Tag Archives: Cetaceans

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.”

Amusing Monday: A blue whale is more than its parts

Scanning a 100-foot blue whale an inch at a time is an impressive way to gain a perspective on the world’s largest animal.

If you allow yourself a meditative moment, this Flash-based graphic offers a rare form of amusement. Warning: Don’t be in a hurry when you open this web page, brought to us by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. Ready? CLICK HERE.

The scrolling image of the whale is purported to be “life-size,” while a second image of the entire animal serves as a map for navigating the massive body.

According to Greener Magazine, the graphic was created by the German ad agency Jung von Matt using Soulpix 3D animation. It is made up of 10,000 JPEG images, which the Flash engine downloads at the appropriate time while the whale “swims” by. The entire image is more than 80Mb.

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Talks begin on salmon seasons, with orcas nearby

The annual North of Falcon process is about to get under way again, beginning with a public meeting in Olympia on Tuesday. During Tuesday’s meeting, state, federal and tribal managers are expected to outline their preseason forecasts of abundance for each salmon species. See meeting announcement in the Kitsap Sun and on the North of Falcon website.

Chinook salmon are the primary prey for Puget Sound's killer whales. Here, J-40 grabs a fish off False Bay, San Juan Island
Photo by Astrid Van Ginneken, Center for Whale Research.

This year, there will be a new elephant in the room … actually, something as large as an elephant — a killer whale. But more about that in a moment.

The process of determining how many salmon of each species are available for harvest and how to divide up the catch has become a complex project involving commuter simulations, policy discussions and demands from fishing constituents. The goal is to make abundant stocks of salmon available for harvest while protecting “weak runs” — particularly those listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Sure, the process has its flaws, but I have not heard of any better ideas for protecting weak runs outside of stopping all fishing for a period of time. So far this year, I haven’t had time to get a head start on what salmon managers are thinking, but I’ll be following the discussions as they move along.

I’ve been thinking about the comments people sometimes post on this blog, blaming all the salmon problems on commercial fishing, tribal fishing or the locations of fishing nets. Because such comments are often based on a lack of knowledge, I was wondering if such folks ever consider attending these meetings to find out how fishing decisions are made. The meetings, which are open to the public, begin with general discussions and get more technically oriented right up to the point when final decisions are made in mid-April.

While the fishing issues are complex by themselves, it is becoming clear that anglers and tribal fishermen may soon need to share their chinook salmon — a highly prized sport and table fish — with another species, the Southern Resident killer whale, an endangered species.

In a letter to salmon managers (PDF 1.5 mb), Will Stelle, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, announced that he would convene a series of workshops to study the relationship between chinook fishing and the survival of the Puget Sound orcas:

“The basic question NMFS must answer is whether Chinook salmon fisheries that affect the abundance of prey available to the killer whales are significantly and negatively affecting the well-being of the Southern Resident population and, if so, how those negative effects might be reduced.

“At the conclusion of the scientific workshop process, NMFS and others will be better able to determine what recovery actions are appropriate and, more specifically, whether and under what conditions additional constraints on salmon fishing may be necessary.”

As recently as 2008, the federal agency concluded that fishing at the levels allowed through the North of Falcon process had no serious effects on the whales. But, according to Stelle, more recent analyses may show otherwise:

“Our conclusions, which are preliminary at this point, strongly suggest that the amount of Chinook available to the whales in comparison to their metabolic requirements is less than what we estimated in the 2008 consultation, particularly during those summer months when the whales spend considerable time foraging in the Salish Sea.

“This change results from several factors, including but not limited to revised estimates of the metabolic requirements of the whales, their selective preference for larger Chinook salmon, and inclusion of a broader range of years to represent expected variations in the abundance of Chinook salmon available to the whales.”

While allocations for killer whales may not be explicit this year, the workshops could result in reduced harvest under the next Puget Sound Chinook Management Plan. For a more detailed discussion of the early analysis, download “Effects of Fisheries on Killer Whales” (PDF 345 kb).

For an outline of the proposed discussions, go to “A Scientific Workshop Process to Evaluate Effects of Salmon Fisheries on Southern Resident Killer Whales (PDF 21 kb).

To read a news story on the topic, reporter Craig Welch touched on the issue in the Feb. 11 edition of the Seattle Times.

Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags

Early in December, I wrote about a plan to attach satellite transmitters to selected Puget Sound killer whales by shooting darts into their dorsal fins. At the time, lots of people offered questions and concerns, but few had taken a strong position. See my story in the Kitsap Sun of Dec. 5.

Since then, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and others involved in research, education and advocacy have come out against the tagging program as currently proposed. On the other hand, several other researchers are encouraging the federal government to push the tagging program forward.

After 140 days, marks are apparent where barbs of satellite tag entered the dorsal fin of the transient killer whale known as T-30.
Click to enlarge

As Ken explained it to me, his bottom line is that the information gathered by tracking the whales by satellite may not be worth the injury caused by shooting barbed darts into the whales’ fins. He argues that more follow-up investigation is needed into the short- and long-term effects of the darts, which eventually work their way out.

Ken was actually the first to apply for a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct the tagging program with barbed darts. While not wishing to criticize his fellow researchers, Balcomb said he had been overly assured that the risk of injury was exceedingly small.

“I was shown pictures of almost-healed wounds,” Ken told me. “I was given assurance that there was not an issue. I didn’t even think about these titanium leaves coming out and leaving a hole that size (in the fin).”

The current design of the dart used to attach satellite transmitters to killer whales.

The turning point was when Ken saw a photo of a transient killer whale, T-30, who had carried one of the satellite tags. (See the picture, above right.) He said the long-term scarring was “ugly and unacceptable to me personally,” and he believed that many whale supporters also would object.

Ken turned down the approved tagging permit — in part because it was granted as an amendment to his existing permit for photographing and identifying orcas as part of his ongoing census. If unacceptable injury were to occur to the subject whales, he said, his entire permit could be suspended. That, in turn, would prevent him from continuing the identification work he has done for more than 30 years.

Ken elaborated in a Dec. 18 letter written to the National Marine Fisheries Service:
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Orca tagging raises questions about research

Killer whale researchers and advocates are beginning to stir a little bit in response to a proposal by federal researchers who want to attach satellite transmitters to the dorsal fins of up to six Puget Sound killer whales. I reported on the plan in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

The benefits of these satellite tags would be to track the Southern Residents during winter months when they head out into the ocean and disappear for periods of time. Knowing where the whales go is important if people are going to protect their habitat, according to Brad Hanson, chief investigator with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, a research arm of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

It is conceivable that the whales are visiting some favored spots for hunting salmon. Finding and protecting important forage areas from human intrusion could increase the whales’ chances of long-term survival, officials say.

On the other hand, some observers are raising concerns about this research project as well as the cumulative effects of all research on the endangered killer whales. To attach a satellite transmitter, a boat must get close enough to an orca for an operator to fire a dart from an air gun. The dart penetrates the skin on the dorsal fin of the animal.
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