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Center of Expertise in Marine Mammalogy

Scientific Research Report

Center of Expertise in Marine Mammalogy - Scientific Research Report, 2015-2017

Center of Expertise in Marine Mammalogy - Scientific Research Report, 2015-2017 (PDF, 2.14 MB)

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The Department of Fisheries and Oceans established the Centre of Expertise in Marine Mammalogy (CEMAM) in 2004 to provide the national expertise required to deliver peer-reviewed, evidence-based science advice and to promote collaboration among researchers across the country. This built upon the history of cooperation among marine mammal scientists that had developed over the years. Since then, CEMAM has increased from approximately 40 professionals to more than 60 people as a result of new investments in science and the government’s new Oceans Protection Plan. New professionals have joined the CEMAM team, building our expertise and bringing a healthy combination of new quantitative skills and enthusiasm to the group.

Early research on marine mammals in Canada focussed on gathering basic data on abundance, vital rates, diet, distribution, and stock delineation. These longer-term programs give insights as to how life-history parameters respond to density-dependence and food resource availability, allowing us to better predict how populations will respond to climate change, establishment of marine protected areas, and industrial impacts. For example, long-term data collected on harp seal, grey seal, and southern resident killer whale have allowed us to identify and understand major mechanisms that are driving population dynamics for these species. From these databases we have learned that harp seals are showing changes in growth rates and reductions in productivity related to a combination of high population densities and factors such as the timing of ice breakup, which in turn has a cascading effect on the abundance of capelin, a primary food resource for harp seals. Grey seal populations have also recovered significantly since the 1960s and similar density-dependent changes have been observed through reductions in juvenile survival. For southern resident killer whales, long-term studies have identified that Chinook salmon abundance remains a major driver in the dynamics of the population. At the same time, our research has expanded beyond the collection of basic data to development of new analytics to improve data analyses, and to more sophisticated studies of habitat selection, ocean noise and the impacts of underwater noise on marine mammals.

Since our last report, advances in technology have resulted in the appearance of new tools in the scientist’s toolbox. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) were successfully tested in Cumberland Sound, Nunavut to photograph belugas for the collection of life history data, in Atlantic Canada to estimate seal pup production, and to gather information on sea otters in British Columbia. Working with colleagues in Academia, the deployment of acoustic transmitters and receivers on both fish prey and their predators are helping us to gain new insight into potential prey interactions through participation in the Ocean Tracking Network program. Deployments of satellite transmitters equipped with accelerometers provide additional insights into foraging behaviour of marine mammals.

In addition to long-term studies using more traditional biological approaches, the field of acoustics has expanded our ability to monitor the presence of marine mammals within an area 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and is now providing insights into the occurrence of marine mammals in areas or at times of the year where traditional approaches such as aerial surveys have been difficult to undertake. Such areas include all three of Canada’s oceans, from nearshore to offshore sites. The development of automated call detection algorithms to identify the specific species vocalizations have sped up data processing and our ability to obtain information on distribution of marine mammals from acoustic datasets. Furthermore, the collection of acoustic data allows us to establish baseline noise levels in our oceans, measure how noise levels change with human activities, and better assess potential impacts of noise on marine mammal populations.

Logistical challenges and costs remain a major barrier to conducting research in the north. Often the most difficult challenge is the initial deployment of people, food and equipment. Once deployed, maintaining the field camp is relatively easy. Building on this principle, colleagues in Central and Arctic Region launched a nine week, major field camp in Tremblay Sound, Nunavut, where they were able to deploy satellite transmitters on narwhals to improve our understanding of narwhal stock structure and behaviour in the northern Baffin Island area. The key to the success of this program was due to collaborations with industry, non-governmental organizations, universities, and Inuit (the local knowledge holders). This allowed the project to be expanded into a multidisciplinary research program that included other components of the ecosystem including zooplankton, Arctic char, and Greenland sharks.

One of CEMAM’s strengths is its high level of inter-regional collaboration. In part, this is necessary because marine mammals often straddle regional boundaries, but collaborations often extend further through our survey and research programs, and in response to unusual events. In 2017, 12 North Atlantic Right whale carcasses were detected in the southern Gulf of St Lawrence. New researchers from the Gulf Region joined together with other researchers in CEMAM and coordinated the response to conduct necropsies. Support from the entire Atlantic zone was required to complete the necropsies and obtain biological samples. The Department also developed a surveillance program involving support from all Atlantic regions to coordinate activities and provide staff on aircraft throughout the summer and fall months to search for right whales. There are several additional instances where there has been extensive collaboration among regions, internationally, and with Academia such as the High Arctic Cetacean survey (HACS) conducted in 2013, the North Atlantic International Sighting Survey (NAISS) in 2016, and the Northwest Atlantic harp seal survey and Hudson Bay-Davis Strait walrus surveys in 2017. In 2018, the first ever complete survey of the Pacific waters off the British Columbia coast, involving a combination of ship and aerial platforms, will be undertaken.

In 2017, the Society for Marine Mammalogy held its 22nd biennial conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This is the fourth time that the meeting has been held in Canada and the first time in Atlantic Canada. Attended by over 1700 people, the conference was an amazing success and we extend our congratulations to our co-chair from the Maritime Region, Hilary Moors-Murphy, and other members of CEMAM who were part of the conference and scientific committees for an extremely ambitious event.

In this, our fourth report, we have highlighted only a small sample of the wide range of activities undertaken by Department of Fisheries and Oceans marine mammal scientists across the country. We hope you enjoy and learn a little about the fascinating and useful research being carried out within DFO!

Mike Hammill Director, CEMAM Maurice Lamontagne Institute Mont Joli-QC

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