Tag Archives: endangered species

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.”

Amusing Monday: Odd and colorful species make top-10 list for ’17

A newly named stingray that lives in freshwater has joined an omnivorous rat and a couple of leggy wormlike creatures as part of the Top-10 New Species for 2017.

Sulawesi root rat
Photo: Kevin Rowe, Museums Victoria

The top-ten list, compiled by the College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) at the State University of New York, also includes a tiny spider found in India, a katydid discovered in Malaysia and a spiny ant from Papua New Guinea. Two interesting plants also made the list.

It’s often amusing to learn how various critters are first discovered and ultimately how they are named — sometimes for fictional characters with similar characteristics.

ESF President Quentin Wheeler, who founded the International Institute for Species Exploration, said nearly 200,000 new species have been discovered since the top-10 list was started a decade ago.

“This would be nothing but good news were it not for the biodiversity crisis and the fact that we’re losing species faster than we’re discovering them,” he said. “The rate of extinction is 1,000 times faster than in prehistory. Unless we accelerate species exploration, we risk never knowing millions of species or learning the amazing and useful things they can teach us.”

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Amusing Monday: Artistic students inspired by endangered species

In celebration of Endangered Species Day on May 19, more than 1,400 students from across the country submitted their artwork showing threatened and endangered plants and animals. The contest is under the direction of the Endangered Species Coalition.

“Protecting nature is critical to keeping our planet thriving for future generations,” states an introduction to the art contest. “What better way to do that than by engaging youth to put their imaginative skills to work for wildlife in the 2017 Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest.”

Art by Rajvi Bhavin Shah, 7, of Roseville, Calif.
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

The annual contest is open to any student from kindergarten to 12th grade. I have to say that I’m always surprised at how environmentally oriented competitions attract young artists able to express themselves in interesting ways.

One of my favorite pieces in the endangered species contest is a drawing of a mother polar bear and her cub on patches of ice — the first picture on this page. The artist is 7-year-old Rajvi Bhavin Shah of Roseville, Calif., who was able to bring a unique artistic style to a scene used before.

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Amusing Monday: Artistic students inspired by endangered species

In celebration of national Endangered Species Day on May 20, students from across the country were invited to create artwork about species that could be headed for extinction. Although the number of entries was somewhat limited, I have been much impressed with more than a few of these pieces.

Chen

The Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest is sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Endangered Species Coalition, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and International Child Art Foundation. The contest was established to encourage students to learn about threatened and endangered species and to express their understanding and feelings through art.

Yang

Judges included Wyland, the well known marine life artist; Jack Hanna, host of television shows featuring wild animals; David Littschwager, a freelance photographer and contributor to National Geographic magazine; Susan Middleton, a photographer and author who has produced several books of nature photography; and Alice Tangerini, botanical illustrator for the Smithsonian Institution. Entries were submitted in February and March.

Sharonin

The painting of Southern Resident Killer Whales was created by 17-year-old Christopher Chen of Oak Grove, Calif. The artwork was named a semifinalist in the endangered species art contest. Of course, those of us who live in the Puget Sound area are at least somewhat familiar with the three pods of Southern Resident orcas, a population listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. See NOAA’s Species in the Spotlight.

Seven-year-old Rachel Yang of Belmont, Calif., was named the winner among a much younger group of students, those in the kindergarten-to-second-grade division. Her picture of yelloweye rockfish should also spark interest for Puget Sound residents, as these fish are listed as threatened in the Puget Sound region. See NOAA’s “Rockfish in Puget Sound/Georgia Basin.”

Kiernicki

The picture of Atlantic salmon, third on this page, by Katrina Sharonin, 12, took first place among the sixth through eight graders. I thought the hourglass was an important element, something to show that the species may be running out of time. Although we think of Atlantic salmon as farmed fish on the West Coast, remnant populations of wild Atlantic salmon can still be found in central and eastern Maine. Once abundant along the East Coast, Atlantic salmon are now one of the most endangered species in the U.S. See NOAA’s Species in the Spotlight. By the way, Katrina is another student from Belmont, Calif., which had a large number of excellent entries.

