on shore with towels and over the next little while dried off the birds while sitting next to the wood stove. We ended up leaving one of the Herring Gulls and the California Gull with our friends at OrcaLab and took the other Herring Gull back home to Alert Bay.

John Totterdel picking up the immature California Gull. Photo ©Jared Towers, MERS..

Once completely dry all birds were released at the shoreline. They each took to the water and then the sky, although the final fate of the poor California Gull is apparently unknown because it subsequently escaped attack by a Bald Eagle but then moved out of sight while the hunt was still in progress, as if being captured by a Humpback Whale wasn’t already enough!

I’m a strong believer that we should always be conscious of our impact on the environment and its inhabitants and this often means not interfering in interactions between predators and prey. However, in a case such as this where the by-product of a feeding predator happens to be some incidentally captured Gulls I have always felt compelled to help out, even though the Gulls typically appear resentful and aggressive as soon as they are warm and dry again.

JT


Read more:

Photo used with permission – Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images. Read about this Humpback Whale and sea lion encounter at this link.

A Whale Named Terry

Blog written by MERS team member – Jackie Hildering
Education and Communications Director, Humpback Researcher, MERS Co-Founder 


Try to stop the tears from welling up in your eyes.
I couldn’t.
Because this is where hope, whales, and children intersect. 

Terry Fox during the “Marathon of Hope” 1980. Photo from © Gail Harvey, United Press Canada from the Royal BC Museum website.

Hope

If you were in Canada in 1980 and of an age to understand the magnitude of what Terry Fox was striving to do, just an image of him will already make you emotional. 

Terry Fox was a beacon of hope, courage, integrity, positivity, strength and defiance of cancer. He was only 18 when he lost most of his right leg to bone cancer. 

He was 21 when he dipped his artificial leg into the Atlantic Ocean and began his “Marathon of Hope” on April 12, 1980. He planned to run across Canada, from Newfoundland back to his home in British Columbia, to raise money for cancer research

He ran for 143 days, covering 5,373 kilometres and then Terry had to stop. The cancer had spread to his lung. He had run as far as Thunder Bay, Ontario. 

He was one month short of turning 23 when he died on June 28th, 1981.

Whales

BCX1100 is a Humpback Whale. This is one of the Humpbacks that has been seen this year near Port Alice on NW Vancouver Island.  The whale was documented travelling with Humpback “Whiskers” and her 2019 calf by photographer Darrell McIntosh. As is the case for so many areas off British Columbia’s coast, we have a second chance with these giants. The whales off Port Alice are part of a Humpback comeback to where they used to be whaled (up to 1966). 

BCX1100 with damaged right fluke. Photo by Darrell McIntosh, September 2, 2019.

Note in the photo above that Humpback BCX100 has an injured fluke. The right side is limped over. We do not know the cause. The injury dates back to before 2010 and possible causes include vessel strike and entanglement. 

“Whiskers” is the nickname for Humpback BCZ0200 (photo below). Catalogue designations like “BCZ0200” are difficult to remember so we nickname the Humpbacks for distinctive features. See what looks like a cat face on Whiskers’ tail?

Sure you do!

Marine Education and Research Society catalogue photo for Whiskers, BCX0200 by Jared Towers, MERS, MML-42. For more on the cataloguing and nicknaming of Humpbacks please see this link.

These nicknames allow for the potential for greater public engagement and thereby, conservation. The nicknames also really, really help us recognize the whales which is the foundation of all our other research. 

Children

When we learned that Whiskers had a calf this year and had been sighted outside Port Alice, we of course wanted local children to suggest nicknames. Then Darrell also documented the other whale with mom and calf, whereby we asked the children to suggest a nickname for both Whiskers’ calf and BCX1100.

Students of Sea View School, Port Alice. They can see often see the Humpbacks from the school playground. Photo: Natalie Stewart.

There are just 37 students at Sea View School in Port Alice. I had a video call with them while we were on the water on the other side of Vancouver Island doing Humpback research. In the call I helped explain how the nicknames were like a clue for who the whale was. We discussed the most identifiable features of the two whales and they asked questions that reflected concern for the whales and how the whale with the injury  might not be able to swim as well as other Humpbacks. 

And then it came – the message that the students had come up with their suggestions. They thought that BCX1100, the whale with the injured right fluke who was able to make it all the way to Port Alice from Hawaii or Mexico despite a handicap, should be nicknamed . .  “Terry”. 

