Photos: Annual plane tug-of-war at YVR raises almost $60K for Orbis

Tug-of-war raises big bucks

A massive tug-of-war involving a 60-tonne cargo plane on Sunday raised $59,870 to end avoidable blindness around the world.

Community members gathered at FedEx's ramp on Aylmer Road at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) on June 23 to participate in the annual Orbis Plane Pull for Sight.

The event saw a 18 teams of no more than 20 people competing to see who could be the fastest to pull a FedEx 757 cargo plane for a distance of 20 feet.

Additional team challenges put participants to the test, and kids also got to participate in their own plane pulls, enjoy family-friendly games and learn more about FedEx and YVR Fire-Rescue's operations. 

The plane pull is Orbis Canada's signature fundraising event and takes place every year in Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary. In total, this year's event raised more than $315,000 across three cities.

The fundraiser represents Orbis' Flying Eye Hospital, the world's only fully accredited ophthalmic teaching hospital on an MD-10 aircraft. Using the aircraft donated by FedEx, the hospital delivers eye care training to local communities around the world.


Self-government comes for northwest B.C. First Nation in proposed treaty

First treaty in a decade

A British Columbia First Nation has agreed to a draft treaty with the federal and provincial governments that would give it more than 38,000 hectares of land in the province's northwest.

The proposed deal with the Kitselas nation is the first treaty with a B.C. First Nation in more than a decade and would give the band self-governing powers, while removing it from under the federal Indian Act.

If approved by nation members in a vote next year, the treaty could become law as early as 2028, constitutionally recognizing the nation's rights to governance, harvesting, land ownership, resource management, and other benefits.

The treaty also includes $108.9 million from the federal government.

Both the federal and provincial governments would have to pass legislation after ratification by the Kitselas nation, before the treaty would come into effect.

Chief Glenn Bennett of the Kitselas First Nation says in a statement that he is pleased to reach a positive conclusion to the treaty process, which has been underway for decades.

“The Kitselas Treaty will grant us greater control over our future, including ownership of our lands, self-governance, and enhanced programs and services," he says.

"With the financial settlement and freedom from the constraints of the Indian Act, together the citizens of Kitselas will create a better tomorrow."

The Kitselas First Nation has a population of about 740 people with reserves and territory that surrounds Terrace and the Skeena River.

Once fully ratified, the First Nation would join eight others as the only modern-day treaty holders in B.C.

Federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Gary Anandasangaree said in an interview on Sunday, ahead of Monday's ceremony announcing the deal, that there were “very intense conversations” around the negotiating table over the last several months.

He said there are still some "minor issues" that need to be worked on, but all sides have been able to “substantially conclude our negotiations."

"So, I think there were some things that did have last-minute conversations, and we've agreed on a path toward concluding the treaty with some minor issues to be ironed out over the next few months," he said.

Anandasangaree said the powers under the treaty are ones that the First Nation has inherently had, but are now being restored.

Premier David Eby told an unrelated news conference on Monday that he's confident the treaty process will provide clarity around boundaries of First Nation land, and that his government will continue to work with neighbouring nations on treaties of their own.

"We do have to move forward with these treaties. We have to move forward with this clarification. Because without that, we're going to fail to realize the prosperity that we should be bringing everybody along in agreements that lift all boats right across the province," he said.

Anandasangaree said the federal government hopes it will be able to advance other treaties in B.C. "as early as late this year."

"This is something that requires an enormous amount of commitment over sometimes decades, hopefully not that long," he said.

"But it does require Nations to have trust in governments and I think for governments to build that trust.

On socio-economic indicators, B.C. ranks middle of the road

BC: 'Middle of the road'

Compared to 20 other peer countries, provinces and states, British Columbia is middle of the pack, when it comes to things like economic prosperity, according to a new study.

The Business Council of BC (BCBC) partnered with the Centre for the Study of Livings Standards (CSLS) to produce the 2024 B.C. Prosperity Index.

The study compares B.C. to 20 peers: advanced national and sub-national jurisdictions, like Australia and California.

Countries in the comparison list are Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, the UK, and U.S. Sub-national comparisons included all 10 Canadian provinces and three Pacific U.S. states: Washington, Oregon and California.

Overall, B.C. landed smack dab in the middle – 11th place out of 21 jurisdictions. That’s the same ranking it attained in 2019.

B.C. scores comparatively higher on things like educational attainment, household income, employment, clean air and societal well being.

But, unsurprisingly, it scores dead last on housing affordability, and also scores relatively low in economic well being.

B.C. scored particularly well on socio-economic measurements like poverty. B.C. ranked fourth out of 21 in terms of the population living below the poverty rate, and seventh in terms of household income, after taxes.


But it’s economic well-being was found to be below average – 15th out of 21.

“B.C.’s economic performance in recent years, particularly in respect of business investment and gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, has been boosted by four “mega” capital projects: Trans Mountain, Site C, LNG Canada and Coastal Gas Link,” the report notes.

“Without the engineering construction activity associated with these mega projects, B.C.’s economic performance likely would have been less impressive and like the rest of Canada.

