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Annual Meeting of the National Marine Mammal Peer Review Committee (NMMPRC)

National Peer Review - National Capital Region

October 7-11, 2013
St. John’s, NL

Chairperson: Don Bowen


The National Marine Mammal Peer Review Committee (NMMPRC) holds an annual meeting to conduct scientific peer-review of marine mammal issues. This meeting provides the opportunity for collaborative review of scientific results by marine mammal experts from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and from other (non-DFO) organizations.  Following NMMPRC review and approval, scientific results are used to provide sound scientific advice for the management and conservation of marine mammals in Canada. When time permits, this annual meeting is also an opportunity to review ongoing research projects and provide feedback or guidance to the scientists involved.


This year, the papers to be reviewed will include topics pertaining to St. Lawrence beluga population status updates, Nunavik beluga harvest advice, bowhead genetics, harp seal population assessment and harvest advice, and grey seal harvest advice (see below for individual topics).

Expected Publications


1. Disturbance of beluga whales by marine traffic south of Ile Rouge, Quebec

Context: An area of intense maritime traffic, the St. Lawrence is also a concentration area for several marine mammal species. This combination ensures that maritime traffic involves certain risks and potentially adverse impacts on marine mammals in the area. Parks Canada Agency (PCA) and the province of Quebec have implemented the Saguenay-Saint-Laurent Marine National Parc to protect marine mammals in this area. DFO has also a proposed marine protected area in this area with the same purpose. PCA and DFO conclude that additional measures should be implemented in this area in order to reduce risks and potential impacts on marine mammals.

In this context and in the context of the integrated management of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, DFO and PCA have established a multidisciplinary working group on maritime traffic and the protection of marine mammals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (G2T3M). This working group is composed of the main players in the maritime industry, government departments with responsibility for shipping, and experts in the field of marine mammals and in the simulation of ship movements. The group's mandate is to identify possible solutions to reduce the risks to marine mammals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, while allowing shipping activities and without compromising security. The G2T3M agreed that it would focus initially its efforts to identify ways to reduce the risk of collisions between ships and whales.

The Working Group wants to establish a voluntary speed reduction between the mouth of the Saguenay to Pointe-Boisvert. This voluntary action would lead to a decrease in the area of exposure of whales to shipping vessels by 6 to 31%, and a decreased risk of whale mortality in case of collisions with vessels by 22 to 65%. However, the establishment of this speed reduction zone would lead to a possible increase in the number of vessels using the southern of île Rouge as an alternate route.  Thus, the request of the Working Group and DFO-Oceans is to determine whether the increase in maritime traffic tonnage in the area south of Red Island is harmful to beluga (in terms of noise and disturbance) and to assess the extent of this risk.

The maritime industry is in favor of voluntary measures to reduce speed and wants measures to be quickly implemented.  Pending the outcome of the advice, it was agreed with the shipping industry that a temporary measure not involving an increase in maritime traffic south of Ile Rouge would be put forward to test the approach. The results of the advice will be taken into account in a cost/benefit analysis to assess the need to put into action the voluntary measure of speed reduction.

Objectives: To provide an assessment of the magnitude of the risk for beluga associated with increased maritime traffic of south of Ile Rouge in the St. Lawrence Estuary. 

Expected Publications:

2. Status of St. Lawrence Estuary beluga whales

Context: The St. Lawrence beluga population is listed as Threatened under the Species at Risk Act and a recovery plan is in place. The last review of the population status (2007) concluded that the population over the period from 1998-2007 was stable.  However, in recent years there has been an increase in the number of strandings among young-of-the-year and an apparent increase in perinatal mortalities. This increase as well as change in the age/sex structure of the animals stranded suggests that the population status may have changed; if this is true, then additional protection may be warranted and other relevant Departments should be consulted to contribute to the recovery of St Lawrence beluga, which is the most southerly population of beluga whales in the world.

Objectives:  To provide an update of the status of the St. Lawrence beluga population.  In particular, what is the information on current population size and trends, as well as an analysis of factors that are affecting the population trend, including recruitment levels, sources of mortality, trends in contaminant loads and their potential impact on mortality and fecundity?

Expected Publications:

3. Harp seal pup production survey, population estimates, and harvest advice

Context: Harp seals, Pagophilus groenlandicus, are the most abundant pinniped in the northwest Atlantic. The Canadian and Greenland hunt for Northwest Atlantic harp seals is the largest marine mammal harvest in the world. Since 2003, the Canadian commercial harp seal harvest has been managed under an Objective-Based Fisheries Management (OBFM) approach which incorporates the principle of the Precautionary Approach. Under this approach, precautionary reference levels are identified and are associated with pre-agreed management actions that are to be enacted if the population is estimated to decline further (Research Document 2003/067). Under OBFM, the management objective is to set harvests that will ensure an 80% probability (L20) that the population will remain above the precautionary reference level (N70). The limit reference level, for this population, also known as a conservation reference level has been set at N30. In evaluating the impacts of different harvest levels on the population, reported harvests by Canadian and Greenland hunters, losses due to animals struck but not landed or reported, bycatch in fishing gear, changes in reproductive rates, and unusual mortality due to poor ice conditions are taken into account.

Objectives: In 2012, a new pup-production survey of harp seals was conducted.  The objective of this peer-review is to assess the new population estimates and provide advice to DFO Ecosystems and Fisheries Management (EFM) on the impact of proposed harvest levels. Specifically, EFM has requested advice to evaluate the sustainability of the following scenarios for the next 5 years (2014-2018) with an 80% confidence of remaining in the “healthy” zone:

Expected Publications:

4. Grey seal harvest advice

Context: There is a small commercial hunt for grey seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and along the Eastern Shore.  Grey seals are occasionally a nuisance to commercial fisheries and some are killed under the authority of Nuisance Seal Licences. They are an important host for the seal/cod worm (Pseudoterranova decipiens), which also infect many groundfish species, and must be removed during processing. Grey seals are also considered by industry to be affecting the recovery of some depleted fish stocks, and to damage fishing gear. The status of the population was recently assessed in 2010.

