A new study concludes that British Columbia’s southern resident Orca pod is led by “post reproductively aged” females who help it survive during lean years.
According to the study, the older females serve as key leaders, directing younger members of the pod, and especially their own sons, to the best spots for landing tasty meals of salmon, helping their kin to survive. This leadership role takes on special significance in difficult years when salmon are harder to come by.
The researchers say the discovery offers the first evidence that a benefit of prolonged life after reproduction is that post-reproductive individuals act as repositories of ecological knowledge.
There are only three species on Earth where females go through menopause, human beings, killer whales and pilot whales.
“Menopause is one of nature’s great mysteries,” says Lauren Brent of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. “Our study is the first to demonstrate that the value gained from the wisdom of elders may be one reason female killer whales continue to live long after they have stopped reproducing.”
The scientists say in their paper this also provides insights into why human women continue to live long after they can no longer have children.
Leadership by these females is especially prominent in difficult years when salmon abundance is low.
Female killer whales typically become mothers between the ages of 12 and 40, but they can live for more than 90 years. By comparison, male Orcas rarely make it past 50.
Resident pods feed mostly on Chinook salmon. Chinook make up than 90 per cent of their diet during the summer. The abundance of salmon fluctuates due to fishing by humans and weather changes such as El Nino and climate change. The study says that individual killer whales with information on where and when to find salmon provide other group members with considerable benefits.
To find out who were the leaders of the Southern Resident pod, the team analyzed 751 hours of video footage taken over 35 years of as many as 102 Southern resident killer whales in the coastal waters of British Columbia and Washington engaged in directional travel , collected during nine summer salmon migrations. The scientists also used multigenerational demographic records have been recorded for the Southern resident killer whales since 1976, allowing them to know the family relationships of the Orcas.
The study found that in any given year, adult females were more likely to lead the pod’s group movement compared to adult males They concluded that Orca matriarchs over the age of 35 years “the mean age at last reproduction for Southern resident females that lived past the age of peak adult female mortality” were more likely to lead the pod “compared to reproductively aged females.”
The scientists then compared fisheries data on Chinook salmon abundance to whale behavior. It showed that “post-reproductively aged females were more likely to lead group movement in years when salmon abundance was low.”
The scientists concluded that shows that prolonged life after the reproductive years allows the “individuals act as repositories of ecological knowledge.”
In the case of Orcas, the post menopausal matriarchs “lead group movement in and around salmon foraging grounds, and this is exaggerated when salmon are in low supply and the selective pressure to locate food is at its highest.”
The researchers also found that females are more likely to lead their sons compared to their daughters.
Daniel Franks of the University of York explained: “Killer whale mothers direct more help toward sons than daughters because sons offer greater potential benefits for her to pass on her genes. Sons have higher reproductive potential and they mate outside the group, thus their offspring are born into another group and do not compete for resources within the mother’s matriline. Consistent with this, we find that males follow their mothers more closely than daughters.”
So how does the study of Orca elders apply to human beings?
“In humans, it has been suggested that menopause is simply an artefact of modern medicine and improved living conditions,” said Darren Croft of the University of Exeter. “However, mounting evidence suggests that menopause in humans is adaptive. In hunter-gatherers, one way that menopausal women help their relatives, and thus increase the transmission of their own genes, is by sharing food. Menopausal women may have also shared another key commodity – information.”
Recent studies show that living beyond the age of 60 is much more comon in hunter-gatherer cultures than previsouly believed.
So the study concludes that in humans:
In hunter-gatherers, one way that menopausal women help their relatives, and thus improve their own inclusive fitness, is by sharing food.
Menopausal women may also share another key commodity—information. Humans were preliterate for almost the entirety of our evolutionary history and information was necessarily stored in individuals. The oldest and most experienced individuals were those most likely to know where and when to find food, particularly during dangerous and infrequent conditions such as drought.
As for Orcas:
Wild resident killer whales do not have the benefits of medical care, but, similar to humans, females can live for more than 40 years after they have ceased reproducing. An individual resident killer whale’s ability to find salmon is crucial to their fitness; in years with low salmon abundance, resident killer whales are more likely to die and less likely to reproduce.
Our finding that postreproductively aged female killer whales are especially likely to lead group movement in years with low salmon abundance suggests that the ecological knowledge of elders helps explain why females of this species live long after they have stopped reproducing. Postreproductive female killer whales may provide other knowledge to their relatives. For example, postreproductive members of this socially complex species may have greater social knowledge that could help kin navigate social interactions.