“The imminent completion and winding down of these projects raise the question as to what will drive provincial prosperity in future years.”

Despite the comparatively low ranking for general economic well-being, B.C. ranked above-average in terms of investment, which is defined as “capital placed by the public and private  sectors in machinery, equipment, technology, and infrastructure, excluding residential investment.”


Bigger and more B.C. family benefit cheques coming in July

Bigger benefit cheques?

As the B.C. government piles up more debt ahead of this October’s election, Premier David Eby announced in Chilliwack on Monday some modest increases to the BC Family Benefit, previously disclosed during the spring budget.

Recipient families of the tax-free monthly benefit will see an average annual increase of $445 starting with the first monthly payment in July. Plus, the government has raised the net income threshold to include partial benefits for more families.

For instance, families with net income below $114,887 will be guaranteed the following minimum amounts annually: $969 for a family's first child (up from $775); $937 for a family's second child (up from $750); and $906 for each additional child (up from $725).

Last year, that net income threshold was $87,533 for those minimum payments.

About 340,000 families with children, which is 66,000 more than last year, will receive the benefit through monthly deposits in their bank accounts or mailed cheques, as administered by Canada Revenue Agency and as a combined payment with the federal Canada Child Benefit.

The maximum benefit will go to families with a net income less than $35,902, up from last year’s threshold of $27,354.

And, the maximum payment will increase for those low-income families: $2,188 for a family's first child (up from $1,750); $1,375 for a family's second child (up from $1,100); and $1,125 for each additional child (up from $900).

Beyond the maximum payment, the benefit is reduced gradually. For example, the annual payments (spread out in 12 monthly payments) will vary between $969 and $2,188 for the first child, for family net incomes between $35,902 and $114,887, respectively.

A two-parent family with two kids will, on average, receive $1,760, with the maximum amount set at $3,563 annually. Single-parent families typically qualify for higher payments and will receive, on average, $2,790 annually, according to a government statement issued Monday.

According to a recent Food Banks Canada report on B.C., 60.7 per cent of government support recipients say rates are “insufficient to keep up with cost of living.”

The report acknowledged progress from the government on increasing the family benefit.

Last April, following the budget announcement, S&P Global Ratings downgraded the B.C. government’s credit rating from AA to AA- citing a “relatively steep increase” in debt through to spring 2027.

S&P states in its April 8 report B.C.’s debt is projected to rise from $89 billion to $156 billion between 2022 and 2027.

S&P stated B.C. has “maintained focus on taxpayer affordability” while “investing in infrastructure at unprecedented levels,” as cost of living pressures are put on British Columbians.

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B.C. Ombudsperson finds 'systemic mismanagement' in hiring at public service agency

'Systemic mismanagement'

B.C. Ombudsperson Jay Chalke says dozens of public service jobs meant to help develop the careers of public servants wrongfully went to government appointees over a 10-year period.

In a report released Monday, Chalke says his office found "systemic mismanagement" at the B.C. Public Service Agency allowed the government appointees to apply for temporary positions that should have been reserved for "regular public servants."

Chalke says 64 temporary jobs went to ineligible people previously appointed under government orders-in-council, diverting career development opportunities from public servants.

He says the investigation began after his office was tipped off by a government employee about two hirings at the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, although the investigation didn't turn up problems with those positions.

But his office found that despite the B.C. Public Service Agency's policy precluding government appointees from applying for temporary jobs, 205 did so between 2013 and 2023.

Chalke says awarding jobs to ineligible people constitutes "wrongdoing" by the agency under B.C.'s Public Interest Disclosure Act.

Mass mortality: A fish scientist follows a tip about die-offs at B.C. salmon farms

Scientist probes fish die-offs

On June 1, Stan Proboszcz loaded up his kayak and caught the ferry from his home in Powell River to Comox on Vancouver Island. The ­ensuing two-hour drive would take him past ­snow-crested peaks and deep forested valleys until he reached a boat launch in Gold River.

Dipping his kayak into the waters of Muchalat Inlet, Proboszcz set out on an 18-kilometre paddle toward the open Pacific Ocean — and he did it all on an anonymous tip.

A tipster had told Proboszcz, a fisheries biologist at Watershed Watch Salmon Society, that salmon farms off the coast had been experiencing mysterious and massive die-offs and nobody was saying anything about it.

“Yeah, it was a little crazy,” said Proboszcz of his decision to make the long trip. “But he didn’t know why they were dying.”

Before Proboszcz left, a colleague had tracked a number of boats that were allegedly bringing fish all the way around the south end of Vancouver Island and into the Nanaimo area. But the boats had nearly finished shuttling all the fish, according to the ­anonymous source.

Desperate, Proboszcz had tried to hire a skiff and even a helicopter to see what was going on. But ­nothing worked out, and so he decided to take matters into his own hands.

Five hours into Muchalat Inlet, Proboszcz reached the fish farm he figured was the site of a big die-off. He sent a drone into the air and captured images of what he described as “plumes” coming off the farm’s surface.

