Dead orca could reignite controversy over satellite tracking program

A federal program that uses satellite transmitters to track killer whale movements has been suspended after pieces of a metal dart associated with a transmitter were found embedded in the fin of an orca discovered dead two weeks ago in British Columbia.

L-95, named Nigel, was found dead March 31. File photo: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada
L-95, named Nigel, was found dead March 31.
File photo: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada

The whale, L-95, a 20-year-old male named “Nigel,” was found dead floating near Nootka Island along the west coast of Vancouver Island. He was the same whale who was tracked for three days off the Washington Coast by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center after they attached a satellite transmitter on Feb. 23.

The attachment, which involves the use of a dart with sharp metal prongs, was routine in every way and has not been directly implicated in the death of the animal, according to a statement from NOAA officials.

Still, finding pieces of metal still embedded in the dorsal fin of the whale has already sparked a reaction from opponents of the darting procedure, including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. I expect further expressions of sadness and anger from others over the coming days.

“In my opinion, the tag attachment methodology was overly barbaric and defective from the get-go, and the entire tagging program should be rethought and evaluated for efficacy,” Ken said in a prepared statement.

“The NOAA/NMFS tagging program is certainly injuring and disfiguring these endangered icons of the Pacific Northwest, and it is my subjective opinion that it is adversely altering their behavior toward benign vessel interactions to approach them for photo-identification,” he said.

Ken noted that the cause of L-95’s death has not been determined, so the relationship to tagging could be coincidental, but two transient killer whales also went missing after tags were attached. Those deaths could be coincidental as well, he added, but other tagged whales are still carrying around pieces of embedded darts.

The 20-year-old male orca was found dead and in an advanced state of decay on March 30 by researchers from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. A necropsy revealed “fair to moderate body condition” and no clear sign of death. See the DFO news release for a few other details.

Although there was no sign of infection where the satellite tag pierced the dorsal fin, “veterinarians are investigating whether the tag attachment penetration sites may have provided a pathway for infection,” according to the NOAA statement. “Additional tests are underway to determine presence of disease agents such as viruses or bacteria that will provide further details as to the cause of death.”

When the satellite transmitter was first attached, the researchers “noted the outline of the ribs were slightly visible on several members of L pod, including L95, but observed nothing suggesting a change in health status.”

The satellite tracked L-95 for three days and then stopped. Researchers assumed the transmitter had fallen off, but they were not able to meet up with the whales before the research trip ended.

Expressing extreme sadness, agency officials say they are concerned that parts of the dart were found imbedded in the fin.

“These tag attachments are designed to fully detach and leave nothing behind,” says the NOAA statement. “Of 533 deployments, only 1 percent are known to have left part of the dart in the animal upon detachment, although several of these have been in killer whales.

“The team has halted tagging activities until a full reassessment of the tag design and deployment is completed to reduce risk of this happening again.”

Ken Balcomb recalled that he had complained about the tagging program several years ago as officials were debating whether the endangered Southern Resident population should become involved. Ken says he was assured that previous problems had been fixed and that he should simply document any problems he sees.

I remember the controversy well, as NOAA researchers were convinced that the data gathered would be worth what they considered an insignificant amount of risk. Check out “Orca tagging raises questions about research” from Dec. 8, 2010, and “Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags” from Dec. 28, 2010.

“Clearly with L95 still retaining tag hardware in his wound site, the hardware attachment issues have not been fixed,” Ken says in his latest statement. “I suggest evaluating the cost efficiency and data already gathered from sighting reports, photo-ID, and tagging to determine whether any additional studies of SRKW distribution are justified.”

The tracking studies have been used the past few years to document not just the areas where the killer whales travel but also areas where they linger and forage for food.

NOAA’s explanation of the tagging program, its benefits and potential changes to the “critical habitat” protections for the killer whales are outlined in a question-and-answer format, including specifics about the death of Nigel, L-95.

Meanwhile, a young female orca, estimated to be two weeks old, has been identified as a Southern Resident by DFO scientists. Cause of death was not determined, but it was likely that the animal died from birth complications, officials said. The calf was found March 23 near Sooke, B.C.

Analysis of blood and tissue samples are expected in three to four weeks for both the calf and L-95, according to the DFO statement.

One thought on “Dead orca could reignite controversy over satellite tracking program

  1. Lifeforce Foundation Position Statement:
    Endangered orcas are being studied to death!
    The recent death of orca L95 has finally led the US responsible parties to halt all tagging pending a review. But more actions must be taken.
    Four days after the tagging penetration the researchers did see L95 and others with visible ribs. This was a sign of at least nutritional stress or illness. They should not have caused further stress and put L95 at any risk by shooting him with a painful tracking tag. Also, US authorities agree that satellite tag penetration can cause pathways for infection from viruses and bacteria. That threat alone should have stopped it years ago.
    Why has it only come to light now that two other orcas died shortly after being satellite tagged and seven orcas have metal pieces from the tags still embedded into their sensitive, vulnerable bodies? A suspension and review should have been conducted immediately after the first death of a transient orca. Perhaps then the tragic death of this endangered Southern Resident would have been prevented.
    There must also be a review of harmful skin biopsy experiments. Researchers conduct extremely close pursuits on the orcas’ backs then shoot a biopsy dart into them. It has been observed that the orcas have shaken with fear (dorsal fins quivered). In one case the two offspring of their darted mother shook with fear.
    In the 90s, Lifeforce raised the issue of shooting orcas with biopsy darts in the San Juan Islands. After public opposition, that proposed studied did not move forward but later researchers, who are also using satellite tags, also used biopsy darts.
    These skin biopsies would also cause pathways for toxic pollution, bacteria, and viruses to infect orcas. An investigation should include any deaths of those orcas who were biopsied.
    Hopefully a thorough review of cumulative research impacts will put an end to at least the inhumane satellite tagging and skin biopsies. In addition to food depletion and pollution, the the negative impacts from boat traffic is recognized as one of the three major threats. It should include whale watch companies, private boaters, and research boats. There must be a joint US and Canada review committee to look at the impact of all the experiments on transboundary SRKWs and other threatened species facing extinction. There must be a public information and comment period.
    Sentient orca families must not continue to be treated as research tools for lucrative research grants. As Lifeforce has repeatedly stated, “They are being studied to death and it must stop!”

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