Physical harm to marine mammals resulting from human activity is a rising issue. As the global population rises, international trade increases, and technology advances, there are more opportunities for human-environment interaction. Currently, it is approximated that 90% of global trade is seaborne (IFAW, 2016). Researchers have identified that as vessel traffic increases, there is a higher chance for vessel-cetacean interaction (Bezamat et. al, 2015; Collet et. al, 2001). Marine intercostal areas are major navigational and migration areas for cetaceans and commonly are rich in food sources (Herr, Scheidat, and Lehnert, 2009). There are several organizations involved in conservation efforts, ocean clean up, marine mammal distress programs, and cetacean research; however, marine mammal injuries, disease, and vessel strikes are under reported (Vancouver Aquarium, 2017). More information and research is needed to work on preventing vessel impacts.
Researching cetaceans is a difficult job as they spend significantly more time underwater than at the surface, and can travel thousands of kilometers (Vancouver aquarium, 2017). Due to this, the sightings data is dependent on human presence as whales and other cetaceans are present in all areas of the ocean (E. Schwartz, 2017). Species observation and behavior is also harder to monitor for underwater mammals. For example, commercial vessels are continuously tracked via AIS signaling, whereas marine mammal sightings require human presence and voluntary reporting. There are some knowledge gaps in factors such as breeding grounds, and the species interactions between different whale, dolphin, and porpoise species (Simmonds & Isaac, 2007). Current research is focused on the impact of vessel disturbance on large cetaceans, including the impact that sounds from ships has on their communication ability and behavior (Cetus, 2017; Williams, Lusseau, & Hammond, 2006). This study will contribute to the understanding of the impact that vessel proximity and tourism have on the cetaceans around Vancouver Island, and provide routes that will reduce these impacts. Due to the overlap of marine species and vessel traffic occurring in so many regions of the world, an ideal model will aim to provide shipping routes or outline route limits that will minimize impact using specific current data (Williams, Lusseau, & Hammond, 2006). There are many models that have been developed in an attempt to identify these higher risk areas. This model will use the physical topography of the selected area, sea depth, species specific cetacean sightings data, primary vessel and shipping data, and requires known locations of ports and destinations.
The Canadian pacific is an area with some of the highest marine mammal densities and maritime marine vessel traffic (Williams and O’Hara, 2006). There are many models specific to this region that exist for species distributions and vessel traffic, however a model that incorporates both together would create a more valuable output. Past models have accounted for sea depth, sea surface temperature, and associated ice edge when assessing specific species habitats (Kaschner et al. 2006). Risk assessments of ship strikes have been based on limited sightings data as studies have excluded the areas where there was less human population, as there would be a lack of deceased or injured marine mammals reported (Williams and O’Hara, 2009). Outlining the ship strike areas allowed for better mitigation to reduce mortality of Cetaceans and to avoid overpassing the mortality limits (Williams and O’Hara, 2009). Distance sampling methodology is commonly used for evaluating species populations and distributions as the model creates a density or abundance value and can incorporate multiple species and influencing factors (Harr, Scheidat, Lehnert, 2009). The results from this type of model is spatially explicit, which is ideal for being used in population ecology, conservation, and implementation of effective regulations as they are specific to one region and use current data (Harr, Scheidat, Lehnert, 2009).
Evaluating disturbance risk is a common challenge in wildlife management, as studies are generally short term, reducing the biological significance of the study (Bejder et. al, 2006). Observed biological responses to human activity has many uncertainties, leading to increased challenges regarding the creation of impact assessments in this area for scientists (Bejder et. al, 2006). However, the applications of GIS aim to simplify the process of environmental impact assessment. For example, the use of human, environmental and biological spatial data in GIS for modelling habitat linkages has enabled researchers to develop habitat models for informing resource and transportation planners (Clevenger et. al, 2002). Habitat modelling and diverting human disturbance can be analyzed using Multi Criteria Evaluation, a GIS analysis tool.
Marine species data are spatial in nature, with temporal changes in their habitats (Stanbury & Starr, 1999). GIS tools provide an effective way to handle barriers of large data sets and enable the combination of heterogeneous data types to aid in informed decision making processes. For example, the Marine Geospatial Ecology Tools (MGET), available through the software ArcGIS (ESRI), was created mainly for the purpose of working with spatially-explicit data in marine ecosystems, but also provides multiple other functions for working with marine specific data (Roberts, Best, Dunn, Treml, & Halpin, 2010). Specific tool sets that assist with ecological analysis include: geospatial data conversion tools, spatial analysis tools, oceanographic analysis, statistical tools, and connectivity analysis tools (Roberts, Best, Dunn, Treml, & Halpin, 2010). Furthermore, multi-criteria evaluation allows for multiple factors to be evaluated to determine a suitable area (Auge et. al, 2016). Human activities, such as boating, can be tracked with GPS systems and mapped to create records of anthropogenic impacts on marine wildlife. Vector data can be converted into meaningful maps and images for effective forecasting of variables, such as species distribution (Shareef, 2014). With its increasing availability, GIS techniques are quickly becoming a fundamental part of marine ecosystem management (Stanbury & Starr, 1999).
Purpose of Research:
The purpose of this project is to develop and apply GIS based multi-criteria evaluation (MCE) and least cost pathway models to identify routes for commercial shipping and marine tourism in the Haro Strait and the Strait of Georgia around the southern point of Vancouver Island.
Objective 1: Identify factors for determining commercial shipping routes while minimizing disturbance to cetacean habitats and marine tourism routes for increasing sighting opportunities.
Objective 2: Develop GIS based multi-criteria evaluation (MCE) and least cost pathway models for identifying routes for commercial shipping and marine tourism.
Objective 3: Apply the GIS based models to the Haro Strait and the Strait of Georgia around the southern point of Vancouver Island.
Objective 4: Evaluate the strengths and limitations of the GIS based models.