“Why Do Whales Sing?” TedEd Video



Currently, I am doing my Master’s of Conservation Biology at Columbia University. I am researching arctic marine mammals in the Bering Sea as part of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Arctic Beringia Program (https://programs.wcs.org/northamerica/wild-places/arctic-beringia.aspx). We use underwater microphones (hydrophones) to record the calls of bowhead, humpback, minke, beluga, and killer whales, as well as walruses and bearded seals, as they migrate annually past St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, through the Bering Strait to the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. These animals spend the winter around St. Lawrence Island, breeding and waiting for the ice edge to recede. Once the ice has melted in the spring and summer, the marine mammals move north to rich feeding areas in the frigid arctic ocean.

Along with environmental cues, I am examining what influence daylight has on calling patterns; whether animals are more likely to call during the day or at night. This will help acoustic researchers, especially those aiming to quantify the impacts of climate change on these animals, to target when they deploy their recorders in order to develop the most accurate understanding of when and where animals. This accurate information will then build management policies to protect our oceans and its inhabitants efficiently.

As you can imagine, a lot of my research consists of listening to whale calls for countless hours. I have found the experience awe-inspiring, motivating me to be more ocean-friendly in my daily life. I wanted to share this passion with the public, so I contacted TedEd to see if they were interested in my proposal. Working with the TedEd team was a wonderful opportunity; they helped me hone my idea and transfer hard science into an accessible media for everyone to enjoy. The animators and sound editors (who collaborated with me directly to ensure all sounds in the video are from the correct species) produced a beautiful piece at the junction of science and art that I could not be more impressed by and proud of.

Within the first 24 hours of being live, the video has been viewed by over 50,000 people around the globe. Our international community has shown their interest in engaging with marine mammals, and this video has given them an opportunity to learn more about our delicate but vast oceans. Science communication and educational outreach will lead to a future of ocean-minded, international-oriented citizens, and I am pleased to contribute my video and my research to this endeavour!


– Steph

Conserving Canada’s Caribou

Every Canadian interacts with caribou daily, whether they realize it or not. Since 1937, a caribou has adorned the back of our 25-cent coin as a symbol of Canadian wildlife and grandeur. Across the country, caribou have been featured as prominent icons of Canadian history and national pride.


Boreal woodland caribou in Northern Alberta. Photo courtesy of Nature, the International Weekly Journal of Science, and photographer John E. Marriott.


Amazingly, Canadian caribou range from the Yukon to Newfoundland. There are four subspecies of migratory caribou in Canada, all locally adapted to their environments. Barren ground caribou are native to the tundra of Northern Canada and are the most abundant subspecies. Mountain caribou are considerably less numerous, as are the boreal woodland and the Arctic islands caribou.


Range map of caribou subspecies across Canada. Photo courtesy of COSEWIC and CPAWS.


Caribou are particularly important to northern Indigenous communities across Canada’s Arctic. For instance, a large caribou herd migrates past the community of Rankin Inlet annually. From a subsistence perspective, this is a great opportunity for the Inuit of Rankin to hunt for food. From a community perspective, the presence of caribou encourages adults and youth alike to learn about sustainable harvest and their hunting heritage. They practice hunting primarily from the largest, most resilient herds.


Thousands of caribou are migrating past Rankin Inlet. Photo courtesy of CBC Nunavut and photographer Rose Tootoo.


Despite the cultural and ecological importance of caribou, their ranges are becoming fragmented and their populations are decreasing. This is due to habitat loss and negative impacts of human activity. Over the past three decades, the global caribou population has declined by 40% and Canadian caribou are now found in just half of their historic range. As a result, caribou are categorized as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List.

Knowing this, we have to ask ourselves, “How do we protect caribou?” As a conservation biologist, I understand first hand the importance of teaching fellow Canadians about aspects of our vast wilderness that they may not otherwise interact with. Through education, we can rally support for conservation initiatives and prioritize our environment.

Caribou need to be on the radar of young, conservation-minded Canadians across our nation. “It would be devastating to lose such an important part of our natural heritage… The preservation of caribou means the preservation of boreal forest habitat important to a large suite of species,” says Conservation Assistant Tara Russell, 25, of CPAWS Alberta. It is easy to feel discouraged when it comes to conservation because of the vastness of our country and the scope of environmental challenges we face. However, there are many small changes we can make in our daily lives that will positively influence caribou. Here are 3 easy ways Canadians can help:


1) Speak Up!

