Salt Spring hosts DFO marine mammal training

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Visitors to Ganges Harbour on the afternoon of March 9 may have witnessed a large team of fisheries officers working to free a 450-kilogram black cetacean stranded on the foreshore near Beachside.

The team from Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s whale protection unit was successful in their efforts to insert a tarp under the animal, inflate side pontoons and then tow the whale back into the ocean for eventual release. It was an exciting conclusion to a difficult job — even though the whale in question was made of synthetic material and its smile was only painted on.

The whale protection unit officers were on Salt Spring for four days of training on a variety of marine mammal rescue responses. In addition to how to help in a stranding, they trained on the hydrophone network and practised on the water how to deter whales from visiting an area where an oil spill had taken place.

Officers also learned to take samples from a deceased Pacific white-sided dolphin (a real one, this time), before observing a post-mortem exam with biologist Steven Rafferty at a field station set up behind the Harbour House Hotel.

This hands-on part of their job education has been delayed for a year due to COVID-19, but a variety of factors made it important to proceed now with the correct safety measures in place.

“I’m pretty excited we can keep doing this,” said program coordinator Genevieve Cauffopé. “We’ve trained a lot of officers over the years, but this week we are focusing on our whale protection unit officers. They’re really the specialists in the region.”

Also overseeing the training was an officer who grew up on Salt Spring, Paul Cottrell, who is DFO’s marine mammal coordinator and disentanglement expert.

“We’re fortunate that with the Oceans Protection Plan we’ve been able to purchase some of this equipment,” Cottrell said with an eye toward the reflotation gear. “Of course if something happened, we want to be ready to go. It’s important to get out and experience as best you can what it would be like, so when you get that call and it’s high stress, and there’s things going on, you know what to do.”

Kirsty Walde, a senior compliance program officer and Oceans Protection Plan coordinator who also happened to have grown up on Salt Spring, explained the Whale Protection Unit was formed under the federal government’s commitment to protect the southern resident killer whales.

Officers are there to enforce compliance with the Fisheries Act, Species at Risk Act and Marine Mammal Regulations for protection of SRKW prey availability, critical habitat and freedom from disturbance, as well as responding to marine mammal incidents. The unit has offices based out of Victoria and Annacis Island, and has ongoing funding support that will continue beyond the five-year Oceans Protection Plan.

The Gulf Islands hosts two of the three interim sanctuary zones as identified under Transport Canada’s Interim Order SRKW management measures, located just off Saturna and Pender islands.

“With SRKW currently in British Columbia waters, increased potential for incidents with the upcoming boating and fishing season, and ongoing and future spill events, it is key that DFO ensures that front-line fishery officers are trained,” Walde said. She noted that on the day of the stranding exercise, J-pod members were confirmed to be nearby in Boundary Pass.

Another part of last week’s session was a day on the water learning how to help in the event of a whale entanglement.

“The focus is on safety training for the officers and others, as well as actually helping the marine mammals,” Cauffopé explained. “It’s very cool and super useful.”

Participants learned how to attach a satellite beacon to the fishing gear encumbering a whale so that Cottrell and his team can locate and free the animal later on, in a way that maximizes effective use of space and time.

It can take a day or so for the experts to reach a remote coastal site, and then even longer for ocean conditions to be safe enough to send the boats out. In that time an at-risk whale could have moved on from where it was first spotted. Training involves learning how to grapple the equipment onto any trailing gear safely and effectively, as well as how to operate the boat safely in the presence of a whale.

In addition to DFO staff, Cottrell’s team has given this same training to Parks Canada staff, non-governmental agencies and designated guardians in Indigenous communities.

“I lead the large whale entanglement rescues on the coast here, but of course it takes a team,” Cottrell said. “One of the key components is that it’s a huge coast, and often we’ll have whale entanglements in Bella Bella, Haida Gwaii or on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

“So if we get key areas with key people, and if we get a call about a humpback entangled off Tofino, we’ve got a team that’s trained. If we decided it’s a candidate for disentanglement, they’ll go put the stat tag on and I’ll get my kit together, get up there and join them and wait for the right weather, and hopefully help the whale.”

“This technology’s crazy — it’s changing everything,” Cottrell added. “If we can get to the whale, the chance we get to save it is really high. And that’s what I love. It’s the best part of my job.”

People who witness whales in trouble of any kind — from stranding to entanglement to harassment from boaters — are urged to call the Marine Mammal Incident Reporting hotline at 1-800-465-4336, or to send emails to DFO.ORR-ONS.MPO@DFO-MPO.GC.CA. Attaching photos or videos to emails, if possible, is extremely helpful for officers.

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