“It’s like a sheen, like an oil sheet. Maybe it’s ­rotting, like dead fish oil coming from the farm,” he said.

DFO says it's investigating after a boat at Grieg Seafood's North Muchalat salmon farm appears to discharge liquid into the channel following a mass mortality event. Stan Proboszcz

A vessel, Knight Dragon, appeared to be ­pumping something out of the farm, while another hose appeared to be discharging water from the ship into the open ocean.

Proboszcz said he suspects they were sucking out dead fish that had sunk to the bottom of the farm’s nets, then blowing the sucked-up water out of the ship’s hold.

But without evidence, he could prove nothing and figured he had come too late to see the scale of the mortality event.

The scientist camped on the nearby coastline, and when he returned, he contacted the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Up to 1,000 tonnes of fish lost on one farm

In emails seen by Glacier Media, Brenda McCorquodale, DFO’s senior director of aquaculture management, said in a response to Proboszcz that the department was investigating the die-off allegations and couldn’t comment further.

McCorquodale told Proboszcz the die-offs were not isolated to a single farm, but “that elevated levels of mortalities have been occurring recently among farmed fish at farm sites in Clayoquot Sound, Port Hardy, Clio Channel, Esperanza, and Nootka.”

McCorquodale said three of five open-net pen farms run by Grieg Seafood had reported mortality events in recent weeks. The highest was at Muchalat North, the farm Proboszcz had kayaked by, where McCorquodale said that over a 10-day period, 23 per cent of the farm’s stock was lost.

Stan Proboszcz, a fish scientist with Watershed Watch Salmon Society, kayaks up Muchalat Inlet on June 1, 2024, after a anonymous tip that farmed salmon were experiencing mass die-offs. Stan Proboszcz

The farm is licensed to hold up to 4,100 tonnes of salmon, meaning a 23 per cent loss could have meant nearly 1,000 tonnes of dead salmon.

When Glacier Media asked a DFO ­spokesperson about the death rates, they said cumulative ­mortalities at each salmon farm ranged even higher — from four per cent to 26 per cent between mid-May and early June.

DFO biologists and veterinary staff travelled to Nootka Sound. They “confirmed that the mortality events were caused primarily by environmental conditions: extremely low oxygen events and ­harmful plankton in the marine environment,” wrote the spokesperson.

The DFO spokesperson said rain followed by sunny weather have led to algae blooms and low oxygen in the past.

In her emails to Proboszcz, McCorquodale pointed to an event in 2019, when a plankton bloom in Clayoquot Sound led to “significant losses for a number of farms.”

DFO did not answer questions about why oxygenators on the farm did not prevent the death of the fish, and whether sea lice or other pathogens played a role.

A spokesperson for Grieg Seafood turned down a request to answer several questions over the mortality event, instead referring to a news release on its website. The release echoed statements from DFO, saying the die-off was a result of low-oxygen conditions.

“Due to these adverse environmental conditions and in order to preserve the welfare of our salmon, we were unable to handle and perform sea lice ­treatments during this time, resulting in higher-than-normal sea lice counts for a short period of time,” the statement said in part.

It later added: “We remain committed to minimize interactions with wild salmon in the areas where we operate.”

Grieg Seafood's North Muchakat salmon farm lost nearly a quarter of its stock in a recent mass mortality event, confirmed DFO. Stan Proboszcz

Proboszcz said he has asked for veterinary reports from DFO but has not received them. He said the whole incident, in particular the reason given for the die-offs, concerns him because the farm he ­visited had triple the allowable limit of sea lice, while a nearby farm had 10 times that threshold, according to numbers companies are required to publish online.

“They’re having all these die-offs. Are the high sea-lice levels contributing to that? Because sea lice have been known to kill as well. We don’t really know,” said Proboszcz. “The big concern is juvenile salmon are migrating by this area. I witnessed that myself.

“What risk is that to wild fish?”

Rsearchers warn of increase in mass die-offs

Mass die-offs of farmed salmon are increasing around the world, with Canada experiencing some of the biggest and most frequent mortality events, according a study published in March.

“The worst of the worst cases are getting larger,” Gerald Singh, a researcher in the University of Victoria’s School of Environmental Studies and the study’s lead author, said at the time.

The latest die-off in Nootka Sound comes as the department works to phase out open-net pen farming of Atlantic salmon in the West Coast.

On Wednesday, Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson said the government would provide a five-year licence extension for 63 open-net pen Atlantic salmon farms in B.C., not phasing them out until the end of June 2029, when they would be banned in favour of closed-containment systems.

Proboszcz said he was “not thrilled” about the five-year extension, but has already heard from DFO staff that the announcement Wednesday will likely be followed by a new regulatory regime that will enshrine the ban into law.

He said that should come with added surveillance of the industry, more investigations and more fines. When farms fail pathogen tests, they should have their licences revoked or be forced to cull farmed fish to protect wild salmon, he said.

Even then, however, Proboszcz does not expect the mass die-offs to end.

“We’re not going to stop watching the salmon farms,” said Proboszcz. “We just have to be vigilant.”

