Innovative new research advances marine conservation in BC’s coastal waters

Years of Raincoast surveying marine mammals combined with new mapping techniques provides new insight into areas for potential conservation priority in the waters adjacent to the Great Bear Rainforest.

Aerial view of a humbpack whale.

Aerial view of a humpback whale off the coast of BC. Photo by Caroline Fox.

The study, “Quantifying marine mammal hotspots in British Columbia, Canada,” first authored by MSc graduate Gillian Harvey at Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the University of Victoria, along with Raincoast scientists and other collaborators was just published in the scientific journal Ecosphere.

Representing a major contribution to marine mammal conservation and management efforts in coastal BC, we identified multiple areas of the BC coast that are intensively used by nine marine mammal species, including at risk fin, humpback, and killer whales. These areas, referred to as hotspots, have higher numbers of species and host greater densities of marine mammals and represent potential priority locations for conservation efforts.

Canada has committed to protecting 10% of our coastal waters, but little more than 1% are designated as protected areas.  Tweet This!

Study co-author, Dr. Paul Paquet (Raincoast Senior Scientist) explains that “ocean conditions are dynamic, and favourable habitats for marine mammals change over time. Our study will help inform decision makers and regulators as to the current distribution of whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, some of which are endangered. This information is essential for effectively protecting the habitats critical for survival of these species.”

For the majority of species we surveyed, there was little to no baseline information regarding their distributions and densities – meaning the where and how many of marine mammal species – in the study area. Yet this information is fundamental to their persistence; many of these species are already listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), and we routinely make decisions that affect these species in the relative absence of quality, up to date information. Representing a substantial knowledge gap, with decisions being made in the relative absence of information, Raincoast set out to generate baseline information for marine mammals in BC’s coastal waters.

Spatial mapping innovation and detailed data collection

The project undertaken by Raincoast was massive. It took five years, thousands of kilometres of line-transect surveys, many thousands of human hours of field work, the collective expertise of scientists at multiple institutions, and substantial, multi-year funding support. In addition to developing predictions of marine mammal densities and distributions, we applied spatial techniques for identifying marine mammal hotspots. Scientists can read our paper here. For everyone else, here’s a way of understanding what we did.

First we collected marine mammal sightings by ship, while travelling along defined transect lines that criss-crossed our study area. In volatile waters, and calm seas, in spring, summer, and fall, our surveys were epic. We emerged as salty sea-folk, with wealth of information regarding the marine wildlife that inhabit the wild BC coast.

A map of the study region, and transects, on the coast of BC, Canada

Figure 1: Maps illustrating (A) study region that is indicated in dark gray with passage and on-effort survey transects (2004–2008) and (B) key oceanographic regions.

Second, we mapped species-specific distributions and densities along the transect lines. Third, we built models to predict the occurrence of species over the entire study area. And lastly, we relied on spatial approaches to delineate marine mammal hotspots, meaning areas that support high animal densities and elevated numbers of species. For marine mammals, these areas are likely priority areas for conservation, and warrant additional attention.

Three illustrations comparing definitions of spatial contiguity, or spatial neighbourhood.

Figure 2: Illustration of two different ways to define a spatial neighborhood: (1) queen contiguity defined as first order (lag 1) and second order (lag 2) and (2) distance-based radius (range value from semivariogram).

Interestingly, our findings corroborate and further refine many of the findings of the ecologically and biologically significant marine areas (EBSAs) identified by expert opinion.1

What it means for conservation

The result of our work is that now we have research, including detailed maps and identified hotspots that can be critical to conservation efforts on the BC coast.

Of the nine species we examined, five are listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). For all, information regarding their distributions on the BC coast are outstanding. In order to protect these species, knowledge of their distributions and densities in coastal ecosystems is fundamental. It’s the basis of many conservation efforts, and although our study provides this crucial baseline information, care should be taken to strive for continuously updating our knowledge of dynamic coastal ecosystems.

Maps of the study region showing hotspots of nine marine mammals.

Figure 4: Continuous density surfaces generated from species-specific generalized additive models. Density is defined as the number of individuals per km2 and displayed on a hexagon grid (each hexagon is 13.86 km2). Abbreviations include Dall’s porpoise (DP), fin whale (FW), harbor porpoise (HP), harbor seal (HS), humpback whale (HW), killer whale (KW), common minke whale (MW), Pacific white-sided dolphin (PW), and Steller sea lion (SSL).

Importantly, we’ve made the data publicly available. We strongly believe that open access data underpins open, transparent science and in turn, fosters stronger, more effective conservation efforts. Still relatively unusual in BC, open access data sharing is increasingly becoming the norm around the world.

Conservation commitments: Aichi Biodiversity Targets

Currently ~1% of Canadian coastal waters are designated as marine protected areas (MPAs).

However, having pledged to meet the internationally agreed upon Aichi Biodiversity Targets, of which Target 11 obliges Canada to protect 10% of coastal waters by 2020, Canada has a very long way to go, in a very short period of time.

There are also concerns that these decisions are being based on insufficient and/or out of date information.

“In 2010, Canada agreed to marine conservation targets established under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity to conserve 10 percent of coastal and marine areas through effectively managed networks of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures by 2020. This is commonly referred to as Aichi Target 11. This commitment was reconfirmed in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development under Goal 14.” – Fisheries and Oceans Canada

At present, rapid review and identification of potential priority areas for protection are underway. Key to those efforts is accurate, up-to-date information regarding wildlife, including information regarding the distributions and densities of marine mammals in Canada’s coastal waters. At the forefront for marine mammals is information relating to their distributions and densities, including our newly released, open access information.

Looking back, looking forward

Our survey information, the simple how many and where of marine mammals is straightforward, baseline knowledge. More complicated is how this information is weighed as part of the decision-making on this coast. And even then, a major caveat is that this information represents mere snap-shots in time; surveys like these need to be continuously updated, a task that given the logistical and financial constraints, remains an ongoing challenge.

You can support our research and protect the coast by becoming a donor.

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Caroline Fox

Caroline Fox, PhD

Dr. Fox is a Killam Postdoctoral Fellow at Dalhousie University and a Raincoast research scientist. She also teaches undergraduate courses at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, on Vancouver Island’s west coast. Her book, At Sea with the Marine Birds of the Raincoast, was published by Rocky Mountain Books in 2016, and details her time spent surveying marine wildlife in BC’s coastal waters.

  1. See Clarke and Jamieson 2006 (PDF), “Identification of Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas in the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area: Phase I – Identification of Important Areas” and also Clarke and Jamieson 2006 Final Report (PDF), “Identification of Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas in the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area: Phase II – Final Report”

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