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A Year in Review

[Photo: Ocean Wise/ NOAA/ SR3   NOAA Permit 19091]


A Look Back at 2017

2017 was another productive year for the Marine Mammal Research Program, both in the field and in the lab. The team started off the year by hosting a scientific workshop on underwater noise, which developed a consistent method for measuring the types of noise that negatively affect killer whales. The B.C. Cetaceans Sightings Network had a busy year organizing several projects including the release of the Mariner’s Guide to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises in Western Canada, the expansion of a network of land-based whale-watching sites throughout coastal B.C. and the completion of a cetacean census in the northern Strait of Georgia. The Research Program also resumed their annual fieldwork in the Arctic and B.C., and continued to analyze genetic samples in the Conservation Genetics Lab.

A Whirlwind of a Year for the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network

In early 2017, the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network embarked on a collaborative project with the Port of Vancouver, Prince Rupert Port Authority and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to release the Mariner’s Guide to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises of Western Canada. This guide aimed to improve awareness of the threats associated with large vessels in the marine transport industry, alert commercial mariners to areas with high densities of cetaceans and inform them of the steps they can take to minimize their impact on cetaceans. By educating mariners transiting B.C. waters, this guide will help them to reduce the risk of large vessels striking or disturbing fin whales, killer whales and other at-risk cetaceans.

The B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network is continuing to inspire appreciation and stewardship of cetaceans and the marine environment by establishing a network of land-based marine mammal viewing sites through its Whale Trail B.C. initiative. In 2015, the Sightings Network noticed that it was receiving a significant amount of sighting reports from land. Inspired by this pattern, the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network teamed up with the Whale Trail, a Seattle-based organization, to help expand the project throughout B.C. After two years of working with dedicated local groups in areas known to have successful land-based whale watching opportunities, B.C. is now host to over 39 designated Whale Trail sites marked by interpretive panels and/or trail markers that engage visitors and encourage them to report their cetacean sightings. 

Over the August long weekend, the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network called upon citizen scientists to help collect cetacean sightings for the Northern Strait Cetacean Census. The census focused on the northern Strait of Georgia, an area far less studied than the southern Strait, and where fewer sightings are reported compared to the rest of the province. The census was very successful in garnering reports from new observers, and resulted in 120 reports from 70 participants. In comparison, during the 2016 August long weekend, there were only four sightings in the same area from four observers. Humpback whales were the most commonly reported cetacean, with 60 sightings reported. By participating in the census, residents helped researchers better understand the abundance, distribution and habitat use of cetaceans in B.C.

A Successful Field Season

This summer, the Marine Mammal Research Program continued to monitor the relative health of killer whales in B.C. through their highly successful photogrammetry study. Since 2014, director of the Marine Mammal Research Program, Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, and his long-time colleagues, Drs. John Durban (NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Centre) and Holly Fearnbach (SR3– Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research) have been using a hexacopter drone to take high-resolution aerial photographs of killer whales. From these photos, photogrammetric measurements, such as body length and shape, are used to document the changes in the body condition and nutritional status of fish-eating resident killer whales in relation to fluctuations in salmon abundance. The team spent time with southern resident killer whales in May and September, in order to compare their body condition before and during the Fraser River salmon returns, and conducted similar work in August on the northern resident population. While the current study focuses on resident killer whales, mammal-eating Bigg’s (transient) killer whales were opportunistically photographed – this will allow researchers to compare the health and condition of killer whales that feed on different food sources. The hexacopter was also used for humpback whale photogrammetry and blow sample collection. The blow samples are being used to better understand the community of microorganisms that inhabit the respiratory tracks of apparently healthy whales. By understanding the normal composition of microorganisms found in healthy humpback whale blows, researchers can monitor changes to the community of microorganisms and recognize potential pathogens – introduced from anthropogenic sources such as wastewater or sewage discharge – in individuals and populations.

In July, the Marine Mammal Research Program’s Dr. Valeria Vergara conducted her first field season in the Churchill River Estuary, Manitoba, pairing simultaneous aerial imagery and underwater acoustic data to investigate beluga contact call usage in relation to group composition and activity. She hopes to shed light on the acoustic differences between beluga groups with young calves and all-adult groups to better inform passive acoustic monitoring studies. Dr. Vergara’s research in the Arctic investigates how underwater noise compromises beluga communication given that this species, like other cetacean species, rely on sound for foraging, navigating and communicating. This was also part of her focus in Churchill, although it was a quiet season in Churchill due to the Port closure. In August, Dr. Vergara headed over to the St. Lawrence River, Quebec with Marine Mammal Research Program’s Marie-Ana Mikus to continue their annual study with the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM). Focused on the endangered St. Lawrence population of beluga whales, the project examines how mother-calf acoustic contact is compromised by underwater noise. This is a particularly important question as anthropogenic disturbance has been identified as one of the three main threats to the recovery of the population. New for 2017, the research team utilized a research tower instead of a research vessel to collect both aerial and acoustic observations, as an unobtrusive and silent research platform.

In addition to monitoring cetacean populations, Marine Mammal Research Program’s Chad Nordstrom assisted with a pinniped diet-monitoring project conducted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in collaboration with the Pacific Salmon Foundation. The study aimed to describe the seasonal diet of harbour seals in the Strait of Georgia, and compared salmon consumption inside and outside of estuaries. Nordstrom and colleagues collected scat samples from April – November 2016 and April – May 2017 at both estuary and non-estuary sites within the Salish Sea. Traditional analysis (identifying species from bones) and newer high-throughput DNA techniques were used to build a more completed picture of the role seals play as predators in the Salish Sea ecosystem.

Population Genetics 101 at the Conservation Genetics Lab

One of the many challenges critically-endangered populations face is the progressive loss of genetic diversity from inbreeding. For many years, the Marine Mammal Research Program has studied genetic diversity in killer whale populations off the west coast of B.C. In 2016, Marine Mammal Research Program molecular biologists Carla Crossman and Allyson Miscampbell completed a laboratory analysis of DNA samples from 192 individuals belonging to 12 populations of killer whales in the Northeast Pacific. Data from this study are now being analyzed to better understand how population size affects diversity loss in this species to determine the extent of the problem and to help develop conservation plans going forward.  

Looking into the Future

As in other years, the Marine Mammal Research Program will spend much of winter conducting annual maintenance on their research vessel, analyzing data from the 2017 field season, writing scientific papers and running samples in the genetics lab. In addition to continuing their annual fieldwork, the team hopes to commence several new projects in 2018, including an alert system that would inform commercial transport vessels to the presence of cetaceans in their vicinity - and thereby reduce the chance of collision and disturbance -using real-time sighting reports submitted via the WhaleReport app. The Marine Mammal Research Program is also hosting a fisheries depredation workshop next week to discuss ways to reduce whales stealing fish from fishing gear in B.C., and will be conducting a whale entanglement response workshop in April. Stay tuned for updates in 2018!