Co-founder wins prestigious Pew Fellowship to protect whales

February 24, 2015

We’ve been making a lot of noise about ocean noise for years. 

Today, the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Marine Fellows Program announced that they’re listening.  Our co-founder, Dr Rob Williams, won a 3-year Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation. He will use the award to expand his studies of impacts of ocean noise on whale, fish, and the interactions between marine predators and their prey. More importantly, he will use the award to help identify solutions to reduce ocean noise levels in important marine habitats.

This award makes it possible for our organizations (Oceans Research and Conservation Society, a registered charity in Canada, and Oceans Initiative, a nonprofit in Washington state) to take on much more logistically challenging projects, with a bigger team.  We’re looking forward to taking on more bright students like Inge van der Knaap, who blew us away with her pilot study last year on the effects of noise on wild Pacific salmon, herring and rockfish.  Of course, to do so, we’re gonna need a bigger boat!

The work we do on ocean noise has been made possible with a whole host of visionary funders.  We’re grateful to them for seeing the value and potential of this work, which we started in 2008.  We’re also grateful to our main co-conspirators in ocean acoustics, Dr Chris Clark at Cornell University and Dr Christine Erbe at Curtin University, as well as our colleagues at University of St Andrews’ Sea Mammal Research Unit (Prof Philip Hammond and Prof Ian Boyd) and Centre for Research into Ecological & Environmental Modelling (Dr Len Thomas), who help us integrate the noise studies into ecological models of what the noise means for whale health and population conservation status.  Together, we’re building up a solid evidence base on the ecological effects of noise, but there is a lot more work to do. And of course, thanks to all of you for supporting our charity to do this important work. It’s starting to get noticed.



It’s a fish-eat-fish world: does noise affect them?

February 17, 2015

We’re so grateful for this week’s special guest post from Inge van der Knaap, a Erasmus Mundus Master’s student in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. Inge and her assistant, Sofya Reger, recently completed a beautiful experiment on noise and fish in collaboration with Salmon Coast Field Station.  Inge produced a great video introducing people to her study.  We’ll post it here, with her description and some photos below.  Let us know what you think!  And many, many thanks to those of you who donated to our charity to support this work.  


Inge’s guest post:

Noise pollution is a relatively new topic in marine sciences. Little is known about the impact of underwater noise on marine life, while the number of ships travelling the seas still increases every year. This might not seem of major concern since our oceans are large and take up more than 70% of the planet’s surface; however noise travels 5 times faster and further in water than in air!
In a busy shipping area like the Strait of Georgia, where thousands of cargo ships pass through every year, the underwater noise production will have consequences for the marine life. This will become an even bigger concern in relation to proposed increase in tanker traffic to and from the port of Vancouver.

Many marine species are vocal and rely on their auditory senses to locate their prey. Numerous studies have investigated the effect of boat noise on cetaceans; however, effects on the largest group of marine vertebra; the fish, has not been studied much yet. In the quiet surroundings of the Broughton Archipelago myself, Inge van der Knaap (a marine conservation master’s student) and Soyna Reger (an undergrad biology student) have conducted a pilot study designed to investigate the effect of boat noise on the behaviour of a Pacific salmon and herring, and a rockfish species:  fish species of ecological, cultural and economic value.

This pilot study was done during the summer of 2014 at the Salmon Coast field station under the supervision of Dr Rob Williams, of Oceans Initiative. Soyna and I collected the fish with the help of the experienced Salmon Coast staff and local people living around the area. We made sure that the fish were not harmed during the collection and all of them were released after our study was completed.
The fish where held inside large net pens and their behaviour was monitored using underwater camera’s. The noise was produced by a small motor boats passing the nets at different speeds and distances and noise levels in the net pens were recorded with a hydrophone (provided by David Hannay of JASCO Applied sciences).

The analysis of the data is still ongoing as part of my master thesis dissertation, which will be finishing in June this year. The results will hopefully give us an indication of the impact vessel noise can have on different fish species and provide a baseline for future studies in this area.

Inge and Sofya


Happy Valentine’s Day! Show some love for the ocean

February 15, 2015

lonely whale

Valentine’s day can be a pretty lonely time for many people.  Every day seems to be a lonely one for the whale in the North Pacific that sings at a unique frequency — 52 Hz — that no other whale uses to communicate.

Researchers and Navy submariners have been listening to this oddball whale for decades, but no one has seen him or her.  In all those years the whale has been singing, no one has ever heard a reply.

Maybe it’s a hybrid between a fin and a blue whale.  Maybe it’s a whale with a deformity or a speech impediment.  But a team of filmmakers are launching an expedition to find him or her.  They’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund it.  If you want to show your love for the ocean this Valentine’s day, we strongly encourage you to support this effort to learn how this compelling story ends.

