Harbour seals rest on log booms at Flavelle Mill in Port Moody. With recent announcements the mill will be getting rid of the log booms, Dr. David Rosen sees an opportunity to study how the disappearance of this highly-frequented refuge for the seals will alter their behaviour in Burrard Inlet. (Photo supplied by David Rosen)

Harbour seals rest on log booms at Flavelle Mill in Port Moody. With recent announcements the mill will be getting rid of the log booms, Dr. David Rosen sees an opportunity to study how the disappearance of this highly-frequented refuge for the seals will alter their behaviour in Burrard Inlet. (Photo supplied by David Rosen)

What’s going on with marine mammals in Vancouver waterways?

UBC researcher asks why they’re returning, and what role we’re playing

When one door closes another door opens, and the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly closed a lot of doors this year.

Dr. David Rosen, a marine mammal researcher and assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Fisheries and Oceans, should be spending his time with animals at the Vancouver Aquarium, or delving into lab research somewhere else, but when the pandemic forced travel restrictions and cut into funding and resources, it forced him to see opportunities in his own back yard, with the hopes of answering some neglected questions of what role our cities play in the behaviour of marine mammals, and why it appears so many are returning to Vancouver waterways.

“Researchers tend to think about going to exotic locations and isolated areas, and can be sort of blind to local opportunities. Thinking about it I realized that [Burrard Inlet] has fantastic research opportunities,” Rosen said.

“Vancouver is a really interesting place because we love our nature, but we also love our development, so we’re getting a couple studies off the ground looking at what that urbanization means to our local marine mammal populations.”

Burrard Inlet is largely neglected scientifically but provides a curious avenue of research by comparing the two arms of the inlet. They each have the historic capacity to host an equal array of sea life, due to their geographical proximity, but one heads east to Port Moody past highly developed areas, and the other turns north into undeveloped territory in Indian Arm.

READ MORE: Abundance of one salmon species affects all others, B.C. study suggests

Rosen also plans to look closely at the increase number of harbour seals, the emergence of fur seals and California sea lions, and increased sightings of transient killer whales and dolphins in Vancouver waterways, surprising new behaviour as the metro area undergoes behavioral changes of its own during the pandemic.

“We think this is new, but the question is, ‘who was paying attention to this before the pandemic?’ But things like transient killer whales, the public always notices that,” Rosen said.

Harbour seals is especially important, as the animals were once hunted to critically low numbers to protect commercial fisheries. As debates heat up over their reemergence, during the worst salmon returns on record, Rosen said its important to establish the human impacts on the animals while the opportunity exists.

A reemergence of a “whole suite” of marine mammals have also been observed in Burrard Inlet prior to the closure of a UBC field station last year, but the resources and time wasn’t available to probe the reasons why the animals were returning.

It’s too early for Rosen to anticipate any conclusions or possible implications to his research. Right now he only wants to know what is happening, and why.

“You can’t make management decisions if you don’t know what’s out there,” Rosen said.

From a conservation perspective, he added British Columbians are acutely aware of the major marine issues at sea, but there’s too little known about our marine life in this context, in relation to the cities, pollution and marine traffic.

Rosen is hoping to find research funding in the industrial sector in the area, which he said has regularly proven its readiness to adapt for the betterment of marine mammals.

Maybe those efforts are paying off for the sea life. Maybe changing ocean temperatures, acidity and food supply are forcing behavioural changes, or maybe its the growing number of salmon hatcheries attracting more mammals to the Inlet.

“There’s lots of questions and lots of opportunity for improving our knowledge,” Rosen said.

“No doubt, the biggest challenge for the marine ecosystem is climate change, but it’s very difficult for people to get their head around that, to think they can do anything to help. So in some ways, finding local issues is a great way to make people aware of the human impact on the environment.”

READ MORE: Fed offers $2.3 million for plastics-based scientific research

Ocean Protection

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Island Health chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick receives a first dose of Pfizer vaccine, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
COVID-19: Vancouver Island in a January spike while B.C. cases decrease

Island’s top doc Dr. Stanwick breaks down the Island’s rising numbers

A downed power line has sparked a brush fire along Yellow Point Road south of Nanaimo. (Cole Schisler/Black Press)
Downed hydro line sparks brush fire in Yellow Point

North Oyster firefighters and B.C. Hydro on scene along Yellow Point Road

People skate on a lake in a city park in Montreal, Sunday, January 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
The end of hugs: How COVID-19 has changed daily life a year after Canada’s 1st case

Today marks the one year anniversary of COVID-19 landing in Canada

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Employers might be able to require COVID-19 vaccination from employees: B.C. lawyer

‘An employer must make the case’ using expert science, explains lawyer David Mardiros

Heavy flows of water pooled on Davis Road after a lead to a fire hydrant burst on Thursday Jan. 21. (Jim Tredwell photo)
Fire hydrant connection burst at Davis Road and Battie Drive

Crews worked well into the night on Thursday Jan. 21 to staunch the flow of water

Dr. Penny Ballem, a former deputy health minister, discusses her role in leading B.C.’s COVID-19 vaccination program, at the B.C. legislature, Jan. 22, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C. holds steady with 407 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday

14 deaths, no new outbreaks in the health care system

B.C. Premier John Horgan listens during a postelection news conference in Vancouver on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
30% of B.C. recovery benefit applications held up in manual review

The province says 150 staff have been reassigned to help with manually reviewing applications

Adam Dergazarian, bottom center, pays his respect for Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, in front of a mural painted by artist Louie Sloe Palsino, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Kobe Bryant’s presence remains strong a year after his death

Tuesday marks the grim anniversary of the crash that took their lives

Surrey RCMP are investigating after a pedestrian was struck and killed at 183 Street and Highway 10 Friday night. (File photo)
The Brucejack mine is 65 km north of Stewart in northwestern B.C. (Pretivm Photo)
B.C. mine executives see bright gleam in post-COVID future

Low carbon drives demand for copper, steelmaking coal

In this Dec. 18, 2020 photo, pipes to be used for the Keystone XL pipeline are stored in a field near Dorchester, Neb.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chris Machian /Omaha World-Herald via AP
Canadians divided over Keystone pipeline, despite U.S. president’s permit pullback

Two-thirds of Canadians think Biden’s decision was a “bad thing” for Alberta

Cowichan Tribes chief Squtxulenhuw (William Seymour) confirmed the first death in the First Nations community from COVID-19. (File photo)
Cowichan Tribes confirms first death from COVID-19

Shelter-in-place order has been extended to Feb. 5

A woman wearing a protective face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 walks past a mural in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
5 big lessons experts say Canada should learn from COVID-19

‘What should be done to reduce the harms the next time a virus arises?’ Disease control experts answer

A concrete seawall built to prevent erosion on a property on Driftwood Drive on Mudge Island. (Islands Trust image)
Appeal Court says Gulf Island homeowners’ seawall has to go

Court decides right to guard against erosion isn’t a ‘privileged’ property right

Most Read