In some other species, like African elephants, survival is enhanced in the presence of older female relatives, who are more capable of assessing social and predatory threats.
So the study asks “why is menopause restricted to some toothed whales and humans?”
The scientists believe that for evolution, menopause will only evolve when the benefits for the species outweigh the costs of terminating reproduction.
In humans, resident killer whales, and short-finned pilot whales, when a female usually stays in the immediate location of her family, that means that the benefits she can gain through helping her relatives, increases with age.
Among Southern resident Orcas, neither sex leaves the family pod and “females are born into groups with their mothers and older siblings.”
As the female resident Orca ages, her older relatives who die are replaced by “her own nondispersing sons and daughters.” In ancestral humans, resident killer whales and short-finned pilot whales, the benefits of the elders helping therefore increase with age, which is thought to predispose these three species to menopause
The study notes that Orcas have a number of different “ecotypes” or cultures “which differ in their prey specialization, morphology, and behavior, and which in some cases represent genetically distinct populations.” That means “that not all ecotypes are characterized by the same social structure as resident killer whales” where females leave their birth pod. The say more study is needed to find out if menopause occurs in those Orca pods and what the role of older females is in those pods. The study also did not look at the northern residents who frequently visit Douglas Channel.
The response to the Joint Review Panel decision on the Northern Gateway, beginning in December and continuing until this Canada Day, both in the public and in the media is sharply divided by the Rocky Mountains.
A lof of Albertans, most of the energy companies and many in the media, especially the Toronto-based business press, keep telling Canadians that the NEB is an independent, quasi-judicial body, that carefully weighs the scientific and other evidence before coming to a conclusion.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands up in Question Period and from his prepared script also claims the JRP and NEB are independent bodies.
Most of those writing about the attitude of the National Energy Board have never attended a single hearing, As for the Joint Review,. those from the major media who did attend were only there for the opening and closing sessions.
In British Columbia, those attended the Northern Gateway Joint Review sessions saw a strange and arcane bureaucratic system with rules of evidence and procedure often tilted toward a proponent in the energy sector.
Those rules of evidence were created for the cosy club atmosphere of the NEB in Calgary where mostly there are friendly hearings attended only by the proponents and energy sector lawyers. Those same rules were infuriating to those in northwest British Columbia trying and failing to persuade the JRP to take seriously many of the concerns of the region. The rules of evidence and procedure were baffling to lawyers practicing in BC; even the highly experienced lawyers from the BC Department of Justice were chewed out by the JRP in Prince George for not following proper procedures.
The JRP seemed to believe that time stopped at the evidentiary deadline, and although it acknowledged that Northern Gateway was a 50 year project, the panel didn’t need to know anything new.
A careful reading of the two volumes of the Joint Review Panel report and decision clearly shows that JRP finding was not, as one columnist called it, a triumph of science over emotion, but a proceeding that was biased from the outset to find in favour of Enbridge. It is clear that even though the Joint Review Panel did impose 209 conditions on Northern Gateway, reading those almost 500 pages one sees time and time again that Northern Gateway’s evidence and assurances were accepted at face value, while the panel treated the evidence and testimony from opponents with a much higher level of skepticism.
Moving to Calgary
One of my sources once told me that the “NEB is nothing more than an extension of the Petroleum Club.” In the 1991 budget, then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney moved the NEB headquarters from Ottawa to Calgary as a political gift to Alberta.
At that time the move was also seen as practical, Alberta was still complaining no one in Ottawa was listening to it. So if the Conservative government moved the NEB to Calgary, it would be there listening to the oil patch. NEB offices were scattered across the country, consolidating them in Calgary seemed, at the time, to be a way of saving taxpayers’ money and enhancing internal communications.
Seen now, about 25 years later, it’s clear the NEB move from its Ottawa headquarters and regional offices to Calgary was a disaster waiting to happen. Over the past quarter century, despite its claims of independence, the NEB and its staff have become so embedded in the oil patch energy culture of Calgary that (probably subconsciously) the NEB has shown that it is largely incapable of really taking seriously the culture of British Columbia on issues such as the Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan projects. The NEB Calgary culture is also colliding,with the concerns and culture of other parts of the country as diluted bitumen pipelines head eastward.
