Call it the humpback comeback.
A total of 396 individual humpback whales were documented in the Salish Sea in 2022, including 34 mothers with their first-year calves, according to the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS).
That’s the most ever documented in one year since records started, as reported by Tasli Shaw, project lead for Humpback Whales of the Salish Sea (HWSS), and advocates are thrilled.
“We are so fortunate to have a second chance with humpback whales,” said Jackie Hildering, whale researcher and education director at MERS.
“Their presence is a reminder that we can rapidly change our values and actions to not only benefit species, but whole ecosystems. Humpback whales fertilize the ocean, leading to more food, more oxygen production and more absorption of carbon dioxide.”
The HWSS, an ongoing photo identification project, documents humpbacks in waters surrounding Vancouver Island and tallies sightings from researchers, ecotourism captains, naturalists and citizen scientists.
“The Salish Sea is a place where many humpback whales have learned to find food and how best to capture it. There seems to be a public misconception that humpbacks simply migrate through this area,” said Shaw.
The species is still present in the winter off the coast of B.C., as some humpbacks have not begun migrating to the warm-water breeding grounds of Hawaii, Mexico or Central America, MERS explains.
For example, a humpback named Monarch, known to researchers as BCZ0180, has returned to the Salish Sea for 20 years in a row and is often still feeding in local waters throughout the colder months.
“We see the highest number of sightings in the fall, and it is the same whales year after year who we see socializing, feeding, and resting within the waters of the Salish Sea,” added Shaw.
The increase is something MERS calls remarkable, considering commercial whaling in B.C. ended just 55 years ago, and, in 2017, about 100 fewer humpbacks — 293 to be exact — were recorded in the Salish Sea.
“This happy news is being shared to highlight the importance of the collaborative approach to documenting humpback whales,” the society said, “and protecting them from anthropogenic threats such as entanglement in fishing gear and increasing shipping traffic.”
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Vessel strikes still a concern
MERS says greater vigilance is needed year-round since humpbacks are often oblivious to boats and fishing gear because, unlike toothed whales, they don’t have biosonar to identify and locate objects.
“They often stay in one area and surface in unpredictable patterns. They may also be sleeping or nursing just below the surface,” the society said in a release.
“It is difficult to know how many humpback whales die from vessel strikes and entanglement because dead whales often sink. This emphasizes the importance of the knowledge gained from investigating dead whales who wash ashore (conducting necropsies) and of the research to see how many survivors have scars from entanglement and/or vessel strikes.”
In mid-November, a whale found near the northeast tip of Haida Gwaii in Naikoon Provincial Park was the fourth humpback found dead on the B.C. coast in as many weeks. Vessel strikes are suspected in at least two of the deaths.
Earlier this month, researchers told CHEK News a paralyzed humpback named Moon swam to Hawaii from B.C. and was likely injured in a vessel strike.
“We recognized right away that something was seriously wrong,” said the CEO of the North Coast Cetacean Society, Janie Wray, who spotted the injury on Sept. 7.
“Her body from the dorsal down towards the tail was in this ‘S’ shape and we just assumed that she had been hit by a vessel, either at speed or maybe a very large vessel. We weren’t sure, but the injury was very apparent,” added Wray.
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Advocates like Lisa Spaven, a technician with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, are urging boaters to slow down, especially since the Salish Sea has “become the whale equivalent of a busy school zone,” she says.
“Our monthly surveys show that whales are present in all months throughout the region, making the Salish Sea an area of considerable year-round overlap between whales and both commercial and recreational vessel traffic and fishing,” added Spaven.
Anyone who spots a dead, entangled or injured marine mammal in B.C., or witnesses a violation of the Marine Mammal Regulations, is asked to call the DFO’s incident reporting line at 1-800-465-4336.
U.S. cities declare inherent rights for endangered orcas
Just south of Victoria, two U.S. cities have made efforts to protect Southern resident killer whales that swim in the Salish Sea.
David Faber, the mayor of Port Townsend, located just southeast of Victoria, signed a proclamation on Dec. 5 declaring the inherent right of orcas. A week later, the mayor of Gig Harbor did the same.
Those include “the right to life, autonomy, free and safe passage, adequate food supply from naturally occurring sources, and freedom from conditions causing physical, emotional, or mental harm,” reads the document.
Southern resident orcas, or killer whales, are endangered species in both Canada and the U.S.