Tag Archives: Center for Whale Research

Facing the possibility of extinction for the killer whales of Puget Sound

Southern Resident killer whales, cherished by many Puget Sound residents, are on a course headed for extinction, and they could enter a death spiral in the not-so-distant future.

It is time that people face this harsh reality, Ken Balcomb told me, as we discussed the latest death among the three pods of orcas. A 2-year-old male orca designated J-52 and known as Sonic died tragically about two weeks ago.

Two-year-old J-52, known as Sonic, swims with his mother J-36, or Alki, on Sept. 15. This may have been the last day Sonic was seen alive.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

The young orca was last seen in emaciated condition, barely surfacing and hanging onto life near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Sept. 15. Ken, director of the Center for Whale Research, said the young whale was attended to by his mother Alki, or J-36, along with a male orca, L-85, known as Mystery — who may have been Sonic’s father, but more about that later.

Extinction, Ken told me, is “very real” — not some ploy to obtain research dollars. The population of endangered Southern Residents has now dropped to 76 — the lowest level since 1984. Most experts agree that a shortage of chinook salmon — the primary prey of the orcas — is the greatest problem facing the whales.

Last week, the Leadership Council — the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership — discussed what role the partnership should play to “accelerate and amplify efforts” to restore chinook salmon runs and save the orcas. Chinook themselves are listed as a threatened species.

Graph: Center for Biological Diversity

Puget Sound Partnership is charged by the Legislature with coordinating the restoration of Puget Sound, including the recovery of fish and wildlife populations.

The Leadership Council delayed action on a formal resolution (PDF 149 kb) in order to allow its staff time to identify specific actions that could be taken. Although the resolution contains the right language, it is not enough for the council to merely show support for an idea, said Council Chairman Jay Manning.

Sonic was one of the whales born during the much-acclaimed “baby boom” from late 2014 through 2015. With his death, three of the six whales born in J pod during that period have now died. No new calves have been born in any of the Southern Resident pods in nearly a year.

Meanwhile, two orca moms — 23-year-old Polaris (J-28) and 42-year-old Samish (J-14) — died near the end of 2016. Those deaths were followed by the loss of Granny (J-2), the J-pod matriarch said to have lived more than a century. Another death was that of Doublestuf, an 18-year-old male who died last December.

Three orcas were born in L pod during the baby boom, and none of those whales has been reported missing so far.

Ken believes he witnessed the final hours of life for young Sonic, who was lethargic and barely surfacing as the sun set on the evening of Sept. 15. Two adults — Sonic’s mother and Mystery — were the only orcas present, while the rest of J pod foraged about five miles away.

Sonic seen with his mother in June.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

That was the last time anyone saw Sonic, although his mother Alki as well as Mystery were back with J pod during the next observation four days later. Ken reported that Alki seemed distressed, as often happens when a mother loses an offspring.

Ken admits that he is speculating when he says that Mystery may have been Sonic’s father. It makes for a good story, but there could be other reasons why the older male stayed with the mother and calf. Still, researchers are engaged in studies that point to the idea that mature killer whales may actually choose a mate rather than engaging in random encounters. I’m looking forward to the upcoming report.

I must admit that this issue of extinction has been creeping up on me, and it’s not something that anyone wants to face. Food is the big issue, and chinook salmon have been in short supply of late. It will be worth watching as the whales forage on chum salmon, as they are known to do in the fall months.

“This population cannot survive without food year-round,” Ken wrote in a news release. “Individuals metabolize their toxic blubber and body fats when they do not get enough to eat to sustain their bodies and their babies. Your diet doctor can advise you about that.

“All indications (population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea, body condition, and live birth rate/neonate survival) are pointing toward a predator population that is prey-limited and nonviable,” he added.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which was involved in the initial lawsuit that led to the endangered listing for the whales, is calling upon the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to move quickly to protect orca habitat along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. Currently designated critical habitat is limited to Puget Sound, even though the whales are known to roam widely along the coast.

