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Why We Should Protect The Fraser River Estuary
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Why We Should Protect The Fraser River Estuary

Written by Nature Canada’s writing intern, Gabriel Planas The Fraser River Estuary is a large area of interconnected marine, estuarine, freshwater and agricultural habitats, near Vancouver. With almost 17,000 hectares of wetland, the estuary supports a variety of  habitats such as  salt and  estuarine marshes, mudflats, and deep tidal waters. These habitats are crucial to the 560 species found in the Fraser River Estuary. Killer Whales, Townsend Moles, and even Sockeye Salmon depend on this area for migration and residential purposes. Some species, such as the Western Sandpiper, depend on the region so heavily that roughly 500,000 Western Sandpipers visit the mud flats of Roberts Bank every day. Sockeye Salmon is  the most important commercial species among the hundreds found in the Fraser River Estuary. An estimated 10 million salmon make their way back to the Fraser Estuary every year. While this may seem impressive, due to warming waters, pollution, overfishing and the spread of farmed fish parasites, these numbers are dropping. Image of sockeye salmonUnfortunately, the loss, degradation, and fragmentation of  Fraser River Estuary habitats impact more than just the populations of salmon. Being home to Canada’s third largest urban center that functions on the largest port in the region poses a clear danger to the Estuary, as human populations are estimated to grow to 1.4 million by 2040. This growth in population has influenced current and proposed urban and industrial developments to use land formerly inhabited by local wildlife. Additionally, the conversion of open agricultural fields to berry crops, greenhouses and other intensive uses has reduced farmland habitats used by waterfowl, shorebirds and owls. The push to build the Kinder-Morgan pipeline and increase the volume of crude oil and the amount of Diluted Bitumen being transported through the region  also creates risk for the health of the Estuary. The amount of tanker traffic in the Salish Sea near the Estuary  is expected to rise dramatically, driving up the risk of oil spills drastically. Additionally, Diluted Bitumen extracted from tar sands and transported through the pipeline is considered more toxic and far more destructive to the environment than crude oil, which makes the  prospect of a pipeline or tanker spill even more worrisome. Difficulties for the Fraser River Estuary are not limited to systemic issues, the introduction of foreign species to habitats and recreational disturbances contribute to the loss of habitats within the Fraser River Estuary. It is important for us, as humans, to understand the kinds of consequences our actions can cause. Nature Canada is dedicated to spreading the word about  these at-risk areas and advocating for their protection. Check out our proposed protected areas page to learn more about these unique habitats and what we are doing to ensure a future for them.

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Killer Whales in the Canadian Arctic – A New Force to Contend With
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Killer Whales in the Canadian Arctic – A New Force to Contend With

[caption id="attachment_33210" align="alignleft" width="150"]becka-tulips Guest blogger Rebecca Kennedy[/caption] This post was written by guest blogger Rebecca Kennedy. Known as “aarluk” in Inuktitut, the Killer Whale (Orcinus Orca) is featured as Nature Canada's calendar photo for March 2018.

About the Killer Whale

One of the world’s largest animals, the Orca belongs to the Dolphin family (Delphinidae). Males can reach ten metres in length and 22,000 kilograms in weight. Females are smaller, but still considerable, at 8.5 metres long and 7,500 kilograms. Highly intelligent and distinctive for its black and white colouration, these magnificent creatures are also deadly. Poised at the top of the oceanic food chain, they are carnivores whose diet is often geographic and population specific. The Killer Whale’s menu could be fish heavy—such as salmon, herring, and tuna—or comprise larger marine life, such as seals, sea lions, penguins, sharks, and other whales and porpoises. Extremely social, Orcas live (and hunt) in matriarchal family pods typically comprising five to fifty whales and use echolocation to communicate. [caption id="attachment_35651" align="alignright" width="384"] A Killer Whale surfaces in the Strait of Georgia. Image courtesy of Gary Sutton.[/caption] Killer Whales are distributed throughout the world, from the polar ice caps to the tropics near the Equator. In Canadian waters, there are noted populations in the northern Pacific along British Columbia, and, though less commonly, in the Atlantic and Arctic regions. In recent years, however, this has begun to change, as sea ice both recedes and occurs for shorter times each year.