Here’s our connection.  Much of our work focuses on the rising levels of ocean noise from shipping, oil and gas exploration, and other human activities in an increasingly industrialized ocean.  Because whales rely on sound to communicate — sound is as important to them as vision is to us — that background noise masks the whales’ ability to find each other, navigate, find food or avoid predators.  Human-generated noise causes whales to lose acoustic space.  It causes their acoustic world to shrink.  It isolates them from other members of their family and their species.

It’s hard to think of a better poster child (or whale) for isolation than the lonely, 52 Hertz whale.  Please consider supporting this wonderful effort to learn more about this lonely whale.  Keep up to date on their efforts by following them on Twitter.

Happy #GivingTuesday!

December 02, 2014

One of our favourite days of the year is “Giving Tuesday” (2 December) — a charitable counterpart to the holiday pressure to buy, Buy, BUY!

We were thrilled to be profiled today on CanadaHelps as a small charity worthy of support.   Please check it out and share it with your friends.  If you’re still considering your year-end charitable giving, please keep us in mind.  On 2 December, CanadaHelps is waiving all transaction fees, and Visa, Interac and PayPal will even add a contribution when you use their services to donate.

If you prefer to support the arts, or health care, or poverty alleviation, there are many other great charities on the CanadaHelps page, too.  CanadaHelps issues tax receipts for registered Canadian charities, so small nonprofits can spend more time on their mission and less time on administration.

As governments cut funding for environmental research, we need a strong charitable sector to help fill the need for trustworthy science to inform conservation of endangered species.  If you agree, we’d be grateful for your support.  


Killer whale mother and her calf

Killer whale mother and her calf

Saving the whales by saving their habitat

November 09, 2014
3rd International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas

3rd International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas

It’s not rocket science. Much of the work we do involves conserving whale & dolphin populations by identifying the habitats most critical to their survival, and keeping the habitat quiet, and full of fish.

We’ve published extensively on the value of Marine Protected Areas to survival of endangered killer whale populations.  This week, we’re thrilled to participate in the 3rd International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas in Adelaide.  Rob is chairing a workshop on extreme challenges in marine mammal conservation, when critical habitats occur in heavily industrialized coastlines.

This is a topic that consumes much of our time, because the killer whales we study live in habitats that have noisy shipping lanes running through them.  The dolphins and humpback whales generally live in quieter habitats in BC, but few laws exist to keep the habitat quiet, and proposed industrial activities have the potential to make quiet habitats noisy.

Thanks so much for your support for our charity.  We couldn’t do this work without your support.  If you like the work we do, please share our work through your social networks, or consider making a donation.

Happy World Orca Day!

July 14, 2014

killer whale spyhop RW

Today is World Orca Day. To be honest, we learned that today on Twitter. It’s not a big holiday around here, because doing science to inform killer whale conservation is what we do every day. Every day is Orca Day around here.

But in honour of the event, we’ve put together a quick summary of some key ways our team is working to protect wild killer whales and their habitat.

  • Ocean noise. The critical habitats of northern and southern resident killer whales happen to include some pretty busy shipping lanes, and our research has shown that those are some of the noisiest waters on the BC coast.  The solution?  In the short term, we may need some speed restrictions, just like we have when driving through school zones. But technologies exist to build quieter shipsWe’d love to see Canada’s shipbuilding industry lead the world in building quieter ships.
  • Salmon. A few years ago, we led an interdisciplinary effort to compare how much Chinook salmon we think is in the Salish Sea to the amount of Chinook the southern resident population needs to thrive.  The news wasn’t good.  The solution? We think that Pacific Salmon Foundation’s Salish Sea Marine Survival Project is pretty neat.  The salmon experts there believe we have scope to understand and improve the factors that help juvenile survive to the age when they can become food for whales (while leaving enough wild salmon behind to support valuable fishing industries). What’s not to like there?
  • Oil spill risk.  There are a number of developments underway that would dramatically increase the likelihood of killer whales coming into contact with ships carrying large volumes of fuel.  We’re not just talking about tankers.  Container ships have large fuel tanks. In 2007, a tug carrying about 10,000L of fuel sank in Robson Bight.  That’s a fairly small spill by global standards, but by occurring in the worst possible place at the worst possible time, it was enough to expose 25% of the northern resident population to fuel. The solution? We’re working on new research to understand the effects of even the smallest spills to whales. We’re building international partnerships to understand the effects of catastrophic spills like the Deepwater Horizon on whales and dolphins.  By conducting independent, objective research, we can ensure that environmental risk assessments and oil spill response plans, are based on sound science.
  • Marine protected areas.  Think of marine protected areas (MPAs) as a safety net.  If we get the science wrong, MPAs are a way of being precautionary. Our collaborative, land-based studies have shown that northern and southern residents spend less time feeding when boats are around than when there are boats around. The solution? We think southern residents need a buffer zone, placed in a site they use a lot for feeding.  We’re not married to any particular design or location, because those are management decisions that have to consider a lot of stakeholders and competing uses of the ocean. But this study showed that southern residents spent a lot of time feeding in a place called “Salmon Bank”.  Call us crazy, but that sounds like a good place to consider!

