Tag Archives: Cetaceans

International court rules against Japanese whaling

Japanese whalers who hunt whales in the Antarctic can no longer justify their actions as “scientific research” and must stop their annual whale roundup, according to a ruling by the International Court of Justice.

The court ruled today that Japan’s so-called “research” does not meet ordinary scientific standards. The court ordered Japan to stop killing whales under the guise of its research program, called JARPA II. As stated in a 73-page finding (PDF 649 kb) supported by 12 of the 16 judges:

“Taken as a whole, the Court considers that JARPA II involves activities that can broadly be characterized as scientific research, but that the evidence does not establish that the programme’s design and implementation are reasonable in relation to achieving its stated objectives.

“The Court concludes that the special permits granted by Japan for the killing, taking and treating of whales in connection with JARPA II are not ‘for purposes of scientific research’ pursuant to Article VIII, paragraph 1, of the Convention (the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling).”

In the legal action brought before the United Nations court by Australia, the judges carefully scrutinized the JARPA II methods and procedures. They found that the sampling procedure and lethal take of minke, fin and humpback whales falls short of legitimate scientific study in many regards:

“The fact that the actual take of fin and humpback whales is largely, if not entirely, a function of political and logistical considerations, further weakens the purported relationship between JARPA II’s research objectives and the specific sample size targets for each species — in particular, the decision to engage in the lethal sampling of minke whales on a relatively large scale.”

A news release (PDF 174 kb) issued by the court does a fair job of summarizing the findings:

“Examining Japan’s decisions regarding the use of lethal methods, the court finds no evidence of any studies of the feasibility of or the practicability of non-lethal methods, either in setting the JARPA II sample sizes or in later years in which the programme has maintained the same sample size targets. The court also finds no evidence that Japan examined whether it would be feasible to combine a smaller lethal take and an increase in non-lethal sampling as a means to achieve JARPA II’s research objectives.”

After the ruling, Koji Tsuruoka, Japan’s representative at the court, addressed reporters at the Peace Palace in The Hague. According to a report by Australian Associated Press, Tsuruoka stated:

“Japan regrets and is deeply disappointed that JARPA II … has been ruled by the court as not falling within the provisions of Article 8. However, as a state that respects the rule of law, the order of international law and as a responsible member of the global community, Japan will abide by the decision of the court.”

He said Japanese officials would need to digest the judgment before considering a future course of action. He refused to discuss whether a new research program could be crafted to allow whaling to resume.

Australian officials were careful not to gloat over the victory as they emphasized the need to maintain favorable relations with Japan. Bill Campbell, Australia’s general counsel in the case, was quoted by the AAP:

“The decision of the court today, important as it is, has given us the opportunity to draw a line under the legal dispute and move on.”

The ruling was welcomed by environmental groups, including Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has sent ships to the Antarctic to directly confront the whaling ships and interfere with their whaling activities, as seen on the television show “Whale Wars.” Capt. Alex Cornelissen of Sea Shepherd Global had this to say in a news release:

“With today’s ruling, the ICJ has taken a fair and just stance on the right side of history by protecting the whales of the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and the vital marine ecosystem of Antarctica, a decision that impacts the international community and future generations. Though Japan’s unrelenting harpoons have continued to drive many species of whales toward extinction, Sea Shepherd is hopeful that in the wake of the ICJ’s ruling, it is whaling that will be driven into the pages of the history books.”

Oceanic killer whales being tracked near Hawaii

For the first time, researchers are tracking by satellite a group of “tropical oceanic” killer whales, a type rarely seen and almost a complete mystery to scientists.

Observers with Cascadia Research locate a group of four tropical oceanic killer whales near Hawaii and attach satellite tags to three of them. Photo by Aliza Milette
Observers with Cascadia Research locate a group of four tropical oceanic killer whales, including this male, near Hawaii. They were able to attach satellite tags to three of them.
Photo by Aliza Milette

Researchers from Olympia-based Cascadia Research were in Hawaii, on the final day of a 15-day research cruise to study marine mammals, when they encountered four killer whales offshore from Kona. They were the type of orca known to roam the open ocean, but rarely seen by human observers.

In fact, in 14 years of research work in Hawaii, Cascadia’s Robin Baird said he has encountered these tropical killer whales only three times twice before. Others have seen them on occasion, but sightings are few and far between.

