Mingan Island Cetacean Study (MICS) collaborates with many research organizations, universities and other NGO's to complete a wide ranging of studies. In Quebec, MICS is part of the Quebec Stranding and Disentanglement Network (Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Network) helping marine mammals in distress. This network includes various governmental and non-governmental organizations in Quebec.
Our longest standing collaboration is with Dr. Per Palsbøll and Dr. Martine Bérubé of the University of Groningen, in The Netherlands. Since 1990 they have extracted DNA from our biopsy skin samples and provided us with the sex of each individual. Because, apart from females accompanied by a calf, it is impossible to distinguish between males and females in the field, genetic sexing is essential in such studies. Many other researchers and institutions collaborate with them on various North Atlantic studies. This cooperation provides essential samples that help determine stock structure and gene flow, vital for management and conservation. More recently, they have been able to identify individuals genetically and determine relationships between individuals of various rorqual species. Up until recently we were only able to determine mother-offspring relationships, without knowing who the fathers were. Hopefully, we will soon have the data to determine relatedness of all the animals we study. This will give us another indication of abundance, which will be particularly useful for species such as the blue whale, where photo-identification based modeling has not worked to date. If a large divergence in relatedness exists, it would indicate a larger population, while a close degree of relatedness between individuals would indicate a small breeding population.
Dr. Chris Metcalfe of Trent University, Ontario has collaborated with MICS in the study of contaminants in baleen whales. The high concentration of toxic contaminants found in Gulf of St. Lawrence Belugas is well known. They reside in the St Lawrence year-round and feed at a higher trophic level than baleen species.
Why is the St Lawrence so polluted? All waste deposited into the Great Lakes and along the St. Lawrence River from the industrial heart of the US and Canada, find their way downstream. Dead Belugas have to be disposed of as toxic waste. There is evidence that this contamination causes cancer, reduced immune function, and reduced fertility in Belugas,. Thus far, such effects have not been shown in baleen whales. They may be less affected, because they feed at a lower trophic level, and spend much less time in Gulf of St Lawrence.
We have learned that males are contaminated at higher levels than females, indicating maternal transfer of the contaminants to her offspring. This occurs, because lipophilic toxic substances are stored in lipids, such as fat-rich milk. Blue whales off Iceland have significantly lower levels of contaminants than in the St Lawrence. This sort of data analysis on toxic pollutants is very costly, however and not very popular with the present Canadian government.
What do whales do under water? We only observe animals when they come up to the surface to breathe and on rare occasion to feed. To investigate their underwater behaviour we stick a so-called data logger on a whale, with a standard Canadian Tire suction cup! The data loggers collect data on the dive time and dive depth and have 3axis accelerometers, which enable us to reconstruct the movement of the whale in all three dimensions. This will help us to understand how they find their prey, if they cooperate or compete for food and all other under water behaviour.
We have also collaborated with several universities through Master's and PhD students, who have completed graduate work at MICS. This has included McGill University, Montreal, Université de Laval, Québec, and Université du Québec à Rimouski, all in Canada. The University of Bremen, Germany, St. Andrews University, Scotland, University of California, Los Angeles, and Penn State University, Pennsylvania, in the United States.
We collaborate on North Atlantic humpback studies by contributing all our humpback whale ID photographs to Allied Whale, in Bar Harbor, Maine (USA). This organization curates the North Atlantic Humpback whale catalogue and ensures a far-reaching collaboration on population, migration, and dispersal studies of this species. All research organizations and private collaborators contribute their humpback whales images for this purpose. Inter-regional collaboration is the only way to study species inhabiting entire ocean basins. For the same reasons, North Atlantic researchers send their blue whale ID images to MICS, because we curate the western and eastern North Atlantic blue whale catalogues.