Orca tagging raises questions about research

Killer whale researchers and advocates are beginning to stir a little bit in response to a proposal by federal researchers who want to attach satellite transmitters to the dorsal fins of up to six Puget Sound killer whales. I reported on the plan in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

The benefits of these satellite tags would be to track the Southern Residents during winter months when they head out into the ocean and disappear for periods of time. Knowing where the whales go is important if people are going to protect their habitat, according to Brad Hanson, chief investigator with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, a research arm of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

It is conceivable that the whales are visiting some favored spots for hunting salmon. Finding and protecting important forage areas from human intrusion could increase the whales’ chances of long-term survival, officials say.

On the other hand, some observers are raising concerns about this research project as well as the cumulative effects of all research on the endangered killer whales. To attach a satellite transmitter, a boat must get close enough to an orca for an operator to fire a dart from an air gun. The dart penetrates the skin on the dorsal fin of the animal.

One concern is the risk of infection from the darts. Another is hitting a major blood vessel in the vessel-rich dorsal fin. But experience involving other species of whales as well as transient killer whales has given the researchers confidence that the risk is very small.

As for cumulative effects, some killer whale advocates are concerned that the various research projects are adding to the stress on the Puget Sound orcas. I have heard from some people who say researchers need to minimize their interactions with the whales. Others say less intrusive methods should be tried first, such as enhancing visual sightings and possibly deploying hydrophones to listen for Southern Residents, whose vocalizations can be readily identified. In fact, there is an ongoing argument that data is already available via Navy buoys and other potential listening stations that need to be made available to researchers.

According to a supplemental environmental impact statement on the project, eight federal permits have been issued that allow relatively close encounters with Southern Resident killer whales. In 2010, researchers were authorized to make a total of 2,875 close approaches for various reasons, ranging from photo identification to attaching suction cups with monitoring equipment.

In light of the existing permits and the ongoing effects of whale-watching boats in the summer, the effects of the six satellite tags were judged to be relatively minor. The supplemental EIS (PDF 732 kb) states:

“It is not that any single stressor has contributed to the population decline of SRKWs over the last few years, but rather a combination of the above (NMFS 2008). For instance, the tremendous amount of vessel traffic around these animals daily during the summer, in combination with shortages of prey due to anthropogenic alteration of habitat, may produce enough pressure on the whales to hinder reproduction, care of young, or individual health.

“The only addition to the factors listed above associated with the proposed permit amendment would be one additional research vessel closely approaching and tagging these animals. The applicant’s research would be conducted at times when the whales are not subject to whale-watching vessels (i.e., spring, winter). While vessel traffic is a high priority management issue, the benefits of gathering data would outweigh the short-term harassment to the whales. In addition, researchers would be cautious in their approach and would limit harassment times to only those necessary to facilitate research. Excess time with the animals would be avoided.

“In summary, authorization of this research is not likely to significantly contribute to cumulative effects to SRKWs. Annual reports indicate that harassment from research is minimal, including reactions of other killer whales to satellite tagging. Monitoring will be conducted to the fullest extent possible. Although other stressors stated above cannot be mitigated under this permit (e.g., pollution, prey reduction), vessel approaches and tagging efforts will be conducted in a manner to cause the least harassment to the target animals. NMFS has determined that tagging will not result in a significant adverse impact alone or in combination with the above listed actions.”

As I mentioned in my story, The Whale Museum has requested an extension of time and a public hearing on the proposed permit. In a letter from NMFS (PDF 68 kb), a two-week extension was granted but not a public hearing. See also today’s Federal Register notice.

Fred Felleman, vice president of board for The Whale Museum, argues that the National Marine Fisheries Service should take time to better inform the public about this project, explain the risks and benefits of various types of research, and help people understand research findings and how they may be used.

I referred to The Whale Museum as a killer whale “advocate” in my story. Fred corrected me, saying it is an education and research organization. For that reason, he said, The Whale Museum is pushing for a wider discussion about the risks and benefits of the research.

Here are a couple of documents related to the permit itself:

Request for amendment of Permit 781-1824-01 (PDF 360 kb)

Assurance for Animal Care and Use (PDF 416 kb)

2 thoughts on “Orca tagging raises questions about research

  1. Do any of the various non-profit research organizations receive state tax dollars? Because, if so: Six Billion Dollar State Budget Deficit (also) Raises Questions About Research

  2. Hey, as long as we are not chasing whales in boats with harpoons and water cannons holding up signs that say “RESEARCH”, I am okay with non-invasive methods of collecting data on whales.

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