This time, on Nov. 1, Baird’s crew was able to obtain samples of skin for genetic work, which will help determine how closely these whales are related to other orcas throughout the world. The crew also attached satellite transmitters to three of the four whales.

Satellite tracks show the orcas moving north and west over the past two weeks. (Click to enlarge image.)
Satellite tracks show the orcas moving north and west over the past two weeks. (Click to enlarge image.)
Map by Cascadia Research

Two of the transmitters are still transmitting nearly two weeks later, and Baird hopes at least one will continue working for several more weeks. In warmer waters, the barbed “tags” tend to fall off sooner than in Northwest waters, Robin told me. As you can see from the map, the whales first moved west, then north, then west again. As of the latest plot this morning, they were west and slightly south of Kauai.

By coincidence, two underwater photographers captured video and still photos of these killer whales around the time the Cascadia crew was in the area off Kona. Deron Verbeck and Julie Steelman told KHON-TV that the experience was the pinnacle of their career. (See video below.)

Although Nov. 1 was the last official day of the Cascadia cruise, researcher Russ Andrews and several others went back out on Saturday to find the four killer whales. They spotted three other orcas with them. During the outing, they observed predation on a thresher shark, something that photographer Verbeck also reported.

An adult female (background) swims with a sub-adult in Hawaiian waters. The saddle patch (near the dorsal fin) of tropical oceanic killer whales is dark and difficult to see. Photo by Robin W. Baird
Among the tropical oceanic killer whales near Hawaii, this adult female swims with a young whale. Notice the dark coloration of the saddle patch near the dorsal fin.
Photo by Robin W. Baird

These tropical oceanic killer whales are smaller than the familiar resident and transient killer whales of the Northwest, Robin Baird explained. Instead of a white “saddle patch” near the dorsal fin, these animals have a gray, almost black patch that is difficult to see.

These are not the “offshore” killer whales that roam miles of the West Coast, but generally stay on or near the continental shelf, Robin told me. Still, it will be interesting to see if the tropical oceanic orcas are closer genetically to the offshores, which are known to eat sharks.

We do know the Southern Resident orcas, which frequent Puget Sound, specialize in eating salmon, particularly chinook. But Robin says whales feeding in the open ocean probably don’t encounter enough of any one prey type to be so specialized. Considered generalists, they have been known to eat squid, sharks, dolphins and occasionally larger whales.

Some of the killer whales seen off Hawaii had remoras, also called sucker fish, attached. Experts say this is not unusual for tropical marine mammals. Photo by Annie M. Gorgone
Some of the killer whales seen off Hawaii had remoras, also called sucker fish, attached to them. Experts say this is not unusual for tropical marine mammals.
Photo by Annie M. Gorgone

Robin says little is known about how they group together, because the number of photo identifications is small. Generally, the groups are five or less. The groups are likely to be families, including a female and all her offspring. This is the same type of matriarchal society found in other orca groups, although in some orca societies — such Southern Residents — one matriline often joins with others.

Robin says just about everything learned about their travels is new, “from short-term movement rates, habitat use, and — if the tags stay on for a while — how often they may visit island-habitats (and) whether they cross international boundaries.”

In addition to Robin Baird and Russ Andrews, the research crew on the trip included Daniel Webster, Annie Douglas and Annie Gorgone, all from Cascadia; Amy Van Cise from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and several volunteers.

Even before the killer whale encounter, the cruise was considered successful, Robin said. Twelve species of marine mammals were encountered, and satellite tags were deployed on six species, now being tracked. More than 40,000 photographs were taken, some of which are shown on Cascadia’s Facebook page or the project page on Cascadia’s website.

Dolphin rescue touches many hearts

If you haven’t seen it, I think you’ll be impressed with this video, which shows a bottlenose dolphin apparently asking for help from some scuba divers, who noticed the animal tangled in fishing line with a hook imbedded in its fin.

Martina Wing of Ocean Wings Hawaii captured the action, which really begins at 3:30 into the eight-minute video, though the early part sets the scene with some beautiful shots of manta rays. The encounter took place Jan. 11 off the west coast of the Big Island.