The tears. Oh the tears. To get personal here, I was 16 when Terry Fox began his Marathon of Hope. I graduated from high school shortly after he died. His life ended. My adult life was just beginning.

To this day, at age 56, I have the paper on which my 16-year-old hand wrote this quote from Terry:


“How many people do something they believe in? I just wish people would realize that anything’s possible if you try – dreams are made if people try”. Terrence Stanley Fox.


He had an undefinable yet undeniably large impact on who I am and the strength for which I strive to stand for what I believe in: nature, whales  . . . children. For me it is always about the best chances of lives of hope and meaning for children. 

Tomorrow, on September 26th, the children in Port Alice and across Canada will participate in the 38th annual Terry Fox School Run.

From the Terry Fox Foundation webpage: “Terry showed us all that the impossible is possible. He reminded us all that we can make a difference in the world and change people’s lives for the better.”  

The children of Port Alice are certainly making a difference. 

They have also become a force in educating adults about the whales and safe and responsible boat operation around them (see www.SeeABlowGoSlow.org).  

They give us something to believe in. 

#BeLikeTerry

Some of the adults who made this all possible:

  • Friend, school secretary and driving force – Natalie Stewart.
    We are hoping there will be media interest in this story.
    Please contact Natalie at nstewart@sd85.bc.ca, (250) 284-3315.
  • Photographers – Darrell McIntosh, David Love, Douglas Bradshaw
  • Principal of Sea View School – Gloria Gadacz
  • Teachers:
    • Heather Jack – Grades K/1
    • Rebecca Herbert – Grades 2/3/4
    • Brenda Karch and Rhiannon Heim – Grades 5/6/7 & 10
  • Kathleen O’Reilly – North Island Eagle
  • Many other Port Alice community members:

And what was the nickname chosen by the students for Whiskers’ 2019 calf? Poseidon!

Notice the distinctive white lines on the calf’s tail that look like Poseidon’s trident? The students understood that this was the most distinctive marking that would likely still be discernable as the calf aged. The light white colouration on the tail will likely fade. 

Whiskers’ 2019 calf now nicknamed Poseidon. The calf will stay with Whiskers for a year and then may come back to the very spot where s/he learned to feed with mother. That would be right outside Port Alice.

Make a Difference in the World of Marine Conservation – Apply to Join our Board Today! (Volunteer)

Are You the Next Member of Team MERS?

In the height of summer, when MERS research, education and response work is at its peak, and our new office is full of busy summer staff, it is hard to believe that this organization started a mere nine years ago as a group of friends wanting to better understand and protect marine mammals in British Columbia (with our core study area and base being Northeastern Vancouver Island).

We have grown so much in nine years and there is so much more to come.

It’s time to grow our team once again! To help support and nurture MERS, we need more hands-on-deck.  Could this be you?

MERS board members and directors. For biographies of team members see this link. Missing from photo: Jared Towers. Photo: Derek Harnanansingh.

This fall, we are looking to add up to two new volunteer board members to help guide this organization into its second decade of operation and make an even bigger positive impact on marine conservation along B.C.’s coast. 

Interested? Here are the details:

Position:
Board Member at Large – potentially two positions available

Type:
Board of Directors position / unpaid

Organization:
MERS Marine Education and Research Society

Location:
Preferably British Columbia, but candidates from other areas considered

A Little About Us:
The Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) is a registered Canadian charity dedicated to promoting conservation and understanding of marine ecosystems through scientific research, environmental education, and marine wildlife response. We are based on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and incorporated in 2010.

Our team is comprised of marine biologists and educators highly dedicated to marine conservation. While based on Canada’s west coast, team members have worked in many countries and oceans. Click here for background on our team.

We are a small organization doing big work.

Our research is primarily focused on investigating Humpback and Minke Whales, and that the threats that impact them in British Columbia. We also provide marine wildlife monitoring and incident response. Education is key to our strategy to reduce risks to marine species. Our work includes the See a Blow? Go Slow! campaign to reduce the risk of collision between whales and boaters and How to Save a Whale which educates about whale entanglement. MERS educational activities also include a comprehensive outreach plan of presentations, workshops, training sessions and programs aimed at a wide audience.