The Conservative omnibus bills that gutted environmental protection and speed up the review process has made things much worse–at least until this week.
Now the Supreme Court has sent a shot across the bow of the full steam ahead National Energy Board, compelling the board to put much more weight on the concerns of First Nations.
The decision upholding the Tsilhqot’in claim to its traditional territory means the NEB and any future joint review panel (whether involving multiple federal agencies or federal agencies and a province) are going to have to take the concerns of First Nations and indeed all Canadians a lot more seriously—and the future of the planet as well, as described in the first part of this analysis. Chief Justice Beverly McLaughlin wrote that on First Nations` traditional territory:
that it is collective title held not only for the present generation but for all succeeding generations. This means it cannot be alienated except to the Crown or encumbered in ways that would prevent future generations of the group from using and enjoying it.
“Future generations” is the key phrase.
Future generations could undermine that whole world view of the Joint Review Panel, since the panel so casually dismissed the fears of a major disaster on the coast, saying it was “unlikely” and could be “mitigated.”
The JRP basically had a so-what attitude to British Columbia, arguing that since parts of the British Columbia environment had already been degraded any future environmental problems would be minimal and could be “mitigated.”
While in the introduction to its definition of the Public Interest, the JRP says
If approved and built, the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project could operate for 50 years or more. Sustainable development was an important factor in our environmental assessment and our consideration of the public interest. The project would have to meet today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations.
Sounds like that might match the Chief Justice. But, as the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. And just a few paragraphs later, the JRP says:
Our assessment of the project’s effects on residents and communities Considering Northern Gateway’s project design, its commitments, and our conditions, we concluded that the project’s potential effects on people’s land, water, and resource use could be mitigated. We were not persuaded that construction and routine operations of the project would have a negative effect on the social fabric of communities in the project area. We also were not persuaded that the project would adversely affect the health and well being of people and communities along the route or in coastal areas. We found that the net overall economic effects of the project would be positive and would provide potential benefits and opportunities to those individuals and businesses that choose to participate in the project.
The JRP’s attitude toward a major disaster was “trust Enbridge.”
We found that some level of risk is inherent in the Enbridge Northern Gateway project, and that no party could guarantee that a large spill would not occur. We found that a large spill, due to a malfunction or accident, from the pipeline facilities, terminal, or tankers, is not likely.
We found that Northern Gateway has taken steps to minimize the likelihood of a large spill through its precautionary design approach and its commitments to use innovative and redundant safety systems, such as its commitments to address human error, equipment failures, and its corporate safety culture. These commitments and all others made by the company
Oh well, the ecosystem will recover eventually—a conclusion that could be reached only by ignoring the evidence from Prince William Sound, site of the Exxon Valdez spill.
We found that, in the unlikely event of a large oil spill, there will be significant adverse environmental effects, and that functioning ecosystems recover through mitigation and natural processes.
We found that a large oil spill would not cause permanent, widespread damage to the environment. The extent of the significant adverse effects would depend on the circumstances associated with the spill. Scientific research from past spill events indicates that the environment recovers to a state that supports functioning ecosystems similar to those existing before the spill. We found that, in the unlikely event of a large oil spill, there would be significant adverse effects on lands, waters, or resources used by residents, communities, and Aboriginal groups.
We found that, in rare circumstances, a localized population or species could potentially be permanently affected by an oil spill. Scientific research from a past spill event indicates that this will not impact the recovery of functioning ecosystems.
In other words, some communities, probably aboriginal communities, would have be sacrificed in the public interest and the economics of Alberta while the economy of that part of British Columbia would be destroyed.
Will the JRP have to start over?
The environmental law community and First Nations leaders are already taking a look at another paragraph in the Supreme Court judgement. Paragraph 92 in lawyer speak.
One of the many reports comes from West Coast Environmental Law which noted in an e-mail
[T]he Tsilhqot’in decision, Canada’s highest court brings home the implications of this for Enbridge and other project proponents:
Once title is established, it may be necessary for the Crown to reassess prior conduct in light of the new reality in order to faithfully discharge its fiduciary duty to the title-holding group going forward.
For example, if the Crown begins a project without consent prior to Aboriginal title being established, it may be required to cancel the project upon establishment of the title if continuation of the project would be unjustifiably infringing.
