New Study Confirms Approach Waters to Kitimat are Critically Important Humpback Whale Feeding Ground

The waters around Gil Island, at the mouth of the Douglas Channel, support a substantial number of Canada's threatened humpback whales.

HARTLEY BAY, BRITISH COLUMBIA--(Marketwired - Sept. 12, 2013) - A new scientific study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, confirms that the entrance to the Douglas Channel, and the narrow waters surrounding Gil Island, are among the most important feeding grounds for Threatened humpback whales in Canada's Pacific region.

The eight-year study, which was completed by researchers at the University of St. Andrews, Cetacea Lab and the Gitga'at Lands and Marine Resources Department, monitored the local whale population using photo identification surveys. Its findings confirm the unique role Gil Island plays in supporting the recovery of these whales:

  • An estimated 8% of BC's humpback whales use the waters around Gil Island, an area that represents less than 1.5% of BC's coastal inshore areas.
  • The number of whales using the waters nearly doubled from 2004 to 2011, supporting an average summer population of 140, with many more transient whales travelling through the area.

"The importance of our territorial waters for humpback and other species of whales, should give pause to those who would propose tanker routes through the Douglas Channel," said Arnold Clifton, Chief Councillor of the Gitga'at First Nation. "The increase in whales in our territory coincides with low shipping traffic, however current proposals would increase shipping traffic to unprecedented levels. We remain resolute in our determination to protect whales and the natural heritage of our territory from tankers and other developments that would put them at risk."

"Our study shows that while still vulnerable, humpback whales are recovering, and this area plays an important role in supporting their numbers," said lead author, Erin Ashe, a PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews and a co-founder of Oceans Initiative. "Identifying and protecting critical habitat is one of the most effective ways to support endangered species recovery."

The waters around Gil Island are especially rich habitat for humpback whales, due to high abundance of their preferred foods, such as krill and herring and due to the remote nature of the coastal fjords. Humpbacks, which rely on acoustic communication, are sensitive to noise pollution from ship traffic.

"It is Cetacea Lab's contention that all levels of government must collaborate with the Gitga'at First Nation and others in protecting humpback whales from the risk of increased tanker traffic," said Janie Wray, whale researcher with Cetacea Lab. "This study represents the best available scientific information about the importance of this area to humpback whales. Over the course of our study, we have observed the population more than double, with mothers returning year after year with their calves, introducing the next generation of juvenile whales to the nutrient-rich feeding grounds of Douglas Channel to Caamano Sound."

Hi-resolution photos of humpback whales breaching are available here:

A map of Gil Island and proposed tanker routes is here:

The paper appears in PLOS ONE:

Contact Information:

Chris Picard
Science Director
Gitga'at First Nation

Janie Wray
Whale Researcher
Cetacea Lab