“The death of another killer whale puts this iconic population on a dangerous path toward extinction,” Catherine Kilduff of CBD said in a news release. “If these whales are going to survive, we need to move quickly. Five years from now, it may be too late.”

How fast the whales will go extinct is hard to determine, experts say, but the current population is headed downward at an alarming rate, no matter how one analyzes the problem.

“I would say we are already in a very dangerous situation,” said Lance Barrett-Lennard, senior marine mammal researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium. “If this trajectory continues and we lose two or three more from deaths or unsuccessful birth, we will be in a real spiral,” he told reporter Richard Watts of the Times Colonist in Victoria, B.C.

A five-year status review (PDF 4.3 mb), completed last December by NMFS, takes into account the number of reproductive males and females among the Southern Residents, the reproductive rates, and the ratio of female to male births (more males are being born). As the population declines, the risk of inbreeding — and even more reproductive problems — can result.

Eric Ward of NOAA, who helped write the status report, said the agency often estimates an extinction risk for endangered populations, but the actual number of Southern Residents is too small to produce a reliable number. Too many things can happen to speed up the race toward extinction, but it is clear that the population will continue to decline unless something changes.

As Ken describes it in simple terms, Southern Resident females should be capable of producing an offspring every three years. With 27 reproductive females, we should be seeing nine new babies each year. In reality, the average female produces one offspring every nine years, which is just three per year for all three pods. That is not enough to keep up with the death rate in recent years. To make things worse, reproductive females have been dying long before their time — and before they can help boost the population.

Experts talk about “quasi-extinction,” a future time when the number of Southern Residents reaches perhaps 30 animals, at which point the population is too small to recover no matter what happens. Some say the population is now on the edge of a death spiral, which may require heroic actions to push the population back onto a recovery course.

As described in the five-year status review, prey shortage is not the only problem confronting the Southern Residents. The animals are known to contain high levels of toxic chemicals, which can affect their immune systems and overall health as well as their reproductive rates. Vessel noise can make it harder for them to find fish to eat. On top of those problems is the constant threat of a major oil spill, which could kill enough orcas to take the population down to a nonviable number.

The graph shows the probability that the Southern Resident population will fall below a given number (N) after 100 years. Falling below 30 animals is considered quasi-extinction. The blue line shows recent conditions. Lines to the left show low chinook abundance, and lines to the right show higher abundance.
Graphic: Lacy report, Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Despite the uncertainties, Robert Lacey of Chicago Zoological Society and his associates calculated in 2015 that under recent conditions the Southern Resident population faces a 9 percent chance of falling to the quasi-extinction level within 100 years. Worsening conditions could send that rate into a tailspin. See report for Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

What I found most informative was how the probability of extinction changes dramatically with food supply. (See the second graph on this page.) A 10 percent decline in chinook salmon raises the quasi-extinction risk from 9 percent to 73 percent, and a 20 percent decline raises the risk to more than 99 percent.

On the other hand, if chinook numbers can be increased by 20 percent, the whales would increase their population at a rate that would ensure the population’s survival, all other things being equal. Two additional lines on the graph represent a gradual decline of chinook as a result of climate change over the next 100 years — a condition that also poses dangerous risks to the orca population.

The close links between food supply and reproductive success are explored in a story I wrote last year for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

At last Wednesday’s Puget Sound Leadership Council meeting, members discussed a letter from the Strait (of Juan de Fuca) Ecosystem Recovery Network (PDF 146 kb) that called on the Puget Sound Partnership to become engaged in salmon recovery efforts outside of Puget Sound — namely the Klamath, Fraser and Columbia/Snake river basins.

“Such collaborative efforts must be done for the benefit of both the SRKW and chinook fish populations, without losing sight of the continuing need to maintain and improve the genetic diversity of these fish populations …” states the letter.

A separate letter from the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council (PDF 395 kb) also asks the Puget Sound Partnership to become more engaged in orca recovery. The group is calling on the partnership to support salmon recovery statewide, “relying on each region to identify strategies to restore robust salmon runs.”

