The Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program is a Vancouver Fraser Port Authority-led initiative aimed at better understanding and managing the effects of shipping activities on at-risk whales throughout the southern coast of British Columbia.
Some of the key threats to whales in this region include:
- acoustic disturbance (underwater noise)
- physical disturbance (interactions with ships)
- environmental contaminants
- availability of prey
The long-term goal of the ECHO Program is to develop mitigation measures that will lead to a quantifiable reduction in potential threats to whales as a result of shipping activities.
At-risk whales in our region
British Columbia has a productive coastal ecosystem that sustains populations of whales, porpoises and dolphins (cetaceans).
You may have had the pleasure of seeing some of these whales, such as southern and northern resident killer whales, humpback, fin, blue and sei whales. Fisheries and Oceans Canada has published Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategies and Action Plans for a number of at-risk whale species in the region designating critical habitat.
Much of the commercial vessel activity in the southern coast of British Columbia transits designated critical habitat of endangered southern resident killer whales as well as areas known to be of importance to other at-risk whales.
We are committed to conducting operations in a responsible and sustainable manner that safeguards and promotes continual protection of the environment. For these reasons, the ECHO Program has been developed.
Haro Strait and Boundary Pass voluntary vessel slowdown trial – slowdown has begun
This summer, the ECHO Program, working in close collaboration with marine transportation industry, government and other partners and advisors, is coordinating the implementation of another voluntary vessel slowdown trial. The goal of the trial is to maximize industry participation, underwater noise reduction levels and the benefits to the southern resident killer whales in key foraging areas.
Southern resident killer whales typically return to the Salish Sea to feed in the summer months, sometimes as early as June. As of July 5, the southern resident killer whales were confirmed present in Haro Strait and the voluntary vessel slowdown trial has begun.
Inshore voluntary lateral displacement trial – began June 17, 2019
The ECHO Program and Transport Canada, supported by regional and international partners will be studying how moving tugs and barges away from known whale feeding areas affects the underwater noise levels in those areas. This summer, where safe and operationally feasible to do so, all tugs and barges transiting in the Canadian inshore area of the Strait of Juan de Fuca are requested to move south of the known killer whale feeding area and navigate through the inshore lateral displacement trial zone while maintaining a buffer distance of 1000m from the traffic separation scheme.
The ECHO Program has benefited from early input and advice from scientists, shipping industries, conservation and environmental groups, First Nations individuals and government agencies to help the program focus efforts and set goals and objectives.
We wish to acknowledge and thank the generous support and participation of various organizations and individuals, which makes the ECHO Program possible:
The ECHO Program has structured its focus areas based on three threat categories identified by the Fisheries and Oceans Canada Recovery Strategy and advances projects in each category aimed at informing the development of measures to reduce threats to whales:
- acoustic disturbance – Whales use sound to find their food, mate, communicate, and avoid danger. Ship activity increases underwater noise and can impact these function.
- physical disturbance – Ship traffic has the potential to impact whales through ship collections or by altering their normal behaviour and movement.
- environmental contaminants – Contaminants can accumulate in a whale body, potentially impacting reproduction, development, and immune system functions.
The availability of prey, in particular Chinook salmon, for southern resident killer whales is critical to the species survival. Although the ECHO Program focus is on the effects of shipping and port activities, the importance of fish habitat supporting prey availability for whales is acknowledged. The port authority’s habitat enhancement program is focused on creating and enhancing fish and wildlife habitat, which may help address this threat to at-risk whales.
The aim of all ECHO Program projects is to inform potential mitigation options and develop innovative solutions to reduce underwater noise in the region. Potential mitigation measures may include such things as incentives or recognition for the use of green ship technology, changes to operational activities of ocean going ships, recognition of certification programs for quiet ships, and/or the development of noise criteria for ships entering the port. The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority’s incentive program, EcoAction, or the Green Marine program may be avenues for implementing proposed mitigation options.