— With files from The Canadian Press

Recruitment company survey finds employees prefer job security in 2024

Employees are staying put

The safety of job security is causing Canadian professionals to stay put.

Global recruitment company Robert Walters conducted a survey recently that found 77% of Canadians are not looking for a new role because of concerns about job security at their new place of employment.

Robert Walters is calling this new trend “The Big Stay.” The survey also found 80% of people prioritize job security over pay when considering a new role. That was not the case in the immediate wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when job movement exploded.

“It was just three years ago where we saw evidence of ‘The Great Resignation,’ where professionals were taking new job opportunities at a record high, which was also matched with high new starter salaries.

“The emergence of ‘The Big Stay’ is testament to the volatility of the economy, which has had a severe dent on business and employee confidence,” Robert Walters Canada managing director Martin Fox said in a press release. “On the one side we are seeing a month-on-month decline in the number of new permanent job roles, underpinned by risk averse organizations trying to be cost conscious. And on the other side, employees are choosing to stay put, and in the process sacrificing better pay, progression and skills development that they could gain elsewhere in the belief that they may be more ‘secure.’

“Economic growth is underpinned by labor movement; organizations need fresh perspectives in order to remain competitive, and employees need movement in order to not remain stagnant or pigeonhole themselves. Statistically, professionals who move jobs more often will earn more over their working life than someone who has chosen to stay put. A prolonged trend of ‘The Big Stay’ will be counterproductive for Canada’s economy.”

“The Big Stay” means hiring managers have experienced an increase in prospective employees declining job offers in 2024, although 52% said the denials have to do with salary or culture fit. Regardless, more companies are sharing growth plans and being up front about company performance in order to entice potential employees.

“It’s a tricky one for employers to know whether some details about an organization may deter professionals from accepting a job offer,” Martin said. “However, from my experience, when a company is fully transparent about their financial position or industry barriers, this only helps to ensure that the ‘right fit’ accepts the job and is frankly ‘up for the challenge.’”

Business group will be asking members about key issues prior to BC election

BIABC seeks election issues

The provincial body that represents business districts across B.C. wants to hear what is on the minds of its members in advance of this fall’s election.

Business Improvement Areas of BC represents 70 business districts and more than 55,000 businesses, whom it will survey to identify key issues of concern that they intend to challenge political parties and candidates on prior to the October provincial election.

“The October 19th election is critically important and those seeking elected office and their respective parties must understand the issues that are of prime importance to small and medium size businesses throughout the province,” BIABC president Jeff Bray said in a press release.

“As candidates of different political stripes seek our support, we will in turn be challenging them to make commitments that support business districts and neighbourhoods, and British Columbia’s economic well-being.”

Some of the issues that are currently on BIABC’s front burner are the impact of property crime and vandalism, and the impact of decriminalization in its current form. The organization is also concerned about the mandatory five-day sick leave policy, annual minimum wage increases and the recent adoption of statutory holidays.

A new generation embraces a First Nation language that was nearly extinguished

'It really gives me strength'

Tsartlip councillor Curtis Olsen says he’s amazed — and a little bit jealous — when he sees his nation’s youth learning and speaking the language of the W?SÁNE? people.

Children attending ?ÁU, WEL?EW? Tribal School on Tsartlip reserve near Brentwood Bay begin their school day in the gym with prayer and singing of songs in SEN?O?EN.

The kindergarteners came up with a song about rainbows in SEN?O?EN and shared it with the whole school, said elementary principal SI,OLTENOT Madeline Bartleman.

Following the daily gym meeting, SEN?O?EN-immersion-track students gather for speaking practice, introducing themselves and chatting about the weather in the Straits Salish language that was once heavily suppressed in Canada, Bartleman said.

She said the school focuses on literacy and fluency, which begins with teaching the shapes and sounds of the 38-letter SEN?O?EN alphabet.

Students are fully taught in the language until Grade 4, when part-time English-language instruction is introduced.

Their teachers, many of them master’s students in Indigenous language revitalization at the University of Victoria, had to translate the B.C. curriculum into SEN?O?EN to make the program work — all the main subjects such as math, social ­sciences, applied skills and technology. “It’s a lot of extra work, but it’s all worth it,” Bartleman said.

Elders helped develop SEN?O?EN lexicon for terms in the curriculum that were previously not in the language.

Members of the program’s oldest cohort, who are moving to Grade 11 next year, began immersion in nursery school and can now write in SEN?O?EN, said Bartleman, a SEN?O?EN second-language speaker. “It’s amazing to see how much more deeply they understand the language than I would.”

It’s all very different from what Olsen experienced when he attended school on reserve in the 1960s.

At the Tsartlip Indian Day School, habit-wearing nuns “pushed the Catholic religion on us,” he said. “The first thing they asked us on Monday morning was: ‘Did you go to church yesterday?’ And if you didn’t, you were punished.”

Since 2019, the federal government has paid out a $1-billion settlement to Indian day school survivors for harms suffered, including payments of up to $200,000 for survivors who experienced physical or sexual abuse.