Lei

Elizabeth Kiernicki, 17, of Pingree Grove, Ill., was the first-place winner among the students in grades 9 through 12 with her picture of the northern spotted owl. The spotted owl, listed as threatened, was once found in forests from Southwest British Columbia through Western Washington and Western Oregon and as far south as San Francisco Bay. Now, remnant populations are in decline in scattered areas, primarily remaining segments of old-growth forests, while a significant population survives on the Olympic Peninsula. See U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service webpage.

Chang

Other semifinalists include Matthew Lei, 11, of Portland, Ore., with his portrait of a mother gray whale and her calf, and Michelle Chang, 7, of Centrevile, Va., with her picture of a mother polar bear and her cub waiting on a chunk for broken ice.

To see all the semifinalists, visit the Flikr page showing semifinalists or you can scan through all the entries by going to the Flikr page organized by grade level.

Endangered Species Day will be celebrated with events organized by groups around the country. You can find registered events on the webpage “Celebrate Endangered Species Day,” although you may need to do an Internet search for details.

It’s not hard to find information about the Endangered Species Act or individual species with an Internet search engine, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gives you a place to start with its Endangered Species Day website.

Endangered Species Day was designated by U.S. Senate resolution in 2006 to encourage teachers across the country to spend at least 30 minutes “informing students about threats to, and the restoration of, endangered species around the world” and to encourage organizations and business to help produce educational materials.

As far as I can tell, a 2012 Senate resolution was the last time that Congress officially recognized Endangered Species Day, although it has continued with the support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Research on rockfish
in Puget Sound reveals intriguing findings

This week’s announcement that the coastal population of canary rockfish had dramatically rebounded got me to wondering what new information might be coming from research on the threatened and endangered rockfish of Puget Sound.

Canary rockfish Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA
Canary rockfish // Photo by Tippy Jackson, NOAA

Dayv Lowry, research scientist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, shared some intriguing new information about Puget Sound rockfish that could link into the coastal population. In fact, if limited genetic findings hold up, a delisting of one type of Puget Sound rockfish could be in order.

On Monday, the Pacific Fishery Management Council reported that West Coast populations of two groundfish species — canary rockfish and petrale sole — have been “rebuilt” some 42 years earlier than expected. Canary rockfish were declared “overfished” in 2000, and a rebuilding plan was put in place a year later. Strict fishing restrictions were imposed, and experts expected the stock to rebound successfully by 2057.

“This is a big deal,” former council chairman Dan Wolford said in a news release. “We now have six times more canary rockfish than when we scaled back so many fisheries. This shows the Pacific council’s conservation policies work.”

Meanwhile, WDFW and NOAA Fisheries are researching the three species of Puget Sound rockfish listed under the Endangered Species Act. They are canary rockfish and yelloweye rockfish, both listed as threatened, and bacaccio, listed as endangered.

Yelloweye rockfish Photo by Kip Evans, NOAA
Yelloweye rockfish
Photo by Kip Evans, NOAA

Underwater surveys with a remotely operated vehicle in 2012 and 2013 looked for all sorts of bottomfish across a grid laid down on Puget Sound. Researchers found a greater abundance of quillback and copper rockfish (not ESA listed) than in the past, and young juvenile quillbacks were seen on muddy substrate — not the place you would normally look for rockfish.

While that was encouraging, nearly 200 hours of video at 197 grid points revealed just two canary and five yelloweye rockfish.

“That was quite distressing to us,” Dayv said.

This year and next, surveys are more focused on rocky habitat, including locations where fishing guides say they have had success catching rockfish in the past. The results are more encouraging, locating somewhere around 40 canary and 40 yelloweye and two bacaccio, Dayv said.

“We’ve caught some big fish and some little fish, so the population demographics have not entirely collapsed,” Dayv told me, and that means there is still hope for recovery.

Rockfish don’t typically reproduce until somewhere between 5 and 20 years old, so over-fishing places the future of the entire population at risk. Some rockfish are known to live as long as 100 years.