Reporter Philip Caulfield of the New York Daily News quoted Keller Laros, the diver who came to the rescue, as saying the dolphin was responsive to his gesture and deliberately moved in close to be helped:

“I noticed he had a fishing wire wrapped around his left fin. I reached out with my left hand … and gestured with my index finger ‘Come here.’ And he swam right up to me. The fact that he seemed to recognize my gesture, that blew me away.”

Laros was able to cut away the line and remove the hook, and the dolphin swam away.

The video has been viewed nearly 2 million times, with more than 2,000 comments posted to the site. I found some observations to be thought-provoking:

DavidKevin: I am overwhelmed.

I have been certain for over 35 years that we shared the planet with another sentient species, the dolphins, and this is just more evidence of it. We don’t have to go off-planet to find an alien species with whom to communicate, we just have to look offshore.

If we cannot learn to communicate with our distant mammalian relatives, we’ll never be able to communicate with true extra-terrestrials, should we ever meet them.

Marvelicious75: We use the word ‘sentient’ in a dialectic manner, but it is quite obviously not accurate. It is arrogance that makes us consider ourselves separate from ‘animals’ like the dolphin. This story isn’t truly surprising in light of the countless stories of dolphins rescuing humans. The only limiting factor is our surprising lack of empathy….

Hobbitfrdo: Sad day for the world if we stopped loving all creatures. Respect to you all.

Russell Laros: The diver cutting the line off in the video is my father. He was really happy to be able to make this connection to the animal and was pretty impressed by it’s intelligence. Apparently this dolphin has been in contact with humans before, though. It has been seen and interacted with workers at a local open ocean fish farm nearby. Still really amazing though….

Misa Eniaki Amane: This dolphin is smarter than all of us…..went up for air and back down to continue with the rescue.

supertekkel1: There are numerous_ ancient stories of dolphins rescuing sailors who went overboard. Whether they are true or not, it’s nice to see that we are finally able to do something to return the favor.

1Irisangel: What a blessing to have captured these moments on film. No words needed, only love and compassion for a fellow traveler on planet Earth. Wonderful capture Martina!

OonaCanute: Now to get rid of all the fishing nets and lines and hooks that kill thousands of dolphins like this beauty every year.

Alex Bruce: The trust the dolphin had in the humans in his time of need is humbling to me. Dolphins are very intelligent creatures and know when to allow man to handle and help them. The men that helped the dolphin have to have felt some sense of pride derived from their kindness and humane actions. I know I did when many years ago I helped rescue a pelican that had a 3-barb hook anchored in its wing and a weight that was attached to the fishing line. He said. “Thank you” in his way and took off in flight :-)

bcmom5: Awesome. It swam around until it found the right person to help it. That person and all who had a hand in it were blessed with Dolphin Medicine which teaches us to get out and breathe, explore, play. Breathe new life into your life. Awesome. :) Thank you for helping and for sharing.

userbc44: What a touching and pure video! I love the part at 4:33 when the diver goes to take off his lights and puts them on the sea floor, the dolphin swims right in front of him as to say, “Theres more! don’t go, here I am!”

POMPCATZ: Wonderful to watch this intelligent creature seek your help and let you finish the job after going up for air. This is just more proof these beautiful. intelligent life forms should not be slaughtered for ignorant tradition and profit.

KillerinExile: Dolphins seem almost sapient. If they’re smart enough to ask for help maybe we shouldn’t be eating and abusing them like we do.

starsbydaylight: … I am sure the majority of people are naturally happy to help distressed animals that keep their calm, sometimes being out of fear unreasonable while being rescued. Once I witnessed a toddler busy carefully rescue a butterfly drowning in a puddle of water. The intelligence of the dolphin and the kind manner of the diver made me cry. In fact the dolphin saved its own life….

flowerseva: This is the ‘Real News’ happening on Planet Earth! Imagine if the 6 o’clock nightly news was filled with these images and emotions – What kind of world would we then be creating??

Pierside sonar in Everett raises new concerns

Last Monday, Feb. 27, the Navy announced that it was beginning an environmental review that will lead up to a new federal permit involving Navy testing and training efforts in the Northwest, including the use of sonar at pierside in Puget Sound. See Kitsap Sun, Feb. 27.