“All provinces are required to produce Range Plans for threatened woodland caribou,” says Tara. “These plans should outline how their ranges will be managed to ensure they have the undisturbed habitat they need to survive.” In order for caribou to persist, they require a healthy, connected habitat that includes protected areas with restricted hunting and development. Tara recommends Canadian youth take action by “speaking to your [provincial] government to let them know that you support Range Plans, and you want them done well! The caribou and our boreal forest need your voice.”

2) Follow the Three R’s

On a smaller scale, you can protect caribou by reducing your use of paper products, or reusing and recycling what you do use. This will ease the commercial logging of caribou habitats. Limiting habitat loss will allow caribou to continuously migrate safely between their breeding and feeding grounds.

3) Walk, Bike, Carpool, or Take Public Transit

Decreasing your gas consumption by driving less diminishes the need for oil extraction from northern landscapes. Roads fragment forests, interfering with vital caribou behaviour and exposing them to predators, like wolves.


Protecting caribou across Canada is a multi-step process that requires the education, commitment, and determination of our citizens in collaboration with our federal and provincial governments. Providing caribou with a healthy environment can increase their chances of surviving in a changing climate. It’s simple: we can benefit caribou by minimally updating our lifestyles! Through these easy actions, we as Canadians can feel empowered to support the nation-wide conservation of this significant species.


– Steph

So You Want to Attend Your First Scientific Conference

I am currently in St. John’s, Newfoundland, attending the fourth annual International Marine Conservation Congress. This is the first major conference I have participated in, and I want to emphasize that I am so fortune to be attending one so well run and, frankly, fun! With approximately 600 delegates and 5 days of workshops, presentations, poster sessions, and focus groups, I have learned a great deal about how to successfully make it through the (often) 12-hour days of participating and networking. The goal is to end each day with energy to spare and a smile on your face!

Based on my experience, here are a few tips to ace your first scientific conference:

1) Bring these essential items:

  • A notepad or portfolio will come in handy when booths hand you pamphlets, or colleagues give you contact information. It’ll also help you stay organized. Make sure you bring this to all sessions and to your own presentation/poster; people brought novel ideas to my attention at unexpected occasions, and writing them down for later is key!
  • Business cards are a great way to stay on people’s radar. Vistaprint.ca is an online business card producer who allows for stylistic flexibility and creativity at a student’s price. I can’t stress enough what an important investment good business cards are: send your new connections off with a professional impression of you (that won’t come through with homemade Word Doc template cards).
  • Bring a sweater. Yes, all of the conference rooms are likely in the same building, but weirdly enough no two rooms are ever the same temperature. Being comfortable will help you concentrate on important content.
  • Floss and/or gum will keep you feeling fresh during face-to-face encounters with new collaborators or colleagues.
  • You’ll do a surprising amount of walking between conference rooms, lunch spots, and events. Wear comfortable footwear and stash some Band-Aids in your bag in case of emergency.
  • While most conferences provide coffee breaks, snacks will come in very handy if sessions run late or meetings are back-to-back. Don’t get hangry!
  • Along those same lines, a reusable water bottle and/or mug is important to keep yourself energized throughout the conference.
  • I personally found having a portable phone charger helpful, especially because wall plugs were prime real estate and the conference app used substantial battery power. This item is especially important if you’re from out of town, as you’ll want it powered for directions and safety.

2) How to Network:

  • Some society committees are enlisting technology to help their conferences run smoothly. If your conference has an app, you can use the built-in messaging function to contact presenters you’d like to speak with. You can also build your own schedule to make sure you never miss a beat!
  • Ask your new connections what presentations they’re looking forward to most. They may enlighten you to a symposium or focus group you missed on the schedule but would benefit from. Staying connected ensures you get the most from the conference.
  • Use your notepad to jot down contacts’ names. You can then use this as a list of people to get in touch with after the conference, or as a helpful tool for remembering the names of people you want to impress.
  • Find common ground with anyone you speak with. Ask where they’re from, where they went to school, who they’ve worked with in the past, what they’ve seen in the city outside of conference hours, etc. It’ll make for a stronger, more personal connection moving forward.
  • Seek advice from experts on your study topic. Even if their advice isn’t novel, asking people for their perspectives shows you’re open to learning and respect their opinions.
  • Volunteer! Not only do some organizations offer registration discounts to students if you put in a certain number of hours, but you’ll also meet other students from all over the world. Additionally, you can put a face to a name for scientists you’re interested in speaking with when they first arrive to sign in or ask for directions. They’ll also recognize you as someone involved with the conference beyond just attending.

