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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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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For 25 years, Raincoast has been furthering biodiversity conservation in BC. Thanks to your generous donations, among many other accomplishments, we have been able to end commercial trophy hunting of large carnivores in over 38,000 square kilometers of the Great Bear Rainforest, begin acquiring forest land in order to protect threatened Coastal Douglas-fir ecosystems, aid recovery of endangered Southern Resident killer whales by restoring Chinook salmon habitat, and establish a university research lab dedicated to applied conservation science. Strong partnerships are integral to our success.
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