Migrating north: The BCCSN is up the coast

Jan 27, 2014

By Caitlin Birdsall

In early December and I ventured north up the coast of British Columbia to Prince Rupert.  As someone who studies whale populations in B.C., this is not a normal migration. In fact, many whale species have left the area for the year and travelled south until next spring.

So, instead of heading north to find whales, I headed north to find people.  That is, people who live, work and play on the water of the north coast. People who can act as the eyes and ears of this wild area to help us better understand the whale populations within it. It’s these people who play an integral part in the BC Cetacean Sightings Network (BCCSN).

Of course, the BCCSN is not a new program.  It’s been in existence since 1999, when the Aquarium, in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, created a formal program to solicit, verify and archive thousands of cetacean (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) sightings each year.  In the 14 years since it started, the BCCSN has collected over 75,000 sightings from 4,000 observers.

The BCCSN now curates one of the largest cetacean databases on the coast – a data source provided to dozens of research, conservation and environmental assessment projects each year, including efforts focused on recovery planning and critical habitat identification.  Essentially, we use citizen scientists to better understand the distribution and occurrence of cetaceans. However, the northern reaches of our coastline have remained an area with little observer coverage and participation – we hope to change this with the new North Coast Initiative.

Our goal is to create a stronger community-based cetacean research program in the north that will allow for better long-term monitoring of an area that has had less intensive research than more southerly areas of the coast.  We hope that by providing outreach, education and training, we can engage locals in a way that the Sightings Network hasn’t been able to previously.  The north coast focus will be one more piece of the puzzle in the highly collaborative field of cetacean research and conservation in this province.

The north coast is a special area for cetaceans.  Hoards of humpbacks bubblenet cooperatively in areas like Work Channel, large porpoise aggregations can be found in inland waters, and killer whales take advantage of the plentiful salmon runs that use the Skeena and Nass Rivers early in the summer. I am excited hear from the people that live amongst these animals, and to take their experiences and turn them into valuable data.

Learning about the cetaceans in this area right now is particularly timely.  As an increase in industry and development on the north coast is being touted, it is especially important to increase the baseline knowledge of these animals and to create capacity for consistent long-term monitoring of cetacean abundance and habitat use.

So northwards I go, saying goodbye to my office in Vancouver, packing up my golden retriever and heading off on a 20 hour drive.  If you’re a north coaster – I hope to meet you soon.  On February 5th, we’ll be holding an Open House and Info Night at 7pm at our office in the Northwest Community College (Room 184)- all are welcome.   If you spot a whale, dolphin, porpoise (or even a sea turtle!), report it to www.wildwhales.org or send us an email at northcoast@vanaqua.org.

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Migrating north: The BCCSN is up the coast

C Birdsall- Vancouver Aquarium