Heading North and Staying There

One consequence of increasing melting and retreating ice and the growing unpredictability of ice formation schedules is the change in roaming patterns of Killer Whales, who now venture into far northern waters where they previously did not. Killer Whales typically avoid ice because of their high dorsal fins. With the loss of year-round sea ice in the Arctic, however, these cetaceans, once largely absent from the region, are now both spending more time there and going to areas that were formerly inaccessible due to permanent or seasonal ice cover. For example, Killer Whale sightings, once rare in Hudson Bay, have been reported not only during summer months but in winter as well. Up north, the whales can miscalculate when the water will freeze and become trapped in ice, like what happened near the small northern Quebec village of Inukjuak in January 2013. A pod of a dozen Orcas became stuck, stranded in an opening of water just ten feet wide in northeastern Hudson Bay. Visibly stressed, the whales thrashed and took frantic turns surfacing for oxygen. Fortunately for them, the weather changed, causing the ice to break, and they were able to escape. The incident called attention to the shifting patterns of Arctic freezing due to climate change. [caption id="attachment_35657" align="alignleft" width="300"] A pod of narwhals in northern Canada, August 2005. Image courtesy of Kristin Laidre.[/caption]

The Orca Effect on the Arctic Ecosystem

Killer Whales in the Arctic are also disrupting the region’s fragile existing ecosystem. The disturbance of Narwhals is one such documented effect. Narwhals, nicknamed “sea unicorns” for the prominent tusks seen on males, are shy, wary whales who have been difficult to study due to the remoteness of their chosen habitats—two of three recognized populations of Narwhals live in Canadian Arctic waters, with the third occurring in eastern Greenland. A 2017 study demonstrated that the presence of Killer Whales drastically alters the behavior and distribution of Narwhals. Narwhals will move to and remain closer to the shore when Killer Whales are nearby, rightfully fearful and frazzled by the predator in the midst. Killer Whales, who hunt in packs, will try to push Narwhals into deeper waters and then encircle their panicked prey. By moving to shallower waters to flee Killer Whales, Narwhals become farther from the abundant stocks of fish that they eat. Additionally, staying closer to shore makes them more vulnerable to hunters. With Narwhals an important food source for the Inuit, the encroachment of Killer Whales into the Arctic also increases the competition for limited food sources. In addition to the Narwhal, Killer Whales in the Arctic are also preying on Beluga Whales and Bowhead Whales. With receding sea ice and continuing climate change, Killer Whales are poised to become a major Arctic predator to contend with. Today scientists continue to monitor Killer Whales and their impact on the Arctic marine environment. One tool that has proven particularly useful is questioning the local Inuit who directly observe these whales’ behaviors and interactions in the Arctic every day. Known as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), scientists combine these firsthand observations and cultural knowledge accrued over generations with their research to help form a clearer picture of Orcas in the Arctic. Acknowledgments: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, NOAA Fisheries, RCI, Science Daily
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Book Review: The Killer Whale Who Changed the World
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Book Review: The Killer Whale Who Changed the World

[caption id="attachment_28395" align="alignleft" width="150"]Image of Sofia Osborne Sofia Osborne, Guest Blogger[/caption]

This guest blog book review was written by Sofia Osborne. 

The skull of Moby Doll, the subject of Mark Leiren-Young’s new book “The Killer Whale Who Changed the World,” was housed in the museum where I worked this summer. I also saw Moby’s relatives practically every day. J-Pod, a group of Southern Resident Orcas, would come by my post on Saturna Island’s East Point close enough to touch. Moby Doll was harpooned off the coast of Saturna Island, but surprisingly he lived. He was then dragged to a Vancouver dry dock where he spent the rest of his short life under the watchful eye of the Vancouver Aquarium director. Scientists learned a lot about Killer Whales by studying Moby, and Vancouverites learned a lot about their temperament by watching Moby swimming peacefully around his makeshift tank. [caption id="attachment_32818" align="alignright" width="201"]Image of The Killer Whale Who Changed the World cover The Killer Whale Who Changed the World by Mark Leiren-Young[/caption] Back in the days of Moby Doll, that is before and into the 1960s, “close enough to touch” meant “close enough to fear for your life.” Much of Leiren-Young’s account centres on the attitude surrounding Killer Whales at the time, namely that they were man-eating monsters. That’s the thing about humans, we project. Humans are really the scariest species out there. We kill systematically, we destroy everything in our wake, and we’re sending the Earth hurtling towards climate disaster. Yet these black-and-white “devils” sent us into a panic. Because of this we lost many Orcas, a species that is now beloved. Fishermen were shooting them at any opportunity and there was even a machine gun set up to eradicate them, although it was never fired. Moby is largely responsible for the change in how people view Orcas, earning him the title of “The Killer Whale That Changed the World.” It turns out that southern residents, who eat only salmon, are more harmless and compassionate than we could have ever imagined. What can we learn from Leiren-Young’s, and really Moby’s, story? Instead of seeing other species as guilty until proven innocent, maybe we should just let them do what’s natural. So Bigg’s Killer Whales hunt in packs and can look scary taking down a Humpback, that doesn’t mean we should shoot them. When I think about nature I think of standing on a rock as a pod of thirty Orca Whales swim by. I think about the salmon that they’re following, the kelp that they’re swimming through. It disturbs me that because of the tall tales around Killer Whales I almost didn’t get the chance to see them. Leiren-Young’s book reminds us that we often underestimate nature. It’s a precautionary tale of our own ignorance, but it’s also the story of how we came to understand and appreciate Orcas. We now love Orcas so much that we watch them perform in tanks, we’ll go out on whale watching boats for hours just to catch a glimpse, and we’ll come back to the same point every day in the hopes that they swim by. I would label myself an "orcaholic", I’m sure many others would too. They are, to me, the epitome of nature. And yes, sometimes nature is scary, complex, and misunderstood. “The Killer Whale Who Changed the World” is not just the story of Moby, but of our relationship with the mysterious, awe-inspiring natural world.
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Vessel Traffic through Boundary Pass – a Saturna Island Perspective
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Vessel Traffic through Boundary Pass – a Saturna Island Perspective

