Pacific WildLife Foundation Projects

Pacific WildLife has been conducting independent research of marine animals and their ecosystems since 1981. Our conclusions and advice are based on the results of rigorous, objective scientific research.

Three Waters

The Three Waters project is about establishing cultural ties to nature in the Salish Sea. The premise is that a culture rooted in nature will sustain the resource, the livelihoods, and the celebrations as an imperative. PWLF is assisting in the production of the film Three Waters and the public events. Visit the web site and see the trailer. Read the OnBoard magazine story.

Sea Lion Entanglement

In 2005, Associate Wendy Szaniszlo noticed sea lions on the west coast of Vancouver Island entangled in marine debris and fishing gear. Her subsequent analysis using her data and those of Brian Gisborne (Juan de Fuca Express), Parks Canada and Strawberry Isle Research Society, indicated 408 entanglements between 2006-2011.
The sheer number and severity of the entanglements led to discussions with Dr. Martin Haulena, staff veterinarian at the Vancouver Aquarium and subsequent rescue of two sea lions on the first successful trial. You can read Dr Haulena’s Vancouver Aquarium blog and watch the rescue.

Tracing the Lineage of Gray Whales

About 200 gray whales known as the Southern Feeding Group spend the summer in bays along the shore of British Columbia and Washington. PWLF Director Jim Darling and his colleagues discovered that the Southern Feeding Group is genetically different from the rest of the eastern Pacific herd. This discovery raised the awareness of the importance of the small number of gray whales in the recovery of this species, including the photographs we have taken of gray whales in Boundary Bay near Vancouver since 2003. The results have important implications on how the recovery of the gray whale populations is managed.

In 2013, PWLF Director Jim Darling along with the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation and geneticists, ecologists and archaeologists will be developing a project to investigate the whale, ecological and cultural history prior to European contact through the recovery and analysis of a cache of ancient whalebones – the remains of 1000s of years of Nuu Chah Nulth whaling culture. Changes in our coastal ecosystem over centuries or millennia may be recorded in these bones.

Recovery of the Humpback Whale

In the 1980s the PWLF (then West Coast Whale Research) undertook pioneering research of humpback whales on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Now we are using those data to document their recovery along the east and west coasts of Vancouver Island, and the Strait of Georgia. Identification of individual whales allows us to understand how whales use the waters of the Pacific. Humpback whales can be identified by markings on the undersides of their tail flukes. By regularly ‘sampling’ areas using photographs of whale’s tail flukes is the basis by which estimates of population size and definition are drawn. Over time a picture emerges how individuals use an area, how long they are present, their migratory destinations, birth interval and age of sexual maturity.

Humpback whale photo-identification sampling occurs annually in Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Canada, both through dedicated surveys by Dr. Jim Darling of PWLF, other researchers and contributions from whale watching operations in the region. All photo-identifications, in conjunction with ID collections from throughout the Pacific are assembled regularly in catalogues and further our understanding of the abundance and behavior of humpbacks whales. An estimated 20,000 humpbacks now occur in the North Pacific of which about 200-400 reside in summer in our Southern Vancouver Island study area.

Long-term data collected since 1995 by PWLF Director Jim Darling have provided an insight into the rate of recovery of the whales and linked the breeding sites in Mexico, Hawaii and Japan to the summer feeding grounds along Vancouver Island. The data show that 107 of the 241 individual whales were seen in two or more years, most quite recently. Prior to 2001, most (97%) of the sightings were of new whales to the region compared to 60% by 2007. The recovery of the humpback took over three decades to begin and it will likely require many years before the recovery is complete. This information is critical to development of meaningful management and conservation policies. Our partners include Remote Passages, Ocean Outfitters and Jamie’s Whaling Station. For more information on humpback whales click here and to learn more about this project or contribute, click here.

Many humpback whales that spend the summer along the north Pacific coast swim to Hawaii for the winter where they are thought to mate and give birth. Some whales sing several meters below the water surface. PWLF Director Jim Darling has been researching the singing behaviour of humpbacks with Whale Trust in Hawaii for many years. PWLF has recently begun to assist Dr. Darling in this project.

Important Cetacean Area

The Important Cetacean Area (ICA) program is a first for the world. The project developed by Pacific WildLife in collaboration with cetacean biologists identified a network of important places for cetaceans along British Columbia and southeast Alaska. This project is led by Jim Darling and Rob Butler of PWLF.