After the three-room schoolhouse where Olsen went to day school burned down around 1972, the federal government considered incorporating ­Saanich Peninsula First Nation children into the public school system, Olsen said. But a group of W??SÁNE? women saw the need to retain a school within the community and fought that decision. Somehow, the women found a direct phone number for a minister in Ottawa and convinced him in a late-night phone call to keep the school.

The government brought in portable classrooms and slowly the W?SÁNE? began to have more say in how education happened in their communities.

The late Tsartlip member Philip Paul , co-founder of influential Indigenous organizations known today as the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the Assembly of First Nations, was instrumental in forming the Saanich Indian School Board that eventually took over school operations, Olsen said.

Bartleman said the elementary school, built in 1989, was given the name ?ÁU, WEL?EW? by the late W?SÁNE? elder Ray Sam.

According to oral histories, ?ÁU, WEL?EW? was the name given to the place of refuge and safety that W?SÁNE? people went to during the great flood.

Sam had insisted that the school be named after ?ÁU, WEL?EW? because he believed education would play a similar role for their people, she said. “Our school is what’s going to save our people,” she said, quoting Sam.

Over the years, the Saanich Indian School Board became the W?SÁNE? School Board and added a high school and an adult education centre, now called W?SÁNE? College.

Today, more than 300 students from the Tsartlip, Tsawout, Pauquachin and Tseycum First Nations attend W??SÁNE? learning institutions, from preschool to elementary, secondary, adult and post-secondary.

Board president Abraham Pelkey said a majority of W?SÁNE? students and their families choose W?SÁNE? schools over the public system.

His grandparents were involved in the initial advocacy efforts about 50 years ago, travelling to Ottawa and fighting for First Nation jurisdiction over education, he said. “It really gives me strength to know that I’m carrying on such a legacy.”

Local post-secondary partnerships have been helpful with SEN?O?EN language-revitalization efforts, which are critical to preserving their way of life, Pelkey said.

The SEN?O?EN language has long been in decline after active suppression efforts by governments, but the past decade or two has seen concerted efforts to reverse that trend.

In the 2021 census, 314 people reported they had some knowledge of Straits Salish languages, including 30 who said it was the language most spoken at home.

There are an estimated 16 fluent speakers and 165 semi-fluent of SEN?O?EN and its four related dialects of Malchosen, Lekwungen, Semiahmoo and T’Sou-ke, according to the latest 2022 report on B.C. First Nations languages by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council.

Sc’ianew First Nation elder Lavina Charles is the last known SEN?O?EN speaker alive today who learned the language as her mother tongue, the report said.

SEN?O?EN language teacher MENE?IYE ­Elisha Elliott said many in her family are dedicated to language revival.

Both her parents quit their jobs — her mother in hospital work, and her father in road construction — to become SEN?O?EN teachers, she said. Her sister is also a language teacher.

Efforts began when she was a child. “We realized the language was in decline and we tried to bring it out,” she said. “My grandmother and her siblings were speakers and storytellers, so we gathered around and listened to their stories and learned some language from them.”

The school board took inspiration from Hawaiian people’s language immersion programs when it set up the SEN?O?EN immersion program.

“They started just like we did — the language nest, and grew to kindergarten, Grade 1, Grade 2, and then kept growing right to the PhD.”

UVic vice-president Indigenous Robina Thomas said the W?SÁNE? School Board’s language-revitalization effort is groundbreaking for British Columbia. “They’ve been leaders in Indian control of Indian education, to use the terms that we used in 1972,” said Thomas, a member of the Lyackson First Nation.

Thomas recalls learning virtually nothing during her time in the public school system about Indigenous culture and history, apart from a single unit about the Haida potlatch system and racist attempts to justify the treatment of Indigenous people. “I didn’t have an opportunity to learn language. I never saw an Indigenous teacher.”

She’s glad this new generation of W?SÁNE? youth will experience school differently. “These young people will be exposed to their culture and tradition. They will be exposed to songs, to dances, to language. They will have a really solid grounding in the things that really matter to them.”

Humpback focused on feeding comes within oar length of startled kayakers

Close encounter with whale

Kayakers on Bowen Island had a very close and potentially dangerous encounter with a humpback whale last weekend — a reminder that the whales are focused on feeding and often oblivious to their surroundings.

Photos shared on social media by Bowen Island Sea Kayaking show a group of kayakers huddled hard against the shore as a humpback — now identified as Malachite, a three-year-old male — was lunge-feeding within a paddle’s length of the boaters and the shore.

Jackie Hildering, a humpback researcher with the Marine Education and Research Society, said the humpback whale was not showing curiosity about the boats, but feeding on schools of small fish.

Humpbacks are returning to the Salish Sea after their migrations from breeding in Hawaii, Mexico and Central America where there is little food and they are working hard to build up reserves in the Salish Sea, said Hildering.

She said humpbacks such as Malachite have “very strong site fidelity” for feeding in the Salish Sea, usually taught by their ­mothers. “It is so important for boaters to realize that this is what humpbacks are so often doing here … they are feeding,” she said. “Collision is a very real risk to the safety of all boaters.”