Rein Attemann of Washington Environmental Council said salmon on the Columbia and Snake rivers, as well as he Fraser River in British Columbia, are “vitally important” to the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales, and Puget Sound efforts should be coordinated with other programs.

Jim Waddell, a retired civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, spoke forcefully about the need to save chinook salmon and the Southern Residents, starting by tearing down dams on the Snake River.

“We are out of time,” Waddell said. “The Corps of Engineers have it within their power to begin breaching the dams within months…. The orcas cannot survive without those chinook.”

An environmental impact statement on chinook recovery includes the option of breaching the dams, something that could be pushed forward quickly, he said.

“Breaching the Snake River dams is the only possibility of recovery,” Waddell said. “There is nothing left.”

Stephanie Solien, a member of the Leadership Council, said speaking up for orcas in the fashion proposed is not something the council has done before, but “we do have a responsibility to these amazing animals and to the chinook and to the tribes.”

The council should work out a strategy of action before moving forward, she added, but “we better get to moving on it.”

Southern Resident orcas make it back to Puget Sound in good condition

Killer whale observers were gleefully surprised this week when all three pods of Southern Resident orcas came into the Salish Sea — and all were in reasonably good shape.

K-25, a 26-year-old male orca named Scoter, is seen breaching Monday when a large group of Southern Residents arrived in the Salish Sea.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

Remember, these same whales have been missing from Puget Sound for practically the entire summer — a period when they traditionally remain in and around the San Juan Islands while feasting on salmon. This summer has generated concern among those who understand the ways of whales. Some observers have feared that the orcas, wherever they were, might not be getting enough to eat (Water Ways, Aug. 18).

That fear has largely disappeared, said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research who has been studying these animals for more than 40 years.

“There were no fat whales among them,” Ken told me, “but they had to be finding something (to eat) out there.”

Ken’s only concern was with a couple of young calves, 2 and 3 years old. They remain small for their age. (Ken calls them “runts.”) They probably have not received complete nutrition, given that the whales don’t seem to be finding chinook salmon in their regular feeding grounds.

“We know that there is a problem with juvenile and infant survival,” Ken said, but there is hope that these calves will make it.

Before they entered the Salish Sea this week, the three pods must have met up in the Strait of Juan de Fuca if not the Pacific Ocean, as all were together when they were spotted Monday morning near the south end of Vancouver Island by whale observer Mark Malleson.

The Center for Whale Research sent out two boats. Ken and Gail Richard boarded the Shachi and met up with the leading group of orcas just east of Secretary Island. Ahead of the pack was J-19, a female orca named Shachi, who appears to have taken over the leadership role from Granny, or J-2, the elder matriarch that led J pod for decades before her death.

Read Ken’s full report of the encounter on the Center for Whale Research website. For some observations about Granny, check out these Water Ways reports:

On Monday, J-pod whales were clustered in their family groups along the Vancouver Island shoreline, while those in K pod were farther offshore and trailing J pod, according to Ken’s report. Not all of L pod was there, but those in the area were spending time in their family groups, or matrilines, even farther behind and farther offshore.

Some of the whales were sprinting into tidal waters to catch salmon close to shore on the incoming tide of Monday afternoon, Ken said.

“The salmon tend to move into the Salish Sea with the flood tides and hang back in nearshore eddies and bays in ebb tides,” Ken wrote in his report, “so the whales foraging and traveling east suggested that there were at last sufficient numbers of salmon to bring them all of the way in.”

As the whales captured fish, their social interactions with each other increased, at least among the family groups, Ken told me.

Meanwhile, the second boat from the Center for Whale Research, Orcinus with Dave Ellifrit and Melisa Pinnow aboard, met up with the whales just west of Discovery Island east of Victoria. After a breakaway by the Shachi crew to transfer photos from Mark Mallinson, both boats continued to follow the whales until sunset. At dusk, the entourage ended up right in front of the center’s shoreline base on San Juan Island.

