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Marine Conservation is focus for 2009-2010 Canada-U.S. Fulbright Visiting Chair

Rob Williams 2011
From front, 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 Center; Martin Krkosek, SAFS; and Erin Ashe, University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

December 31, 2010

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 Canada- U.S. Fulbright 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 Canada-U.S. Fulbright 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.