And what about the overhaul of environmental legislation in 2012 to smooth the way for pipeline and other industrial development?
The court notes: “Similarly, if legislation was validly enacted before title was established, such legislation may be rendered inapplicable going forward to the extent that it unjustifiably infringes Aboriginal title.”
In other words, the Supreme Court decision resets everything.
It could nullify the recent decision by the Prime Minister to permit the Northern Gateway to go ahead. Or it could mean, especially given the number of court challenges just to the JRP, that, in light of the Tsilhqot’in decision the panel will be ordered by a court to go back to the drawing board and reconsider its findings.
Then there are the pending challenges to the Harper decision allowing the Northern Gateway to go ahead. Sources told Northwest Coast Energy News that the first of a number of court challenges were to be filed last week. It is likely that after the holiday weekend, lawyers will be rewriting their filings and their briefs in light of the Tsilhqot’in decision and presenting the Federal Court with those challenges some time in July.
The justices of the Supreme Court did allow a public interest exemption on the use of First Nations land for a larger purpose, but there must now be genuine consultation and the public interest will likely have be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it can’t just be the whim of a prime minister with a tame, unquestioning caucus who decides what is in the public interest.
Who consults whom?
In the decision, Chief Justice McLaughlin wrote:
Governments and individuals proposing to use or exploit land, whether before or after a declaration of Aboriginal title, can avoid a charge of infringement or failure to adequately consult by obtaining the consent of the interested Aboriginal group
The right to control the land conferred by Aboriginal title means that governments and others seeking to use the land must obtain the consent of the Aboriginal title holders. If the Aboriginal group does not consent to the use, the government’s only recourse is to establish that the proposed incursion on the land is justified under s. 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.
Compare that again with what the JRP said. As with the environmental impact it begins by saying:
The Panel finds that the magnitude, extent, and potential impacts of this project required an extensive program of public consultation. The Panel considers thorough and effective consultation to be a process that is inclusive of, and responsive to, all potentially-affected groups and individuals.
Then the JRP says:
The Panel notes that, among potentially-affected parties, there were differing perspectives on what constitutes a thorough and effective process of consultation. There were also different views among some parties about how consultation should occur, and their roles and responsibilities during consultation.
The Panel believes that it is critical for all parties to recognize and understand their respective roles and responsibilities for achieving effective dialogue during consultation. The Panel noted the principles of thorough and effective consultation at the beginning of this chapter. The Panel finds that these principles require that a process must provide timely, appropriate, and effective opportunities for all potentially-affected parties to learn about a project, provide their comments and concerns, and to discuss how these can be addressed by the applicant.
So what does it mean?
The JRP starts off by giving Northern Gateway a slap on the wrist:
The applicant [Enbridge] must be genuinely responsive. Affected parties have an ongoing and mutual responsibility to respond to opportunities for consultation, to communicate concerns they may have, and to discuss how these can be addressed.
But then it goes on in the same paragraph:
Consultation requires trust, mutual respect, and relationship-building. All parties have an obligation to seek a level of cultural fluency, in order to better understand the values, customs, needs, and preferences of the other parties involved in the consultation process. All parties may be required to adjust their expectations in response to the information, concerns, and interests raised and considered through the process. The Panel observed that this approach did not always occur in this proceeding.
Get the phrase “all parties.” It is clear here that the JRP is taking on the First Nations and other opponents for not seeing Northern Gateway’s point of view, since it accepts, as seen below, Northern Gateway’s contention that it is doing a good job with consultation,
And the word “trust.” Again the Alberta-bound JRP (the panel had no members from British Columbia, two from Alberta, one from Ontario) are saying “trust Enbridge.”
Unfortunately after a decade of operating in the northwest, and despite its spin, Enbridge has failed time and time again to establish trust with First Nations and it has equally failed to establish trust with a significant number non-aboriginal residents of the northwest.
The companies developing LNG projects have, for the most part, established a level of trust.
The joke up here is now so old it’s a cliche (but still unknown to the eastern media) where an LNG executive says, “We look at what Enbridge did and do the exact opposite.”
The Panel accepts Northern Gateway’s view that consultation is a process which should ensure that all parties are better informed through consultation, and that it involves being prepared to amend proposals in light of information received. In this regard, the Panel notes that Northern Gateway made numerous changes to the design and operation of the project in response to input provided by the public, landowners, governments, and stakeholders
In fact, Northern Gateway is still fumbling the ball.
