Biggest survey yet to record whales, dolphins and porpoises off West Coast

The federal government will undertake the most comprehensive survey to date for whales, dolphins and porpoises off the Pacific coast this summer in response to an American demand for evidence showing that B.C. fish exports to the U.S. are sustainable.

“It’s a major undertaking, a big deal,” said Thomas Doniol-Valcroze, head of cetacean research for Fisheries and Oceans Canada on the West Coast. “It is unprecedented in size and scope and effort on this coast.”

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An article published in Science, featuring B.C. marine researcher Rob Williams as lead author, explains that a new regulation effective Jan. 1 requires any fishery/aquaculture exports to the U.S. to meet equivalent standards of the Marine Mammal Protection Act for monitoring and bycatch mitigation.

Because commercial fisheries globally represent a threat to cetaceans, the article states, the regulation could have “significant conservation benefits.” With more than 120 countries exporting seafood to the U.S., the regulation “could be a game-changer if it inspires widespread compliance.”

The article also warns: “However, some countries may choose not to comply, and many developing countries may be unable to comply due to lack of monitoring and enforcement capacity.

“Widespread noncompliance would blunt any conservation benefits, and import bans could inflict significant economic hardship on some already poor countries.”

B.C. seafood exports to the U.S. increased 15 per cent to $799 million in 2016, from $695 million in 2015.

Doniol-Valcroze, based at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, said in an interview that to comply with the regulations, Canada will be conducting surveys this summer aboard two coast guard ships — six weeks with the 68-metre John P. Tully on outer waters, and five weeks with the 52-metre Tanu on inner waters.

Other science-based programs on the ships are giving priority to the $1.2-million cetacean survey, which includes staff and ship time and equipment.

The ships will conduct systematic transects to record cetaceans perhaps all the way to Canada’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. The Tully will tow an offshore acoustic array around-the-clock to record cryptic, deep-diving species such as sperm and beaked whales — including in bad weather when visual observations are difficult on board the ship.

“Everybody’s quite excited about what we’ll see,” Doniol-Valcroze said. “It’s a crap shoot. Some are rare and hard to see.”

It may be necessary to return next year to certain sites to gather more detailed information on specific species. “It’s a snapshot,” he said of this summer’s surveys, which will be repeated at least every eight years.

Cetacean population estimates have been done before in Canada’s Arctic and East Coast waters, but none before on the West Coast, except for killer whales. Research locally has tended to focus on movement, diet, feeding and identifying critical habitat. 

“It was never about counting humpback whales, fin whales or porpoises,” Doniol-Valcroze said. 

The U.S. is conducting similar surveys this year, which should provide a bigger picture of cetacean populations and their distribution.

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