Two days later, workers and passengers on the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry heard sonar pings apparently vibrating through the hull loud enough to be heard above the water. Scott Veirs was the first to report this issue in his blog Orcasphere that same day.

Jason Wood, a bioacoustician and research associate at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, made some phone calls and issued this report:

“The crew in the engine room, the captain, and passengers could hear the sonar, at times so loudly that the ferry agent on land could hear the sonar coming up through the ferry while it was at the dock…. The operations center called the Everett Naval base, but got no answers. They also called the Coast Guard. No (Navy) or Coast Guard vessels were reported seen during the sonar incident, other than a naval vessel at the dock in the Everett Navy yard.”

I phoned Sheila Murray, spokeswoman for Navy Region Northwest, who confirmed that the sonar was coming from the USS Shoup, docked at Naval Station Everett. She issued this statement:

“In response to your query, the Navy was conducting pierside testing of mid-frequency active sonar at Naval Station Everett yesterday. This is routine testing that is a longstanding and ongoing requirement, and is an essential process in preparing a Navy ship to get underway.

“Pierside testing is not continuous, but consists of very brief transmissions of acoustic energy interspersed with longer silent periods.”

The Shoup gained a notorious reputation among some killer whale researchers in 2003, when the intense sound of sonar pings was reported to have caused J pod to flee in a confused pattern. See Water Ways, Feb. 11, for links to videos of that incident.

Sheila also confirmed that this is the kind of “pierside testing” contemplated for the new permit being sought from the National Marine Fisheries Service, a permit that will allow incidental harassment of marine mammals under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Such activities will be analyzed in an upcoming environmental impact statement, as I described last week.
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Update on orca research cruise and tracking effort

As you probably know if you follow this blog, a team of researchers attached a satellite tag to one of the Southern Resident killer whales a few days ago (Water Ways, Feb. 22). But the transmission stopped sometime after Thursday morning, following three days of transmissions used to track J pod in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Pacific Ocean.

Bell M. Shimada, the research ship now in search of killer whales. / NOAA photo.

The researchers, led by Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, are now trying to locate J pod during the day to determine whether the tag fell off or simply stopped transmitting.

I received this e-mail from Brad yesterday:

“We have been unable to locate them during daylight hours the last two days. We detected the whales on our towed array on Thursday evening after sunset near the west end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca but we were not able to stay with them until daybreak because they stopped vocalizing and echolocating about 0130 on Friday.

“We spent most of Friday searching the central Strait of Juan de Fuca before heading to Port Angeles late in the evening to avoid an approaching storm. J pod calls were detected off San Juan Island late Friday evening. We are waiting for winds to subside and will resume our search as soon as possible.”

A decision about whether to attach a transmitter to another orca in J pod will wait until the researchers get a look at J-26 to see what may have happened to the transmission. No more than two tags per year may used to track any one pod. Specific whales were selected for tags, generally avoiding females that could contribute to the population.

The ability to track the whales by satellite makes the research work easier, but it does not change the priorities. Figuring out where the Southern Residents travel in winter remains a primary goal of the ongoing research. Two years ago, the crew went to sea looking for the whales without the option of tagging, using the same acoustic equipment being used now to find them.

The cruise also is collecting data on birds, zooplankton and oceanographic conditions, as with the cruise in 2009, Brad told me. The ability to use the satellite data to track the whales allows researchers to collect information along the track where the whales had been.

Without information about the location of the whales, the researchers tend to follow systematic track lines with their research vessel. When the whales are picked up on the acoustic array, the effort to locate the animals takes precedence over data collection. At night, changes in ship speed and heading limits the type and quality of data that can be collected.

The risks of tagging can be debated, and I’ve tried to share the concerns. Still, it is easy to see why researchers wish to have this tool available to them as they try to figure out where the whales go in winter.

Researchers launch winter tracking of killer whales

UPDATE: Tracking J pod from 6 p.m. Monday to 9 a.m. Thursday, using a satellite tag attached to J-26. This is the northwest corner of Washington state, with Vancouver Island to the north.
Map: National Marine Fisheries Service

A team of killer whale researchers is tracking J pod by satellite, after attaching a special radio tag to J-26, a 21-year-old male named “Mike.”