It is true that Northern Gateway did change its plans and put another $500 million into the plans for the project–after a lot of public pressure and growing controversy during the JRP hearings over its plans.
Equally telling was Northern Gateway’s dismissal in its final arguments (arguments accepted by the JRP) that there was no earthquake hazard in the region, despite two major earthquakes at Haida Gwaii and southern Alaska just months earlier, both of which shook Kitimat.
In the final oral arguments, Northern Gateway’s lawyer Richard Neufeld summarily dismissed the fears of the Haida and Heiltskuk First Nations about destruction of the herring spawning beds because, he said, first, the chances of a tanker disaster were unlikely and second, even if there was a tanker disaster it was even more unlikely that it would occur during the spawning season. (Not that the spawning season matters, herring beds in San Francisco Bay are still damaged years after a spill there).
Now with the Tsilhqot’in decision, Enbridge can no longer summarily dismiss those fears. The companies who have proposed liquefied natural gas projects are meeting with anyone, including avowed opponents, and opening dialogues, even if both sides continue to disagree. Despite its spin, accepted by the political pundits and eastern business media, those who live in the northwest know Northern Gateway’s consultations and engagement, so far, have mostly been with friendly groups and friendly audiences.
The Supreme Court decision is going to change that attitude in the coming weeks. If Enbridge wants Northern Gateway to go ahead, the company is going to have to genuinely engage with First Nations. Given all the damage created by Enbridge over the past decade, that engagement is unlikely to change anything.
The Supreme Court decision is going to have one more consequence.
Eventually, in a few years, the decision will negate that stupid attitude from the conservative media and some in the business community that the people of northwestern British Columbia are against all development. That was never true but it’s a convenient excuse for those columnists and conservatives not to question their own assumptions.
If the reporters and columnists had bothered to come up here, if the press-release dispatching business leaders had bothered to leave their executive suites, they’d know what northwestern BC wants is responsible and sustainable development, not quick in and out profits.
The Supreme Court decision means that any future industrial development in the northwest will be much different from anything seen in the past because First Nations must be involved from the beginning.
Given its sorry track record, it is unlikely that Enbridge will be part of that development. but others will profit, yes profit, from that failure.
In the coming years it is also likely that there will be a new approach to development from the National Energy Board after they begin to see their narrow oil-patch friendly approach and rulings struck down by the courts quoting the Tsilhqot’in decision.
Cullen has issued an open letter to Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and Fisheries Minister Gail Shea that says:
21 November 2013
This is an open letter regarding the 21 October 2013 report, entitled Recovery Strategy for the North Pacific Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Canada, from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on a recovery strategy for humpback whales in Canada. As you are likely aware, it is part of the DFO’s mandate to help this species recover from a century of whaling that nearly drove the species into extinction. The report identified four areas of “critical habitat” for humpbacks, one of which is at the mouth of the Douglas Channel, the gateway from Kitimat to the Pacific Ocean. The report also identified vessel traffic and toxic spills as two of the greatest threats to the recovery of this species.
Thus, it was with shock and dismay I recently learned of the decision by the federal joint review panel for the Northern Gateway project to ignore the report as evidence in its ruling, as though vessel traffic and the potential for toxic spills were not two of the primary environmental concerns surrounding this proposal.
It is particularly stunning given that the report, submitted to the panel last week, was authored by a federal government agency, and yet the federal government is now saying it refuses to take into account its own information when ruling on this project. It begs the question of why we even have a federal government agency devoted to ensuring the health and viability of our fisheries and our waters when the research and recommendations they produce are ignored by the very same federal government.
The purpose of the joint review panel hearings is to weigh the available scientific evidence in determining whether this project will negatively impact habitat and endangered species. The purpose of the work of the DFO is to ensure that information is considered when the government is weighing projects which will impact habitat and endangered species. The decision by the JRP to ignore the DFO report is not only wasteful indifference; it’s a double-play failure and abrogation of the duty of both of your departments to protect endangered species and our natural environment.
I wish I could feign some measure of surprise on this matter. But like many Canadians, I have come to see this kind of negligence as not only a passing tendency of the Conservative government but as a very intentional aspect of the government’s resource and environmental policy.
