This week we saw some really uplifting news in the whale world. The US government announced that they were removing almost all of the world’s humpback whale populations from the endangered species list. To be precise NOAA Fisheries stated in a press release on September 6th that humpback whales in 9 of 14 newly identified distinct populations have recovered enough that they don’t warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act.

In essence this means that humpback whales in most  parts of the world have now recovered from the over exploitation of commercial whaling that ravaged their populations during the late 19th and 20th centuries. This recovery is the result of diligent conservation efforts, with the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling playing a major role. It is an ecological success story!

shutterstock_225821815The days of hunting whales for their oil and baleen are over ꟷhydrocarbons drilled from deep in the earth or ocean floor have replaced whales as our source of oil (and increasingly we are now able to tap into the earth’s oceans, rivers, and atmosphere for renewable sources of energy to replace hydrocarbons). This has allowed many whale species to replenish their dwindling populations. Here in the Pacific Northwest humpbacks have been returning to spend the summer feeding in the waters off British Columbia and Washington at an increasing rate. This summer alone humpback whales have become an almost common occurrence for the local whale watching community in the Salish Sea.


But the work is not over

However, 4 humpback whale populations remain endangered ꟷa stark reminder that there is both much to be done to recover these populations and much to be done to protect these whales from the threats of today. Today, the threats that humpback whales face are much harder to manage and protect whales from. The main threats that whales face are from entanglement in fishing gear and being hit by vessels (ship strike). There is a lot that we still don’t know in terms how many whales are suffering from entanglement and how many whales survive. There are similar data gaps for the impact of ship strikes. Understanding the level of impact on both an individual and the population is crucial if we want to see these remaining populations recover too.

Scientists are combining new monitoring tools with more and more sophisticated data analysis techniques in a bid to try and fill some of these data gaps. Examples of these tools include the use of aerial surveys -including the use of unmanned aerial systems to document scaring from entanglement; and animal borne GPS tags that provide scientists with data on a whales’ movement behaviour, allowing scientists to estimate the probability of whales being struck by a ship. Hydrophones ꟷunderwater mircophones are another key tool that scientists to study whales. At SMRU Consulting we use hydrophones to listen in on whales and collect data on both the whales’ calling behaviour and what their surrounding marine environment sounds like.


How are we playing a part

Two acoustic projects that we are currently working on will help to fill some of the data gaps for humpback whales that visit BC and Washington State waters. At Lime Kiln State Park on the west side of San Juan Island on the border of Washington State and British Columbia we are collecting data on the ambient noise levels of the Salish Sea and how these change over time. In fact, you can even take listen for yourself on our live hydrophone links

live hydrophone button

We are also studying the effects of shipping noise on the calling behaviour of humpback whales. This work is a collaborative effort with local non-profits, our sister companies in the UK, and is funded through the Port of Vancouver’s ECHO program.

Understanding and managing today’s threats will take the combined efforts of all those that use the oceans ꟷNon-profit organizations, the private sector, government and academia. Only with a combined collaborative effort will we really be able to help these whales overcome the challenges faced in today’s oceans and thrive as they once did.

Check out some of our acoustic related projects