Updated marine mammal distribution and abundance estimates for British Columbia

Distribution and abundance estimates from Raincoast's five-year marine mammal survey in BC's coastal waters.

Best, B.D., C.H. Fox, R. Williams, P.N. Halpin and P.C. Paquet. 2015. Updated marine mammal distribution and abundance estimates in British Columbia. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management, 15: 9-26


Information relating to the distribution and abundance of species is critical for effective conservation and management. For many species, including cetacean species of conservation concern, abundance estimates are lacking, out of date and/or highly uncertain. Systematic, line-transect marine mammal surveys were conducted in British Columbia’s (BC) coastal waters over multiple years and seasons (summer 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, and spring/autumn 2007). In total, 10,057 km of transects were surveyed in an 83,547 km2 study area. Abundance estimates were calculated using two different methods: Conventional Distance Sampling (CDS) and Density Surface Modelling (DSM). CDS generates a single density estimate for each stratum, whereas DSM explicitly models spatial variation and offers potential for greater precision by incorporating environmental predictors.

Although DSM yields a more relevant product for the purposes of marine spatial planning, CDS has proven to be useful in cases where there are fewer observations available for seasonal and inter-annual comparison, particularly for the scarcely observed elephant seal. The summer abundance estimates (with lower and upper 95% confidence intervals; all DSM method unless otherwise stated), assuming certain trackline detection (underestimates true population size) were: harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) 8,091 (4,885–13,401); Dall’s porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli) 5,303 (4,638–6,064); Pacific white-sided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) 22,160 (16,522–29,721); humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) 1,092 (993–1,200); fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) 329 (274–395); killer whale (all ecotypes; Orcinus orca), 371 (222–621); common minke whale (B. acutorostrata) 522 (295–927); harbour seal (total; Phoca vitulina) 24,916 (19,666–31,569); Steller sea lion (total; Eumetopias jubatus) 4,037 (1,100–14,815); and northern elephant seal (CDS method; Mirounga angustirostris) 65 (35–121).

Abundance estimates are provided on a stratum-specific basis with additional estimates provided for Steller sea lions and harbour seals that were ‘hauled out’ and ‘in water’. This analysis updates previous estimates by including additional years of effort, providing greater spatial precision with the DSM method over CDS, novel reporting for spring and autumn seasons (rather than summer alone), and providing new abundance estimates for Steller sea lion and northern elephant seal. In addition to providing a baseline of marine mammal abundance and distribution, against which future changes can be compared, this information offers the opportunity to assess the risks posed to marine mammals by existing and emerging threats, such as fisheries bycatch, ship strikes, and increased oil spill and ocean noise issues associated with increases of container ship and oil tanker traffic in British Columbia’s continental shelf waters.

Download the full paper (PDF).

Author affiliations

  1. National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, University of California, 735 State St. Suite 300, Santa Barbara, CA, 93101, USA.
  2. Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, NC, 27708, USA.
  3. Raincoast Conservation Foundation, PO Box 2429, Sidney, BC, V8L 3Y3, Canada.
  4. Department of Geography, University of Victoria, PO Box 1700 STN CSC, Victoria, BC, V8W 2Y2, Canada.
  5. Sea Mammal Research Unit, Scottish Oceans Institute, University of St Andrews, St Andrews Fife, KY16 8LB Scotland, UK.
  6. Oceans Initiative, Pearse Island, BC, V0N 1A0, Canada.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.