Marine Mammal Symposium

The Pacific WildLife Foundation is returning to its roots by becoming a sponsor of the annual Marine Mammal Symposium. The event held each autumn at the University of British Columbia is a forum for researchers, students, whale watching companies and anyone interested in the latest findings about marine mammals. PWLF predecessor, West Coast Whale Research Foundation was one of the founding partners in the symposium two decades ago. The symposium chair is PWLF Fellow Andrew Trites.

The Migratory Shorebird Project

The migration of shorebirds across the western hemisphere is one of nature’s greatest spectacles. The Pacific Coast of North America is a major migratory route for millions of shorebirds that spend the winter in South America, Central America, Mexico and western North America. Their survival is dependent on sandy beaches, bays, wetlands, mangroves and farmlands. This ambitious 10-year, multi-partner research project will help guide shorebird conservation in the Americas. PWLF President Rob Butler and Associate Pete Davidson are on the Steering Committee of this project.

Tracking Seaducks

The west coast of North America is the winter quarters for many seaducks that nest in North America. Most of the world’s Barrow’s goldeneye spend the winter there feeding on barnacles, mussels and other marine invertebrates. They leave in spring to fly to freshwater ponds in the interior of British Columbia where they nest in holes in trees. Research by PWLF Director Dan Esler and Associate Sean Boyd has uncovered the migration routes, the molting sites, and the time of year they move to and from the winter areas. The results have been used in public hearings of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal for British Columbia. This research is sponsored by the Seaduck Joint Venture.

Oil Spill Recovery

Although the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred more than two decades ago, scientists continue to evaluate long-term effects of the spill on the ecosystem of Prince William Sound, Alaska. One of those scientists is PWLF Director Dan Esler, who has studied population recovery of sea ducks from the spill since 1994. The work to date has shown that the harlequin duck and Barrow’s goldeneye – two sea ducks that winter along the coast where they eat benthic invertebrates – are particularly vulnerable to chronic effects of the spill. Dr. Esler showed that these seaducks continued to be exposed to residual oil found in intertidal sediments on some beaches through 2009. The PWLF is involved in continuing this work, through funding from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council. This work continues an unprecedented level of monitoring following a major spill, and will lead to a fuller understanding of how ecosystems recover and the timeframe over which it occurs. It has most recently been used in public hearings of the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal for British Columbia.

Mapping British Columbia’s Birds

The aim of the atlas project is to map the distribution and abundance of breeding birds throughout the province between 2008 and 2012. With the help of over a thousand volunteers, the field work is now complete and we have begun to write the accounts for each species. The results will form the foundation for government conservation policy, as well as environmental assessments, endangered species protection, climate change effects, and academic research for years to come. PWLF was one of the partner organizations of this important project.

Salish Sea Marine Bird and Mammal Atlas

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The waters of the northern Salish Sea (a.k.a. Strait of Georgia, British Columbia) are important for endangered and threatened species of marine mammals and internationally significant populations of birds. It is also an important transportation route and the region is home to several million people. The Salish Sea Marine Bird & Mammal Atlas is systematically mapping the year round distribution of marine mammals and birds.

This year, we completed Vancouver Harbour on Burrard Inlet, an Important Bird Area, and one of the most photographed shorelines in the world. Next up will be Howe Sound. This project is led by PWLF President Rob Butler, with assistance from Director Rod MacVicar and Associate Peter Davidson.

Farms and Waterfowl

How land is used can have a big effect on waterfowl. We are collecting data to understand whether waterfowl avoid certain types of land use and how their interaction with land use patterns impacts the amount of suitable habitat. This three-year project ending this year is led by PWLF Vice President Ron Ydenberg and is part of a PhD dissertation for Simon Fraser University student and PWLF Associate Holly Middleton.

Some Recent Achievements
  • Launched the Important Cetacean Area program, a world first;
  • Discovered ancient whale bones dating over a millennium ago;
  • Discovered summer gray whales were genetically distinct from the North Pacific herd;
  • Award winning video Eagle among the Swarm;
  • Discovered that human activity is central to how waterfowl use agricultural lands;
  • Discovered that some nesting eagles can lend protection to nesting herons;
  • Uncovered the migration routes of a seaduck, the Barrows Goldeneye.
  • Over 10 recent scientific expeditions along the BC coast;
  • Supported science conferences, BC Breeding Bird Atlas, Vancouver’s Bird Friendly Strategy, and International Migratory Shorebird Project