When the government of Canada ignores its own science on endangered species protection, it’s no wonder why Canada has lost all credibility on environmental stewardship among both its own citizens and the international community.
So why are the whales returning? Chris Picard, Science Director for the Gitga’at First Nation and one of the co-authors of the study believes that answer is simple. There are, so far, three species of whales seen in the area, humpbacks, orcas and fin whales. It is only now, Picard believes, that the humpback and fin whale populations are recovering from a century of whaling.
The study estimates there were once about 15,000 humpback whales in the North Pacific when whalers began hunting the animals. That number was down to 1,400 when whale hunting was stopped in Canada in 1966.
As whale numbers increase, they are searching for the rich food sources found in the Channel, both at the mouth around near Gil Island where the study took place and as far north as the Kildala Arm and Clio Bay.
“One of the things the humpbacks like to do when they are on our coast or the Alaskan coast and that is they feed,” Picard said, “So they are really targeting areas that there is a high density of their preferred prey, krill or herring or other schooling fish, sardines in some years.”
So far the study has concentrated in Gitga’at traditional territory around the mouth of Douglas Channel near Gil Island. Picard says increasing the study area to include more of Douglas Channel is a good idea, but would require more resources than are currently available. “We’d like to continue with the study consistent with the work that we have been doing. Considering what we’re seeing in the local Douglas Channel area, Wright Sound, Gil Island, it can be very worthwhile.
“We are going to continue with our current study which involve getting to know how many humpbacks are using the area and continue with the study that we just published to see if numbers continue to increase or to see whether or if they do start to stabilize at some number,” Picard said. “With more and more proposals for increased shipping, we get to see any changes with humpback numbers that may be linked to increased shipping. We’ll continue to monitor the humpback population; not just their numbers but also their distribution in the area. We’ll continue to monitor that, again in relation to the various shipping proposals and activities that are proposed.”
It was during that study on humpbacks that the researchers from the Gitga’at Nation and the Cetacean Lab noticed the appearance of fin whales, another species that had been hit hard by whaling. (“We’ve worked very closely with the Cetacean Lab group and frankly without their help we would never have published any of this work because their data certainly was instrumental in getting the overall data set that made possible a publishable study,” Picard said.)
“We have observed is that fin whales have increased in their abundance in the area quite a bit, “ Picard said. “I can remember when we first started doing surveys, there were not too many. We’ve gone from seeing a couple over the course of an entire year. Now when we do our marine mammal surveys in the area the fin whales you pretty much see in every survey and in more and more numbers. So it’s quite encouraging to see that fin whales are becoming more abundent in the area. They were also hunted, so if you factor in the days of commercial whaling operations, that of course has stopped, so its encouraging to see that their numbers are coming back too.
The fin whales tend to be found in many of the same areas at the humpack whales are using, Caamaño Sound, Campania Sound and areas south of Gil Island. “we’ve also seen them more in the interior waters like Squally Channel, Wright Sound, Whale Channel, similar to the areas where we see the humpbacks.
“We haven’t done the same level of detailed analysis on the fin whale distribution as we have with the humpback, so it’s just my overall impression that they’re using similar habitats.
“It’s unique for fin whales to be using these more confined waters. It is my understanding that they are more of an open water species. I think that makes the area fairly unique,” he said.
Picard added it would be interesting to do a historic study to see how many fin whales were taken by whalers in the previous decades, especially in Caamaño Sound, Squally Channel and Wright Sound.
“The fact that we saw so many humpbacks relative to the size of the area, which is pretty small relative to the whole coast, so there must be a high abundance of food in the area,” Picard said.
“I’d like to get a better understanding of what is really driving the food abundance in the area. What is the oceanography in the area, what are the currents, what is driving that high area of biological activity that the whales seeming to be homing in on.”
That means, Picard believes, that there could be krill and juvenile herring schooling in the upper Douglas Channel and that is what is attracting the whales.
One of the next steps, Picard said, is to study social interaction among whales. “We do take identification photographs, so we get a sense of who’s hanging out with who; who is bringing their calves into the area to introduce them into what seems to be very good whale habitat,” Picard.
So one aim of a future study would be to se what role social interactions play in the increased whale sightings in the Douglas Channel. He also wants to know what role are the potential negative impacts on that whale social interaction comes noise impacts, or being struck by ships, and the potential environmental affects of oil spills. “So do these social interactions decrease as the impacts increase, does that mean there are going to be fewer whales that come into this area? Those are some of the questions we want to address.”
