Citizen Science Enables New Whale Protection Technologies

Depth Story 01 – Jessica Torode-Scott – Coordinator – BC Cetaceans Sightings Network

Text and Photography by Jason Murphy – Co-Editor-in-Chief and Creative Director

Jessica Torode-Scott fell in love with marine biology in general, and killer whales in particular, at an early age.

When she was small, her parents would take her to visit Vancouver Aquarium and she would draw pictures as a gift to Hyak–one of the orca living there at the time, pressing each drawing up against the glass for him to see. Family vacations were–and still are–in Desolation Sound, a famously beautiful part of the British Columbia (BC) coast and an area where whale sightings are common.

Jessica Torode-Scott

Jessica Torode-Scott

Meeting Hyak eye-to-eye, sensing the intelligence of one of nature’s most impressive creatures as he swam towards the glass to investigate made a big impression on her and inspired her to devote her life to marine biology and to protecting whales in the wild.

Now, as coordinator for the BC Cetaceans Sightings Network (BCCSN,) she oversees a citizen science data collection initiative focused on cetacean (whale, dolphin, porpoise) and sea turtle abundance, distribution and–now-protection with over 6200 active observers along the length of coastal British Columbia contributing to a database containing over 113,000 reports.

Jessica’s job is a dream come true for her. It means she gets to positively impact the environment for cetaceans every day. For government organizations, NGOs and industry groups doing conservation-based research the BCCSN represents a wealth of independent data for them to draw upon.

A Network of Understanding

The BCCSN has its roots in the early 1970s and the work of Dr. Michael Bigg. Bigg and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) had been using a visual ID system (identifying individual Killer Whales by their unique dorsal fin and “saddle patch” markings) in an attempt to understand orca population trends along the BC coast.

Inspired by a suggestion from then Vancouver Aquarium president, Dr. Murray Newman, Bigg decided to accelerate the process by advertising for citizen science volunteers via newspaper ads and radio broadcasts.

Over 17,000 questionnaires were distributed in that first survey and 550 were returned, establishing the first coastwide estimate of orca population at–you guessed it–550 (very accurate as it turns-out.). These days the initiative continues to expand and operates out of the Coastal Ocean Research Institute–Ocean Wise’s impressive ocean protection and research arm. The catalog of killer whales that Bigg began is still evolving and the network also records sea turtle sightings. Its an impressive achievement from humble beginnings.

So if you’ve ever struggled with how to get meaningful data on the abundance and location of marine mammals circulating along a coastline as long and complex as that of Western Canada, the answer, it turns out is to recruit, over a period of decades, a massively diverse range of people on the water and on the shoreline to help by providing marine mammal sighting information, using questionnaires and logbooks, and moving to mobile technology as it becomes available.

Every coastal community–from recreational boaters to lighthouse keepers–from container ship captains to pilots of aircraft who fly over the area–has someone in it who contributes to the BCCSN, either in real time via the Network’s WhaleReport app, or via an alternate method (logbooks, phone calls, emails, or online reports).

This has positioned the BCCSN to provide cetacean and sea turtle abundance and distribution data to anyone who finds it useful, including scientists conducting independent research or authoring environmental assessment reports.

Knowledge Underpins Outreach. Outreach Supports Action

It’s a classic citizen science model and very successful, but the BCCSN has and will continue to expand its offering based on the information provided by its network.

Outreach is a big part of Jessica’s job. Crews of vessels of every size can learn–either through documentation or via training sessions hosted by the BCCSN–how to navigate waters where whales are present while causing as little impact to the animals as possible.

The BCCSN Mariners Guide to Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises of Western Canada includes maps showing seasonal cetacean population densities–places to either avoid or use extra caution while traveling through.

The latest development in this direction is the Whale Report Alert System (WRAS) project -a new initiative that relays whale position information to the shipmasters and crew of large commercial vessels in real time so that they can take action to minimize their impact and likelihood of striking a whale. WRAS is only available to the operators of tugs, ferries, cruise ships, and cargo vessels; commercial whale watchers and recreational vessels do not have access. This is to prevent WRAS from being misused as a tool to seek out whales, activity which could serve to increase the risk of injury or harassment rather than reduce it.

Perhaps surprisingly, the impetus for WRAS came from the shipping industry itself. They approached the BCCSN as part of their search for technology that would allow them to avoid negative impacts on wildlife.

The BCCSN has looked into integrating their real-time data into the International Maritime Organization’s Automatic Identification System (AIS)–a widely adopted satellite-based vessel tracking system–to create a comprehensive whale avoidance technology that would track ships and animals simultaneously, but such a project would require significant support from the Coast Guard, and while they haven’t ruled that out for the future it’s not something they have been able to prioritize thus far.

The actual first implementation of WRAS uses a far simpler model. Real-time whale position data submitted by members of the public via the pre-existing Whale Report app is verified and then communicated to the crew of ships, tugs, and ferries automatically via text message or through the vessel operators’ operations staff. Operators and crew can use a mobile app to see the vessel’s relative location and proximity to the animals on a map, along with other relevant information such as species, the number of animals and the direction of travel.

While it would be comforting to see vessels moderate their speed and make course modifications for the benefit of the whales in real time–and useful from an enforcement perspective if vessels disregard whale information, many skippers have a mobile phone and downloading an app takes only a minute or two. A classic case of the easier, simpler solution providing early benefits. Ubiquity trumps specificity.