Conferences are a fantastic platform for increasing the visibility and prestige of your work, while also helping you to expand your perspectives and learn from a diverse group of people. Remember to always get enough sleep, stay fed/watered, be polite, and above all listen, listen, listen!

I hope these tips were helpful and perhaps we will cross paths at a conference in the near future! In the meantime, here are some puffins from Newfoundland:


Puffins in Bay Bulls during an IMCC whale watching trip!

What is Armchair Activism and How To Avoid It

The online community is constantly growing, seeking new information and novel ways of connecting. As the number of people with online profiles increases significantly over time, scientists need to be aware of the resource at hand. Formulating bonds between researchers, non-government organizations (NGOs), and the public is a key technique for encouraging participation and collaboration. But, there are caveats that come with targeting online users as representatives for conservation causes. The leading issue: armchair activism.

Armchair activism, or more informally named “slacktivism” refers to actions performed online in support of a cause that require low involvement, time, or commitment. Normally, the armchair activists are slow to participate in person, or when donations are involved. (Some have even gone so far as to garner the stereotype of regularly talking your ear off about how wrong everyone else is and how morally superior they are.) But, more generally, slacktivists remain on social media, signing petitions and joining support groups to satisfy their conservation guilt.

As a component of Columbia’s Graduate Seminar in Conservation Biology, I conducted research on the top six environmental non-government organizations and their social media presence. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Conservation International (CI), Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Sierra Club, Oceana, and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) all have active Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter accounts (all of which post stunning photos, if you ever find yourself in need of a nature-fix).

I quantified the number of followers each organization had and the number of posts they shared over time, and correlated it with publicly-available revenue data. I was looking to answer a simple yet intriguing question: does having more followers really make a difference? Or are conservation organizations just accumulating an army of armchair activists?


Note: WCS joined most social media platforms later than other NGOs, likely a contributing factor to their lower following. Also, YouTube subscriptions are generally low because most third-party sites embed YouTube videos in their pages. (Interesting from a finance and marketing perspective, YouTube usually only breaks-even and very minimally contributes to Google’s annual profits as a result of low site-visitation and external video viewing.)

Potentially unsurprising, the number of followers does correlate with the total net assets of each organization. This implies that social media followers may be more active than society gives them credit for, and that they may be donating just as frequently as non-social media users. Furthermore, the number of posts an organization published did not influence the number of followers or the organization’s net revenue. This suggests that followers are engaging with posts based on content, not simply volume.


Even if I had found that the number of followers online was not correlated to revenue, implying that slacktivism may be rampant, would it really be that bad? How accurate is our negative perspective of slacktivists?

Some online campaigns are now intentionally targeting slacktivists, because it can actually have positive repercussions for an NGO. Token forms of support, such as re-tweets, re-blogs, shares, or petition signatures, can give lobbyist groups the backing they require to move policy forward. Additionally, organizations can use these small requests as a way to build a relationship with participants that can lead to deeper engagement.

Finally, although the actions of the slacktivist might not be substantially helpful, their distribution of conservation material may encourage or enlighten more enterprising individuals to pursue action. As a means of dissemination, slacktivists might not be ignominious.

That being said, I do not believe slacktivism can replace activism in value. While the benefits gained from engaging armchair activists (awareness raising, in particular) are important, the physical act of tackling conservation issues cannot be accomplished without widespread action. The most important thing to remember is that these actions do not have to be huge; every small act helps. Replacing single-use utensils, cups, and mugs with reusable dishes; reducing your meat consumption; collecting litter; donating without requiring a gift or reward in exchange; switching to a green energy provider or install solar panelling; purchasing ethical clothing or makeup; offsetting your carbon footprint; the options are nearly endless and most can be accomplished easily without disruption to your daily life.