She said baleen whales are not known to have bio sonar/echolocation to interpret their surroundings. They can surface suddenly after long dives, hardly ever travel in a straight line and can suddenly become acrobatic with breaches.

When not feeding or diving, humpbacks can be sleeping or nursing near the surface and be difficult to detect.

Bowen Island Sea ­Kayaking owner Steve Mather did not return calls for an interview, but staff confirmed the encounter.

On social media, Mather said the kayakers saw the humpback from a distance and deliberately positioned themselves by the shore where they thought they could watch safely.

“The humpback had different ideas. Amazingly they actually captured the whole episode on video. We chose not to publish [the videos] specifically because we don’t want to encourage kayakers to get close to marine mammals,” said the post.

But the company did share photos of the encounter from a distance. “We are sharing these photos, not the kayaker’s footage, because it serves as an excellent example of just how close to shore a humpback might be feeding. And that even though effort was taken to be in a seemingly safe spot, the kayaks found themselves in an extremely dangerous position between an 80,000-pound whale and a rock wall. Thankfully everyone was OK, but it could have ended much differently.

“Hopefully we can all learn from this how unpredictable whales can be and that we need to give them lots of space.”

Bowen Island Sea Kayaking also noted it’s the law to keep 100 metres from whales — 200 metres if they are resting or with a calf — and 400 metres from all orcas in southern B.C. waters.

Hildering said “significant human injuries” can result from collisions with whales. She said kayaks and paddle boards have been flipped, boats have been disabled and people have been thrown from their boats, suffering blunt force trauma.

In June 2017, a guided fishing boat collided with a breaching humpback off Haida Gwaii. Mike Hamill, a passenger, was thrown into the air and landed on the console of the vessel. Hamill’s back was broken in three places, which left him a paraplegic.

Hildering said Bowen Island Sea Kayaking presented the right message with its social media post. “We need people to do the right things when posting these photos, that there are laws that exist that protect the whales and the people seeing them,” said Hildering.

The Marine Education and Research Society is partnering with tourism group 4VI and the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association this year on a marine mammal viewing best practices program.

It urges tourists and locals who view whales and share those experiences through social media to do so with awareness of the rules and laws that protect the species and ecosystems where marine mammals live.

Rescued humpback returns with new calf, but entanglement dangers remain

Rescued humpback returns

A humpback whale involved in a ­dramatic disentanglement off Texada Island nearly two years ago has returned to the Salish Sea again this year — this time with her first calf.

The confirmation of the humpback calf came as a pleasant surprise to scientists and rescuers, but with the grim reminder that entanglements are continuing all along the B.C. coast — some reported and many not — as humpbacks make a comeback from near extinction.

“A new calf from a whale we helped … it’s just awesome news,” said Paul Cottrell, head of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Marine Mammal Rescue unit. “It just makes all that hard work and dedication from our team all so worthwhile. It’s a good feeling that we were able to save this whale.”

BCY 0946, also known as Slits, was tangled in steel rope and dragging a float and prawn-fishing gear when ­Cottrell got the call in late October 2022 from Western Prince Whale Watching in the Strait of Georgia.

Cottrell and other DFO boats were able to track the whale’s movements after fisheries officers put a satellite tag on the trailing gear.

Cottrell’s team found Slits and launched a drone that showed the 10-metre-long whale had a steel rope wrapped through its mouth. The animal was tiring after dragging the heavy gear and damaging its mouth. The rescue was further complicated by Slits ­travelling with companion whales swimming close by.

Cuts were made on the steel rope to create a tension, which caused the whale to “spy hop and flip,” releasing the animal.

“It was very tricky, but such a relief when it all let go,” said Cottrell.

Slits, who is believed to be 13 years old, was photographed with her new calf on June 4 on the west side of San Juan Island by Michael Kurbatoff of Prince of Whales whale watching, and this week near Nanaimo by another whale-watching company.

Until the sightings with the calf, it wasn’t known whether Slits was a male or female, and it still isn’t known where she spends her winters. Humpbacks in the Salish Sea usually go to either Hawaii or Mexico to calve, and migrate back to feed from spring to summer.

In 2022, 396 individual humpbacks were documented in the waters around Vancouver Island, an increase from the 293 humpbacks recorded in the same area five years ago and the highest number in a single year since record-keeping started more than two decades ago, according to the Humpback Whales of the Salish Sea Project.

The whales were hunted to near extinction during the last century and are under pressure now from climate change, as well as ship strikes and entanglements.

Jackie Hildering of the Marine Education and Research Society said Slits was first documented in 2011 as a sub-adult and has been returning every year.

Since she was released from the fishing gear, Slits was sighted more than 20 times last year, according to data from the Canadian Pacific Humpback Collaboration, which is co-ordinated by MERS and identifies each individual whale.

While the outcome for Slits was positive, it’s so important to realize how many humpbacks who are entangled are never documented, let alone rescued, said Hildering.

She said MERS research, in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, has found that an estimated 50% of humpbacks have scarring from being entangled at least once in their lives.