And the effectiveness of WRAS as a conservation tool can be quantified to some degree at least. Vessel course and speed information is logged along with the timing of each alert, so correlating these data points will show the degree to which vessels participating in the program respond to the information they are sent. Vessels that do not participate are not tracked, but according to Jessica, thanks to the industry’s enthusiasm for the project this will be relatively few. Not an enforcement tool in the strict sense then, but a method of getting an accurate picture of how vessel operators and crew respond to information regarding proximity to wildlife.

It’s important because modifications in boat speed have been shown to reduce incidents of whale strike and offer significant reductions in underwater engine noise.

In an experiment run by the Port of Vancouver in 2017, 70% of Vessels transiting through the Haro Strait participated by volunteering to slow their speed. The findings were significant: A decrease in speed resulted in a 40% reduction in engine noise, and a measured improvement to environmental factors that can inhibit killer whale feeding activity.

The population of fish-eating orca in the South Vancouver Island/Salish Sea area–known as the Southern Residents–are being hard hit by a multitude of factors. Pressures including declining fish stocks and, yes, vessel interference have cut their number down to just 74 individuals.

Some whale populations along the coast and offshore, including the mammal-eating eating killer whales are increasing , but Jessica is concerned that as BC’s human population continues to rise vessel pressure everywhere is only going to increase, giving Canada’s whales ever more trouble.

The move that BCCSN is making from focusing only on observation to also providing solutions for animal avoidance is significant. There are challenges though.

Animal avoidance requires real-time sighting data. The WhaleReport app has helped a lot with this. The app has become the BCCSN’s biggest source of data and much of that (although not all) is submitted real-time. Ironically this is one area where more boats in the water should help, as will further adoption of the app by those already out there.

Another, more difficult problem is that mobile phone coverage is far from complete in Canada’s remote areas, particularly for crews at sea. Citizen science works well without connectivity but the idea of using the data for animal avoidance breaks down when information is not submitted in real-time. Even if people are out there making the sightings and are motivated to report for vessel information purposes, it’s all for nothing if they can’t get online. There are promising new technologies that will provide a work-around in the short term however and that Jessica expects to become the system’s primary source of data in the future: WRAS is designed to work with infrared and acoustic detection and triangulation technologies as they become available.

It’s a testament to the elegance of the BCCSSN’s core concept that what began with newspaper ads and paper questionnaires has been able to expand and embrace mobile, internet and other technologies so readily. Our conversations with staff at Project AWARE have shown us how much data can be gathered in a relatively short time period if you have a ready-made network. BCCSSN has shown us how a network can grow over time, achieve longevity and evolve from collecting information to acting as part of an automated system for protection.

Jessica tells us that “Ultimately, visual whale detections will be only part of the WRAS framework, but at the moment this [... ] technique [human observation] is laying the groundwork.”

Ecotourism, Education, and Respect

It’s a testament to the size, diversity and commitment of the BCCSN volunteers that the data provided by the network is as complete and actionable as it is. Times are changing, but until now there has been no good substitute for eyes on the ground (or on deck, or in the air, as the case may be.)

I asked Jessica how she feels about increases in boat traffic due to tourism. Her response was nuanced; practical.

She says ecotourism operators provide an important service in helping more people become educated and emotionally invested in the health of the ocean and its largest animals.

Stressing education, she quotes Senegalese resource management expert Baba Dioum saying “We will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”

Ecotourism is also a great supplier of data to her network–they are out there every day, are motivated to help with monitoring and supply her with about 30% of the data that the BCCSN collects.

For Jessica, there is a clear middle-ground between destructive behavior and getting out of the water entirely, and it comes down to education. Education and respect for the environment. And ecotourism done well has an important role to play.

She also stresses that people don’t always need to be on the ocean to enjoy its wildlife. She cites Ocean Wise’s land based whale watching initiative and the Seattle based Whale Trail network of shoreline trails providing opportunities for sighting cetaceans from land–as examples of how programs for viewing sea life can be successful without ever starting a boat engine.

Jessica sees WRAS as a way to prove-out how citizen supported vessel avoidance systems can work. At this point there is good reason to think that it can, but the stakes are high–The crowded nature of BC’s coastal waters is having a devastating impact on the animals that call them home.

There’s a lot of heart in this enterprise. It speaks to just how many people can be inspired to help understand and protect large charismatic species, the goodwill that many have towards whales, and just how many ways there are to take action using citizen science.

It might be difficult to care about kelp for its own sake for instance. But nobody sane takes pleasure in the sight of an orca dying of starvation. Connecting the dots more clearly between the survival of big charismatic animals and the health of the myriad ecosystem components that support them could be a key educational strategy for a better future. If you care about orca then you have to care about salmon. If you care about salmon then you have to care about the forage fish they feed upon. This means that you must care about the plankton the forage fish eat and the nursery environments (kelp here, mangrove elsewhere to name but two,) of species up and down the food chain. If you care about whales, you have to care about all of it.

In her ideal world Jessica would like industry to work quickly with researchers to implement more technologies and protocols to drastically reduce vessel impact on the environment–everything from vessel slow-downs in critical habitat and animal avoidance systems to quieter, more environmentally sensitive and less intrusive boat propulsion technologies. Improvements so we can all sleep knowing that there are whales swimming unmolested in our waters, waters where respect defines our understanding of how we can experience the environment without ruining it.