Do you know any so-called slacktivists? Perhaps a colleague or friend on Facebook who posts about conservation issues regularly? Next time you see them, talk to them about their contributions and remind them how every little bit helps. Their “likes” may go farther than they know, and encourage them to participate in more hands-on activities, like a beach or park clean. They’re all drops in the proverbial bucket.


– Steph

P.S. an additional resource worth reading.

Managing Shark Finning

Shark finning is a controversial animal trade; while some cultures argue that it is an important player in traditional celebrations, the general scientific community is in agreement that it is having massively damaging implications for international shark populations.

What is Shark Finning?

Shark finning is an often inhumane fishing practice. Fins are removed from the shark, usually while the animal is still alive. Their finless bodies (or “logs”) are returned to the ocean, and the animal most often drowns, unable to swim. Shark harvest in excess is unsustainable and wasteful since only a small portion of the animal is used. Shark collection for fins is indiscriminate, and fins are sold based on size (length and thickness), weight, and texture rather than by species. Any fleshy fin, devoid of bones, can be taken, including pectoral, pelvic, anal, half of the caudal, and both primary and secondary dorsal fins.

Fins are mainly used as ingredients in shark fin soup. The broth-based dish runs upwards of $85 Canadian per portion, and is served at cultural events like weddings.

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 5.27.58 PM

An excerpt from a menu of the Sea King Shark Fin Soup Seafood Restaurant in Ottawa. It is always a shock to see conservation infractions so close to home (literally, around the corner).

Apparently the fin is tasteless, but provides a gelatinous texture to the soup. The meal has been considered a delicacy of haute cuisine in China for centuries. The soup continues to act as a status symbol due to exclusivity and exoticism (Clarke et al., 2007), but has become affordable to the general public within the last decade.  Hong Kong is the world’s largest market for shark fins, home to over half of the global trade (Fong and Anderson, 2002; Clarke et al., 2006).

Shark Overexploitation

Fifteen years ago, the harvest of elasmobranches (sharks and rays) was estimated at 100 million tonnes per year (Hoelzel, 2001). Five years later, it had increased to up to 2.2 million tonnes per year (Clarke et al., 2006), with an annual market value of up to 550 million USD per year (Clarke et al., 2007). This increasing rate is still likely an underestimate, since catch records are often wrought with inaccuracies (Clarke et al., 2008). Further, Drew et al. (2015) observed that reefs in closer proximity to large human populations had lower biodiversity of sharks, which is an indicator of an unhealthy reef.

Implications of Excess Harvest

Sharks are top predators, maintaining the balance of ocean ecosystems. Their presence influences the community structure below them, controlling the abundance of lower trophic level species. The removal of sharks has adverse effects cascading down the food web, even implicating seagrass beds and corals due to an increase in herbivorous fishes (Oceana, 2008).

Several case studies have made the future of a shark-less ocean clear. In the Atlantic, the population of scalloped hammerheads was reduced 75% by 2003, leading to a drastic increase in skates and rays. These meso-predators, or members of a middle trophic level, feed heavily on shellfish. As a result of shark overexploitation and subsequent ray abundance, the scallop industry on the East coast experienced collapses from New Jersey to Florida (Myers et al., 2007).


Because the harvest of sharks is indiscriminate, shark species being targeted are difficult to quantify. Clarke and colleagues (2006) assessed the species composition of fins sold in Hong Kong markets using genetic analysis and trade records. They found that the markets mainly auctioned blue sharks, as well as short-fin mako, silky, sandbar, bull, hammerhead, and thresher sharks. Methodology is becoming more efficient for identifying sharks from small genetic fin samples (Hoelzel, 2001; Sebastien et al., 2008), but the restrictions on information by clandestine shark processors, sellers, and buyers make accurate estimates of species and trafficking difficult. As a result, implementing protection regulations for specific species (or going the other way and blanket-protecting all sharks) is unrealistic and unfeasible (Worm et al., 2013).

