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2009–10 Fulbright Canada Chair, Rob Williams

May 31, 2010

Dr Rob Williams is a researcher in UBC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit who conducts applied conservation research projects on a number of marine mammal populations around the world. He completed his PhD at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, with an emphasis on cost-effective cetacean research projects, such as small-boat or platform-of-opportunity surveys. His MSc work (on behavioural responses of killer whales to whalewatching boats) was conducted with MMRU in 1999. His main geographic areas of interest are the coastal waters of BC and the Southern Ocean.

Rob’s work addresses two broad themes: estimating wildlife abundance and distribution; and assessing impacts of human activities on behaviour and energetics of marine mammals. Prior to re-joining MMRU in 2007, Rob and his colleagues designed (Thomas, Williams and Sandilands 2007) and conducted (Williams and Thomas 2007) systematic surveys to estimate the number of cetaceans found in BC’s Inside Passage waters. Since then, he has initiated a number of studies to use these data to conduct quantitative assessments of the risk to marine mammal populations of anthropogenic activities, such as bycatch in commercial fisheries, ship strikes, and ingestion of and entanglement in floating marine debris. In 2008, he and his colleagues started a partnership with Cornell University to measure ambient (anthropogenic) noise in BC coastal waters.

He has been a member of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission since 2001. Rob reviews for a number of scientific journals, and serves on the editorial boards of Journal of Zoology and Animal Conservation.

News from Fulbright

Marine Conservation is Focus for 2009-2010 Fulbright Canada Visiting Chair

While migrating from California to Alaska, whales transit a number of local, regional, national and international jurisdictions, and the laws in these locations affect the way we manage and protect whales and their habitat. Dr. Rob Williams, 2009-10 Fulbright Canada Visiting Research Chair, will spend six months at University of Washington (UW), writing about Canadian and U.S. research and policy regarding marine mammal conservation.

Williams is a natural scientist from the Marine Mammal Research Unit at University of British Columbia (UBC), who earned his PhD from University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He will be working with scientists, policy analysts and environmental lawyers to explore transboundary (Canada-U.S.) issues in marine conservation. For 15 years, Williams has conducted conservationminded research on whales, with foundation funding, and has been a member of the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee for 10 years. While at UW, he will examine case studies on anthropogenic ocean noise and nutritional requirements of killer whales. Canadian and U.S. legislation requires us to protect critical habitat of threatened species, but countries manage human activities in whale habitat in different ways.

Whale habitat must contain sufficient prey to meet animals’ nutritional needs. This is a key component of ecosystem based fishery management. Resident killer whales of British Columbia and Washington State feed primarily on Chinook salmon. As Canada and the United States adopt policies that take an ecosystem approach to managing salmon fisheries, one step is to estimate how much salmon is needed to maintain and recover vulnerable populations of killer whales, which could serve as icons of ecosystem-based fishery management.

In December, Williams hosted an interdisciplinary workshop at UW, involving physiologists from UBC and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and fisheries and ecological modelers from UW’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. Together, the team integrated datasets from SeaWorld, government and independent scientists to estimate energetic requirements of these top predators. Their results have wide-reaching policy implications, but could feed immediately into recovery plans of agencies on both sides of the border.

Chronic ocean noise is another factor degrading whale habitat. Oceans are noisy, with ambient noise levels in some locations doubling every decade for the last 40 years. This trend will affect whales, which rely on sound to communicate. While military sonar makes headlines, a more insidious problem is chronic ocean noise from global shipping activities. Underwater noise can mask whale communication, resulting in acoustic habitat loss that is to whales what clear cut logging of rainforest is to coastal grizzly bears. The key difference, of course, is that marine habitat quality improves immediately when noise is reduced. Williams is hosting a symposium at UW in early 2010 to bring together acousticians, marine conservation biologists and policy analysts from across Canada and the United States to discuss acoustic masking. The acoustic ecology symposium builds on a two-year field study he conducted with Cornell University; participants will model the extent to which whale calls are masked by shipping noise, and make recommendations for mitigation and for best policies.

Williams looks forward to working with faculty and students across UW, and sharing his knowledge of marine wildlife and conservation. “Canada and the United States, each in its way, have progressive policies to protect whales and dolphins. The Fulbright provides an unparalleled opportunity to conduct research to evaluate lessons learned about how best to protect critical habitat of highly mobile and migratory species.”

