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Federal Government Fails Endangered Orcas
Photo by Nicole Peshy, an Orca hunting a Sea Lion.
News

Federal Government Fails Endangered Orcas

Threats to the endangered Southern Resident Orcas associated with marine vessels are set to increase with the proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. The Ministers of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada have an opportunity to protect the Southern Resident Orca population from such threats by declaring an Emergency Order under the Species at Risk Act.

The Audit on Marine Mammals

Julie Gelfand, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development to the Parliament of Canada conducted an audit to determine whether Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), Environment and Climate Change Canada, Parks Canada and Transport Canada adequately protected marine mammals in waters under the jurisdiction of the federal government from threats posed by marine vessels and commercial fishing during the period of 1 January 2012 and 1 June 2018. The Commissioner’s report was released October 2, 2018 and is available here: Report 2 – Protecting Marine Mammals. To summarize her official report, the Commissioner found that relevant federal authorities had not fully applied existing policies and tools to manage threats to marine mammals that stem from commercial fishing and marine vessels. Threats from commercial fishing include entanglements, bycatch, depletion of food sources such as salmon, noise and disturbance, oil spills and collisions with marine vessels. Risks posed by underwater noise and disturbance from marine vessels, collisions and oil spills could impede the recovery or speed the decline of marine mammal populations.

Species at Risk Management

The Commissioner also found that for 11 out of 14 marine mammal species listed as endangered or threatened under the Species at Risk Act, DFO could not demonstrate that it had implemented management measures to reduce threats from commercial fishing and marine vessels. Thus, the Commissioner found that management tools have not been used to protect marine mammals until the situation became severe.

Southern Resident Orcas

The plight of British Columbia’s Southern Resident Orcas demonstrate the impact of delaying management measures. While the Southern Resident Orca was listed as endangered in 2003, an Action Plan was not finalized until 2017. The Commissioner’s report found that DFO only began to implement management measures to address threats to the Southern Resident Orcas in 2017 and 2018. The Southern Resident Orcas are currently experiencing fatalities due to strikes with marine vessels and stress from noise and disturbance caused by marine shipping vessels. Both of these threats would intensify with increased marine shipping traffic associated with the proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion.

To read recent coverage of this topic, consult the following

Swimming with Species – Orcas
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Swimming with Species – Orcas

Today’s species is the Orca!

Orcas, also known as Killer Whales, are among the best-known marine animals. They are iconic mammals of Canada’s wildlife, and hold an important symbolism among the Native communities. Orcas are super easy to identify with their unique tuxedo-like colouration and white “eye” patches. Since they live in all five oceans, we can find them to the east, west, and north of Canada! Now, we really should call them Orcas because “killer whales” is quite misleading. You see, Orcas are the largest members of the dolphin family, (not whales)! By large, we’re talking males up to 9 meters long and weigh 6 to 9 thousand kilograms, that’s 7-10 tons! Females are a bit smaller, and are about 7 meters long and 4 to 7 thousand kilos (5-7 tons). [caption id="attachment_38463" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Photo by Nicole Peshy, an Orca hunting a Sea Lion.[/caption]   Like most members of the dolphin family, Orcas are highly social. They live in groups called a pod which can consist of 10 to 40 related individuals. Research has found that there are different “types” of pods, for which scientists have used to classify and identify groups of Orcas. These are; Northern and Southern Resident type, Northern and Southern Transient type, and Offshore type. Differences between types can be subtle such as variations in vocal patterns and dorsal fin shapes, or more pronounced such as their preferred diet. Offshore and Residents Orcas will feed predominantly on fish; schooling fish for the Offshores, and coastal fish and squid for the Resident Orcas. Transient pods, on the other hand, feed almost exclusively on other marine mammals. Speaking of food, Orcas got their nicknames, killer whales, from their hunting strategy. Orcas are apex predators, or top predators of the oceans, and hunt in packs, quite fiercely. When a pod isn’t hunting, they spend time socializing with each other. They’ll travel, rest, explore, and play together. The most famous play behaviour is called breaching; when they dived out of the water’s surface into the air with leaps and twirls. In essence, they need to breach to come to the surface for respiration, but, they do so with fantastic style! Orcas aren’t the only ones though, most whales and dolphins perform these jumps, twirls and tail slaps. In addition, Orcas communicate with echolocation, which mean the use of sound waves to locate and identify objects within their surroundings. This helps them navigate for foraging and just for an Orca to tell another Orca their location. Orcas have long lifespans! They can live up 40-50 years old. However, females tend to live longer and can reach up to 80 years of age. Both females and males reach sexual maturity in their “teens” being 12-17 years old. Pods of different families will find one another to mate with. This keeps their genetic make-up stronger, versus if they were to inbreed. The gestation period is a little more than a year with 17 months. Babies are born with the same colouration as adults, so they really do look like miniature versions of their mother! [caption id="attachment_38462" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Photo by Eileen Redding[/caption] As social animals, offspring need their mother and pod members to learn behaviours, feed, and be safe from predators. It takes about a year before a baby is weaned, therefore it is crucial that mom and baby stay together during this time. If a baby gets lost, or gets separated from their mom, they will have a high chance of dying, not knowing how to survive on their own. Once weaned, the offspring stays with its natal pod for life. Orcas intrigue scientists with their complex behaviours. They are still so much to learn about them since scientists have only be able to conduct studies close to shores, and/or in captivity. Not only are parenting behaviours observed among pods, but pod members have been observed to teach younger members foraging and hunting skills. Pods of different “types” developed their own “dialect” for whistles, calls, and clicks, which is passed on to their offspring! But most fascinating is their ability to mourn. For example, when a baby dies, a mother will carry the body for days until she has “moved on”. This has been called a “Tour of Grief”. According to the ICUN, there is insufficient data to conclude a species assessment status other than “Data Deficient (DD)”. However, Orcas are still victims to many threats, most of them human-related. For one, commercial fisheries contribute to increased accidental net entrapment and decreased prey availability to native wildlife. Oil spills and toxic build-up via human waste affects all large species like Orcas, because toxins will accumulate in dangerous amounts within their fat cells. In addition, just as there are more cars on the roads, there are more ships asea. We don’t think of it; however, water traffic affects water acoustics, which then effects echolocation for Orcas and all other species that use this method of communication! Fortunately, they are people who do not take the threat of Orcas’ disappearance lightly. Conservation organizations like Nature Canada are pressing governments to urge the continuation of research projects, recovery plans, and imply more wildlife protection. Do you want to help out but think “oh well I’m just one person, right?” Wrong! You can help! Every step counts. Become more aware of what you’re buying and try to buy environmentally friendly items. Support sites such as Nature Canada that educate the public about our endangered species and provide guides to good stewardships. Participate in Orca educational programs with your provincial wildlife organizations. And lastly, spread the word! Post, share, and tweet about saving orcas. References: http://naturecanada.ca/what-we-do/naturevoice/endangered-species/know-our-species/orca/ http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/15421/0 https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Orcinus_orca/ https://bc.ctvnews.ca/orca-s-tour-of-grief-over-after-carrying-dead-calf-for-nearly-3-weeks-1.4049902  

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
News

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.

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