Spurred on by this rare (for this year) sighting of all three pods, the five photographers in the three boats shot more than 3,500 photos in one day, Ken reported. Some of the best portraits and ID photos are shown with notes of the encounter. Other photos and expressions of excitement can be seen on Orca Network’s Whale Sighting Report.

The researchers reported that all the whales in J and K pods were present — except for K-13, who had been reported missing (Water Ways, Aug. 18). Of the 35 orcas in L pod, 22 were seen on Monday. The missing whales are not a concern, Ken said, because the 13 not spotted were all members of matrilines that apparently were somewhere else.

“It is not unprecedented for L pod matrilines to be very widely separated at times — e.g., part of the pod in Puget Sound while others are off California!” Ken noted in his report. “All of the whales today appeared to be frisky and in good condition, though we clearly have a few runts in the youngest cohort of whales – probably having been in perinatal nutritional distress due to recent poor salmon years in the Salish Sea.”

The next day, Tuesday, the whales were spread out in small groups in Georgia Strait on the Canadian side of the border. Yesterday, they traveled back through Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands, then headed on west toward the Pacific Ocean. It will be interesting to see what happens next, as these fish-eating orcas continue to hunt for chinook salmon and then switch this fall to chum salmon when the chinook grow scarce.

The Center for Whale Research’s efforts to keep track of the Southern Residents is funded in part by the federal government, but the center’s other work involving orcas depends on donations and memberships. Go to “Take Action for Orcas” for information.

Where are the orcas? It’s hard to say, as the latest death is confirmed

I hate to say it, but summer is beginning to wind down. Even more disturbing for killer whale observers is an awareness that Puget Sound’s iconic orcas have pretty much avoided Puget Sound altogether this year.

The patterns of travel and even the social structure of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales have been disrupted the past several years, and this year is the worst ever, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who has been keeping track of these whales for the past 40 years.

For decades, we could expect all three pods of Southern Residents to show up in June, if not before. They would mingle and socialize and generally remain through the summer in the San Juan Islands, feasting on the chinook salmon that migrate to Canada’s Fraser River.

Skagit, K-13, who recently died, is seen in this 2011 photo swimming behind her daughter Deadhead, K-27.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

In recent years, the large orca pods have broken into smaller groups of whales that keep coming and going, as if searching for scattered schools of salmon. This year, the Southern Residents have made few appearances in Puget Sound, barely enough for Ken to complete his annual census report to the federal government.

The latest official count is 77 orcas among the three pods. That reflects the death of K-13, a 45-year old female named Skagit. Ken did not announce her passing, mainly because it is based on limited encounters. Ken tells me that K-13 was the only whale missing during an encounter with her close relatives in February in Puget Sound and then later off the coast.

Normally, he would like to have more encounters before declaring a missing animal deceased, but Skagit has always been a central figure in her family group, which sometimes traveled separately from the rest of K pod.

Under the original protocols for counting whales, one would wait a year before listing the death, Ken told me, but now people are keeping track of the current population as orcas are born and die. His official census count is made on July 1, and he was confident that the missing Skagit would not turn up later.

K-13 was the mother of four offspring: K-20, a 31-year-old female named Spock; K-25, a 26-year-old male named Scoter; K-27, a 23-year-old female named Deadhead; and K-34, a 16-year-old male named Cali. Skagit was the grandmother to Spock’s 13-year-old calf, K-38 or Comet, and to Deadhead’s 6-year-old calf, K-44 or Ripple.

The question now is how the remaining whales in the family group will respond. In a matriarchal society, groups are led by elder females whose extended family generally stays with them for life. Will one of Skagit’s female offspring assume the leadership role? Will the family group remain as independent as it has been in the past?

“It’s a big question,” said Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “These animals are so long-lived. How do you sort out the loss of an animal like J-2, who has had a leadership role for so many years? Do they keep doing the same thing, or do they do something different?”

