Laurie Murison – whale researcher turned conservationist

In an ideal world, Laurie would be solely a researcher. She would spend her days out on the ocean studying the animals which she loves and sharing that passion with others. When Laurie is on the water, “I immediately calm down and de-stress. It is such a beautiful yet potentially hostile environment. There is always so much to learn accompanied by unexpected surprises along the way.”

But, unfortunately for us all, we are not in such an ideal world. As Laurie says, “When our population is on the increase so dramatically, how do we manage those people so that we can protect all the wonderful species around us? If I was a pessimist, I would not get out of bed in the morning, we have changed our earth so much, 90% of our megafauna is gone from our oceans…”

Over the years, the topic of our environment has waxed and waned in popularity; sometimes it is at the forefront of thinking, at other times it is forgotten. When Laurie first came to Grand Manan on the 1980’s, environmental matters were of great concern. Through working with whales, in particular the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale, Laurie has had no choice but to witness, and become involved in combating, our collective negative impacts on this planet. “When something happens to a whale you have seen many times and come to know, and when you have to handle the consequences, you start to think about it in a different way. You see the problems and you try and deal with them, while also trying to live yourself!”

On a personal level, Laurie is pro-active, she thinks about how she can be effective, about what can and can’t be done, and how she can live without impacting negatively on her environment. At an organisational level, Laurie’s work as executive director of Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station (GMWSRS) has inevitably included conservation efforts. Laurie is intensely aware of the balancing act that this requires. To marry together the needs of the environment with the needs of people requires compromise. Often there are different groups involved with opposing agendas and conflicting needs, and somehow these have to meet. As Laurie says, “All sides need to understand what is going on, and then bring to the table whatever is most important. Trust is an important factor, as is a willingness to find a shared language to communicate with. The process requires a collaborative rather than dictatorial approach. From that we can hope to find a happy medium.”

The harbour porpoise release program is one such initiative which Laurie and her team created. When Dr. Gaskin began working in the Bay of Fundy very little was known about harbour porpoises, they are after all rather shy, elusive creatures. The easiest way for Dr. Gaskin to find individuals for study and tracking purposes was to collect one from a herring weir, as it was known that harbour porpoises could become trapped in weirs. At the time, the easiest way for a fisherman to deal with this situation was to shoot the porpoise to prevent it disturbing the herring and facilitating their escape. By the late 1980’s concern grew about the harbour porpoises’ population and it was acknowledged that gillnet fishing, plus to a lesser extent herring weirs, posed a significant threat to the species.

In 1991, GMWSRS developed a formalised release program which continues to this day. It involves fishermen and rescue team working together using a seine, or net, to free the porpoise without losing any of the fish. The team drops the seine into the weir to encircle the porpoise and slowly bring it to the surface. From there, the rescue diver can “Reach in and grab the animal and pull it free of the weir”. Specially light mesh seines were developed to decrease the risk of harm or death to the animal during release.

Over the years this program has become almost instinctive. Three generations of fishermen have been involved in the scheme and they are all trained so that they can, if needed, carry out the release independently. The ideal however is to have a team of between 4-5 people. This additionally allows data to be collected, provided the porpoise is calm and not under stress. The porpoise is brought on board a boat where the team can collect blood samples, monitor heart beat, take physical measurements, record sex and tag the animal. In this way individuals can be identified, and blood profiles can be used for such purposes as rehabilitation.

Each summer, on average between 20-50 animals have been trapped and subsequently released from any given individual weir, with the team dealing with as many as 2-3 releases per day. The lowest number of releases in one summer was eight and the highest has been 300. GMWSRS helps pay for any costs the fisherman incurs. Laurie recalled one particularly memorable release of a mother and calf where “Once we got them on the boat, both mum and baby wriggled themselves around so that could be close to each other”.

This program, which runs so smoothly today, was initially “A challenge to establish”. Laurie and her team had to spend time working with the fisherman and building up a relationship of trust. “You have to remember that the fisherman is going to be economically driven more than animal welfare driven. The solution has to be cost effective for him.” The harbour porpoise release program is unique and remains to this day a rare example of biologists and fishermen successfully working co-operatively together.

GMWSRS also inputs into the Canadian North Atlantic right whale recovery plan. In 1997 WWF and DFO (Department for Fisheries and Oceans) initiated this plan in response to the desperate plight of the North Atlantic right whales.

Because of federal budget cuts, NGO’s have carried out much of the work. A major achievement was the shifting of shipping lanes within the Bay of Fundy. Ship collisions are recognised as a cause of mortality amongst whales and with a species whose population in the late 90’s numbered less than 300, the death of just one whale is hugely significant. Shipping lanes had first been set in 1980, before any research had been carried out on right whales. In the 90’s it was discovered that the lanes had been set directly across a critical right whale habitat area. Work was carried out, headed by Dr. Moira Brown, to assess which areas had the greatest probability of a whale/ship encounter. As a result of this, shipping lanes were moved and narrowed. This is the first ever time that shipping lanes have been changed to accommodate the needs of a whale species.

This model has since been used elsewhere to reduce ship collisions. It is by no means perfect; whales do not follow protocols, they still have to cross shipping lanes, and if food sources shift, so will they. But it is an example of the type of compromise Laurie describes as being necessary. GMWSRS inputs this work with their cataloging of whales. Laurie’s research entails photo ID-ing individual right whales. These are sent to the New England Aquarium, which holds the catalogue for right whales. This data creates a vital ongoing picture of where the whales are, at what times of year, what distances they travel, where critical habitat and feeding areas are etc. Without this kind of information it would be impossible to assess the best place for a shipping lane. Photos of calves are also key to tracking them for the rest of their lives.

Throughout the years, a major part of Laurie’s conservation efforts have focussed on education. Convincing fishermen to free harbour porpoises requires education, working with shipping companies to change shipping lanes requires education, encouraging the general public to change their everyday habits requires education… In particular Laurie has “Got the word out about North Atlantic right whales and why they need our help”, and provides information, articles and training on codes of conduct with right whales. She has worked with fishermen, companies, the general public, whale watchers and whale watching companies. For example, in 2006 there was a high prevalence of right whales in the ferry route lane between Grand Manan and the mainland. Laurie worked with boat captains on how to spot them and how to avoid them as well as explaining why they are so vulnerable.

It is easy for a researcher to care about whales; as soon as you live each day studying an animal, you cannot help but become full of admiration for them. After all, understanding breeds love breeds action. Good education therefore requires engaging people with animals in a way that awakens their sense of inquisitive wanting-to-know-more, and to care and to act. Having just watched Laurie deliver a talk to teenagers I was struck by the quirky, intimate stories she has to tell about whales and the passionate yet grounded and straightforward style of her delivery.

This gave me an idea… I have asked her to tell me her top ten most quirky facts about whales… And these tantalising tit-bits of knowledge will become the subject of my next post about Laurie…

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One thought on “Laurie Murison – whale researcher turned conservationist

  1. Hi Amanda
    Hi Amanda Glad you are safe and sound in Canadian waters. Laurie sounds hard dworking grounded and dedicated. I enjoy the updates and lookforward to the next one. Life in Cornwall is very whaleless, just the odd crab and weaver fish to tread on, plenty of slugs in the garden, not quite as photgenic as the whales
    Lots of love
    Loisxx

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