[caption id="attachment_28395" align="alignleft" width="150"]Image of Sofia Osborne Sofia Osborne, Guest Blogger[/caption]

This blog is written by guest blogger Sofia Osborne. 

From the old fog alarm building on East Point, Saturna Island, I can see the buoy that marks the border between the United States and Canada. This is Boundary Pass where commercial ships come inbound to Vancouver and leave outbound towards destinations including Seattle, the Panama Canal, and Japan.

It’s challenging to capture just how large these ships are. Most Saturna Islanders who live on Cliffside, the road that faces Boundary Pass, like to sit out on their decks and watch the humongous ships move by. Many look the vessels up on AIS tracking to see what they’re carrying and where they’re headed.

But those who live on Cliffside are also in the best position to watch Orca whales, both salmon eating Southern Residents and marine mammal eating Transients, swimming and hunting along Saturna Island’s coast. When we think of vessels’ effects on Orcas we tend to focus on the whale watching boats that too often zip dangerously close to passing pods, but what about commercial shipping?

There are many initiatives being carried out to monitor underwater vessel noise along the west coast, including the use of hydrophones on Saturna Island. The hydrophones pick up acoustical information from passing whales, fish, and vessels of all sizes.

[caption id="attachment_29226" align="aligncenter" width="694"]Image of ships on water Photo of boat activity on the water. By Sofia Osbourne[/caption]

While we all know that the speed boats zooming by are deafeningly loud, the gigantic bulk carriers are only audible to us by their throbbing hum. We can feel them coming though, as the ground vibrates subtly before we even see a ship coming in the distance. Underwater, the substantial noise created by these large ships can prevent whales from communicating with each other and affect their ability to hunt.

The process that creates a lot of this underwater noise is called propeller cavitation, AKA “cold boiling.” Essentially the water is forced back by the ship’s propeller so fast that the pressure lowers. At a lower pressure water boils at a colder temperature thus creating the bubbles that we see. When the bubbles burst it not only damages propellers and reduces the efficiency of the ships themselves, but also creates a significant amount of underwater noise that affects marine mammals.

Sometimes while I watch the whales go by East Point I try to imagine myself in a similar situation to theirs. How do we balance our love of orcas with appropriate respect for their space and comfort? How do we juggle a need to protect nature with increasing globalization and demand for resources? As I watch Orcas swim by East Point, surrounded by whale watching boats and commercial ships I feel a mixture of awe and pity. I just know that this is not the answer.

A Breathtaking Photo
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A Breathtaking Photo

This month's featured photo of an Orca comes to us from Eileen Redding, a winner from the Nature Canada 75th Anniversary Photo Contest.

I was on a whale watching tour; east of Campbell River, BC, in the Strait of Georgia. It was a grey, gloomy day. We were only about 20 minutes out when we spotted the pod. I feel so fortunate to have seen them, and to get four breathtaking frames of one breaching in front of us.
From all of us at Nature Canada, we also feel fortunate that Eileen was able to capture such a beautiful moment and share it with us. To learn more about Orcas, please visit our species profile.