Brad Hanson, who is leading the research team from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said the tagging occurred Monday without incident as darkness fell over the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“This is really exciting,” Brad told me today by cell phone from the NOAA research ship Bell M. Shimada. “This is something we have been planning on doing for quite a few years now. Everything worked out to encounter the animals in decent weather condition.”

The map above shows where the whales have traveled since Monday afternoon. A website showing the tracks, including an explanation of the project, will be updated roughly once a day.

The goal is to learn where the Southern Resident killer whales go in winter, what they’re eating and why they choose certain areas to hang out. Until now, these questions could not be answered well, because winter sightings were fairly limited.

When I talked to Brad about 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Shimada was towing an acoustic array near Port Angeles, as the researchers listened for the sounds of killer whales that might venture into the strait.

J pod was fairly spread out Monday during the tagging operation, and visibility was low Tuesday during heavy rains. As the whales headed out into the ocean, the crew decided to stay in the strait to avoid 20-foot seas and heavy winds off the coast. They could have followed the whales out, Brad said, but the satellite tag allows the crew to keep track of their location. In rough seas, there’s a risk that the research equipment will be damaged.

“Everything is weather-dependent,” Brad said. “Our plan is to try to catch up with them as soon as we can.”

The goal is to collect fecal samples and fish scales — as the researchers do in summer when the whales are in the San Juan Islands.

“That data is extremely valuable in determining the species of fish,” he said, “and if it’s chinook, what stocks are important.”

The satellite tagging has been controversial among some researchers and killer whale advocates, but it was approved following a study of the potential risks and benefits. See Water Ways entries from 2010:

Orca tagging raises questions about research, Dec. 8, 2010

Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags, Dec. 28, 2010

The researchers are scheduled to be out with the whales until March 7.

“We’re keeping our options open,” Brad said. “We will spend as much time with Js as we can. It looks like we could get one low-pressure system after another, as is typical for February, but we might get a break on Friday. Sometimes we’ll get these holes in the weather system.

“Right now, we’re basically hanging out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. If other animals come in, we hope to detect that.”

The tagging permit allows for up to six orcas to be tracked each year, but nobody expects the number of tagged animals to be close to that.

Data from the satellite transmitter is relayed to a weather satellite as it passes over. The information is then transferred to a processing center that determines the location of the transmitter. Through the process, the information gets delayed a few hours.

Also on board the research vessel are seabird biologists and other experts taking samples of seawater and zooplankton and collecting basic oceanographic data.

Bainbridge’s Izumi Stephens is off to guard ‘the cove’

Izumi Stephens of Bainbridge Island, who appeared in the program “Whale Wars” last year, has returned to her native Japan as a “Cove Guardian” for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Izumi Stephens

Izumi left yesterday, traveling with her daughter Fiona, who will be 14 in April and who shares her mother’s passion to save whales and dolphins.

Cove Guardians are volunteers who document and photograph the slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, a town made famous by the award-winning documentary “The Cove.”

I talked to Izumi Wednesday before she flew out. She was excited and a little nervous. As a Japanese citizen who has lived in the United States 19 years, she was not sure how she would be received by Japanese residents when she stands alongside Sea Shepherd volunteers.

A year ago at this time, Izumi was serving aboard the Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin as it followed Japanese whaling ships and disrupted their activities in the Southern Ocean of Antarctica. Izumi translated messages between the Japanese whalers and Sea Shepherd and helped coordinate coverage by Japanese reporters.

Izumi was the first Japanese translator who did not conceal her identity from the photographers filming “Whale Wars,” a weekly reality program on Animal Planet. Izumi appeared in several scenes but was not a major character. Check out my initial story for the Kitsap Sun on Oct. 31, 2010, with follow-up reports on Water Ways: Jan. 4, 2011 Feb. 22, 2011 … and June 1, 2011.

Izumi says her language skills may come in handy in Taiji. Also, her understanding of Japanese values may help her build a “bridge of understanding” with the Japanese people. Many see no difference between killing dolphins and killing fish to eat, she said, yet dolphins are intelligent mammals, and the rate of hunting cannot be sustained.

“To them, killing dolphins is a tradition,” she said, “but every country has its horrible traditions. Spain gave up the bull fight, and Japan can give up this.”