Finding juvenile yelloweyes — “bright red with ‘racing stripes’” — is especially encouraging Dayv said.

Genetic work so far is offering some intriguing new findings, he noted. While yelloweye rockfish from Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia seem to be distinct from those on the coast, the same cannot be said for canary rockfish.

In fact, the limited samples taken so far suggest that the coastal population of canary rockfish — those found by the PFMC to be “rebuilt” — may not be genetically distinct from canary rockfish living in Puget Sound.

If that proves to be the case, it could have a profound effect on what we understand about canary rockfish and could even lead to a de-listing of the Puget Sound population.

Kelly Andrews, a genetics expert with NOAA Fisheries, cautioned that the sample size is small and more results are needed before anyone can draw conclusions. New samples are soon to be examined to see if there are any differences between canary rockfish on the coast and those in Puget Sound.

“What initially may seem to be the same could change dramatically with all these new samples we just got,” he told me. “Still just finding them is good news.”

When the Puget Sound rockfish were listed in 2010, researchers did not have the genetic data to define the populations in that way, so they used reasonable assumptions about geographic isolation. Now, the genetics can be factored in.

A five-year review is due to be completed this year for the listed rockfish in Puget Sound. If the new genetics information holds up, then the technical review team could propose a delisting of the canary rockfish.

For that reason, a long-awaited recovery plan for rockfish is being completed for the most part, but its release will be delayed until the genetic information is conclusive and the five-year review is completed. It would not make sense to come out with a recovery plan for canary rockfish, if the plan is to delist the population.

Meanwhile, small areas of Quilcene and Dabob bays have been reopened to fishing for some flatfish. (See earlier news release.) Bottom fishing is generally closed in Hood Canal because of the ongoing low-oxygen problems and its effects of bottom fish.

As in other areas of Puget Sound, targeted bottom fishing must take place in less than 120 feet of water, and all rockfish caught must be released. Experts strongly advise using a “descending device” (see video) to get rockfish safely back to deep water, no matter where they are caught. Without that, many of the fish die from barotrauma caused by the ballooning of their swim bladder as they are brought to the surface. See “Bring That Fish Down” by California Sea Grant and “Protecting Washington’s Rockfish” by WDFW.

Amusing Monday: Blobfish earns uncommon respect

We know about beauty contests and cute baby contests, but the competition really worth celebrating is the Ugliest Animal Contest, sponsored by the British-based Ugly Animal Preservation Society.

Blobfish / Kerryn Parkinson, NORFANZ Founding Parties
Blobfish / Kerryn Parkinson, NORFANZ Founding Parties

There were plenty of candidates, from the proboscis monkey, with its large nose, to the Dromedary jumping slug, a slug with a hump on its back known for jumping to escape from predators.

But when more than 3,000 votes were counted last month, the winner, with 795 votes, was the blobfish, a gelatinous fish that lives at great depths off the coast of Australia.

As far as I can tell, nobody asked the blobfish what he thought of this honor. But there was an important theme to the contest. With an estimated 200 species going extinct each day, the ugly animals need special attention, according to Simon Watt, president of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, who told The Guardian newspaper:

“We’ve needed an ugly face for endangered animals for a long time, and I’ve been amazed by the public’s reaction. For too long the cute and fluffy animals have taken the limelight, but now the blobfish will be a voice for the mingers who always get forgotten.”

I love that British term “minger,” defined by the Urban Dictionary as “a male or female who fell out of the ugly tree at birth and hit every branch on the way down.”

Simon Watt explains the origins of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society and how the contest came about on a video posted on YouTube.

Adam Gabriel of “Epic Wildlife” took note of the contest and posted his own video on YouTube, which helps us understand the blobfish and his motivations.

When you have time, listen to the comedians who nominated other species for the Ugly Animal Contest. I think you’ll find the following videos educational as well as amusing:

Finally, I have to reflect on the photo of the blobfish, a face that launched a thousand YouTube video players. There are pictures of blobfish and then there is THE PICTURE of a blobfish. This picture has been repeated again and again, apparently without permission, and many of the photo credits are simply wrong.

