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How an SFU Prof Uses Statistics to Give Killer Whales a Chance

For Ruth Joy, data’s the key to smart decisions. Part of a series introducing innovative thinkers in BC’s post-secondary sector.

By Steve Burgess 14 Aug 2019 |

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

The rooftop patio at 55 Water St. offers a lovely view of Coal Harbour — the SeaBus gliding across to North Vancouver, a monstrous white cruise ship preparing to chug back out to sea and, at this moment, a helicopter clattering down to the landing pad east of Canada Place.

On a sunny August afternoon, SFU professor Ruth Joy reflects on what all that activity means for life under the sea.

“Imagine having all that noise above you all of the time,” she says. “Not so much the helicopters, but more the boats. They’re the real problem. It’s the cavitation of the propellers — bubbles created by a propeller moving through the water creating small explosions and a lot of noise.”

Noise that interferes with the lives of many sea creatures — including the endangered southern resident killer whale population. Which is why Joy was out in Coal Harbour the previous day, accompanied by a couple of her Simon Fraser University students, pulling up underwater listening devices called hydrophones that have been measuring just how noisy our underwater neighbourhood has been getting. It’s part of her work for the Sea Mammal Research Unit, a side gig from her main job as a lecturer at SFU. When she’s not out measuring the ocean racket, Joy is in the classroom teaching the wonders of statistics.

Those who don’t instantly connect the field of statistics to local whale populations are perhaps too busy thinking about baseball averages and election predictions.

But when it comes to understanding developments in our ecosystem and devising solutions, statistical studies are key.

“Statistics have suffered from an unfair portrayal as dry and not very interesting, just an evil subject that you have to take in order to get your degree,” Joy says. “In my career I have tried to show the power of statistics — the ability to make policy changes, all based on statistics. We’re trying to make a difference for southern resident killer whales. We’ve slowed vessels down, and that’s all to do with statistical expectations of management changes.”

“The power of stats is the convincing argument,” she says. “You can make your emotional argument all you want but if people don’t buy it, you’re not getting anywhere. Whereas statistics, based on collected data, there’s a sense of impartiality about it because numbers don’t lie.”

Mark Twain thought otherwise, but even his famous claim there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics” is one more reason to dive in, according to Joy.

“That’s why you need to be educated,” she says. “You need to know when you are being manipulated. Just like with philosophy — you have to know how to make a good argument, and there are many different ways to do it. I’m not saying statistics is everything, but it’s certainly a compelling way to make an argument.”

Some of her students get the bonus of nautical adventure — if not the high seas, at least Burrard Inlet — as they help replace the undersea listening devices positioned around the port.

The port monitors underwater noise levels to keep them within international standards, Joy says. “We brought two students out on the water to get experience with hydrophones and how those work.”

The lines leading to the hydrophones can also serve as an informal census of local marine life. “We had lots of tunicates — they’re also called sea squirts — on our lines,” she says. “All sorts of marine life starts to grow on your equipment — barnacles, everything. Each location has different currents, different environments, and each one had different life on the lines. One of them had a rock crab, spider crabs — lots and lots of crabs.”

Joy, a Victoria native who studied at both UVic and SFU, doesn’t have to convince her students to embrace the joys of number crunching.

“I teach masters-level students in ecological restoration who are already sold on statistics,” she says. “I deal more with people who want to learn but have a block with it, rather than ever having to convince anyone of the value of statistics. A lot of students come in with a natural curiosity about the world they are measuring and the world around them, and statistics empower them to say whether it’s a meaningful difference or not.”

Before she turned to the health of whales, Joy was working with mammals of the bipedal variety.

“I used to work at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS,” she says. “That’s all about finding drug treatments for people living with HIV. Now you have a tailored drug regime that is specific to you and your outcomes based on your genetics and what strains of HIV you contracted. Statistics is key to all of that. It’s a collaborative team of geneticists, statisticians and doctors — a lot of science progresses not because of one field, but because a lot of people work together. Statistics is central to that process.”