Additionally, little research has investigated the connection between the demand for sharks and harvest management (Fong and Anderson, 2002).  For effort regulations to be effective, the resource must remain productive, it must maintain economic performance, and it must maintain equity to access. Shiffman and Hammerschlag (2016) outlined how the elasmobranch scientific community is in favour of a positive approach to conservation of sharks. The majority of polled scientists believed that identifying threatened species, generating hunting quotas, and encouraging sustainable harvest would be more effective than outright banning shark consumption. The benefits of a managed fishery is that it does not encourage poaching, and involves fisherfolk in shark protection via population censuses. Marine Protected Areas based around shark hot spots (where lots of species are all located) is also another plausibly enforceable restriction.

Fong and Anderson also suggest implementing rights-based management, where a “total allowable catch”, or community quota, is set, and individuals can sell their personal quotas to other fishermen or companies (known as Individual Transferable Quotas). In this way, there is an economic gain for all parties involved without excess pressure on shark populations. A further method by the The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission is to enforce fishermen to keep shark bodies on board, and instead restrict the total weight of sharks they can catch, rather than implementing restrictions on the fins themselves (Clarke et al., 2008). This shift in mentality from assessing and restricting catch levels towards prohibitions on handling and utilization practices might be the novel solution this industry desperately needs. 

Concluding Remarks

What are your opinions on shark fisheries? Could you take the pledge to avoid restaurants that serve shark fin soup? Taking artistic liberties with the wise words of Bruce, “Sharks are friends, not food.”





 Clarke et al., 2006. Estimates of shark species composition and numbers associated with the shark fin trade based on Hong Kong auction data. J. Northw. Atl. Sci., 35: 453-465.

Clarke et al., 2006b. Global estimates of shark catches using trade records from commercial markets. Ecology Letters, 9: 1115–1126. doi:10.1111/j.1461-0248.2006.00968.x

Clarke et al., 2007. Social, economic, and regulatory drivers of the shark fin trade. Marine Resource Economics, 22: 305-327.

Clarke et al. 2012. Population trends in Pacific Oceanic Sharks and the utility of regulations on shark finning. Conservation Biology, 27(1): 197-209.

Drew et al., 2015. Quantifying the Human impacts on Papua New Guinea Reef Fish Communities Across Space and TimePLOS One 10(10): e0140682.

Fong and Anderson, 2002. International shark fin markets and shark management: an integrated market preference-cohort analysis of the blacktip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus). Ecological Economics, 40: 117-130.

Griffin et al., 2008. Predators as Prey: Why Healthy Oceans Need Sharks. Oceana: http://oceana.org/sites/default/files/reports/Predators_as_Prey_FINAL_FINAL1.pdf

Hoelzel, 2001. Shark fishing in fin soup. Conservation Genetics, 2: 69-72.

Myers et al., 2007. Cascading effects of the loss of apex predatory sharks from a coastal ocean. Science, 315(5820): 1846 – 1850.

Sebastian et al., 2008. Characterization of the pelagic shark-fin trade in north-central Chile by genetic identification and trader surveys. Journal of Fish Biology, 73: 2293-2304.

Shiffman and Hammerschlag, 2016. Preferred conservation policy of shark researchers. Conservation Biology, DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12668.

Worm et al., 2013. Global catches, exploitation rates, and rebuilding options for sharks. Marine Policy, 40: 194-204.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge

In September, I started working on my thesis as part of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Arctic Beringia program. While I will touch on this more in a later blog, I will mention here that the program is a series of marine and terrestrial assessments of the health of organisms in the Arctic, with the social aim of relating their abundances and distributions back to the substituent hunters of the northern communities there. Essentially, we are investigating management strategies that will benefit the fauna populations, while also prioritizing food security for the indigenous people of the Arctic. As such, a major component of our work is to collaborate with community members who possess traditional ecological knowledge. We later aim to relay our results directly to their hunting councils, as well as to policy makers and stakeholders.

Traditional ecological knowledge is the multigenerational transfer of expertise regarding human interactions with their environment. In the words of Noongwook et al. (2007), “it is based on lessons and stories passed from generation to generation, personal experience and interaction with peers, including people from other communities.” It adapts to reflect ecosystem changes, and is most commonly passed on via storytelling, rather than formally written. It is generally accompanied by folk systematics, or terminology for species that are important to the lifestyle of the peoples (for example, only edible fish would be given descriptive names, compared to the generic names of inedible fish). The greatest caveat of traditional knowledge is that no single individual or community possesses all of the relevant information. But, on the whole, traditional ecological knowledge can fill in research gaps, while acting as a bridge between community principles and government regulations to ensure policies are effective.

