Early in December, I wrote about a plan to attach satellite transmitters to selected Puget Sound killer whales by shooting darts into their dorsal fins. At the time, lots of people offered questions and concerns, but few had taken a strong position. See my story in the Kitsap Sun of Dec. 5.
Since then, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and others involved in research, education and advocacy have come out against the tagging program as currently proposed. On the other hand, several other researchers are encouraging the federal government to push the tagging program forward.
As Ken explained it to me, his bottom line is that the information gathered by tracking the whales by satellite may not be worth the injury caused by shooting barbed darts into the whales’ fins. He argues that more follow-up investigation is needed into the short- and long-term effects of the darts, which eventually work their way out.
Ken was actually the first to apply for a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct the tagging program with barbed darts. While not wishing to criticize his fellow researchers, Balcomb said he had been overly assured that the risk of injury was exceedingly small.
“I was shown pictures of almost-healed wounds,” Ken told me. “I was given assurance that there was not an issue. I didn’t even think about these titanium leaves coming out and leaving a hole that size (in the fin).”
The turning point was when Ken saw a photo of a transient killer whale, T-30, who had carried one of the satellite tags. (See the picture, above right.) He said the long-term scarring was “ugly and unacceptable to me personally,” and he believed that many whale supporters also would object.
Ken turned down the approved tagging permit — in part because it was granted as an amendment to his existing permit for photographing and identifying orcas as part of his ongoing census. If unacceptable injury were to occur to the subject whales, he said, his entire permit could be suspended. That, in turn, would prevent him from continuing the identification work he has done for more than 30 years.
Ken elaborated in a
Dec. 18 letter written to the National Marine Fisheries
“I have subsequently seen other very serious tag wound injuries and dangerous attachments on other killer whales, and I remain concerned that tag attachment development and deployment have not yet proceeded far enough along to be considered humane, safe or publicly acceptable for SRKW (Southern Resident Killer Whale) use.
“I have repeatedly discussed my concerns with the NMFS applicant (Brad Hanson) and other colleagues and have seen little progress toward minimizing or eliminating these types of potential injury and tag delivery stressors in the development protocol…
“I do not belittle the truly amazing accomplishments made so far by the tag developers, but I suggest that development should include minimizing trauma to the animals. They are not our lab rats.”
Balcomb said it appears that the goal of the satellite tagging program is to increase the useful life of the tag itself, which includes going to larger barbs, rather than trying to minimize tissue damage. Even so, the use of larger barbs has added little to the tracking time, he said. Perhaps more experimentation should be conducted with smaller barbs.
Ken questions how much can be learned by satellite tags alone, as he writes:
“Yes, we might find some frequented areas that the tagged whales visited simply with tag data. But without a followup, we would not know if the ephemeral track was just the tagged whale(s), a subgroup, a matriline or a pod, and we would know nothing about what is going on with the animals at the time.”
While follow-up in a boat may be desirable, adverse winter weather in the ocean and difficulties in scheduling federal research vessels are still big questions, Ken told me. A less-invasive approach would be to post lookouts on high bluffs along the coast to alert researchers when killer whales passed by, as is done with gray whales.
Brad Hanson, a federal biologist who applied for the permit, said the kind of “unbiased” information provided with satellite tagging has proven invaluable with other whale species as well as transient killer whales. Other tracking methods — including personal observations and listening buoys — may be valuable, he said, but they can miss subtle or surprising movements of the animals.
“We have spent a lot of time and energy looking at this, and we think we have done a very thorough job looking at the impacts,” Brad told me. “None of them are serious enough in relation to survivorship or things that might have an adverse impact on the population…. The type of tissue impacts we see are well within the range of what occurs naturally.”
Balcomb acknowledges that the tag wounds are not permanent in most cases and that killer whales are frequently bitten or scratched by fellow orcas. But he questions whether it is the proper role of researchers to increase the number of wounds, given that the population is listed as “endangered.”
Other groups commenting on the proposed tagging permit (with
thanks to Orca Network for compiling these comments):
The North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association (PDF 196 kb) raised several questions, which Brad Hanson (PDG 100 kb) answered in a lengthy letter of his own.
“Examination of the short and long term consequences of tag attachment, as described in the above comment letters, appear to be potentially serious despite the observations of only slight flinching at the time the tag is attached. Although pain and discomfort are often highly variable and difficult to assess or predict even in ourselves, the insertion of barbed points extending 2.5” into tissue would almost certainly result in some discomfort at minimum, and possibly some considerable level of pain from the time the tag is attached until the tag drops off and the wound completely heals, especially if the wound becomes infected as the tissue around the tag decomposes and the tag exits the wound. If significant blood vessels are affected, or if the immune systems of the tagged animals are compromised by persistent toxicity, it seems plausible that the animals could suffer systemic infections or illnesses.”
Pacific Scientific Research Group (PDF 28 kb), which was created to advise government officials about marine mammal issues, offers a reminder that the group has repeatedly called for better data, including the use of satellite tags:
“It now appears that NMFS is now going through the permit process to make long-overdue progress on the Pacific SRG’s recommendation to initiate satellite tagging of Southern Resident killer whales. As the Pacific SRG has noted in its recommendations, there is a both need and urgency to conduct these studies, and the Pacific SRG supports this research.”
“To be clear, no one would like to know where the SRKW go in the winter more than our members. However, since the methods used to tag are still too invasive and since whatever findings would not directly affect their survival, we respectfully object to attaching satellite transmitters in this manner.”
“We have found that while satellite tagging may be largely beneficial to the conservation and management of some cetacean populations, this method is not ideal for use on southern resident, northern resident and transient killer whales. This is for 5 reasons …”
“Much is known about where the Southern Resident orcas go, but this knowledge has played no apparent role in the recent permitting by NOAA of Naval warfare training in exactly the near-shore areas of Washington, Oregon and California that the orcas are known to frequent.
“Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent by NOAA on coastal surveys and ship surveys and these found SRKWs at the mouths of salmon rivers in Washington, Oregon and California. More thousands of dollars were spent using passive acoustic surveys at the heads Juan de Fuca, Nitnat and Quinault undersea canyons which also detected orca vocalizations.
“However, these direct observations of orcas in the shallow waters of the west coast apparently played no role in NOAA’s granting a permit to the Navy for their desired activities. Therefore we cannot see a compelling need to use an invasive technique to show similar data trends when the existing data observations were not used, or were not adequate, to take conservation measures that would have prevented potential impact to whales in areas and times of the year when they have been demonstrated to use the area.
“We recommend that the permit process for any invasive research on this endangered population be revised to include public notification, an extended comment period and public hearings in King County and San Juan County. There should be time for this because as of the date of this letter, December 2010, there is nearly a year before any winter habitat studies can commence…
“With public hearings on San Juan Island and in Seattle, the public may better understand what has been learned from previous tagging studies, what considerations go into selecting whales for tagging… and how the findings from the proposed research would contribute to the conservation and recovery of this population.”