The Fulbright Canada Chair was established in 2006 by an agreement between the UW Vice Provost for International Education and the Foundation for Educational Exchange between Canada and the United States. The Chair is sponsored by Global Affairs, Social Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Graduate Fund for Excellence and Innovation, and the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.

Continuing Impacts of the 2009-10 Fulbright Canada Chair

Dr Rob Williams, 2009–10 Fulbright Canada Chair, published a thought-provoking piece that was profiled on the cover of the June 2011 issue of the prestigious scientific journal, Conservation Biology. Dr Williams is a Canadian marine conservation biologist who spent his fellowship at UW exploring the linkages among statistics, conservation biology and marine policy. One collaboration he built during his fellowship was with the School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences, where he published a paper on transboundary (Canada-US) stock assessment of salmon sharks with Professor Vince Gallucci ( In his latest publication, he collaborated with Assistant Professor Trevor Branch on a novel method to assess the conservation status of blue whales in Chilean Patagonia. Although blue whales are the largest animals on Earth, commercial whaling brought their numbers to exceptionally low levels, and their rarity makes it difficult statistically to estimate their abundance. Williams and Branch worked with statisticians, field biologists and ecological modellers from around the world to develop new spatial modeling methods to estimate abundance of blue whales off the coast of Chile. Their analyses showed that that Chilean blue whales are slowly but surely recovering from intensive hunting in the early 1900s, and offers some new mathematical tools for biologists working on low-cost studies of critically endangered species around the world. A copy of his article is available on the ConBio website:

The Fulbright Chair is sponsored by the Office of Global Affairs, Social Sciences in the College Arts and Sciences, the Graduate Fund for Excellence and Innovation in the Graduate School, and the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.

Scholarly Activities at the UW

Lecture, “Boats and Killer Whales in Johnstone and Haro Straits,” Marine Naturalists’ Gear Down Workshop, by Rob Williams 2009-10 Fulbright Canada Chair. Dr Rob Williams presented his research on marine conservation issues in the Pacific Northwest. The presentation was part of an educational training program for members of the Salish Sea Association of Marine Naturalists. Co-sponsors: Salish Sea Association of Marine Naturalists, Fulbright Canada Program, 06 November 2009.

Discussant, “Marine Conservation in the Pacific Northwest,” by Dr. Rob Williams, 2009-2010 Fulbright Canada Visiting Chair. Dr Williams discussed his work on transboundary issues and marine conservation including killer whales, wild salmon and shipping noise. The event brought together Jackson School alumni, Canadian Studies FLAS Fellows, and UW graduate students who engaged in discussion regarding transboundary environmental management from a variety of perspectives. Pub Club is designed to build community and discussion regarding current international issues, 10 November 2009. Co-sponsors: UW Jackson School Career Services / Alumni Relations

Facilitator, Killer Whale Energetics Research Workshop, facilitated by Dr. Rob Williams, 2009-10 Fulbright Canada Chair. Six scientists met to estimate the nutritional requirements of killer whales, in order to better understand their role in marine ecosystems and to inform salmon fishery management plans to promote killer whale conservation. Scientists included facilitator, Rob Williams; David Rosen, Marine Mammal Research Unit, University of British Columbia; Trevor Branch, UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (SAFS); Dawn Noren, Northwest Fisheries Science Centre; Martin Krkosek, UW SAFS; and, Erin Ashe, Sea Mammal Research Unit, University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Co-sponsors: Fulbright Canada Program, 08 December 2009.

Lecture, “Marine Conservation in the Pacific Northwest: Whales, Salmon, and Sound,” by Dr. Rob Williams, 2009-2010 Fulbright Canada Visiting Chair. Dr. Rob Williams, 2009-10 Canada-US Fulbright Visiting Research Chair, discussed his research on two transboundary issues in marine conservation: evaluating the effects of ocean noise on whales; and estimating the amount of salmon required to support resident killer whale populations. Co-sponsors: JSIS NRCs, and the Canadian Consulate General in Seattle, 3 March 2010.
Lecture Recording

Keynote and discussant, The 5th Annual Canadian Studies Center Graduate Student Symposium, “The Promise and Politics of the Salish Sea: Exploring Transboundary Issues.” Co-chaired by Barbara Bennett, Marine Affairs, 2009-10 FLAS Fellow and Joyce LeCompte-Mastenbrook, Anthropology, 2009-10 FLAS Fellow. Seven affiliated graduate students of the Center presented their cross-border research on marine affairs, social work, history and anthropology all including the role of the transboundary region, the Salish Sea. Fulbright Canada Chair, Dr Rob Williams, provided the keynote and feedback on student research, 29 March 2010.

