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.

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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

COUNTING WHALES IN A CHALLENGING, CHANGING HABITAT

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.

SHIPS PASS IN THE NIGHT

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.

A WEEK IN THE LIFE OF HARO STRAIT AND DOUGLAS CHANNEL

November 12, 2013

We recently published a paper reporting ocean noise levels in important whale habitats along the BC coast.  At the same time, we released an animation that outlined the key concepts.  Our research showed that the most important habitats for killer whales were the noisiest; important habitats for humpback whales were comparatively quiet.

We thought you might like to hear for yourself what those sites sound like.  Don’t worry.  We won’t make you listen to all 10,000 hours of recordings, but our co-authors (Dimitri Ponirakis and Chris Clark) at Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program distilled some of the results into this nifty PowerPoint slide.  It’s a big file (22MB), but it lets you see and hear what Haro Strait and Douglas Channel sound like.

The neatest part of Dimitri’s work is that there was a windstorm partway through this period.  You can hear the wind on the recordings made off Kitimat (Douglas Channel), but the same wind noise cannot be heard in Haro Strait over the background noise from ships.  We still have a lot of work to do to understand what these noise levels might mean to whales and fish in terms of ecological effects, but we thought you might like to see and hear some of the recordings.  Please let us know what you think.

[slideonline id=5854]


Secret to a Sound Ocean

October 23, 2013

[vsw id=”77623625″ source=”vimeo” width=”425″ height=”344″ autoplay=”no”]

Sound is as important to whales as vision is to humans. Our scientific research (with Chris Clark and Dimitri Ponirakis at Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program) is measuring how noisy or quiet important habitats are to fin, humpback and killer whales in British Columbia, Canada, and how we think that is affecting the whales’ ability to find food and each other. Joel Bellucci helped us turn our science into some nice 3D animations. Our big, cool friend, Douglas Coupland, narrates this gentle introduction to whales & ocean noise. We hope it gives you a overview of our work, and why underwater noise is worth worrying about.

To learn more about this topic, check out:
oceansinitiative.org/acoustics/

Or click here, to see the original, peer-reviewed, scientific research article in Animal Conservation.

What to get the ocean for World Oceans Day

June 04, 2013

Wow.  Can you believe almost World Oceans Day again?  Are you stressing about what to get the ocean this year?  Relax.  Take a deep, cleansing, blue whale-sized breath, because we’ve got you covered.  This year, Aeroplan’s Beyond Miles Program will donate 1,000* Aeroplan Miles to Oceans Initiative (that’s us!) for each photo or drawing submission they receive of a whale.  We are super excited.

These miles mean that we can get to the field inexpensively to collect data, fly to conferences to present our research and conservation work so it has impact, bring research assistants and scientific leaders to the field to work with us, or fly our exciting new marine conservation toolkit (more on this coming soon!) around the globe to the regions where it’s needed most.

Want to help?  It’s easy.  All you have to do is enter your beautiful whale photographs here on this amazing app called Shoutlet and Aeroplan will take care of the rest. The promotion runs over the Oceans Day weekend, from 7 to 10 June.

The ocean will really love it because we’re offsetting the carbon of all of our travel, thanks to Aeroplan’s great partnership with offsetters.ca.

This will only take a minute, and we’d really appreciate your help {in fact, you’ll be the wind beneath our flippers}.  Please upload your images to the Aeroplan blog (http://blog.aeroplan.com/?p=3339) and share this with your friends.

Thank you!