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The important role public sightings play in conservation.

When it comes to Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW), no single organization has more data than the Center for Whale Research (CWR). For more than 40 years, we have maintained sighting records in the form of photographs and reports, not only from our own encounters but from the public and other researchers as well.

This type of long term consistent data on wild animals is extremely rare in the world of science, and extremely valuable. Long term studies, like ours, are able to track changes in ways that short term studies cannot. For example, the shift in the amount of time the SRKWs are spending in the core summer habitat area of the Salish Sea, would be merely anecdotal if not for the years and years of information we have about how the whales use this area.

Core summer habitat is defined by the NOAA Designated Critical Habitat in red

In 2013, when even the J pod whales were conspicuously absent from their core summer habitat for days and weeks at a time, we were able to confirm that there was an actual measurable change happening. It was that same year that we began to put a real effort into gathering as much sighting data from the public as we could. Not only were the whales were absent for the majority of that summer, the way they behave while they are here had already began to change. For us to do our job effectively, we have to photograph, or at the very least visually document, every individual in the area on a given encounter. This is fairly straightforward when the whales are traveling in a group. However, as many of you have long since noticed, the whales are spending more and more time spread out or in small groups, frequently in pod fragments. This means that getting an accurate census has become more difficult, costly and less time effective. At the same time the need for this detailed information is becoming more and more important as the number of whales shrinks to all-time lows.

A combination of public sightings and CWR encounters shows a downward trend in SRKW presence in the summer months over the last few years.

The goal in 2013 was to combine the CWR encounter data with public sighting data to create an “integrated sighting data base” with as much detail as possible on the whales present in the core summer habitat. Jane Cogan, already volunteering for the CWR, offered to take on the responsibility for this project. Sighting reports are very helpful for filling the emerging data gap. Because the SRKWs are changing the way they utilize and behave in the core summer habitat, more eyes are needed to document which whales are present on a given day.

The 40 plus years of data we have at the Center has given us an invaluable baseline for what we can consider “normal” behavior for the SRKW - of course the real "normal" would be measured before the captures, but sadly time travel is out of the budget!

Jokes aside, it is important to be documenting these changes so that we can compare with the baseline data and look for correlations. We can ask what else is going on that might be causing these changes. It should come as no surprise that decline Chinook salmon abundance is a key factor.

Coastal Chinook abundance and Southern Resident killer whale deaths. Colored lines represent different West Coast runs of Chinook salmon. The purple bars represent the number of SRKW deaths each year.

On the South side of the US/CA border, the importance of the Fraser River Chinook Salmon frequently gets left out of the conversation. Although, historically, it is the main source of food for the whales in the spring and summer. Whether it gets mentioned or not, the Fraser River Chinook salmon matter to these whales and Fraser River Chinook salmon abundance is on the decline. This decline in the spring runs parallels the decreasing SRKW presence in the April-May-June time frame. Other changes in attendance patterns also parallel Chinook salmon abundance trends.

The whales are not here because they have to go elsewhere looking for food.

This graph show the decline in Chinook catch per unit effort since 1988.

It seems so simple and obvious that increasing salmon abundance would benefit the whales, even if you consider all the other factors contributing to their decline. Unfortunately, simple and obvious are not good enough reasons for policy makers (imagine the world if they were)! This is why the integrated sighting data base is so important. It gives us a tool to show proof that the changes in salmon are directly correlated to the changes we see in the whales. Of course, our best hope for these whales is that they are finding Chinook somewhere, especially if we do not have enough salmon in our area to keep them healthy. However, coast-wide, the number and relative size of spring and summer Chinook runs is limited and also declining, and we must insist that increasing Fraser River abundance is a necessary component of the recovery plan.

Increasing Fraser River Chinook abundance to benefit the whales is a complicated, trans-boundary issue, but we have to do what we can, and we can’t do it alone. Shrinking federal budgets might mean fewer encounters for us in the future. The continued spread of the whales when they are here means more time, fuel and money.

This is where we ask for help.

One would think in the vast, yet close-knit network of researchers, naturalists, whale watchers and enthusiasts, gathering sighting data would be effortless. However, we have seen a drop of in sightings contributions. Hence the reason for this blog post and friendly reminder on the importance of this data. We realize that time is short, and that many of you who have your eyes on the water are busy people. But as we drop back down to 78 whales, the situation is becoming increasingly critical. Last but not least, you're sighting information has value and can make a difference.

Shore-based reports are extremely valuable, but the whales are not always visible from shore. Detailed sighting data from naturalists and Pacific Whale Watch

Association members have become a critical piece of the puzzle, especially in the most recent years. Additionally, compiling the data for the first integrated sighting data base would not have been possible without the Orca Network sighting archives for years prior to 2013 and without some critical additional data provided by other supporters of the project. For those of you who are already contributing or have in the past, we sincerely appreciate your efforts.

Please consider making you're sighting information available for this project. If now or in the future you provide sighting reports or photos to others (e.g., The Whale Museum or one of the BC sighting networks), please consider making a copy of the same information available for our project as well. In order to be an effective advocate for these whales we must work together. Anyone who wishes to be a regular contributor will have access to the reports generated from the data.

What you can do:

  • Please consider providing sighting reports with the following information to CWR:

Date, time, location, and the IDs of whales seen and/or family groups seen.

Providing sighting reports for Southern Residents would be the highest priority, but CWR is also collecting data on the presence of transient/Bigg’s killer whales.

  • Providing detailed sighting reports to Orca Network is also an option; CWR has access to this information.

  • If you are providing sighting reports and/or photos to a different organization, please consider making the same information available to CWR. As a general rule, unless sighting reports are provided either directly to CWR or to Orca Network, CWR does not have access to them.

  • If you are posting on social media or other web sites, please consider sharing the same information with CWR.

CWR is wholly committed to SRKW recovery efforts, and will work tirelessly to use the data to benefit the whales.

For those of you who do not live nearby and cannot participate by providing sighting information, there are still ways that you can help. Many of you reading this are likely CWR Members (Thank you!!), your support helps us facilitate projects like the integrated sighting database as well as to increase our time on the water. If you are not a member, please consider joining us or making a donation. Share this blog with your friends and family, and spread the word that the whales need our help.

Please email us if you are interested in contributing your sighting data:


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