Publications Submitted During Fulbright

ROB WILLIAMS, SHARON L. HEDLEY, TREVOR A. BRANCH, MARK B. BRAVINGTON, ALEXANDRE N. ZERBINI, & KEN P. FINDLAY. Submitted. “Chilean Blue Whales as a Case Study to Illustrate Methods to Estimate Abundance and Evaluate Conservation Status of Rare Species.”
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ROB WILLIAMS, MARTIN KRKOSEK, ERIN ASHE, TREVOR A. BRANCH, STEVE CLARK, PHILIP S. HAMMOND, ERICH HOYT, DAWN P. NOREN, RAVID ROSEN, & ARLISS WNSHIP. Submitted. “Competing Conservation Objectives for Predators and Prey: Estimating Killer Whale Prey Requirements for Chinook Salmon.”
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ROB WILLIAMS, SHARON HEDLEY, TREVOR A. BRANCH, MARK BRAVINGTON, ALEXANDRE N. ZERBINI, & KEN FINDLAY. Submitted. “Estimating abundance and evaluating conservation status of a rare species: Chilean blue whales.”

ROB WILLIAMS, THOMAS A. OKEY, S. SCOTT WALLACE, & VINCENT F. GALLUCCI. 2010. “Shark aggregation in British Columbia coastal waters.” Marine Ecology Progress Series.
Download paper as a PDF

ROB WILLIAMS, KRISTIN KASCHNER, & ERIN ASHE. 2010. “Large-scale spatial patterns in cetacean density in the northeast Pacific.” Report to Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society to inform marine spatial planning for IUCN High-seas Marine Protected Areas Program.

ROB WILLIAMS, PATRICK O’HARA, & ERIN ASHE. Submitted. “Marine mammals and marine debris in coastal waters of British Columbia, Canada.”

ROB WILLIAMS, ERIN ASHE, TREVOR A. BRANCH, STEVE CLARK, PHIL HAMMOND, ERICH HOYT, MARTIN KRKOSEK, DAWN NOREN, DAVID ROSEN, & ARLISS WINSHIP. In review. “Endangered killer whales and endangered salmon: conflicting objectives between conservation and fisheries.”

Fulbright Canada Visiting Chair Final Report

by Rob Williams

Above: Rob Williams (right), 2009–2010 Fulbright Canada Chair with colleague Scott Veirs, President, Beam Reach marine Science and Sustainability Program, Friday Harbor Laboratories.

Rob Williams is the 2009–2010 Fulbright Canada Chair. Dr. Williams is a natural scientist who came to the UW from the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia. His research explores trans-boundary issues in marine mammal conservation and management. He will join St. Andrews University, Scotland, as a Marie Curie International Fellow this fall.

Whales, dolphins and porpoises are important components of the northeast Pacific ecosystem; these animals are valued in Canada and the United States and protected by legislation in both countries. The two countries have similar conservation goals, but achieve their respective management objectives in different ways. My Fulbright Canada Visiting Research Chair position offered an extraordinary opportunity to continue my original research, while exploring the similarities and differences in Canadian and American approaches to studying and protecting whales. This has allowed me to interact with a diverse group of social and natural scientists.

Social scientists in the Jackson School of International Studies (especially my host, Canadian Studies) offered insight into place based studies and the human dimension of environmental issues. My colleagues in the School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences brought skills with population modeling and food webs to our collaboration, so that we could base our recommendations about killer whale prey requirements on good, quantitative science. My research on ocean noise is being done in partnership with Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program, but it was great to get a local perspective on ocean noise issues from acousticians with the Beam Reach program in the School of Oceanography and Friday Harbor Laboratories. Colleagues in the Center for Conservation Biology have been receptive to integrating our ocean noise research into their ongoing work on stress hormone responses of killer whales to human disturbance. Those in the School of Marine Affairs offered helpful advice on policy and governance that could be applied to all of these projects; on prey requirements of killer whales; and on implementing regulations to reduce ocean noise.

The Fulbright Canada was a catalyst for some great partnerships that I hope to maintain during my two years in St. Andrews and build upon on my return to the Pacific Northwest. I am inspired by this interdisciplinary work, and we have only begun to scratch the surface on this theme.

The Fulbright Canada Chair is sponsored by the Office of Global Affairs, Social Sciences in the College Arts and Sciences, the Graduate Fund for Excellence and Innovation in the Graduate School, and the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.

Contact Information for Rob Williams