Izumi said her daughter Fiona put together a school project about the anti-whaling conflict last year, so she understands the arguments on both sides.

Cove Guardians say they are careful to obey the local laws as they document the daily killing of dolphins, which they claim is about 20,000 per year. Besides documenting and filming the deaths of dolphins and the movement of fishing boats, the general goal is to create a sense of shame among the hunters and local residents, they say.

Suzanne West of Seattle, whose husband Scott is coordinating Cove Guardians in Japan, said Izumi may receive increasesd attention from the Japanese media. Some people will be surprised at her opposition to the hunt. By now, most Japanese are fairly used to seeing Western visitors speaking in opposition to the events in Taiji, said Suzanne, who coordinates efforts in the U.S.

“A big thing is making them aware that the world is watching,” Suzanne said. “We got a lot of footage last year of them actually killing the dolphins.”

Now, the hunters are conducting the slaughter behind tarps, she noted, “but we can still count the actual bodies going in with none coming out.”

Izumi will return to Bainbridge Island on Thursday, March 1. Two days later, she will participate in a gathering of Sea Shepherd supporters at Casa Rojas Mexican restaurant, 403 Madison Ave., on Bainbridge Island. The event is free, with donations going to Sea Shepherd. For reservations, e-mail Seattle Sea Shepherd.

Izumi’s arrival in Japan coincides with the release from jail of Cove Guardian Erwin Vermeulen of the Netherlands, who was arrested in December during a pushing incident while trying to photograph dolphins in the cove.

A judge ruled that Vermeulen should pay a fine of 1,000 euros ($1,315 U.S.), but he cannot leave Japan pending an appeal by the prosecutor. Officials with Sea Shepherd say they may file formal proceedings to protest the two-month detention for a minor crime. See Expatica News.

Update, Feb. 18: After I posted this blog entry, I received an e-mail from Sea Shepherd’s media department that provides additional details and clarifies the Expatica report. See News Release (PDF 24 kb)

"The Cove," Taiji, Japan / Sea Shepherd photo

Legal actions swirl around orcas Morgan and Lolita

UPDATE: Dec. 13, 2012

Advocates for the release of Morgan have failed in their appeal to overturn the court ruling that transferred the young killer whale to Loro Parque, a Spanish amusement park. An appeals court ruled that the transfer was not unlawful. See today’s Dutch News

Barbara van Genne of Orca Coalition:

“Morgan is provisionally kept in Tenerife. Fortunately, in Spain animal protectors are attracting the fate of the orca and want to continue our fight there. We’ll continue to monitor Morgan and we will help where we can. And in the Netherlands we focus on the future, to ensure that stranded cetaceans will no longer fall in the hands of the commercial industry. The fact that the license for the care of these animals is no longer in the name of the amusement park Dolfinarium, but in the name of SOS Dolphin, is a good first step.”

—–

UPDATE: Nov. 29

Morgan was loaded into a plane today and flown to her new home in Loro Parque, an amusement park on the Spanish island of Tenerife. The transport, which involved trucks on both ends of the trip, was uneventful.

Toby Sterling covered the story for the Associated Press.
—–
UPDATE: Nov. 21

A Dutch court ruled this morning that Morgan may be sent to live at Loro Parque aquarium, ruling against advocates who had hoped to reunite the young orca with her family in Norway.

In a written finding, Judge M. de Rooij said chances of the female whale surviving in the wild were “too unsure,” according to a report by Toby Sterling of the Associated Press.

“Morgan can be transferred to Loro Parque for study and education to benefit the protection or maintenance of the species,” she was quoted as saying.

Reactions among supporters for her release are being compiled on the Free Morgan website.

Ingrid Visser, who helped lay the scientific groundwork for Morgan’s release, was quoted as saying the only hope for Morgan now now lie with the Spanish courts or the Norwegian government.

“Personally, I am devastated that after all these months of fighting the good fight, to find that reason and science lost over money and ulterior motives,” Visser wrote on the Free Morgan page. “Our long-term goal of establishing laws to ever prevent an animal in need being turned into an animal used for profit and personal gain will not stop with Morgan’s incarceration.”
—–

Separate legal actions continue to swirl around two famous killer whales, Morgan and Lolita.