Joy, like a lot of Vancouverites, is juggling more than one job. Statistical side gigs ought to be easy to find here, particularly if one has expertise in killer whales. A certain local hockey team has orcas on its jerseys, could be considered endangered from a competitive perspective, and always needs more statistical analysis.

“There’s a synergy here, isn’t there?” Joy laughs. “If you can get really rich doing it that can’t be a waste. I’ll only need one job.”

But happily Joy has not been reduced to calculating Canucks’ save percentages and power play efficiency. “I think my skills are better spent elsewhere,” she says.

These days that place is the Sea Mammal Research Unit, a gig that dovetails neatly with her SFU work on southern resident killer whales.

In her research at SFU, she is studying ways to prevent ship strikes, while her research unit work includes the measurement of underwater noise levels. While the danger posed by ship strikes is obvious, the problem of noise levels is more complex.

“It can make it difficult to communicate,” Joy says. “The whale is in constant vocal communication with its pod. If you listen through the hydrophone the whales are chattering like a flock of chickadees, with constant knowledge of where each of them is. They may be hunting together and communicating about the hunt.”

This afternoon the patio atop 55 Water St. is filling up with lively groups taking a break from the offices below. Joy grins a little at this impromptu illustration of the effects of noise, leaning in to make herself heard.

“When there’s a lot of noise, at first whales will raise their voices, just like we would in a noisy bar,” she says. “Then at some point we stop talking, because we can’t hear. Killer whales do the same thing. They raise the energy that they put into their vocalizations up to a point, and then they go quiet. That has to affect their hunting as well as their ability to keep track of one another.”

“Noise travels four times as fast underwater,” she says, “so it’s pervasive and can go across ocean basins. That’s why humpbacks and fin whales and others will sing, in intelligent ways, using the ocean features to make their sound go farther.”

But boats, she points out, are indiscriminate noisemakers. “They drive right through the same areas and make noises that can be heard throughout the whole basin.”

Meanwhile, whales must deal with the threat posed by ships themselves.

“Through SFU we have three years of funding through the Oceans Protection Plan with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans,” Joy says. “It’s specific to stopping strike risk. How do you get ships to move out of the way when there are killer whales potentially in their path?”

The danger is very real. “The DFO just released a report that confirmed [southern resident killer whale] J34 was killed by blunt force trauma from a ship strike.”

Since then the news has gotten worse. Earlier this month three more deaths were reported — 28-year-old male K25, 29-year-old male L84 and 49-year-old pod matriarch J17.

Terrible though this news was, it was not completely unexpected. “We were already waiting for confirmation of J17’s and K25’s deaths from the Center for Whale Research,” Joy says. “Very sad that L84 has also been presumed dead.”

Even so, Joy says the outlook is not entirely grim. From 2013 to 2018, there had been no successful pregnancies. This year two babies were born, which has allowed for a bit of hope.

The southern resident whales are still much thinner than the northern residents, she says, indicating they’re under “nutritional stress.”

“However they’ve had two full-term pregnancies with two healthy babies this year, so that is cause for optimism,” Joy notes. “The female has an opportunity to abort if she doesn’t have enough body fat to sustain the pregnancy or the lactation. If the cost is too high, then she gets rid of the fetus.

“I’m trying to stay optimistic as the new babies inspired everyone with hope. It was just about the only good sign for this population in a while, though.”

But the deaths raise serious concerns about the future of the southern residents. “Right now, to be honest, I’m more than a little scared,” Joy says.

Some protection measures are being put in place. “They’re trying marine sanctuaries, they’re closing down fishing zones in the Salish Sea, they’re slowing vessels down during the summer when the southern residents are coming through,” Joy says. “They are investing in new propellers and hull shapes to make vessels quieter. They are putting in incentive measures.”

But the future for the southern resident killer whale population is still perilous.

As for the number-crunching trade, its future is not in danger. And Joy is all in.

“I’m still challenged. Wherever you are, there are always interesting problems that you need to build your numerical skills for.”

“In all realms of science, policy and health,” she says, “there are statistics underlying decisions.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, Environment

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