This week’s report about Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales
contained little new information, but the intent was not to
surprise people with important new findings.
The report (PDF 14.3 mb), published by the Northwest Fisheries
Science Center, was a nice summary of 10 years of research and
ongoing efforts to unlock the secrets of the mysterious Southern
NOAA also released the video, at right, which sums up the report
with great visuals. Make sure you go full-screen.
On Wednesday, I participated in a telephone conference call to
link reporters with killer whale experts in our region. On the line
were Lynne Barre, Mike Ford and Brad Hanson, all with NOAA
Fisheries out of Seattle. I’ve been wrapped up with other reporting
assignments, so the Kitsap Sun’s editors chose to run a solid story
by Associated Press reporter Phuong Le. See
Kitsap Sun, June 25.
Let me make a few quick observations:
Lynne Barre said one of the greatest mysteries,
to her, is why killer whales suddenly go missing. It’s a vexing
problem, and I always get a little nervous when the whales return
in the spring. One year, six of the Southern Residents failed to
show up. It was a real blow to the close-knit orca community and to
the struggling population, and I’ve never forgotten the dismay of
everyone who cared about these animals.
Healthy killer whales seem to go missing as often as elderly or
sick ones. Only a few bodies ever wash up on the beach. Even when
one is found, the cause of death often remains uncertain, as in the
case of L-112, found to have died of “blunt-force trauma” from some
Much more needs to be learned about disease in the animals,
Lynne said. Future research could involve more tissue biopsies and
breath samples in an effort to identify early signs of disease.
For Brad Hanson, another mystery is the whales’
seemingly unpredictable behavior and their “fundamental
relationship with prey.” We all assume that their primary goal in
life is to find fish to eat, but how good are they at this
essential task? Pretty good, I would guess. Often before we learn
that chinook are abundant off the Washington Coast, we find out
that the killer whales are already there.
Maybe the reason the whales have been spending so much time away
from Puget Sound the last couple years lies in the lower returns of
Fraser River chinook, which pass through the San Juan Islands in
the summer. Scale and fecal samples have shown that Fraser River
chinook are the most consistent prey of the resident orcas.
In previous conversations, Brad has told me that he would love
to communicate with the whales, to find out who is in charge and
why a group of animals may suddenly turn around and go in the
opposite direction. Howard Garrett of Orca Network recalls a time
when all three Southern Resident pods were in the Strait of Juan de
Fuca heading into Puget Sound. Suddenly K and L pod turned back,
while J pod continued on. Howie says it was as if they knew there
were not enough fish for the entire population, so J pod went on
alone, saying, “See ya later.”
Mike Ford wants to know why the population has
not increased more than it has. Could it be some limitation in the
ecosystem, such as the fact that other marine mammals — such as
seals and sea lions — have been increasing and taking a sizable
bite out of the available salmon population? We know that Northern
Residents, who also eat fish, don’t overlap territories much with
the Southern Residents. Living up north, the Northern Residents
have better access to some salmon stocks — including those that
originate in Puget Sound. If the Northern Residents get to them
first, the fish are not available for the Southern Residents — or
so goes one hypotheses. The Northern Resident population has
tripled in size, while the Southern Residents have stayed about the
Oddly enough, this potential competition for chinook salmon
reminds me of exactly what is taking place with regard to
commercial fishing enterprises. Washington fishermen complain that
the Canadians are taking salmon that should get back to Washington.
Canadian fishermen complain that Alaskans are taking salmon bound
for Canada. Only Alaskan fishermen — and those who go to Alaska to
fish — can catch a portion of the salmon going into Alaskan rivers
as well as some destined to travel south.
One of the new things that did come up in
Wednesday’s conference call was a renewed effort for U.S. killer
whale biologists and managers to work with their counterparts in
Canada. “We will be partnering with them on issues of salmon
fisheries and how that may affect the whales,” Lynn said, adding
that other cross-border efforts could involve vessel regulations
and targeted research efforts.
During Wednesday’s conference call, nobody talked about the
potential effects of military activities and the possible injury
from Navy sonar until a reporter brought up the issue. The question
was referred to NOAA Fisheries headquarters in Silver Spring, Md.,
where officials review the Navy’s operations and issue incidental
take permits. That was the end of that discussion.
I know the Navy is conducting research in an effort to reduce
harm to killer whales and other marine mammals. I get the sense,
however, that more could be done immediately if connections were
made between knowledgeable killer whale researchers in our region
and those making decisions on the opposite side of the country.
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