Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan announces a new marine mammal survey at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, B.C. (Hugo Wong/News Staff)

Summer-long marine survey off B.C. coast the largest of its kind

Scientists to learn more about little-known whales

This summer, the federal government is conducting what it says is the largest marine mammal survey ever in Canadian Pacific waters. From July 3 until Sept. 6, scientists on two Canadian Coast Guard ships will travel up and down the coast, using microphones and high-powered binoculars to count and locate species at risk.

In a speech at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan announced the $1.3 million expedition, and said it was to learn about the population, distribution, and abundance of marine mammals like whales, porpoises and sea turtles.

“I was a little surprised that this hasn’t been done before,” said Sajjan. “It’s not just about the money, it’s about putting the resources in the right place and it’s the government sending a signal to our researchers and to Canadians that research matters.”

Linda Nichol, research biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said visual line transect surveys are done “fairly regularly,” but scientists typically only get a two-week window each year. This is the first time where they will have extensive coverage of all B.C. waters.

“It’s going to give us a much bigger picture of where blue whales are, fin whales, humpbacks, even some of the offshore killer whale species,” said Nichol.

The survey will be conducted on two ships. The CCGS John P. Tully will cover the off-shore Canadian waters, out to the 200 nautical mile limit, which includes the west coasts of Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii and the western portion of the Dixon Entrance. Overlapping in time, another survey on the CCGS Tanu will tackle the internal waters, including the eastern Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound, the Johnstone Strait, Strait of Georgia, and into Juan de Fuca.

Nichol said the survey will provide population estimates and more information about their habitats, particularly for mammals under the Species At Risk Act. Nichol also said a seabird biologist from Environment Canada will also be aboard to do bird surveys at the same time.

According to a media release, the study coincides with a similar survey of American marine mammals by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Misty Macduffee, Wild Salmon Program Director for Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said the survey was a good opportunity to build on Raincoast surveys started in 2004.

“If we can get a better understanding of the numbers and distributions of some of these at-risk whales, that would be great.”

Macduffee said there is less knowledge about baleen whales (fin whales, blue whales, Sei whales, etc.) as opposed to toothed whales (like killer whales and dolphins), so the survey will fill a knowledge gap.

Macduffee said “an ideal outcome” of the survey would be greater protection for these mammals using the data collected.

“With some of these baleen whales, [protection] looks like quality of life, including sound, vessel traffic, ship strikes, underwater noise, and food availability.”

Last year, the federal government announced increased following distances for all whales (from 100 to 200 metres), though they specifically targeted southern resident killer whales (SRKWs). Macduffee was glad of the change, but disappointed that it was not enacted sooner. She said Raincoast had been asking for that following distance since 2002.

“In the ensuing period of time, NOAA…have now come out and said 200 metres likely isn’t enough and it probably needs to be something like 400 metres.”

A Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat report will be published detailed the findings of the survey.

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