In 2015, the ECHO Program advisory working group helped identify underwater noise as a priority focus area based on impacts to species-at-risk, in particular the southern resident killer whales. The ECHO Program supports a series of individual short-term projects, scientific studies and education initiatives. These projects will provide a better understanding of shipping-related cumulative regional threats, informing the development of mitigation solutions. To this end, the ECHO Program has convened several technical committees, made up of technical experts including marine mammal researchers, naval architects and acoustic specialists, to help develop a work plan for the ECHO Program to address underwater noise.
Underwater noise reduction projects
Whales use sound to navigate, communicate, and locate prey. The Fisheries and Oceans Canada recovery strategy suggests that increased ship traffic is responsible for the increase in ambient noise levels detected over the last 100 years. For this reason, underwater noise is a priority study area the ECHO Program is addressing.
Explore some of the ECHO program’s underwater noise reduction projects below:
In both 2017 and 2018, voluntary ship slowdowns were conducted in Haro Strait, a key feeding area within southern resident killer whale critical habitat. This research demonstrated that reducing ship speeds is an effective way of reducing both the underwater noise generated at the ship source and total underwater noise in nearby habitats, which is, in turn, predicted to benefit the behaviour and feeding success of the southern resident killer whale.
In 2019, the ECHO Program, working in close collaboration with marine transportation industry, government and other partners and advisors, is coordinating the implementation of another voluntary ship slowdown trial. The goal of the trial is to maximize industry participation, underwater noise reduction levels and the benefits to the southern resident killer whales in key foraging areas.
In 2018, a voluntary trial was conducted to study how moving large commercial ships, and inshore traffic, such as tugs and barges, further away from known whale feeding areas in the Strait of Juan de Fuca would affect the underwater noise levels in those areas. This trial was led by Transport Canada and the ECHO Program, and was supported by U.S. Coast Guard, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Canadian and U.S. marine transportation industry, Indigenous individuals and environmental and conservation groups.
In 2019, the ECHO Program and Transport Canada, supported by regional and international partners will be studying how moving tugs and barges away from known whale feeding areas affects the underwater noise levels in those areas. This summer, where safe and operationally feasible to do so, all tugs and barges transiting in the Canadian inshore area of the Strait of Juan de Fuca are requested to move south of the known killer whale feeding area and navigate through the inshore lateral displacement trial zone while maintaining a buffer distance of 1000m from the traffic separation scheme.
What makes vessels quieter? This study scanned the best options to reduce underwater noise from vessels. The study recommended options to be included in the port authority’s EcoAction program which incentivizes vessels for going above and beyond environmental regulations. As of January 1, 2017, vessels with quiet classification notations or cavitation reduction technologies calling the Port of Vancouver are eligible for a discount on harbour due fees.
How do different vessels sound and where and how often do they transit in this region? This study identified and quantified the underwater noise contributions from various vessel sectors to overall regional ocean noise.
In partnership with Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ocean Networks Canada and JASCO Applied Sciences, Vancouver Fraser Port Authority installed an underwater listening station in the Strait of Georgia in September 2015. The station was maintained and operated for over two and a half years, monitoring not only vessel source levels, but also marine mammal presence and total ambient underwater noise. The Strait of Georgia underwater listening station project is complete and the final report is available below.
Led by SMRU Consulting, this study sought to better understand how southern resident killer whales respond to underwater noise from both large commercial vessels and smaller whale watching boats.
The ECHO Program and Fisheries and Oceans Canada supported a small vessel underwater noise measurement study in Haro Strait to better understand the underwater noise levels of whale watching boats and other small vessels that operate in the Salish Sea near southern resident killer whale summer feeding habitat. This study was conducted in parallel with another study measuring underwater noise levels from large piloted commercial ships in Haro Strait.
The ECHO Program has also completed or is working on additional acoustic projects which include.
- Monitoring baseline regional ambient underwater noise conditions through a network of hydrophones. PROJECT ONGOING.
- Presenting the impacts of underwater noise on marine mammals to local mariners through an education outreach program. PROJECT ONGOING.