The fate of Morgan, the orphan killer whale, lies with an Amsterdam judge who is scheduled to decide tomorrow if the orca should be moved permanently to an aquarium in Spain or be taken to a coastal location where she might be reunited with her family.
said

Steve Hearn, head trainer at Dolfinarium Harderwijk, plays with Morgan at feeding time two weeks ago.
Associated Press photo by Peter Dejong

Morgan, estimated to be 3 to 5 years old, was rescued in poor condition last year in the Wadden Sea and was nursed back to health in a marine park called Harderwijk Dolfinarium. Advocates for her release say Morgan is being commercially exploited in violation of international law regarding marine mammals.

As for Lolita, animal-rights groups in the United States filed a lawsuit last week regarding the killer whale captured in Puget Sound in 1970 and kept in the Miami Seaquarium almost her entire life.

The new lawsuit contends that Lolita should have not have been excluded as part of the “endangered” population when the federal government listed the Southern Residents under the Endangered Species Act in 2005. The Animal Legal Defense Fund and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals say if Lolita is included among the endangered orcas, it will lead to better treatment and possibly a reunion with her relatives.

Morgan’s story

Advocates for Morgan’s release say her caretakers at the marine park did a good job nursing her back to health, but the law requires that every effort be made to release marine mammals after rehabilitation is complete.

The dolphinarium filed a report saying that it is unlikely that Morgan would be able to survive in the wild and that finding her family was unlikely. Some experts who supported that initial report have since changed their minds, however.

Dutch Agriculture Minister Henk Bleker sided with dolphinarium officials, saying moving Morgan to a large tank at Loro Parque is best under the circumstances. That decision was unchanged after the judge ruled that the ministry must conduct its own evaluation, independent of the dolphinarium.

As time goes on, experts associated with the Free Morgan Foundation say they are getting close to identifying Morgan’s family group, based on recordings of vocalizations. In the latest report, researchers Heike Vester and Filipa I. P. Samarra said, “We do consider it likely that Morgan is either from group P or a group closely related to group P,” which are among the orcas that live in Norway. Check out the report, “Comparison of Morgan’s discrete stereotyped call repertoire with a recent catalogue of Norwegian killer whale calls” (PDF 5.9 mb).

Here are the Water Ways entries I’ve posted so far about Morgan:

Aug. 3, 2011: Supporters of Morgan’s release celebrate a victory

Feb. 2, 2011: Morgan, the orphan orca, gets her own lawyer

Jan. 14, 2011: Orphan orca gains attention of whale advocates

Lolita’s new lawsuit

The Animal Legal Defense Fund and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are asking that Lolita be included in the population listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

It isn’t clear what this would accomplish, but the groups make the point that the Endangered Species Act makes some exceptions for listing animals kept in captivity, but the focus is on using those animals for recovery of the listed population and does not apply to animals kept for commercial use, the groups argue. Quoting from the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle (PDF 92 kb):

“In its final listing decision (in 2005), NMFS provided no explanation for its decision to exclude all of the captive members of the Southern Resident killer whale population from the listing of that population as endangered.

“Because of its final listing decision, NMFS has excluded Lolita from the protections of the ESA, thereby allowing her to be kept in conditions that harm and harass her, and that would otherwise be prohibited under the “take” prohibition of the ESA, 16 U.S.C. § 1538(a), including, but not limited to, being kept in an inadequate tank, without companions of her own species or adequate protection from the sun.”

The group asks the court to set aside the portion of the listing decision that excluded Lolita from the endangered population, because it was “arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, and not in accordance with law.”

Some Water Ways entries related to Lolita:

Aug. 8, 2010: Thinking of Lolita, the captive killer whale

July 15, 2010: Lolita’s fate could become linked to Gulf disaster

Jan. 23, 2008: Lolita, the orca, makes news again

Jan. 12, 2008: Celebrities and a ‘beautiful whale’

How a dead orca can help save the population

A baby killer whale, which died within days of birth, could help provide answers to ongoing questions about what Southern Resident orcas need to survive and eventually rebuild a healthy population. Please check out the story I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun.

Obtaining killer whale tissues for studies often involves taking a plug of blubber from a whale’s skin while maneuvering a boat close to the moving animal. Another way is to follow the whales and grab bits of fecal matter floating on the water. I find it remarkable the amount of information that can be obtained by these methods.