“This does not account for those who have died from entanglement and have sunk to the ocean bottom or who have washed up somewhere where they are never detected,” said Hildering.

Cottrell said DFO has already had eight reports of whales tangled in fishing gear this spring. Last week, he was called to Tofino for a report of a humpback calf wrapped in fishing gear, but could not locate the whale.

Hildering said it can be tempting to think that all whales that are entangled will be seen and rescued, “but this will never be the case in B.C.’s vast waters.”

“More boater education is needed, more resources are needed for disentanglement and to understand where and how entanglements are happening to be able to reduce the risk at the source,” she said.

Cottrell said boaters are often the only way that DFO is notified about entanglements. He said DFO’s Incident Reporting Line (1-800-465-4336) “is a major part of the team effort we put in to help these whales.”

Erin Gless of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, which has about 30 member companies in the U.S and Canada, said the industry plays a major role in keeping eyes on orcas and other whales. She said whale-watching members were able to report both the entanglement and the birth of the humpback’s first calf.

“These are the types of updates that truly make our efforts as professional whale watchers worthwhile,” said Gless. “If we hadn’t been on the water that day to report the entanglement, and DFO hadn’t been able to intervene, it’s hard to say what the outcome would have been.

“Slits might not be with us anymore, and we might not have this new calf in the population.”

These B.C. whales are shrinking – fast

Whales are shrinking – fast

A distinct group of grey whales that feeds off the coast of British Columbia and are a candidate for endangered species status have seen their average adult body length shrink 13 per cent in the past two decades, a new study has found.

The research, published in the journal Global Change Biology last week, involved flying drones off the coast of Oregon to capture subtle physiological changes in the niche grey whale feeding group, which stretches from northern California to Vancouver Island.

The findings offer a warning for the species and the latest signal that large animals across the world’s oceans are getting smaller — possibly in response to climate change and human activities — said K.C. Bierlich, assistant professor at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute and a co-author on the study.

“The fact that they've declined so drastically since 20, 25 years ago is a huge red flag,” said Bierlich. “It just kind of adds to the evidence across the planet that animals are getting smaller.”

Hunted to extirpation in the North Atlantic hundreds years ago, in the North Pacific, grey whales persisted. By 2018, the population had bounced back from a legacy of whaling to number 25,000 individuals.

Wintering off the coast of Baja California to breed, in the summer, most of the whales migrate north to feed in Arctic waters as far as the Northwest Territories.

But in 2019, signs started to emerge that something in that seasonal rhythm had gone wrong. Over the next four years, more than 600 grey whales turned up dead, their up to 14-metre carcasses rotting on the beaches of Canada, the United States and Mexico. Thousands more are thought to have died and sunk at sea.

In June 2019, a dead grey whale was found by Fisheries and Oceans Canada floating in the waters of Boundary Bay. By the end of 2020, 16 grey whales would be found dead in B.C. Photograph By PAUL COTTRELL

By 2023, scientists estimate the grey whale population sunk to around 15,500, a nearly 40 per cent drop from just four years earlier.

The die-off was unexpected, said Thomas Doniol-Valcroze, head of the Cetacean Research Program at Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C.

“This is a population of whales that has overall recovered fairly well from the whaling era. People were thinking, we're on our way to a full recovery,” said Doniol-Valcroze, who was not involved in the latest study.

Amid the die-off, researchers in the U.S. and Canada began to see an odd signal. A small subgroup of the whales weren’t dying at the same rate. But they were getting skinnier.

Odd whales out

Numbering 212 individuals, the Pacific coast feeding group is not genetically unique, but it was always a bit odd. Instead of going all the way to the Arctic, they tended to make a shorter trip, mothers bringing their young to preferred shallow-water feeding grounds off Northern California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

Arctic feeding whales tend to eat crustaceans that live in the sand and mud on the ocean floor. The coastal feeding group, on the other hand, tended to favour shallow kelp forests and rocky reefs where they could hoover up crab larvae and tiny mysid shrimp near the surface.

“You can literally stand on the cliffs and look down and see a grey whale feeding right there, which is kind of unheard of for such a large baleen whale,” said Bierlich.

Feeding through ocean currents, the whales sometimes stay in place by floating vertically, head down, using a pectoral fin to spin in place. It’s as if they were a child doing a headstand at the bottom of a pool, said the researcher.

Scientists observe a grey whale, part of a feeding group that stretches from Northern California to British Columbia. Marine Mammal Institute GEMM Lab/Oregon State University

Sometimes, the whales will approach a zodiac of scientists friendly and curious; other times, they’ll go off on their own for long periods, only to check in with other whales weeks later.

“I think they each have their own personality,” Bierlich said. “They actually might be interacting on a different level than what we're used to.”

Observing the whales has raised serious questions around the impact of human industry on the coast. Bierlich says studies have shown a lot of grey whales are ingesting plastics, while constantly facing threats from underwater noise, entanglement with fishing gear and collisions with boats.

“Last week, I blew over a dead whale that was entangled in a bunch of crab pots,” he said. “We think it was a calf.”