- Investigation of the potential effects of ship noise on humpback whale calls in B.C. waters.
This infographic was designed to help mariners understand the impacts of vessel underwater noise and how to reduce it. Print out a copy and post it on your vessel’s bridge or common area.
Other threat reduction projects
Physical disturbance and environmental contaminants
Physical disturbance and environmental contaminants are two additional key threats to southern resident killer whales. Ship traffic of all kinds has increased in recent years and this the potential to disrupt whales both through interactions with ships, as well as by altering their normal behaviour and movement, especially for large whales like blue, fin, sei and humpback whales. There are also a number of chemical and biological (such as invasive species) contaminants present in our oceans. Measuring contaminant levels in the bodies of killer whales or other marine mammals is challenging. Studying contaminants in the water, sediment and food sources (such as shellfish) of the marine mammal’s environment is one way to understand the effects on the whales. Some projects the ECHO Program has supported in these areas include:
Developed for mariners by the ECHO Program and BC Ferries in partnership with Ocean Wise, the Whales in our Waters tutorial covers a range of topics to build awareness of local whale species and how to identify them, and best practices to implement when navigating ships in their presence. The tutorial takes up to 90 minutes to complete.
Where is the risk of whale vessel strike the greatest? The ECHO Program supported Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s survey of large whale distribution off south western Vancouver Island using aerial surveillance and satellite tagging, to help identify key areas where the risk of physical disturbance or collision is greatest.
In collaboration with the Ocean Wise and Prince Rupert Port Authority, the ECHO Program supported the development of the Mariner’s Guide to Whales, Dolphins, Porpoises of Western Canada which helps mariner’s identify marine mammals, their seasonal usage of areas along the west coast and identifies ways to reduce potential interactions.
The WhaleReport Alert System app will help to notify select regional commercial vessel operators when whales are in their proximity. This project is in development and is led by the Ocean Wise’s BC Cetacean Sightings Network, in collaboration with the ECHO Program and the Prince Rupert Port Authority.
The ECHO Program is supporting PollutionTracker, an Ocean Wise initiative, to collect and analyze samples of sediment and mussels to establish baseline levels of environmental contamination and inform best practices in and around the water.
ECHO Program – Vessel quieting study [PDF]
ECHO Program – Regional ocean noise contributors study [PDF]
ECHO Program – Effects of noise from commercial vessels and whale watch boats on killer whales study [PDF]
ECHO Program – Humpback whale calls in the presence of ships study [PDF]
ECHO Program – Underwater listening station in the Strait of Georgia – Report [PDF]
ECHO Program – Whale watching boats and small vessel underwater noise measurements study [PDF]
ECHO Program – 2017 voluntary vessel slowdown trial in Haro Strait – full report
ECHO Program – 2018 voluntary vessel slowdown in Haro Strait – full report
ECHO Program – 2018 voluntary vessel slowdown in Haro Strait – summary of results [PDF]
ECHO Program – 2018 Annual Report [PDF]
ECHO Program – 2017 Annual Report [PDF]
ECHO Program – 2016 Annual Report [PDF]
ECHO Program – 2015 Annual Report [PDF]
ECHO Program – Program summary [PDF]
Species at Risk Act conservation agreement
Information for mariners
Mariner’s Guide to Whales, Dolphins, Porpoises of Western Canada [PDF]
ECHO Program – Infographic: Effects of vessel underwater noise on whales [PDF]
ECHO Program – Infographic: Footnote References [PDF]
Fisheries and Oceans Canada recovery plans and action strategies
Fisheries and Oceans Protecting Canada’s Endangered Whales
Recovery Strategy for Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales [PDF]
Action Plan for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales [DRAFT] [PDF]
Recovery Strategy for the Transient Killer Whale [PDF]
Recovery Strategy for the North Pacific Humpback Whale [PDF]
Recovery Strategy for Blue, Fin, and Sei Whales [PDF]
Partial Action Plan for Blue, Fin, Sei and North Pacific Right Whales [PDF]