J-2, known as “Granny” was estimated to be more than 100 years old when she died last year. The oldest whale among the Southern Residents, she was known as the leader of the clans. Check out these posts in Water Ways:

The effect of losing Skagit’s leadership is hard to measure, but it comes on top of the fragmenting social structure among the Southern Residents. As the remaining orcas seem to be wandering around in search of food, we are likely to see fewer births and more deaths.

Studies have shown a strong correlation between births and prey availability, Ken told me, and the absence of the orcas alone is an indicator that fewer salmon are coming through the San Juan Islands. Whether the whales are finding adequate salmon runs somewhere else is hard to say, because nobody really knows where they are.

“I think they are out there intercepting whatever runs are coming down from the Gulf of Alaska,” Ken said. “Most of the salmon up there are destined for down here. They (the whales) are tough, and they will survive if they can.”

While the fish-eating Southern Residents have been absent from Puget Sound, the seal-eating transient killer whales are making themselves at home in local waters. It appears there is no shortage of seals, sea lions and harbor porpoises for them to eat, and transients are being spotted more often by people on shore and in boats.

Meanwhile, the Southern Residents typically head into Central and South Puget Sound to hunt for chum salmon during September, sometimes October. Although the migrating chum return to hundreds of streams all over Puget Sound, the orcas have become less predictable in their travels during the fall as well as the summer.

“I am hoping that the fall chum runs are strong and the whales will come in,” Ken said, “but I’m not holding my breath.”

The total count of 77 Southern Resident killer whales consists of 24 whales in J pod, 18 whales in K pod and 35 whales in L pod. Those numbers do not include Lolita, who was captured in Puget Sound as a calf and still lives in Miami Seaquarium in Florida.

Transient killer whales make themselves at home in Puget Sound

Transient killer whales are gallivanting around Puget Sound like they own the place — and maybe they do.

For decades, transients were not well known to most observers in the Salish Sea. But now these marine-mammal-eating orcas are even more common than our familiar Southern Residents, the J, K and L pods. In fact, transients are becoming so prevalent that it is hard to keep track of them all. Some observers say up to 10 different groups of transients could be swimming around somewhere in Puget Sound at any given time.

“This is nuts!” exclaimed Susan Berta of Orca Network, a nonprofit organization that keeps track of whale sightings. “This is more than we have ever seen!

“Alisa Lemire Brooks coordinates our sighting networks,” Susan told me. “She is going nuts trying to keep track of them. It has been so confusing. They mix and merge and split up again.” (See also Orca Network’s Facebook page.)

This video by Alisa Lemire Brooks shows a group of transients taking a California sea lion at Richmond Beach in Shoreline, King County, on Monday. Much of the close-up action begins at 6:30.

If you’ve followed the news of the J, K and L pods and you think you know something about killer whales, you may need to refine your thinking when talking about transients. In fact, some researchers contend that the physical, behavioral and genetic differences between transients and residents are so great that the two kinds of orcas should be considered separate species.

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Thoughts run to an orca called Granny and her clan of five generations

Looking back on the various comments that followed the death of the killer whale named Granny, I realized that there were a couple of thought-provoking tributes that I never shared with readers of this blog.

Granny, designated J-2, was believed to be more than 100 years old, and she was the obvious leader for many of the Southern Resident orcas that frequent Puget Sound. Granny went missing last fall and was reported deceased at the end of the year by the Center for Whale Research. See Water Ways, Dec. 30.

Some tributes to Granny were written and posted soon after her death notice, including one by Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. I posted my thoughts along with some others in Water Ways on Jan. 4.

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Granny, a killer whale unlike any other, stayed graceful to the end

If we can celebrate the life of a person who has died, it seems fitting to me that we should celebrate the long, productive life of a killer whale known as Granny.

Granny, or J-2, breaching in 2009, as she was known to do throughout her life.Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
Granny, or J-2, breaching in 2009, as she was known to do throughout her life.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Granny, officially designated J-2, was the oldest orca in the three pods of Southern Residents. Possibly more than 100 years of age, her longevity is something we can only hope to see among the other orcas that frequent Puget Sound.