I recently read a fantastic account of the hunters’ knowledge of bowhead whales from the St. Lawrence Island, where our hydrophones are currently recording marine mammal vocalizations. In this way, the paper was extremely relevant to my project, as it provides a baseline for my research. Noongwook and colleagues (2007) documented the discrepancy between the wealth of indigenous knowledge regarding bowhead whales in the Bering Sea, compared to the relatively few scientific publications on their distribution and abundance. They sought to relate the harvest quota implemented by the International Whaling Commission to the Yupik peoples’ understanding of the whale stock, to ensure that hunting “occurred within a safe level for the population.”

Noongwook and collaborators found that bowhead whales tended to head westward around St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, and that the whales arrived in stages based on their age and sex. The youngest whales arrived first, followed by midsize and then large whales, including mothers and calves. This is important knowledge, since temporal restrictions on hunting could positively influence population growth by omitting young whales or mothers from the harvest.

They also importantly noted that as the climate conditions of the area shift, so do the migratory patterns of the whales. Less ice earlier in the winter season retrocedes the whales’ migration past the island to March instead of April or May, according to local hunters. Whales have become more abundant around the island during the winter, so much so that almost 40% of the yearly harvest was during the winter in the last decade at the towns of Savoonga and Gambell. As weather conditions change more rapidly, migration patterns have been less predictable, and this could have major negative implications for the substituent hunters of St. Lawrence Island.

This is not my first encounter with the importance of traditional ecological


Drying caribou in Arviat, Nunavut

knowledge within an Arctic community. In 2011, I lived in Arviat, Nunavut (aptly translated to “the place of the bowhead whale”) for three months, working as a summer program coordinator with the hamlet’s municipal government. During my time in Nunavut, I witnessed the transfer of environmental knowledge between generations in a number of venues. On one occasion, I was invited to a caribou cookout at a large family’s tundra camp, where the meat had been drying in a hand-built underground cavern, or cellar if you will, for over a week. Four generations of family members gathered at the camp to prepare every inch of the caribou for consumption, from head to toe (literally… I won’t get too graphic here, but if there is a part of an animal that’s edible, I ate it while in Nunavut. Some were good, while others had the family laughing at me as I tried to respectfully keep it down… can’t say I didn’t try!). Without the skills taught to younger generations, the ability to harvest each portion of the caribou would be lost; that isn’t the sort of information regularly written.

Another time, I went ATV caribou hunting with a friend from work. While I personally can say that I’m glad we did not see any caribou that day, Curtis was able to show me sites of regular animal visitors, usually a sure place to hunt, which his grandparents had shown him. Finally, I was


Jump-starting our ATVs outside Arviat, Nunavut

asked to join a tour by a local guide who was starting his own tourism company, along with the CBC and Parks Canada representatives. We traveled to Century Island, where early transient Inuit had frequented for polar bear hunts, as well as their own fascinating summer games. Again, without our guide Billy’s understanding the history of his people in the area, the island would not have held the same significant traditional value; his knowledge was purely inherited from oral histories. With that, I hope a taste of my personal experience helps to elucidate the importance of shared community knowledge.

Going back to the topic of traditional ecological knowledge and its intersection with science, I want to conclude by seriously emphasizing that science is not in any way “better” than traditional ecological knowledge. Rather, scientific research is a method of formalizing the understanding that substituent hunters have of their resident fauna, making it accessible to policy makers and the public. The conversion of oral histories into documented accounts with statistically significant research and corroborated observations to accompany them generates incontrovertible evidence for management strategies. As such, I will continue to respect and prioritize traditional knowledge during my research, and will always find the connectivity of local communities fascinating.


Noongwook et al. 2007. Traditional Knowledge of the Bowhead Whale (Balaena mysticetus) around St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Arctic, 60(1): 47-54.


And just for fun, here’s a polar bear photo I took from our time with Billy.