So it should not be surprising that researchers got excited this week when a baby killer whale essentially dropped into their laps with pristine tissues to be examined. The calf, found on the Washington coast, appears to have been dead less than 24 hours when it was found, and the animal was small enough to be placed on ice. Decomposition, which can progress at an exponential rate, had barely begun.

“When we got it, it was still in rigor, and the tissues were pretty much immaculate,” Dyanna Lamborn of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife told me.

Federal biologists and policy-makers face a tough challenge as they try to figure out how to restore endangered killer whales to a healthy population. Needless to say, an intense effort is under way to save this Northwest icon, the killer whale, from extinction.

It is generally believed that the most critical factors involve food supply, toxic chemicals and stresses from vessels. But how do we know that these are the main problems? What other factors, such as disease or parasites, may play a role? And how do all these factors interrelate with each other?

The answers to these questions depend on research. Careful studies might assure us that, to improve the plight of the orcas, we don’t need to shut down all salmon fishing or halt vessels involved in whale-watching and commercial shipping. But research has already begun to inform us that we also cannot ignore these effects.

Major research challenges were spelled out in the 2008 “Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Plan” (PDF 1.7 mb). They include:

  • Determine the distribution and habitat use of the Southern Residents in Puget Sound, Georgia Basin and the outer coast.
  • Investigate the diet of the Southern Residents, including specific prey populations and the extent to which they eat hatchery fish.
  • Analyze the demographics of the Southern Residents, including mortality rates and potential causes of mortality.
  • Evaluate population growth rates and survival patterns, population structure and changes in social structure.
  • Investigate the health and physiology of the Southern Residents, including metabolic rates and energy requirements, along with growth rates and health of individual members.

Follow-up to suspected boat collision with orca

Given the excitement of the moment, including comments over the radio, some people still believe that L-90, a 19-year-old female orca named Ballena, was struck by a boat off the west side of San Juan Island on Friday.

An experienced driver for the Prince of Whales whale-watching company was mentioned as a likely witness.

I talked to a spokeswoman for the company who told me that nobody she knows has any pictures. The only interviews granted by staff were with enforcement officers for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Sgt. Russ Mullins, one of the WDFW officers who patrols that area, said he has investigated the incident. As best as he can tell, no collision occurred.

“Nobody witnessed an actual strike,” he told me. “It was a close call perhaps, but we do not have vessel-related injuries on this animal.”

Here are some of the details that Sgt. Mullins reported:

The boat reportedly involved in the incident was a slow-moving liveaboard passing through the area. The speed was about 7 knots. Mullins does not know why some news reports mentioned a high-speed boat, except for the possible assumption that only a fast-moving boat was likely to strike a killer whale.

A witness on the Prince of Whales boat told officers that the orca in question and possibly others surfaced some 20 feet off the bow the boat, which then stopped for a short time before leaving the area.

The whale was acting sluggish, barely moving and logging on the surface for quite some time. That behavior led people in the area to believe a collision had occurred. Comments to that effect went out over the radio.

“I heard the transmission,” Mullins said. “The close proximity, combined with the unusual behavior of the whale, led some people to think it had been struck. We assume the worst. As primary law enforcement for the area we have a responsibility to respond…”

Another patrol boat quickly tracked down the suspect vessel.

“We talked to the skipper, who was very concerned,” Mullins said. “He did not appear to be the kind of person who would strike a whale and knowingly leave.”

Mullins said he stayed with the group of whales for 10 hours, including part of Saturday. During that time, they passed the town of Friday Harbor, where they became as active as he’s ever seen them.

Experts familiar with the orcas assured him that the whale had been acting strangely even before Friday’s incident and that nothing had changed See my Water Ways entry from Friday and Erin Heydenreich’s further explanation later that day.

Technically, the driver of the boat was in violation of the protective zone around the whales, 100 yards under state law and 200 yards under federal law. That applies even when the whales catch up to a boat going the same direction, but officers have discretion to consider the conditions.

Mullins said his department plans to issue a written warning to the driver of the boat and refer all the information to officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“This guy’s biggest mistake is not being aware of his surroundings,” the sergeant said, “but when the whales were within his view, he took appropriate action.”