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Faculty of Environment

Marine Guardians and SFU partner up to track orcas on the move

October 19, 2023
Pictured: QENTOL, YEN Marine Biologist Shelly Selivanov, Assistant Professor for the School of Environmental Science Dr. Ruth Joy, QENTOL, YEN Senior Manager David Dick

A partnership between SFU’s School of Environmental Science and the QENTOL, YEN (W̱SÁNEĆ Marine Guardians) is playing a vital role in supporting research and conservation efforts for the Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW).

Known as the Humans and Algorithms Listening and Looking for Orcas (HALLO) project, a team of researchers led by professor Ruth Joy is developing statistical models to protect marine wildlife—and spent the past summer securing new data.

Their current model can predict when and where pods of the endangered SRKW are likely to move through the commercial shipping lanes that crisscross the Salish Sea—an effort to mitigate ship strikes between marine vessels and the 73 remaining members of the SRKW.

The QENTOL, YEN’s mission is to restore the W̱SÁNEĆ Nations’ relationship with the KELŁOLEMEĆEN—the SRKW pods also referred to as ‘relatives of the deep’—which make their home in the busy waters off the San Juan Islands and Saanich Peninsula, largely within the W̱SÁNEĆ Nations’ traditional territories.

Developed and led by senior manager David Dick, the QENTOL, YEN conduct baseline wildlife and habitat monitoring, and compliance monitoring, to ensure the boundaries of sanctuary zones are respected by passing marine traffic. They also have various cultural initiatives related to the KELŁOLEMEĆEN.

"Our collaboration with David and the QENTOL, YEN Marine Guardians reflects a shared commitment to enhancing the stewardship of Southern Resident killer whale habitat, paving the way for continued occupancy in our local seas and future population recovery of these charismatic whales," says Ruth Joy, a statistical ecologist and lecturer in SFU’s School of Environmental Science.

The QENTOL, YEN are allying with people and institutions actively working towards similar protection and stewardship goals for the KELŁOLEMEĆEN, enabling the collaboration with Joy and her team to evolve.

Research assistants working on the HALLO project include environmental science grads Lauren Laturnus and Jessiquence Tang, and masters students Olivia Murphy, Mikayla Young, and Rachel Fairfield Checko. They’ve  spent the past two summers in the Gulf Islands National Park at East Point, Saturna Island, identifying whales as they come in and out of Boundary Pass.

“Our work involves monitoring vessel presence in the Interim Sanctuary Zone, as well as around whales,” says Laturnus. “By sharing our sightings in real-time with the Marine Guardians, they can directly engage with the vessels and inform them of the sanctuary zone as well as the appropriate ways to safely boat around cetaceans, thus facilitating immediate and impactful change.”

In return, the HALLO project has benefited from local generational knowledge when consulting with the QENTOL, YEN on placing hydrophones in the region—and from their boat skills and knowledge of local marine waters for servicing and hydrophone maintainence through each season.

The hydrophone data will be analyzed and coded by student researchers to identify the unique pulsed communication calls and echolocation clicks made by the KELŁOLEMEĆEN. Sound clips will be used to train and validate the neural net algorithm that will operate in the real-time automated detection of whales.

Pictured: Recent EVSC alum Lauren Laturnus on East Point, Saturna Island, monitoring whale movement in Boundary Pass

HALLO will also benefit from the application of Indigenous science through the opportunistic sightings gathered in the QENTOL, YEN’s monitoring programs. The combined data helps give a clearer view of the patterns observed in KELŁOLEMEĆEN/SRKW movement through the territory.

These data will inform the forecast system being developed by HALLO, and with a movement model will allow for the prediction of whale movement in regions frequented by commercial ships.

As this partnership continues there are numerous ways it may grow, but Dick is hopeful the collaboration will demonstrate the value of Indigenous science more fully to the government and others, especially when making conservation decisions, showing that “like the experience we had on the water, and like you see today with the team that’s sharing in what we’re doing and understand...wanting to do something better for the KELŁOLEMEĆEN, the killer whales.”