Orca: Top Ocean Predator
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Orca: Top Ocean Predator

[separator headline="h3" title="What makes Orcas the top ocean predator?"] [caption id="attachment_19831" align="alignleft" width="150"]Valerie Assinewe, Professional Writing Program Intern Valerie Assinewe,Professional Writing Program Intern[/caption] Sailors who witnessed killer whale attacks of larger cetaceans named them “whale killers.” The name eventually changed to “killer whales.” With the recent realization that they do not attack humans, and they live in highly co-operative social groups, they are more often called “Orcas”—a derivative of their scientific name, Orcinus orca. [separator headline="h3" title="Adaptation to hunting in the ocean"] Odontoceti (toothed whales), which include Orcas, and the Mysticeti (baleen whales) are grouped under the order Cetacea. Cetaceans share the following characteristics: they have a streamlined body shape; paddle-shaped front limbs; internal vestigial hind limbs; no external digits or claws; tail flattened laterally bearing horizontal flukes at the tip; vestigial ear pinnae; hairless body; thick subcutaneous blubber layer filled with fat and oil; telescoped skull bones; external nares (blowhole) on the top of the head; addition of compressed vertebrae; shortening of the neck; lack of sweat glands; internal reproductive organs; 3-chambered stomach; and an airway reinforced with cartilage to the alveoli. Many of these are adaptations for fast swimming to catch prey. Adult males may reach lengths of 9.8 m and weigh as much as 10000 kg. Adult females may grow to 8.5 m and weigh up to 7500 kg. The Orcas that frequent Canadian oceans are typically smaller than these maxima. Compare this to an adult male human who is 176 cm and weighs 80 kg. The size of Orcas contributes to their status as apex predator—they are at the top of the food chain on which no other creature predates. Odontocetes have a fatty organ called a melon on the forehead that focuses and directs sound waves—an acoustical lens. As the whales do not have external ears, sound channels to the inner ears using specialized “acoustic fats,” which are found in the hollow lower jaws and lead to the acoustic funnel of the ears. Odonocetes perceive ultrasounds up to 120000 Hz. This is a hunting advantage in an aquatic environment, which is often turbid. This hearing range far exceeds human capability: the hearing range in humans is 20-20000 Hz. [caption id="attachment_20163" align="alignright" width="371"]Orcas swimming by Lance Barrett-Lennard[/caption] [separator headline="h3" title="How fast are Orcas?"] As a dominant predator in the oceans, Orcas have to move fast. If they need to, they can perform short, intense spurts of speeds up to 50 km/h. However, they typically cruise at around 6 km/h. If they are travelling in a hurry, they may travel at 15 km/h. In comparison, a marathon runner can run at 20 km/h and a cheetah, the fastest land animal, can run at speeds of 120 km/h. [separator headline="h3" title="Where are they?"] Orcas inhabit all oceans of the world. Next to humans, Orcas are the most widely distributed mammal. Orcas tolerate wide ranges of salinity, temperature and turbidity though they favour cooler waters as they are most numerous in the Arctic, the Antarctic, and areas in nutrient-rich cold water upwelling. They primarily inhabit the continental shelf in waters less than 200 m where the prey live. Seasonal pack ice limits their distribution in cold waters. In Canada’s oceans, there are five populations of Orcas:

  1. [caption id="attachment_20166" align="alignleft" width="316"]Orca jumping out of water Orca porpoising[/caption] Northwest Atlantic / Eastern Arctic: The population is in the north Atlantic, an expanding range into the eastern Arctic, and recently occur more frequently in Hudson Bay with the decline of summer sea ice. They feed on marine mammals and fish.
  2. Transient: Found throughout the coastal waters of British Columbia where they feed on marine mammals, such as seals and sea lions.
  3. Northern resident: Occurs from central Vancouver Island north to southeastern Alaska in summer and fall where they feed on fish, particularly Chinook and Chum Salmon. Northern residents may range widely at other times of year.
  4. Southern resident: Found around southern Vancouver Island in summer and fall where they feed on fish, particularly Chinook and Chum Salmon. In other times of the year, they may range more widely.
  5. Offshore: Observed travelling widely in coastal waters where their feeding habit is unknown.
The “wolves of the sea” fame is from their pack behavior especially in attacking whales of larger size. [separator headline="h3" title="Do Orcas kill people?"] There is no documented case of wild Orca killing a human. All cases of attack and fatalities are from captive orcas in aquariums. Presumably, the attack stems from the intelligent and highly social Orca’s mental, emotional, and physical stress in captivity. [separator headline="h3" title="Impact of human activities?"] Orcas have no natural predators. However, habitat degradation, prey depletion, and pollution now threaten certain populations. Orcas are at risk from human activities like fisheries, shipping, recreational vessels, impacts for diminished prey, and contaminants that end up in their food. Click here to learn more about this species.
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Species spotlight: Orca
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Species spotlight: Orca