Grey seals are managed under the Objective Based Fisheries Management (OBFM) approach for Atlantic seals which was implemented in 2003. Under this approach, populations are classified as ‘Data Rich’ or ‘Data Poor’ depending on certain data criteria. As of 2007, grey seals were considered to be ‘Data Rich’.

Under the current OBFM, the management objective is to set harvests that will ensure an 80% probability (L20) that the population will remain above the Precautionary Reference Point (PRP; N70; 70% of the maximum observed population). The Limit Reference Point (LRP), for this population, also known as a “conservation reference level” has been set at N30 (30% of the maximum observed population).

Objectives:  To evaluate the following scenarios for the next five years (2014-2018) with an 80% confidence of remaining in the healthy zone:

Expected Publications:

5. Eastern Canada/West Greenland (ECWG) Bowhead Whale: Evidence of stock structure

Context: The Eastern Canada/West Greenland (ECWG) bowhead whale population is a key fishery for DFO’s Central and Arctic Region.  DFO has moved toward a Sustainable Fisheries Framework for key fisheries that addresses ecosystems factors and precautionary considerations, in support of the departmental direction toward ecosystem-based (fisheries) management. The draft Integrated Fishery Management Plan (IFMP) for ECWG bowhead whales will incorporate DFO Science advice prior to being submitted for the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board’s (NWMB) decision.

DFO Science has collected a series of biopsy samples from ECWG bowhead whales. Their analysis may provide insight into stock structuring. If there is evidence for stock structuring and kinship it may need to be considered when determining population abundance and when making management decisions. 

Objectives:  To evaluate evidence of stock structure/kinship resulting from genetics analysis of the cumulative series of biopsy samples from ECWG bowhead whales in Foxe Basin and Cumberland Sound. To inform discussions about the potential for using these analyses/results and to determine what if any advice related to this analysis should be considered in the IFMP for ECWG bowhead whales in Canada.

Expected Publications:

6. Eastern Canada/West Greenland (ECWG) Bowhead Whale: Genetic Mark/Recapture

Context: The Eastern Canada/West Greenland (ECWG) bowhead whale population is a key fishery for DFO’s Central and Arctic Region.  DFO has moved toward a Sustainable Fisheries Framework for key fisheries that addresses ecosystems factors and precautionary considerations, in support of the departmental direction toward ecosystem-based (fisheries) management.

Regional Fisheries Management and Science sectors at DFO have jointly developed a multi-year science and management plan that includes the evaluation of alternative methods to estimate population abundance. Among these is the genetic mark-recapture of individual bowhead whales from genetic analysis of biopsy samples obtained during the multi-year sampling program. This research is part of a longer term plan to evaluate the distribution and movement patterns of bowhead whales to determine the types of animals that return to certain areas and why they do so.

Objectives:  To evaluate:

  1. the proportion of ECWG bowhead whales that have been recaptured in the multi-year collection of biopsy samples obtained from bowhead whales in Foxe Basin and Cumberland Sound;

  2. the genetic recapture frequency within and between locations, and if any bowheads been recaptured more than once; and

  3. to inform future discussions about the likelihood of reliably estimating ECWG bowhead whale abundance, using genetic-mark recapture methods.

Expected Publications:

7. Impacts of a flexible Total Allowable Take system for the Nunavik Marine Region on beluga conservation

Context: In 2011, the Nunavik Marine Region Wildlife Board established a total allowable take (TAT) for beluga in Nunavik. This TAT was to be effective for a three-year period, which expires at the end of the current harvesting season in 2013. Discussions on a new multi-year management plan will begin in the coming months and the Nunavik Marine Region Wildlife Board (NMRWB) intends to consider all possible options during these talks. Of particular interest is identifying a way forward that makes communities accountable to themselves in the event that overharvesting occurs in any given season. Currently, communities that respect their allocations feel “penalized” for doing so when hunting is closed, due to overharvest by other communities, before their allocated TAT is harvested. One scenario that will be explored further is whether the creation of a flexible TAT system can help to ensure that all communities are able to hunt their own allocations. The present request seeks to identify the potential impacts that such a system could have on beluga conservation efforts in the Nunavik Marine Region.

Before the NMRWB gives full consideration to the flexible TAT option, we must first consider whether such a system would increase the probability of population decline for Eastern Hudson Bay (EHB) beluga compared to current practices.

DFO recently reported that, with results from the 2011 survey included, the model indicates that removal of 60 EHB whales per year has a 50% probability of causing the stock to decline (Research Document 2012/168). This suggests that 180 whales could be harvested over a 3-year period, with similar results.

Objectives:  To evaluate:

  1. whether it is possible to use existing population models for EHB beluga, or variations thereof, to determine sustainable harvest levels and acceptable year-to-year variation of these levels; and

  2. how disproportionate harvesting (between years) would impact EHB beluga (e.g. Year 1 = 60, Year 2= 75, Year 3 = 45), while taking into account variables such as the sex and age of hunted whales.

The advice should be representative of the array of possible carry-over scenarios for a three-year period. Knowing the probability of EHB population decline under each of these scenarios will be useful for management purposes. The NMRWB must also consider whether there is a level of harvest that, if exceeded in any given year, poses a clear threat to the conservation of beluga (e.g. what if all 180 were harvested in a single year?).

Expected Publications:



Participation to CSAS peer review meetings is by invitation only.

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