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Valuing killer whales, Chinook salmon and the ecosystem services they provide to people in the Puget Sound Region

Participants of the 2013 Transboundary Workshop with Rob Williams, center-front and scientist, Erin Ashe, right-front.
Participants of the 2013 Transboundary Workshop with Rob Williams, center-front and scientist, Erin Ashe, right-front.

December 31, 2013

Rob Williams, former Canada Fulbright Chair 2009-2010, conducted the workshop, “Transboundary (Canada-US) Puget Sound/Salish Sea Region Workshop: Valuing Killer Whales, Chinook Salmon & the Ecosystem Services they Provide,” at the University of Washington, which brought together industry stakeholders to volunteer a day of their time to share commercially sensitive information about the economic value of their industries, and help academics at UW and UBC to develop ecological and economic models to strike a balance between economic growth and sustainable use of killer whales and wild salmon. Whalewatching, salmon fisheries, and the tourism sector are very important contributors to the economy in the transboundary (Canada-US) Puget Sound/Salish Sea region. Canada and the US share responsibility for conserving the critically endangered southern resident killer whale population. The workshop made an important contribution to wildlife conservation and sustainable development of fishing and tourism sectors for both Canada and the US.

It would be hard to find more iconic species in the Salish Sea than killer whales and their primary prey, Chinook salmon. These two species are ecologically important indicators of the health of the transboundary waters between Washington state and British Columbia. But the species are also tremendous contributors to the economies of the region. They support economically valuable industries, including fishing and whalewatching, and are major drivers of broader recreational and tourism activities to people living in the region. These economic and ecological systems are connected. The more salmon we have, the better off the whales are, but the more human activity in the region, the more underwater noise is produced and the harder it is for the whales to find fish. Currently, the southern resident killer whale population is listed as Endangered by both the US and Canada, and limited availability of Chinook salmon is a major threat to the whales’ recovery. With a grant from the Puget Sound Institute, Dr Rob Williams (our 2009-10 Canada-US Fulbright Research Chair) hosted an interdisciplinary workshop at the Jackson School to explore the social and economic aspects of killer whale conservation, sustainable ecotourism, and wise use of salmon in the form of recreational, commercial and tribal fisheries.

Rob’s co-investigators include Erin Ashe, a PhD student at the University of St Andrews, and Andres Cisneros and Professor Rashid Sumaila, who are fisheries economists at University of British Columbia. The workshop brought together representatives from the tourism and fishing sectors, economists, sociologists, salmon biologists and managers from NOAA. The aim of the project is to understand and quantify the services that killer whales and salmon provide to the economies of both Canada and the US. In the process of building economic and ecological models, the team plans to make their software available as free, open-source tools, so that researchers in other parts of the world can better quantify economic value of wildlife and benefits of conservation.

Rob noted that his tenure as Fulbright Chair in Canadian Studies was central the main impetus for this work. His 2009-10 work considered transboundary issues in marine conservation and management, using ocean noise and ecosystem-based fisheries management as case studies.

Dr. Rob Williams is a Canadian marine conservation biologist who conducts applied conservation research projects on a number of marine mammal populations around the world. 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. Although he works primarily in British Columbia, he has studied river dolphins in the Amazon, minke whales in the Antarctic, and blue whales in Patagonia. Most recently, he was a Marie Curie research fellow with the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrews, where he modelled the population-level effects of ocean noise on fin, humpback and killer whales. He was the 2009-10 Canada-US Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in Canadian Studies.

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