As a researcher focused on how an animal’s shape is influenced by its environment, Bierlich regularly had a bird's-eye view of the whales as they moved around. Analyzing the footage, he was struck by the way the whales' heads and flukes appeared to be getting smaller.

A few years ago, he remembers asking himself: is it a sign there’s not enough food? Are they healthy?

Scientists from Oregon State University's Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna launch a drone to observe grey whales. Marine Mammal Institute GEMM Lab/Oregon State University

'A very strong' shrinking signal

A good grey whale feeding ground requires a patch of ocean where deep water upwelling brings cool, nutrient-rich water to the surface. Those nutrients attract an array of smaller organisms like plankton, which in turn, act as food for mysid shrimp.

But for the whales to take advantage of those cold upwelling events, they need to be interspersed with moments of ocean “relaxation” so nutrients can sit in the water column and spur a proliferation of sea life.

“There's a sweet spot,” Bierlich said. “That basically creates a lot of food for other fish and birds and grey whales.”

The researchers found that in the 10 years prior to a calf’s birth, that sweet spot had slipped. Without enough prey, mothers of the coastal feeding group couldn’t build up their fat reserves to properly support their offspring with milk. A similar lack of food could stunt the calves once they are weaned, added Bierlich.

From the sky, the researchers piloted drones, and image by image, began to build visual growth charts for 130 whales. By comparing the growth curve of adults with the younger whales of today, they could understand how they were keeping up with previous generations and estimate how big they would be when they finally reached adulthood.

A grey whale born in 2020 compared to one born before 2000 shows the latter generation will grow 1.65 metres shorter. K.C. Bierlich/ OSU Marine Mammal Institute

The evidence pointed to a startling trend: on average, a whale born in 2020 is expected to reach an adult body length 1.65 metres shorter than one born before 2000, the study found. The 13 per cent decline is equivalent to the average five-foot-four Canadian woman shrinking down to four-foot-eight over two decades.

“It’s a surprise that animals like this — not fish, but you know large long-lived whales — can respond that strongly to just a fairly small change in environmental conditions,” said Doniol-Valcroze.

“It's a kind of metric that I thought you can see evolve in response to conditions over a much longer time frame.”

While quite convincing, Doniol-Valcroze said the study is using young whale growth patterns to predict adult size. He said the authors acknowledged the whales still could still catch up if ocean conditions improve.

“Usually, that's not what happens. Usually, you're kind of stuck on your trajectory, and those early years are pivotal,” he said. “If the signal holds, it’s a very strong signal.”

Scientists are increasingly using drones to observe previously imperceptible changes in whale physiology. Marine Mammal Institute GEMM Lab/Oregon State University

Brink of a new endangered species

The research out of Oregon comes as scientists and policymakers are upending what they think they knew about grey whales.

For years, the resident grey whales off B.C.’s coast weren’t considered a priority, but part of the larger abundant group of migratory grey whales. But as scientists learn more about the coastal feeding group, the Canadian government appears poised to protect them.

In 2017, the Committee on the status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada kicked off a reassessment of the whale. In 2021, Doniol-Valcroze co-authored a potential recovery assessment of the Pacific coast feeding group in B.C. That work has since been used in consultations over whether government should declare the whale endangered.

“The managers have made their recommendations to the minister, and I think now we're just waiting for a final decision on the part of the government,” he said. “It could happen as early as this year.”

Such political decisions are out of the hands of scientists like Bierlich and Doniol-Valcroze. Both said their focus is to get out in the field and learn from one another.

Federal research scientists in Canada are slightly behind their U.S. counterparts, but Doniol-Valcroze said they are trying to learn from the Oregon-based team to apply similar drone research methods off the coast of Vancouver Island.

And as research teams in Washington and B.C. get more drones in the air, Bierlich said he will be able to confirm or dispel a lot of what he’s documenting.

Eco-morphologist K.C. Bierlich flies a drone to observe a niche grey whale population off the coast of Oregon. Marine Mammal Institute GEMM Lab/Oregon State University

Sentinels in a changing ocean

A lot of questions remain unanswered. Bierlich said his next priority is to monitor the species in its Mexican breeding grounds to better understand the repercussions of shrinking whales. One of his biggest concerns: does their smaller size offer an early warning sign they have hit a physiological wall and won’t be able to reproduce?

“Because if it is, that's a serious problem. If it isn't, then maybe they've just adapted to be smaller,” said Bierlich.

Those answers couldn’t come soon enough. Whales are considered sentinels of the ocean — they eat and poop a lot, making them powerful "nutrient cyclers" that fertilize the sea to support more life.

Scientists off the coast of Oregon observe a grey whale. Marine Mammal Institute GEMM Lab/Oregon State University

The health of a single whale as it migrates from Mexico to Canada can tell scientists about the health of the whole population, and as a top predator, the wider ecosystem itself, added Bierlich. A changing climate means a rapidly changing ocean that few living whales have encountered.

“There might have been more of a cyclical pattern at some point. But we're getting away from that,” said Bierlich. “We're entering new territory.”

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