Mystery of orca’s death only deepens with new infoMarch 22nd, 2012 by cdunagan
The unusual death of L-112, a young female orca apparently killed by “blunt force trauma,” continues to fuel discussions about what may have killed her and what should be done about it.
Kenneth Hess, a Navy public affairs officer, posted a comment today on the recent blog entry “Balcomb wants to know if young orca was bombed.” In his comment, Hess repeats that the Navy did not conduct any training with sonar, bombs or explosives in the days preceding L-112’s death. He called it “irresponsible and inaccurate” to blame the Navy for “blowing up” the whale.
Another new development today is an e-mail I received from Lt. Diane Larose of the Canadian Navy, responding to my inquiry about any explosive devices used in the days before L-112 was found dead on Feb. 11. Read the e-mail (PDF 16 kb) I received:
“On February 6, 2012 HMCS Ottawa was operating in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, specifically in Constance Bank, conducting Work Ups Training including a period of sonar use and two small under water charges as part of an anti-submarine warfare exercise. These small charges were used to get the ships’ company to react to a potential threat or damage to meet the necessary training requirement.”
In talking to experts involved in the investigation, it seems unlikely that L-112 could have been injured or killed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then wash up dead on Long Beach five days later. So the mystery continues.
In tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun, I’m reporting that environmental groups on both sides of the Canadian border are calling on their respective navies to disclose all the specific activities during the 10 days leading up to the discovery of L-112’s carcass at Long Beach on Feb. 11. The groups also are calling for a complete cessation of sonar use for training and testing in the Salish Sea.
Check out three letters submitted to the navies involved,
including one from U.S. and Canadian scientists:
Meanwhile, I’ve heard from a few people who may call on the National Marine Fisheries Service to declare an “Unusual Mortality Event” related to the death of L-112 and possibly the deaths of other killer whales.
Unusual Mortality Events are normally associated with the mass stranding of whales or dolphins. UMEs are not normally declared in relation to the death one animal, no matter how unusual. Still, some of the seven criteria for declaring a UME include sudden or unexpected declines in populations, especially endangered ones. See NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources page for the list of criteria.
A UME is declared after consultation with a specially appointed working group that includes scientists, agency officials and members of conservation groups. Members are selected for their expertise in biology, toxicology, pathology, ecology and epidemiology.
I’m not sure what more could be gained by declaring a UME for Southern Resident killer whales, but Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council told me that it could intensify the investigation into the death of L-112. It is a way to bring widespread attention to the issue, he said.
Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, said such a declaration could help increase access to historical records. He is interested in possible correlations between specific Navy activities — currently classified — and the deaths of marine mammals. Ken mentioned the deaths of L-60 and L-90, as well as L-112.
“It is baffling to demographers why this (Southern Resident) population is doing so poorly compared to the northern population,” Ken told me. “Something weird is going on, and that’s a consensus.
“In the early days, Mike Bigg (a Canadian orca researcher) and I were amazed that females seemed to be immortal. We just didn’t have many female deaths, and it was clearly related to their long life spans.”
The story has changed over the past 35 years, Ken said, and the number of recent deaths of females is driving the species closer to extinction.
Ken is clearly worried. Years ago, he would not have been so outspoken. I recall when Ken was a typically reserved, cautious scientist. But actions taken to shift environmental factors in favor of the orcas have been slow or nonexistent. Meanwhile, the future of these killer whales — a genetically distinct population — still hangs in the balance.