How THE PICTURE came to be taken during a research expedition is described by Mark McGrouther, collection manager for ichthyology at the Australian Museum. By the time of the Ugliest Animal Contest, the blobfish, known as Mr. Blobby, was already quite famous and beloved in Australia, where he had his own Facebook page and Twitter account. For more about Mr. Blobby, check out this blog on the website of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

If you haven’t gotten your fill of blobfish by now, check out “The Blobfish Song” by Friday Morning Freak House.

Orcas still ‘endangered’ as next steps contemplated

Federal biologists have decided, following a yearlong review, that the Southern Resident killer whales should remain listed as “endangered.”

A lot of folks were surprised when the National Marine Fisheries Service agreed to undertake the review, based on a delisting petition from some farmers in California’s Central Valley. As I outlined in a Water Ways post last November, the agency acknowledged that there was new scientific information about the extent to which the Puget Sound whales breed outside their group. Such information could potentially undermine the finding that the Southern Residents are a distinct population segment, a prerequisite for the endangered listing.

After the review, the federal biologists found that most of the new evidence strengthens the position that the Southern Residents — those that frequent Puget Sound — are distinct and unique in other ways essential to the listing. Here’s how I wrote about it in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription required):

“The endangered listing for the Southern Residents hinges on the legal question of whether the three pods constitute a distinct population segment of an identified species or subspecies. Agency scientists maintain that the Puget Sound whales have their own language and preferred food sources, and they don’t breed to a significant degree with other killer whales. They also meet other requirements for listing, such as having their own range of travel and not interacting with other groups of the same species.

“New evidence, however, shows that their range overlaps that of other orcas to varying degrees and that occasional external breeding takes place. Still, agency scientists conclude, new information about genetics, behavior and cultural diversity demonstrates more convincingly than ever that Southern Residents are unique and irreplaceable.”

To read the official findings, check out the Federal Register notice (PDF 270 kb) and the Status Review Update (1.1 mb).

I would speculate that taking on the yearlong review was one way for agency officials to put the new information into official context, as they see it, before a near-certain court battle ensues.

By the way, the attorney for the farmers, Damien Schiff of Pacific Legal Foundation, told me that he feels the agency sidestepped the very information that compelled it to conduct the status review:

“The decision is disappointing because of the result, but it also seems to contradict the service’s own finding … that it had substantial information that delisting may be warranted.

“They cleverly avoided that by mislabeling our information as consistent with the action they took in 2005. They never really engaged with the new evidence they were presented.”

Myoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity said her organization will defend the National Marine Fisheries Service’s findings if the case goes to court. The group led the court battle that resulted in the orcas being listed as endangered in the first place.

I asked Myoko if her group intends to push for further protections for the Southern Residents, such as expanding critical habitat into the Pacific Ocean. She confirmed that such action was a strong possibility and may not wait for the agency’s regular five-year review.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said he has presented research findings about the travels of the whales up and down the West Coast, including forays into Northern California. Recent satellite-tracking of the orcas by agency biologists confirms that their habitat should be protected along the coast to give them a better chance of survival, he said. See Water Ways, April 5, 2013.

So far, critical habitat has been designated for most of Puget Sound, but this year provides evidence that they rely on a much greater area. So far this summer, the Southern Residents have been mostly missing from the San Juan Islands, probably because of a serious decline in the chinook salmon runs returning to the Fraser River in British Columbia. This kind of extended summer absence from inland waters has never been witnessed over the past 30 years — and nobody seems to know where the orcas are now.

I asked Ken what he thought about the petition to list Lolita, also known as Tokitae, as “endangered” along with the rest of the Southern Residents, of which she is a member. Ken said he supports the idea, even if it means nothing regarding Lolita’s welfare or future. Having her included in the federally protected population may be the only way to guarantee that researchers can examine her body after she dies, he said. If nothing else, the orca’s tissues could contain information to help future generations of killer whales.