Granny was the longtime leader of J pod. In a matriarchal society like the orcas, offspring stay with their mothers for life. Generally, the older females lead the way, and Granny was almost always seen at the front of the pack as J pod moved through the Salish Sea.

For a long-lived intelligent orca, it is hard to imagine the amount of knowledge she must have accumulated through the years. I tend to think that Granny had a personal history with nearly every cove and inlet in the Salish Sea. I think she understood the movement of salmon and where the fish would congregate before heading up the streams. It must have been tough for her to watch the decline of the whales’ once-abundant prey.

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Death toll for 2016 includes six orcas
from the Salish Sea

UPDATE, Jan. 2
The Center for Whale Research has announced that J-2, known as “Granny,” has apparently died. The oldest orca among the three Southern Resident pods, Granny was one of the first Southern Residents identified when Ken Balcomb began his Orca Survey in 1976. At the time, she was estimated to be at least 45 years old and probably in her 70s, putting her likely age at more than 100. Ken’s tribute to Granny can be read on the Center for Whale Research website. More to come.
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When it comes to the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound, a year can make all the difference in the world. Last year at this time, we were celebrating a remarkable baby boom — eight new orca calves over the previous 12 months. See Water Ways, Dec. 16, 2015.

J-34, named DoubleStuf, with Mount Baker in the background. Photo taken last February before his death this month. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
J-34, named DoubleStuf, swimming last February with Mount Baker in the background. The 18-year-old male died this month.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Another new baby was added in January of this year, for a total of nine. But if 2015 was the boom year, then 2016 turned out to be a major bust, with six orca deaths recorded during the calendar year.

The latest death among the Southern Residents was J-34, an 18-year-old male named DoubleStuf. He was found dead floating near Sechelt, B.C., northwest of Vancouver, on Dec. 20. Check out the tribute and wonderful photos on Orca Network’s webpage.

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Death of female orca with young son raises worries about the future

It has been hard to take the news that J-28, a 23-year-old female killer whale named Polaris, is now missing and presumed dead — even though I knew this news has been coming since August. It now appears likely that her 11-month-old son J-54, named Dipper, will not survive either.

On Oct. 2, J-28, named Polaris, was photographed with an indentation behind her blow hole, a condition known as “peanut head.” Polaris has now been confirmed as dead, and her son is probably dead as well, researchers say.
On Oct. 2, J-28, named Polaris, was photographed with an indentation behind her blow hole, a condition known as “peanut head” and related to malnutrition. Her 11-month-old son, shown with her, also was struggling to survive. Polaris has now been confirmed as dead, and researchers say her son is probably dead as well.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

I sadly reported on Polaris’ “super-gaunt” condition in Water Ways (Aug. 24) after talking to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. Until recently, various whale-watching folks, including CWR researchers, have reported that Polaris was still alive. She was generally seen moving slowly and in poor shape, but at times she seemed to have more energy, raising hopes that she might recover. But the last sighting of Polaris was Oct. 19 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

During a press conference Friday, Ken announced the death of Polaris, as he spoke out to raise awareness about the plight of Puget Sound orcas.

Ken said Dipper’s sister and aunt were attempting to care for the young orphan, but no other lactating females have moved in to provide milk, so he likely will die if he is not already dead.

Ken read a personally penned obituary for Polaris, noting that she was popular with whale watchers, in part because she was easily identified by a nick in her dorsal fin. She acquired the distinctive mark when she was nine years old.

At the press conference, Ken talked about the most concerning problem facing the orcas: a shortage of chinook salmon, their primary prey. The food shortage is exacerbated when the whales burn fats stored in their blubber, causing the release of toxic chemicals from their blubber into their bloodstream. Chemicals can affect the immune and reproductive systems, as well as other hormonal systems.

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Satellite tag contributed to the death of a 20-year-old orca, experts say

When a 20-year-old killer whale named Nigel was found dead floating off Vancouver Island at the end of March, experts expressed immediate concern about the sharp barbs that remained embedded in the whale’s dorsal fin. (See Water Ways, April 14.)

