|January 02, 2018|
Researchers take to water and sky in major effort to save endangered killer whales
|Marine researchers will take to the water and sky in the Salish Sea this year in a major effort to help save endangered southern resident killer whales.|
Bankrolled by the federal government's $1.5 billion Oceans Protection Plan, researchers will conduct numerous studies to learn more about the killer whales and why they are in such peril. Just 76 of the animals are thought to exist.
The studies will include:
• Feces left behind by killer whales as well as breath samples from blow holes to explore health issues.
• Short-term use of suction-cup tags to measure night foraging.
• And hydrophones placed at Robson Bight Ecological Reserve on northeastern Vancouver Island, where the whales rub on underwater rocks, to examine the impact of small vessels.
Federal researchers are also being trained in the use of drones, including one equipped with an acoustic recorder capable of landing on the water surface near the whales to better "listen in" without having to unnecessarily tag the animals, said Sheila Thornton of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. "It's a fine line between needing data and needing to leave them alone."
Thornton fills a new research position specifically dedicated to the southern residents and based out of the federal research facility in West Vancouver. "The sound in the environment is one thing, but the sound the animal receives is obviously much closer to understanding what the impacts are," she said.
Studies will also examine why the population of northern resident killer whales is doing well while the southern residents are in decline. Northern residents have been documented in the southern residents' territory, posing potential competition for salmon. Killer whales, or orcas, are actually the largest members of the dolphin family.
"What's the difference driving one population to thrive and the other one to just maintain and survive," Thornton said.
Paul Cottrell, federal marine mammal coordinator, recently told a University of B.C. marine mammal symposium that long-awaited marine mammal regulation amendments will make it illegal to feed, touch or swim with cetaceans, including dolphins and porpoises, or to approach within 100 metres.
"I'm cautiously optimistic we'll have those through by summer," he said.
Current law makes it illegal to disturb a marine mammal, which can be difficult to prove in court.
Fisheries Minister Dominic Leblanc announced in October that special restrictions of 200 metres would soon apply to southern resident killer whales, reflecting their precarious status, and putting Canada on par with a U.S. 200-yard ban.
A new study by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concluded that the 200-yard rule is benefiting southern residents without negatively affecting killer whale watching and tourism industries.
Threats to southern residents are thought to include lack of chinook salmon --- their favourite prey --- as well as toxins such as PCBs, and vessel disturbance, including underwater noise.
Andrew Trites, a professor at UBC's Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, noted it's quite possible that southern residents never had a large population, raising the question as to what the goal of a recovery program should ultimately be given the challenges the whales face in a heavily populated area.
NOAA plus UBC and University of Victoria are assisting Canada in the ongoing research, Thornton said.