Back to the decision to keep the Southern Residents on the Endangered Species List, here are a few press releases from involved organizations:

National Marine Fisheries Service (PDF 15.1 kb)

Puget Sound Partnership

Center for Biological Diversity

Orca Conservancy (PDF 1.3 mb)

Pacific Whale Watch Association (PDF 565 kb)

Should captive orcas be listed as ‘endangered’?

The legal battle to determine whether captive killer whales — specifically Lolita — should be considered part of the endangered orca population has been taken out of the courtroom by parties in the case.

Lolita lives alone in a tank at Miami’s Seaquarium.
Photo courtesy of Orca Network

A settlement agreement (PDF 284 kb) was signed two weeks ago between the National Marine Fisheries Service — which enforces the Endangered Species Act for marine mammals — and animal rights advocates who would like something better for this isolated animal.

Lolita is a female killer whale from Puget Sound who has been kept in a tank in Miami for 42 years.

The agreement essentially puts the lawsuit on hold pending a formal petition process under the ESA. Otherwise, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and others in the case would be left to argue about missed deadlines and proper legal notice to the federal government. See U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle’s ruling (PDF 48 kb).

Reading between the lines, I can imagine a conversation between lawyers for the two sides:
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Geoduck harvests are debatable, but lucrative

Geoduck harvesting remains controversial. Some people are convinced that it creates long-lasting damage to the seabed and to the creatures that dwell on the bottom. Others are equally convinced that damage is minimal and does not last very long.

I have never determined for myself if one side or the other is absolutely right, or if it depends largely on bottom conditions at a specific site. As a reporter, I continue to listen to both sides and try to give them each fair treatment.

One thing is for sure, however: The money that goes into state coffers from the sale of geoducks is quite remarkable. In a story published in today’s Kitsap Sun, I quote state officials who say the market has remained strong, despite the downturn in the economy.

In a single area north of Blake Island in Kitsap County, the state will receive $1.4 million for geoducks harvested this year alone. Similar amounts can be expected from that area for the next few years.

I will entertain comments and links to documents from anyone who wants to discuss the damage issue. I must give some weight, however, to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has approved a Geoduck Habitat Conservation Plan and incidental take permit under the Endangered Species Act. (See the NMFS Web site on geoducks.)

The reports, which are based largely on research by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, give the geoduck fishery a “low-effect” rating when it comes to threatened and endangered species.

“A low effect HCP is one that NOAA’s Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determine to have minor or negligible effects on federally listed, proposed, or candidate species and their habitats covered under the HCP,” according to the NMFS Web site.

Canadians challenge their government on orca protections

Six Canadian environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against their federal government to protect the habitat of killer whales, including the Southern Resident animals that frequent Puget Sound in the summer and fall.

“This is the first lawsuit ever of its kind in Canada,” said Lara Tessaro, staff lawyer at Ecojustice. “We hope to force the federal government to legally protect the critical habitat of endangered species — like the Southern Resident killer whales.”

Tessaro was quoted in a news release on the Ecojustice Web site and in a story by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

The lawsuit covers the Southern Residents, listed as “endangered” under Canadian law, and the Northern Residents, listed as “threatened.” The listing criteria are somewhat different in the two countries. Canadian authorities, like their U.S. counterparts, have officially recognized the whales at risk of extinction.

“DFO’s decision not to protect critical habitat of resident killer whales is symptomatic of the federal government’s widespread failure to implement the Species at Risk Act,” Gwen Barlee, policy director of the Wilderness Committee, said in the news release.

Also mentioned in both the news story and release was Lance Barrett-Lennard, recognized as an expert on killer whales throughout the Northwest and co-chairman of Resident Killer Whale Recovery Team in Canada. Barrett-Lennard said the team has resisted efforts by government officials to remove scientific information from the team’s list of recommendations.

“If the response by the [fisheries] minister stands, it effectively means that nothing has to be done under the Species at Risk Act to protect killer whales, so it’s a hard pill to swallow,” he said in the CBC story.

I placed a call this morning to DFO to see if anybody wishes to discuss this lawsuit. Officials responded this afternoon that they can’t comment because the issue is before the courts.

Backgrounders on killer whales in Canada and in the United States.