Responsibilities of the Board Member:

  • Provide leadership to MERS and help to set our strategic direction
  • Provide oversight and ensure new projects align with our established mission, vision and values
  • Provide governance and ensure MERS and its board adhere to by-laws
  • Attend and participate in bi-monthly board meetings (via teleconference)
  • Participate in fundraising initiatives
  • Help to spread the word about our organization and our work
  • Assist the organization in attracting the expertise, funding and resources needed for MERS to better achieve its goals
  • Attend bi-monthly board meeting, participate in at least one sub-committee and participate in an annual weekend-long board retreat/planning session

Qualifications:
MERS is currently seeking candidates with the following skills and expertise:

  • Experience in/commitment to environmental issues;
  • Experience on not-for-profit boards or strong willingness to learn; and
  • Fundraising experience and knowledge.

Additional Assets:

  • Experience in:
    • Marketing, Communications or PR;
    • Law; and/or
    • Accounting or Finance.

Commitment:

  • A two-year commitment is requested of all Board Members.

Candidates who feel they have other skills or experience that is applicable to our mission are also encouraged to apply.

To Apply:
Please send a note about your relevant experience, skills and interest in MERS, and a CV to board@mersociety.org before September 30th. 

Our MERS board is a fantastic group of professionals dedicated to guiding MERS as it grows, providing solid governance, insight AND oversight, sharing their skills, and ensuring MERS fulfills its mission and strategic plan.

If you are looking for a meaningful way to make a difference in the world of marine conservation, apply to join our board today!

 

Dedicated board members: Board Chair Caitlin Birdsall left (with Olin) and Vice Chair Leah Thorpe right (with Arlen).

 

To Kill Seals and Sea Lions?

Update Jan 2020.
Original post with background begins as of blue text.

Quotes/ content below from: Trites, AW and Rosen, DAS (eds). 2019. Synthesis of Scientific Knowledge and Uncertainty about Population Dynamics and Diet Preferences of Harbour Seals, Steller Sea Lions and California Sea Lions, and their Impacts on Salmon in the Salish Sea. Technical Workshop Proceedings. May 29-30, 2019. Marine Mammal Research Unit, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C., 67 pages.

  • There was a general consensus that data are insufficient at this time to make defensible model predictions and undertake a broad culling experiment.
  • Making reliable predictions requires a better understanding of indirect effects of culling, food web relationships, and the factors that influence the major components of the ecosystem.
  • Workshop participants repeatedly noted that additional data are needed on aspects of pinniped foraging. However, they were equally adamant that additional data are also needed on salmon, because ascertaining the impacts of predation is as much a salmon question as it is a pinniped question. 
  • Reducing uncertainty in estimated numbers of pinnipeds in the Salish Sea requires better census data. This can be improved by having greater transboundary coordination for aerial counts, increasing US survey efforts, and counting seals and sea lions in rivers. Count correction factors used to account for animals not seen on land during surveys also need to be updated to get more precise abundance estimates by regions and pinniped age-classes.
  • Better pinniped diet data is required to address current uncertainties, including potential biases. Data are needed on species and size-class composition of diets, consumption rates, and other prey populations (such as herring and hake that dominate their diets). It is particularly important to obtain stock-specific salmon diet data to ascertain which salmonid populations are being consumed given divergence in stockspecific survival trends of indicator stocks. Addressing biases in diet description associated with basic methodology, geographic biases, small sample sizes of scats, and the sex and age of animals using the haulouts were also identified as research priorities.
  • The potential impact of pinnipeds on salmon depends on the proportions of seals and sea lions that are salmon specialists, which likely vary by region and salmon life-histories. Greater attention should also be given to sea lion predation on adult salmon (as compared to the current primary focus on predation by seals on juvenile salmon).
  • Finally, consideration needs to be given to the alternative hypothesis that bottom-up effects of food supply and food-web competition are primarily responsible for poor juvenile survival which inhibits recovery of salmon.

Original post March 2019.
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  “Pacific Balance Marine Management” (previously named 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 Pinniped Marine Management 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 72 members in early 2020).
  • Quotes provided by Pacific Pinniped Marine Management 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 Pinniped Marine Management group “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).


Sources:

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 https://www.whaleresearch.com/orca-population.

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 www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/commercial-seal-hunt-dfo-1.5007895

NOAA Fisheries. (2018, January 17). California Sea Lion Population Rebounded to New Highs. Retrieved from https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/feature-story/california-sea-lion-population-rebounded-new-highs 

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 www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/b-c-group-kill-seals-save-whales-1.4818745 

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 https://vancouversun.com/opinion/op-ed/peter-ross-and-lance-barrett-lennard-harbour-seals-are-easy-scapegoats-in-chinook-salmon-decline.

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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.