Dr. Michael Bigg

Making a Bigg difference

Jackie Hildering explains the contributions to marine biology made by Dr. Michael Bigg.

What’s the Bigg’s Deal?  I’ve been asked this a lot lately: “Why are the mammal-hunting killer whales being referenced as ‘Bigg’s killer whales’ rather than as ‘transients’ as they were previously known?”

This is because a 2010 study found that the mammal-hunting ecotype of killer whales diverged from the other ecotypes some 700,000 years ago and the researchers (Morin et al) put forward that they be recognized as a distinct species.

If they are to be recognized as such, many in whale-research-world believe it is only appropriate that the species be named in honour of the late and great Dr. Michael Bigg whose pioneering killer whale ID research in the eastern North Pacific in the 1970s and 1980s revealed killer whales have distinct populations and there are very limited numbers within these populations.

Ultimately, his research led to the understanding that killer whale populations have distinct cultures.

This knowledge, of course, had huge conservation implications. It was previously believed there were abundant killer whales in the eastern North Pacific and that they all ate salmon in addition to marine mammals; rather than the reality that there are four at-risk populations that are genetically and ecologically distinct:

1. Bigg’s killer whales are marine mammal hunters (they also eat an occasional bird and, very rarely, a terrestrial mammal). The population estimate for this threatened population is 270 individuals that are more often along coastal B.C., with research ongoing regarding population numbers further off the coast.

“Residents” are inshore fish-eating killer whales (ingesting an occasional squid too) and there are two distinct populations. The vast majority of their fish diet is salmon and of the salmon species, their absolute favourite is Chinook.

2. The northern “residents” are a threatened population of some 260 whales more often found in northern British Columbia but also in southeastern Alaska and Washington State.

3. The southern “residents” are most often swimming around southern British Columbia and Washington State but are sometimes also in the waters of northern British Columbia, Oregon and California. At only 87 individuals, this population is recognized as being endangered.

4. Offshore killer whales are fish-eaters often found along the continental shelf from the Aleutian Islands to California. To date, published research has confirmed that their diet includes Pacific sleeper sharks and Pacific halibut. The population estimate is in the range of 240 to 340 individuals and this, too, is a threatened population.

Through the research of Dr. Bigg, the killer whales of British Columbia have been studied as individuals longer than any other marine mammal species on the planet. And not only marine species have benefited from this. We all have.

Due to his work, whereby the age, gender, diet and range is known for almost every killer whale in British Columbia, these whales “tell the story” of global chemical pollution. The work of Dr. Peter Ross examines the toxins in the blubber and indeed the killer whales of B.C. are the “canaries in the coal mine” informing the science that should shape international policies and regulations regarding toxins.

However, there is also much that has not changed since the days of Dr. Bigg’s pioneering killer whale research.

At that time, killer whales were the scapegoat for declining salmon populations and the “gold rush” on their being put into captivity was likely perceived as a favourable management tool. Conservation costs money, not only for science and management, but also by limiting industries whose activities may negatively impact species at risk.

Flash forward some 40 years to 2013. Dr. Peter Ross’ work with Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been terminated as part of what can only be called the demise of Canada’s ocean contaminants research program. And, prior to his termination, he like so many other government scientists in Canada has been constrained in being able to communicate about his research.

The ultimate Bigg’s Deal is that one person can make a profound positive difference by replacing knowledge where fear and misunderstanding once dwelled.

However, to work against government forces that imperil our environment and suppress science in favour of short-term economic gain, it is going to take a very great many of us to make our voices and actions . . . Bigg-er.

 

Jackie Hildering is a marine educator, avid scuba diver, and humpback whale researcher who lives in Port McNeill. See www.themarinedetective.ca for more detail.

 

 

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