So that’s our work, in a nutshell.  We do science that helps managers, industry, communities and other stakeholders keep whale habitat clean, quiet and full of food.

Saving Southern Resident Killer Whales: Time for Action

June 27, 2014
Killer whales spyhop next to a recreational boat

Killer whales spyhop next to a recreational boat


Our colleagues at Northwest Fisheries Science Center recently released an impressive summary of their work on critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales over the last 10 years.  We applaud the quantity and quality of research on the population, and think more agencies should do this kind of outreach to summarize technical work on complicated subjects.

But we were struck by the reaction of our friend, colleague & frequent co-author, Dr David Bain.  Dr Bain wrote this on his Facebook page, and has given us permission to reprint it here in its entirety.  Please note that the headline is ours, not his.  Dr Bain’s comments are reprinted below, in italics.  What do you think?

“Science is about what we believe and how certain we are that it is true. In 2002, I was a co-organizer of the Orca Recovery Conference on what was known about Southern Resident Killer Whales and what could be done to recover them, the same ground covered by this new report (the conference report is still available on the Earth Island website, in case anyone is interested in what we thought in the “old days”). Very little has changed in what we believe, but today there is a lot more certainty that our beliefs are true.

As for genuine progress in understanding, there is a a little that is new. The satellite tracks indicate how far offshore SRKWs went on a couple of their trips to California. We know about PBDEs (flame retardants) in their blubber. We have enough data on age, sex, birth order, and reproductive history to extrapolate toxin burdens to individuals who have not actually been measured. We’ve added suppression of foraging behavior to the effects of vessel traffic.

But overall, they ate what we thought they ate, have the toxin levels we thought they had, and the effects of disturbance are about what we thought they were. So, there’s no surprise that we haven’t seen signs of recovery. The effort has been on double checking results of previously completed work with more sophisticated techniques and larger sample sizes, not implementing recovery actions. 

Three SRKW specific recovery actions have been taken. One was designed to reduce but not eliminate the effects of disturbance. The other two are partial steps toward preparing for emergencies: oil spills and disease outbreaks. The first obviously has been too little, and the other two need to be completed before it is too late. E.g., the report notes that in 2002 we demonstrated that we knew how to reunite an isolated whale with its pod, but that knowledge was not applied to an isolated SRKW, and he died as a result.

The big steps still need to be taken. The removal of the Elwha dams is a start, and recolonization of the upper Elwha by chinook salmon may start to benefit SRKWs in about 15 years. If Washington State were to drop its appeal of the culvert replacement ruling and complete replacement by 2030 as ordered, SRKWs would see the benefits of that over the next 30 years. If the federal government would agree to start removing Snake River dams now instead of going back to the judge each year with a new set of reasons for putting it off, SRKWs might start seeing the benefit of that in 30 years, if they’re still around (the listing petition calculated that in the absence of action, SRKWs could become extinct as early as 2035, and Congress has set a pace to complete the research needed to finalize the recovery plan in the 2050’s). If we could get everyone who watches whales to spend equal time restoring salmon spawning habitat, along with the above government actions, we could make real progress on dealing with the prey availability problem (so whale watch operators, quit whining about unfairly being made the scapegoat and do what it takes for history to record you as the heroes who succeeded in starting recovery while governments fiddled).

The other big step is dealing with toxins. That means actually cleaning up superfund sites in SRKW habitat and adjacent coastal watersheds. That means convincing people to use their time instead of chemicals to remove weeds. It means paying attention to what our cars put onto streets and parking lots, and ultimately into stormwater and the food web (oil and other chemicals that leak, metals such as lead and copper that flake off). It means being more selective about the use of flame retardants (e.g., if your home has a good sprinkler system and no one smokes, you might be able to get by without them in a lot of products).

And last but not least, there is the matter of scrubbing carbon dioxide out of the ocean and atmosphere. Ocean acidification and climate change threaten to offset progress that could be made to improve prey availability. That’s going to require societal-scale change in transportation, energy, land use and restoration policies.