Nigel, L-95, on the day he was darted with a satellite tag. Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center
Nigel, L-95, on the day he was darted with a satellite tag. He was later found dead.
Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center

This type of barb is commonly used to attach satellite transmitters to all sorts of whales and dolphins, allowing the animals to be tracked over long distances. The satellite tags are designed to fall off completely — but that did not happen for Nigel, designated L-95.

As the result of an investigation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we now know that the barbs helped to introduce a dangerous fungus into Nigel’s body. The fungus appears to have spread to his lungs and other organs, ultimately contributing to his death.

“After a thorough necropsy and investigation, including an expert review of findings, there was sufficient evidence to implicate the tag attachment site as a source of fungal infection to the whale,” states a report by an expert panel (PDF 209 kb). “This fungal infection contributed to illness in the whale and played a contributory role in its death.”

After Nigel was found dead near Nootka Island, NOAA suspended the satellite-tracking program. As a result of these latest findings, the agency announced today that it will continue to prohibit satellite tagging, at least until new standards can be developed through the International Whaling Commission.

After that, any further tagging would require a new review under the Endangered Species Act. That’s because the Southern Residents — the orcas that frequent Puget Sound — are listed as an endangered species.

The tagging program has provided much information about where the whales go during winter months when they leave Puget Sound and travel up and down the coast. That information is expected to help NOAA Fisheries develop a new “critical habitat” designation for the Southern Residents. Critical habitat in coastal areas might provide the whales with protected areas where they could hunt for chinook salmon, their primary prey.

For now, NOAA may need to use methods other than satellite tagging to keep track of the whales during winter, said Richard Merrick, chief scientist for NOAA Fisheries. Experts are reviewing the existing data to see if they have enough information for expanding critical habitat outside of Puget Sound.

A total of eight Southern Residents have been tagged using a similar dart system since tagging began in 2012, according to a report from Brad Hanson (PDF 972 kb) of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. Nigel was the last, and all the other whales are alive and have shed their darts, although one whale did retain a dart for a while.

The fungus that contributed to Nigel’s death has been found in the surface waters off Vancouver Island, experts say, and the attached tag provides an entry point for infection. A couple of factors may have made things worse for the orca. First, the tag was dropped during handling and may have become contaminated with seawater. Although it was sterilized with alcohol, protocols for tag deployment call for the use of bleach as well.

It was a “human error,” said Merrick, adding that the NOAA scientists involved are “dismayed” that any of their actions could have contributed to the orca’s death.

The tag also went into a spot on the dorsal fin lower than recommended. Although other whales have not had problems with this location, the concern is the proximity to large blood vessels that could allow the fungal organism to more easily enter the bloodstream.

The final necropsy report (PDF 365 kb) provides evidence that Nigel may have had some problems with his immune system, and this particular fungus is known to attack people who are immune-compromised. I have written about the added risks of disease among killer whales because of their exposure to toxic chemicals. You might want to check out my series in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Because Nigel’s carcass was severely decomposed when it was found, the actual cause of death may never be known. But contributing factors are many.

Ken Balcomb, longtime orca researcher for the Center for Whale Research, had warned about the risks involved with using sharp prongs that penetrate the skin. See “Orca tagging raises questions about research” from Dec. 8, 2010, and “Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags” from Dec. 28, 2010.

Reached by phone today, Ken told me that he has given his best information to government researchers through the years — not only about the risks of tagging but about other issues as well.

“I get no communication back,” he said. “They just ignore it.”

His greatest concerns today are focused on the lack of wild salmon to feed the whales, he said. The high death rate and the low birth rate in recent years largely results from a lack of food, which compounds other problems that the orcas are facing. While nine new orca calves since the end of 2014 is encouraging, he said, the 82 Southern Residents are not in good shape as a population.

“They do have to eat,” Ken said. “This population requires a certain quantity of fish, and they are not getting it. Recovery (of the orcas) is not happening, and it won’t happen until the recovery of natural fish populations happens.”