Common name: Orca, or Killer Whale Latin name: Orcinus orca Status under SARA: There are several populations of Orca found in Canadian waters, some of which are considered “transient” and others that are “resident”. BC’s Northeast Pacific southern resident population is Endangered; BC’s Northeast Pacific northern resident, transient and offshore populations are each listed as Threatened. The Northwest Atlantic/Eastern Arctic population has been proposed for listing as Special Concern. Range: Members of the various populations are found in Canada’s Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic oceans both in deep offshore waters and in near shore, coastal and estuarine areas. Orcas are not known to occur in the waters of the central Arctic where sea ice is more persistent. Population Estimate: Fewer than 78 individuals are thought to remain in BC’s Pacific southern resident population, while up to 200 individuals could remain in BC’s Pacific northern resident population. Both populations have experienced steady declines in recent years. Size: On average less than 9 m in length for adult males, and less than 7.7 m for adult females. The prominent dorsal fins of adult males can stand up to 1.8 m tall, while the dorsal of females and juveniles are about 1 m in height and tend to appear more hook-like in shape. The Story: This iconic marine species is well-known among Canadians and are easy to recognize given their black and white pattern and tall dorsal fin. British Columbia’s resident populations are unique in that they tend to travel in larger groups, or “pods”, than their transient and offshore cousins, and they show unique behaviours and dietary preferences. Resident populations predominantly feed on fish and not marine mammals, and as such their numbers seem to fluctuate with the availability of their prey - the five different salmon species on BC’s coast (i.e., Sockeye, Pink, Chum, Coho and Chinook salmon). As a result, BC’s resident killer whale populations are critically linked to the fate of salmon, whose own numbers have been declining in recent years. The 2012 Cohen Commission of Inquiry was even formed to investigate the decline of Fraser River Sockeye Salmon. And it doesn’t stop there – impacts on the food supply and habitat that Pacific salmon rely upon can ultimately impact BC’s resident Orcas. Given the intricacy of linkages between BC’s freshwater salmon spawning grounds and the coastal and near shore waters where adult salmon serve as food for resident Orca populations, we need to be prudent and conservation-minded with industrial developments and other human activities that could disrupt nature’s balance in BC – and elsewhere. To provide a voice for nature in these matters, Nature Canada and BC Nature are working with the UVic Environmental Law Centre, as interveners in the hearings for the TransMountain project. This project which would see large increases in oil tanker traffic – and the risk of one or more serious oil spills – throughout the range of BC’s southern resident Orca population. Under SARA, both the critical marine habitat of these Orcas, and the individual whales themselves, are protected from harassment, harm and destruction. Let’s hope that nature's voice makes a positive difference for BC’s southern resident and other Orca populations!

Update: Standing up for Nature in the Salish Sea
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Update: Standing up for Nature in the Salish Sea

Stephen 242x242 with title (Orca - Photo credit: Eileen Redding) Nature Canada and BC Nature are standing up for nature as the National Energy Board (NEB) hearings on the TransMountain pipeline and tanker project draw nearer. The 1,180 TransMountain project would increase capacity from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day, and result in oil tankers moving almost daily through the Salish Sea past critical Important Bird Areas such as Boundary Bay. On February 26, 2015, our lawyers at the UVic Environmental Law Centre (ELC) filed a motion with NEB to compel full and adequate responses by the proponent Kinder Morgan to our second request for information submitted in January 2015.  BC Nature and Nature Canada are arguing that Kinder Morgan did not respond adequately, for example, to our request for more information on the risk of harm to birds from an oil tanker spill and the resilience of bird populations to recover from an oil spill.  This is the second time that BC Nature and Nature Canada have asked the NEB to compel Kinder Morgan to answer questions about the impacts of the TransMountain project on nature; a similar, partially successful, motion was filed in July 2014. According to Nature Canada’s lawyer Christopher Tollefson, these information requests are extremely important given that the NEB has taken the unprecedented decision to eliminate oral cross-examination from the hearing process.  BC Nature and Nature Canada have objected to the elimination of cross-examination on the grounds that this will seriously compromise the NEB’s ability to assess the evidence and determine whether or not the project is in the public interest. The NEB hearings on the TransMountain project are now likely to occur in the summer and fall of 2015. Thanks to your support, Nature Canada can continue to be a voice for nature on these oil pipeline and tanker projects.

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