The report outlines research on killer whales NOAA hopes to accomplish over the next ten years. But, I have to wonder whether they plan to study the wrong species. To recover killer whales, don’t we really need to study human behavior, so we can discover how to get approval to actually implement the recovery actions we’ve been putting off the last ten years?”

Happy World Oceans Day!

June 08, 2014

Happy World Oceans Day! Today we can’t stop thinking of a wonderful quote from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi:

“From the Tsimtsum all I had seen were dolphins.  I had assumed that the Pacific, but for passing schools of fish, was a sparsely inhabited waste of water. I have learned since that cargo ships travel too quickly for fish. You are as likely to see sea life from a ship as you are to see wildlife in a forest from a car on a highway. Dolphins, very fast swimmers, play about boats and ships much like dogs chase cars: they race along until they can no longer keep up. If you want to see wildlife, it is on foot, and quietly, that you must explore a forest. It is the same with the sea. You must stroll through the Pacific at a walking pace, so to speak, to see the wealth and abundance that it holds.”

In our own work, we try to strike a balance between field work and computer work.  We try to spend half of our time getting our feet wet in the field, wherever our work is needed, and the other half using our science to inform smart decisions to conserve wildlife. Today, on World Oceans Day, we’re reminded that bearing witness is a central part of conservation science.

We can’t do this work without you.  As a small charity, we rely on tax-deductible donations from people like you.  But this weekend, for World Oceans Day, we have an opportunity to double any Aeroplan miles you donate to our Beyond Miles Charitable Pooling Account.  This partnership with Aeroplan is essential to allowing us do good, conservation-minded work around the world, and bringing experts to Canada to help our work.


Surveying the BC coast with Raincoast's research vessel, Achiever

Surveying the BC coast with Raincoast’s research vessel, Achiever


March 31, 2014

Antarctic minke whale surfacing in front of a tabular iceberg along the western Antarctic Peninsula


Few marine conservation issues are more contentious than Japan’s “scientific whaling” program, which allows for the killing of up to 935 whales each year. This number is large, relative to hunts of other whales in other parts of the world, but small relative to the hundreds of thousands of Antarctic minke whales in the population.

To many conservation scientists, though, it’s not the absolute number of whales in the population that matters — what we care about is whether the population is going up or down.  And we’ve known for more than a decade that the Antarctic minke whale population appears to be declining.

That’s bad.  But if the whales’ sea ice habitat is being affected by global climate change, its long term trajectory may be even worse.  That would make Antarctic minke whales an icon of climate change — a Southern Ocean counterpart to the polar bear in the Arctic.  One problem:  Antarctic minke whales are even more difficult to count than polar bears.

That’s the context in which we partnered with the German and Dutch Antarctic programs, with input from British, American and Australian scientists.  We conducted the first icebreaker-supported helicopter surveys in open water and adjacent ice-covered waters along the edge of the sea ice in the Weddell Sea.  Our study found that there is a high density band of whales just along the ice edge, where ship surveys are confounded by fickle navigational safety issues.  That region is home to high concentrations of the whales’ favourite food, krill.  That region is being affected by climate change in different ways in different regions of the Southern Ocean.  And maddeningly, just as we are beginning to understand the threat, changing ice conditions may be changing the surveys we use to monitor the health of the whales’ population.  Depending on the ice conditions on a given day, a ship may or may not be able to access this high density region.  And that affects our ability to tell if the population is going up or down.

Australia is suing to end Japan’s special permit whaling.  The International Court of Justice will announce its decision tomorrow.  Regardless of that decision, our research shows that if we really want to know how this population is being affected by climate change, we need bigger and much more expensive surveys than ever before.


March 03, 2014
cruise ship and killer whale

Killer whale surfing the wake of a cruise ship in Johnstone Strait


Killer whales depend on a quiet ocean to navigate, find food and choose mates.  Much of our work with acousticians at Cornell involves estimating how much acoustic habitat whales are losing from chronic, rising levels of noise.  Here’s a simple animation that describes that work.

In addition to masking the whales’ calls, animals can also show behavioural responses to ships.  Our new research, published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, shows that ships cause whales to change their swimming speed, breathing patterns and path direction.  In most parts of the whales’ range, whales rarely encounter big ships; but in the whales’ most important, critical habitats (Johnstone and Haro Straits), the whales may encounter a big ship every hour of every day.

This new research allows us to predict how often the whales change their behaviour to accommodate a ship.  Our next work will make some predictions about what it might cost the whales at a population level to spend less time feeding and more time avoiding ships.  Our ultimate aim is to partner with ship builders and operators to find ways to reduce those costs to whales.