The removal of dams on the Snake River would help increase the wild chinook population, Ken said, but better management of all life stages of salmon is essential. That means better coordination between the U.S. and Canada, he added.

One orca is missing and presumed dead; another reported as ‘super-gaunt’

I have some bleak news to share about our Southern Resident killer whales, which normally frequent Puget Sound at this time of year.

J-14 seen earlier this year in Puget Sound. Photo: Center for Whale Research
J-14 seen earlier this year in Puget Sound.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research,
taken under federal permits NMFS 15569/ DFO SARA 388

J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, has gone missing and is presumed dead, while J-28, a 23-year-old orca mom named Polaris, may be living out her final days.

“Things are shaping up to be pretty bad,” said Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, who keeps tabs on the orca population. “J-28 is looking super-gaunt, and I would say she is within days of her death.”

The saddest part of my conversation with Ken this morning was to hear him say that Polaris’ 7-month-old calf would become an orphan and probably will not survive without his mother. That’s the typical outcome for an orphan of that age, Ken said, although there is a chance that the young male will be adopted by his grandmother.

The calf, J-54, is still nursing, but he is close to weaning, Ken noted. He is the newest calf born into the three Southern Resident pods and is part of the “baby boom” of nine orcas born between December 2014 and December 2015. So far, only one of those calves, J-55, has died.

After my conversation with Ken, the Center for Whale Research posted a news release about the death of Samish. Orca observers on the water have known that she was missing for some time now.

As of today, J pod was on its way out through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, no doubt searching for food. The chinook salmon run has been very low this summer.

“Historically, at this time of year, we would see nice little bunches (of orcas) swimming back and forth in front of the house,” said Ken, who lives on the west side of San Juan Island. But this year, the whales have broken up into small family groups and are traveling around in seemingly random patterns, presumably in search of whatever salmon they can find.

“Even the fishermen aren’t getting much this year,” Ken said.

To gauge a killer whale’s condition, researchers consider the overall shape of its body. Without adequate fish — primarily chinook salmon — an orca grows thinner as the body fat declines. As conditions grow worse, a depression develops behind the blow hole. This sunken condition — which Polaris has developed — is called “peanut head.” So far, none of the other animals have been observed in such a dire condition.

I’ve often been told by medical experts that when a killer whale loses weight it can be a sign of a major problem, such as a disease that makes them incapable of hunting to their normal ability. But a shortage of food can exacerbate the condition.

“We have been telling the government for years that salmon recovery is essential for whale recovery,” Ken said.

He blames the salmon decline on longtime mismanagement of wild salmon stocks — including damage to habitat, over-fishing and excess hatchery stocks in both Canada and the U.S. One of the quickest ways to increase the chinook population for these whales is to take out the Snake River dams, he said.

Rebuilding salmon runs on the Elwha River will help, Ken said, but the number of fish is small compared to the potential of the Snake River, which flows into the Columbia and produces salmon that can be caught in the ocean.

“I’m trying to get the marine mammal people to talk to the salmon people,” Ken said. “Fish have been a political problem for a long time, and we are not solving the salmon issue.”

Money spent on law enforcement to make sure whale watchers don’t get too close to the orcas would be better spent on education — specifically on educating lawmakers about the needs of salmon and killer whales, he quipped.

As of July 1 — the date of the annual orca census — the population of the three Southern Resident pods stood at 83. That’s the number that will be reported to the federal government. Since then, Samish has gone missing, so the ongoing count falls to 82, pending the status of Polaris and her son.

Samish was considered part of the J-2 (“Granny”) family group. Her living offspring are Hy’shqa (J-37), Suttles (J-40) and Se-Yi’-Chn (J-45). Samish was the grandmother to Hy-Shqa’s 4-year-old son T’ilem I’nges.

Polaris is the first offspring of Princess Angeline (J-17), who is still living. Her first offspring, a female named Star (J-46), is now 7 years old. J-54 is her second offspring.