Gitga'at First Nation

Gitga'at First Nation

March 14, 2017 10:50 ET

Whale Wave: Researchers Discover New Pattern of Humpback Whale Behavior on BC's North Coast

10-year study suggests local displacement by human impacts may have more consequences than previously thought

HARTLEY BAY, BRITISH COLUMBIA--(Marketwired - March 14, 2017) - A new study based on an unprecedented decade of local monitoring in Gitga'at First Nation territory, has revealed a previously undetected "wave" pattern of humpback whales seasonally using different habitats in large numbers as they navigate the Douglas Channel fjord system.

The "Whale Wave" was discovered by researchers from the Gitga'at First Nation, the North Coast Cetacean Society (NCCS), Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, and the NOAA-NMFS Southwest Fisheries Science Centre. The study was published in the Marine Ecology Progress Series, a top-tier marine science journal.

"This study shows just how intricate the relationship between humpback whales and their habitat is, and it raises important questions about their conservation," said Arnold Clifton, Chief Councillor and Hereditary Chief of the Gitga'at First Nation. "In light of the industrial pressures facing our territory, our Nation's reliance on the sea and the sensitivity and complexity of the area's ecology, our leadership's commitment to conservation and long-term local monitoring by our Gitga'at Guardians has never been more important or stronger."

Though annually persistent and specific in structure, the whale wave had gone unnoticed by typical marine mammal surveys, and was only revealed because of long-term, local monitoring and commitment of thousands of hours of survey time by the Gitga'at First Nation's Guardian Team and their partners NCCS.

"This wave likely results from humpback familiarizing themselves with this critical habitat over many years and developing specific behaviors, coordinated to the specific oceanography of this fjord system, that enable them to make the greatest use of its resources. This means local displacement by human impacts may have more consequences than previously supposed," said Eric Keen, a PhD candidate and the paper's lead author from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "We can't expect these whales to simply pick up and go somewhere else if industrial activities, such as shipping lanes, disrupt continuity of critical habitats like the Douglas Channel fjord system. Until thorough habitat-use studies are completed, irrevocable management decisions should be treated with caution."

In addition to revealing a pattern of whale behavior that has never been seen before, the study also suggests that the whale wave is being driven by needs other than food, potentially including physical and social habitat needs such as bathymetry and acoustic properties of the fjords for communication and singing, and companionship for the purpose of traveling within a group or mating.

"Our findings suggest humpback foraging needs within this fjord system are balanced against needs other than food and that the balance shifts through the year," said Janie Wray, a whale researcher with the North Coast Cetacean Society. "This behaviour may accommodate higher densities of humpbacks in the dwindling number of relatively undisturbed coastal habitats of the northeast Pacific, than would otherwise be possible. More research needs to be done to fully understand what this whale wave means and what its implications for whale conservation might be."

Media Materials

Photos of humpback whales (credit forwhales.org): http://forwhales.org/gallery?layout=item

Animated GIF of "Whale Wave" in the Kitimat Fjord System study area: http://bit.ly/2n5ATPU

Video B-Roll of humpback whales (credit Sam Rose Phillips): http://bit.ly/2n5z1GR

Gitga'at territory encompasses approximately 12,500 square kilometres of land and water in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. It includes most of Douglas Channel, which is the site of several proposed shipping routes linked to proposed fossil fuel exports from Kitimat.

Contact Information

  • For more information, or a copy of the study:
    Chris Picard
    Science Director, Gitga'at Lands and Marine Resources
    Gitga'at First Nation
    778-884-2402

    Janie Wray
    Lead Researcher, NCCS
    250-954-7609
    Janiewray.whales@gmail.com

    Eric Keen
    PhD Student and Lead Author
    Scripps Institution of Oceanography at
    the University of California
    321-626-5285