Canada is home to nearly 30 marine mammal species. The majority of these cetaceans (porpoises, dolphins, and whales), were historically supported by abundant and diverse fish prey living in largely undisturbed offshore and coastal habitats. Sadly, many of these iconic species – considered by scientists to be indicators of ecosystem health – are at risk as a result of historical harvesting, a legacy of industrial pollution, reductions in their prey, and underwater noise and disturbance.
Indicators of ecosystem health
The Cetacean Conservation Research Program studies the biology, ecology, and behavior of cetaceans through various projects helping us address and answer questions that illuminate both their susceptibility and their resilience to anthropogenic threats, and that contribute to the development and assessment of mitigation efforts.
At the top of the food chain, cetaceans are often keystone species, making them a good indicator of ecosystem health. Long term studies of cetaceans offer the unique opportunity to track individuals over time, which enables us to gain a deeper understanding of population health, social systems, and life history traits.
Southern Resident killer whale recovery
For more than a decade, Raincoast has been using science, public education, and the courts to protect Canada’s endangered population of salmon-eating killer whales. With their Chinook salmon stocks in serious decline and targeted by fisheries, and a noisy and polluted ocean, they face extinction under existing conditions.
This declining population of 73 animals (Fall 2022) has very low birth rates and premature deaths of adult whales. The birth of recent calves offers hope, but threats that impede their successful feeding and access to Chinook must be addressed for calves to survive and population recovery to occur. The good news is they can recover if these conditions are reversed. However, proposed cure-alls like more hatchery salmon and killing seals have little scientific basis.
To improve our understanding of the coastal acoustic environment and potential impacts of human-produced noise on marine species, our team and collaborators have been working on a new initiative called NoiseTracker. NoiseTracker is an effort to cement a partnership of existing hydrophone operators to monitor underwater noise along the BC coast and communicate findings to the public on a shared platform using standardized metrics.
Listening to whales
Cetaceans use sound for nearly every aspect of their lives: to communicate, maintain contact, attract mates, navigate, detect prey, and avoid predators. Not only is this fact fundamental in terms of evaluating the effects of underwater noise pollution on these marine mammals, but it is also a key consideration when designing methods to monitor their populations effectively. Our Cetacean Conservation Research Program studies various aspects of cetacean acoustics, informing both noise mitigation measures and population monitoring.
Beluga whales: a sound centered species in today’s noisy world
The beluga acoustic research project aims to deepen our understanding of beluga vocalizations and impacts of noise and disturbance on beluga communication and behavior. Our recent study showed that masking of the quiet calls of newborn belugas by noise can impair mother-calf contact. We work primarily in the St Lawrence River Estuary, Quebec, in close collaboration with the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) and the University of Quebec. Our studies involve the synchronization of underwater recordings and drone footage. This ability to pair simultaneous aerial imagery and underwater acoustic data is an innovative marriage of technologies that can shed light on beluga communication and behavior with an unprecedented level of detail. We have evaluated the potential impacts of using drones to study beluga whales and other cetaceans, and published a paper outlining recommendations to minimize disturbance.
Meet Lance Barrett-Lennard, Senior Research Scientist and Co-Director of Raincoast’s new Cetacean Research Program
Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard is a renowned cetacean researcher who served as a research scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada before starting as senior research scientist and director of the Marine…
Dr. Valeria Vergara is an experienced cetacean researcher that has participated in studies of humpback whales, Guiana dolphins, narwhals, and several killer whale projects in Alaska, British Columbia, Argentina, and…