Updated with comments from Gitga’at First Nation, Nathan Cullen and Shell Canada.
Gil Island is a “critical habitat” for the world’s humpback whales, whose numbers are increasing in Douglas Channel, Wright Sound, Estevan Sound and Camano Sound and nearby waters, according to a study released Wednesday, September 11, 2013. The study also goes on to warn that potential tanker traffic through the “geographic bottleneck” on Douglas Channel to and from Kitimat could threaten that crucial “pit stop” for the humpback whales.
The research team estimated the abundance of Pacific humpback whales by using photo-identification surveillance of adult humpbacks. They found that the number of humpback whales in this region increased each year, and doubled from 2004 to 2011, resulting in a total of 137 identifiable whales in 2011. The survey was conducted year-round. Abundance was estimated only during the summer months of July to September, when the migrating whale population is largest.
The survey focused on summer feeding regions in the northwestern BC coastal fjords that serve as a “pit stop” for whales between migrations. Migrating whales travel to the BC coast from calving grounds as far away as Mexico, Hawaii or Japan. After several months without feeding, the humpbacks arrive in BC, and, the study says, show “strong site fidelity to local feeding grounds” around the entrance to Douglas Channel.
The authors estimated that “survivorship,” the average probability of an adult whale surviving from one year to the next on the northwest coast of British Columbia is among the highest reported anywhere for the species. During “this critical refueling stage in these waters, the whales are more vulnerable to environmental stressors, such as those potentially created by increasing tourism and industrial development in the region.”
The study also says that study area has also been identified as candidate critical habitat for northern resident killer whales and notes the region “has been recolonized by fin whales in recent years.” (With details on the fin whales to come in future studies)
The study estimates there were once about 15,000 humpback whales in the North Pacific when whalers began hunting the animals. That number was down to 1,400 when whale hunting was stopped in Canada in 1966. “It is therefore good news that the segment of the population using our study area is growing and adult survival is near the limit that one would expect for this species. That said, although the population is recovering, there is no evidence that it has yet fully recovered to pre-exploitation levels in BC and we do not wish to become complacent.” the study says.
It goes on to say:
Humpback whales may be facing increasing threats in at least one of their proposed critical habitats in BC. Numerous port facility expansions and new terminal proposals, including numerous crude oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) export proposals, could substantially increase deep-sea shipping traffic through BC’s north and central coast waters. Such developments could exacerbate oil spill, acoustic disturbance, and ship strike risks to humpbacks. In particular, the Gil Island proposed critical habitat area where our work was conducted, spatially corresponds with all shipping routes leading to Kitimat, BC port facilities that are currently being considered by regulatory agencies for high-volume crude oil and LNG tanker traffic and other increased shipping activities.
The monitoring program showed that “a relatively large fraction of BC’s humpback whales rely on the waters around Gil Island, given the small size of the study area.”
The study warns:
This high reliance on relatively small fractions of available habitat has important implications for conservation and management. It lends support to the proposal to designate the current study area as part of the population’s critical habitat…
This also suggests that area-based management for cetaceans can effectively target small areas if these areas are chosen carefully. The corollary to this, though, is that a tendency for animals to be concentrated or aggregated in small areas lends them vulnerable to catastrophic events like oil spills and ship strikes. Critical habitats like the Gil Island waters are therefore a mixed blessing when high densities of whales are found in geographic bottlenecks that also funnel and concentrate shipping traffic. Anthropogenic threats to this must be evaluated not only in terms of the proportion of available habitat that this area represents, but also in terms of its critical importance to large numbers of whales for critical life-history processes. The risk and ecological consequences of an oil spill in this region would increase substantially if proposals were approved to ship large volumes of oil and LNG traffic through the Gil Island waters. Studies in Pacific waters similar to our study area suggest that oil spills can have severe and chronic impacts to cetacean populations and it is uncertain whether affected populations can recover from such perturbations.
One reason for the study is that while the humpback is considered an endangered species in the United States, in Canada it is listed as “threatened” under Canada’s Species at Risk Act and the increasing numbers could mean that the humpback is downgraded to “special concern.”
