How Sightings Are Used

Information about the distribution and abundance of species is the key to both understanding the status of the species (extinct, extirpated, endangered, threatened, at-risk or not at risk – are the COSEWIC categories), and whether the status of the population is improving, steady or declining.

Sightings sent in by Sighting Network observers contribute to an understanding of cetacean habitat use by helping to determine what areas on the coast are important habitats for the 18 species of cetacean and two species of sea turtles that these sightings record. These sightings data have been used by researchers studying specific cetacean and sea turtle species, governments to assess of species habitat use and establishing Marine Protected Areas, non-governmental organizations and industry to help mitigate underwater noise in areas of cetacean habitat. Sightings from Network Observers have led to the discovery of previously unidentified hot-spots, such as a population of Pacific white-sided dolphins that began to use the waters around Howe Sound in 2010 or to the discovery that in some years grey whales are utilizing Baynes Sound to feed on herring roe on their annual migration to the Bering Sea.

Each year we receive approximately  10 requests for sightings data. These requests are approved by Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, senior marine mammal scientist at the Vancouver Aquarium and Dr. John Ford, head of marine mammal stock assessment at DFO’s Pacific Biological Station. Requests are approved based on their scientific or conservation merit. The BCCSN will consider data requests for i) academic research on ecology, basic biology, habitat use or related subjects; ii) conservation assessment and planning; iii) species recovery planning including critical habitat determination; and iv) environmental impact assessment, evaluation and mitigation.

Having mariners that already spend their time on the water collecting sightings is an excellent way to monitor what is happening on the B.C. coast. However, the way sightings network data is collected, creates a puzzle that limits the usefulness of the data. We know where areas of high sightings concentrations are, but we don’t know whether high concentrations of sightings in these areas are due to more observers or to higher concentrations of cetaceans and sea turtles. In order to solve this puzzle, the sightings network has been working to provide a measure of sightings effort – to understand where network observers are looking for whales. In 2013, the BCCSN finished a project that realistically models observer effort along the BC coast to provide context to the data we have collected since 1999.  A paper was written and submitted to a scientific journal is currently (2013) in peer review.