Yesterday I attended the 21st Annual B.C. Marine Mammal Symposium at UBC where I had the pleasure of listening to a wide variety of local marine mammal research updates. With 58 speakers giving 5 minute power point presentations each, it was a full day of information! I’ve been to this event several other years, and I have to say this has been my favourite year yet. Where in previous years I had felt a tremendous categorical bias (pinnipeds vs cetaceans, research vs outreach), this was the first year I noticed a continuity between presenters. Environmental implications were omnipresent and large scale ecosystem connectivity was recurrently discussed. There was a community vibe throughout the room, even though attendees were from all across the province and from a potpourri of professions. I’d say this is the single annual event where you can find such a vast array of marine mammal enthusiasts under one roof. From the determined scat sampler to the avid whale watcher, from the shy undergrad student sampling local talent to veteran scientists who have provided decades of groundbreaking research, united we sat on that sunny Saturday afternoon to learn more about the marine mammals of British Columbia.
There is absolutely no way I want to summarize all 58 talks, but I think there are a few worth highlighting and discussing further. My affinity for cetaceans and my credence for an environmental apocalypse will assure personal bias in my selection, so I apologize in advance if you are looking for a happy seal story.
Soon after sampling the ever-impressive pastry collection that is morning coffee break, Brianna Wright started off the day with an update of her DTAG research on the northern resident killer whales. For several years Brianna has been working on analyzing foraging behaviours of these apex predators by using sensory tags that record 3D movements and vocalizations. The northern residents are a threatened population and for several years their main prey source, Chinook salmon, has drastically depleted in numbers. We have seen correlations between predator and prey decreases over the years, confirming a dependence on this distinct prey-species. However, an important question still remains unanswered – why don’t these intelligent predators just switch to a more abundant prey species? Brianna is discovering specific feeding behaviours which will hopefully provide insight onto why these whales are so Chinook dependent. With other species of salmon flourishing this season – pink and chum specifically – I think it is especially important to discover if the whales have been varying prey sources, and if no, then why not?
Also on the topic of resident killer whales, Kristen Kanes gave a brief outline on her proposed Master’s project that is to start next year. By installing two hydrophones on Saturna Island and collecting data on the souther resident killer whales, Kristen hopes to discover if orca individuals can be identified acoustically. In principal, a question that could provide much insight into the social constructs of killer whales, in practice, however, I’m a little skeptical about the procedure for this experiment. I feel the prospective visual data recorded underwater would be of little value as the algae-dense waters significantly impede visibility, and the whales don’t swim that close to shore too often. As well, I’d say land observations verge on being redundant. The elaborate network created for sighting and notifying whale watching companies of whale whereabouts would most likely have Boundary Pass covered during daylight hours in peak season. It would be much more time efficient to get involved with that network… possibly in exchange for new hydrophone access? Lastly, and maybe I missed something during her talk because this to me seems an obvious questions, why not just use the data already collected from the San Juan hydrophones? As mentioned in a later presentation, there are over 10,000 hours of unanalyzed vocalizations recorded and available for use. Sure, there wouldn’t be identities to align with sounds, but the audio tracks could be dissected to potentially distinguish between age, sex, behaviours, etc. Not to mention the apparatus is already installed and sightings of the southern residents are much more common along the San Juan shoreline than Saturna Island. I’m not trying to totally bash this project, believe you me, I would love a J49 ringtone more than anyone, but I think it could use some alterations before being put into practice.
At some point hereafter, Alex Werth stepped up to the stage and blew us all away with his incredible ongoing mysticete filter feeding research. After 5 minutes of his complicated vortices and flow diagrams explained by a coefficient-laden equation, I think the take home message was clear – baleen filter feeding is NOT just a simple sieve! Brushing lightly on the differences between intermittent and continuous filtration techniques of different species, on the different curvatures of baleen plates, and the different polymer models being designed in his lab, I was simultaneously fascinated and overwhelmed. Mr. Werth’s in-depth research is definitely werthy of a more ornamented explanation!
There were a couple of talks explaining survey work being done in new locations. One to note, the highly accomplished Anna Hall is discovering marine mammal distribution and habitat throughout Chatham Sound, a proposed LNG site. By initiating a local education program and transecting 1500km2 of habitat, enough information will hopefully be shared to properly assess the risks of industrialization and to protect critical habitat. As Enbridge battles continue it is paramount that we create a ecological baseline for these potentially threatened areas.
Later, Juan Jose Alava addressed this summer’s elephant in the room – that of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. Across headlines for days when they first discovered the leak, and then politely swept under the rug when Miley’s tongue and other things grabbed the front page, it’s an issue that hasn’t fully been investigated. Mr. Alava addressed it as a ‘chronic chemical assault on the north Pacific,’ enlightened us with some devastating chemical half-lifes (Cesium 137 – 30 years & Plutonium 239 – 24,000 years!), and then inferred through food chain connections the timeline for some of our local species to be affected. Data from Mr. Alava’s model predicts that our majestic apex predator, the killer whale, may be radioactive in as little as 30 years! I guess at this point we can just hope that this model is WRONG.
In happier news, tags are getting smarter and smaller as Wildlife Computers diligently works to improve marine mammal tagging technology! Thus far they have created over 150 shapes and sizes of marine animal tags that are currently being used to assist research across the globe. Things like reducing drag, extending battery life, and curtailing costs are constantly on the agenda and are only getting better. Get your tags now!
Shortly after another mini-sandwich and tea break, a panel of whale watching representatives gave an overview of local seasonal findings and discussed trends unique to this year. A consensus was made on the increase of humpback and transient orca sightings, the decrease in southern resident orca and Dahl’s porpoise sightings, as well as the hope to negotiate fair and unison whale watching regulations throughout the Salish Sea.
I liked this new edition to the symposium because I think it helped to bridge an unfortunate gap we have here in BC between “the scientists” and “the public”. It is so, so important for information to be freely shared between the two in order to move more efficiently to a common goal. As it stands, our common goal is to ensure the survival of our beloved west coast marine mammals, and I think yesterday’s information share really helped to inspire and focus people from all areas on that common goal once again.
There are many more fabulous projects to analyze but I’ve grown weary of this Sunday afternoon, so if you would like some more info I’ve got pages of notes to share!
Interested in discussing any of this with me in further detail? Tweet, email, comment away…