The study was based on what is called “community based science,” a cost-effective partnership between scientists, the Gitga’at Nation and other First Nations, NGOs and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
As part of its Pacific humpback whale recovery strategy, DFO has proposed four areas as candidate critical habitat. One criterion for designating critical habitats within northern BC coast feeding grounds is that inlets are used for specialized ‘‘bubble-net’’ feeding behaviour (where the humpbacks create a fishing net of bubbles to catch their prey).
At the start of the study, the team had noted that “mainland inlets have been somewhat under-represented in habitat studies” and so they began working on the photo-identification of the humpbacks, using two research groups, the North Coast Cetacean Society and the Gitga’at Lands and Marine Resources Department. Surveys were conducted as weather permitted throughout the year from April to November (with occasional trips in February, March and December), from 2004 to 2011.
The aim of the study was to “collect as many high-quality photographs of individually recognizable humpback whales as possible within the study area [referred to in the study as ‘Gil Island waters’’] from Estevan Sound in the west to Ursula Channel in the east. One 27 foot and one 18 foot boat were used to conduct the surveys. A total of 374 photo- identification surveys conducted over 47 months resulted in a catalogue of 177 high-quality, unique identifications of individual humpback whales.
Information also came from “an informal sightings network including local fishermen and tourism operators who reported humpback and killer whale sightings over VHF radio;” hydrophones monitored for vocalizing humpback whales; and visual monitoring from the land-based Cetacealab facility on the south end of Gil Island.
When a humpback was sighted, they were identified by the fingerprint like tail flukes and the numbers cataloged.
The study was funded by grants to Cetacealab and Gitga’at First Nation from Julie Walters and Sam Rose, and from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (Cetacean Research Program, Species at Risk Program). There was also support from King Pacific Lodge.
“The importance of our territorial waters for humpback and other species of whales, should give pause to those who would propose tanker routes through the Douglas Channel,” said Arnold Clifton, Chief Councillor of the Gitga’at First Nation. “The increase in whales in our territory coincides with low shipping traffic, however current proposals would increase shipping traffic to unprecedented levels. We remain resolute in our determination to protect whales and the natural heritage of our territory from tankers and other developments that would put them at risk.”
“Our study shows that while still vulnerable, humpback whales are recovering, and this area plays an important role in supporting their numbers,” said lead author, Erin Ashe, a PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews and a co-founder of Oceans Initiative. “Identifying and protecting critical habitat is one of the most effective ways to support endangered species recovery.”
The waters around Gil Island are especially rich habitat for humpback whales, due to high abundance of their preferred foods, such as krill and herring and due to the remote nature of the coastal fjords. Humpbacks, which rely on acoustic communication, are sensitive to noise pollution from ship traffic.
“It is Cetacea Lab’s contention that all levels of government must collaborate with the Gitga’at First Nation and others in protecting humpback whales from the risk of increased tanker traffic,” said Janie Wray, whale researcher with Cetacea Lab. “This study represents the best available scientific information about the importance of this area to humpback whales. Over the course of our study, we have observed the population more than double, with mothers returning year after year with their calves, introducing the next generation of juvenile whales to the nutrient-rich feeding grounds of Douglas Channel to Caamano Sound.”
In his biweekly conference call with Northwest BC reporters, Skeena Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen said: “I don’t get a sense from the way that the federal government has designed this [referring to Enbridge Northern Gateway] project, that on the marine side, any of these things are important to Mr. Harper. When you start to place down the most important values and certainly for British Columbians and Canadians, protecting a humpback feeding ground would seem like an important value in the Great Bear Rainforest, you start to see where the limits and the restrictions are on any idea of moving oil super tankers through such a narrow place. It’s just another bit of evidence, a bit of science that says this is difficult, if not impossible, and Enbridge’s project has made so many of those arguments more and more clear as we start to bring science to the table.
“It’s so frustrating for people that evidence, our opinions and our values just don’t seem to matter to the federal government. They already said yes to this thing years ago and damn the science, damn anything that comes their way. That’s not going to work, not going to work for us and not going to work for the humpback whales.”
A spokesperson for Shell’s LNG Canada project, noting that the company officials had not yet read the study, said, “It’s early days for the proposed project and the start of a thorough regulatory process. We welcome contributions and thoughts on important matters. We will look at this study. As with any project in Canada we work with local First Nations and local communities to minimize the impact of our activities.”
Neither Enbridge Northern Gateway nor Apache, a partner in the KM LNG project, responded to a request for comment.