I have some bleak news to share about our Southern Resident
killer whales, which normally frequent Puget Sound at this time of
J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, has gone missing and is
presumed dead, while J-28, a 23-year-old orca mom named Polaris,
may be living out her final days.
“Things are shaping up to be pretty bad,” said Ken Balcomb of
the Center for Whale
Research, who keeps tabs on the orca population. “J-28 is
looking super-gaunt, and I would say she is within days of her
The saddest part of my conversation with Ken this morning was to
hear him say that Polaris’ 7-month-old calf would become an orphan
and probably will not survive without his mother. That’s the
typical outcome for an orphan of that age, Ken said, although there
is a chance that the young male will be adopted by his
The calf, J-54, is still nursing, but he is close to weaning,
Ken noted. He is the newest calf born into the three Southern
Resident pods and is part of the “baby boom” of nine orcas born
between December 2014 and December 2015. So far, only one of those
calves, J-55, has died.
After my conversation with Ken, the Center for Whale Research
posted a news release about the death of Samish. Orca observers on
the water have known that she was missing for some time now.
As of today, J pod was on its way out through the Strait of Juan
de Fuca, no doubt searching for food. The chinook salmon run has
been very low this summer.
“Historically, at this time of year, we would see nice little
bunches (of orcas) swimming back and forth in front of the house,”
said Ken, who lives on the west side of San Juan Island. But this
year, the whales have broken up into small family groups and are
traveling around in seemingly random patterns, presumably in search
of whatever salmon they can find.
“Even the fishermen aren’t getting much this year,” Ken
To gauge a killer whale’s condition, researchers consider the
overall shape of its body. Without adequate fish — primarily
chinook salmon — an orca grows thinner as the body fat declines. As
conditions grow worse, a depression develops behind the blow hole.
This sunken condition — which Polaris has developed — is called
“peanut head.” So far, none of the other animals have been observed
in such a dire condition.
I’ve often been told by medical experts that when a killer whale
loses weight it can be a sign of a major problem, such as a disease
that makes them incapable of hunting to their normal ability. But a
shortage of food can exacerbate the condition.
“We have been telling the government for years that salmon
recovery is essential for whale recovery,” Ken said.
He blames the salmon decline on longtime mismanagement of wild
salmon stocks — including damage to habitat, over-fishing and
excess hatchery stocks in both Canada and the U.S. One of the
quickest ways to increase the chinook population for these whales
is to take out the Snake River dams, he said.
Rebuilding salmon runs on the Elwha River will help, Ken said,
but the number of fish is small compared to the potential of the
Snake River, which flows into the Columbia and produces salmon that
can be caught in the ocean.
“I’m trying to get the marine mammal people to talk to the
salmon people,” Ken said. “Fish have been a political problem for a
long time, and we are not solving the salmon issue.”
Money spent on law enforcement to make sure whale watchers don’t
get too close to the orcas would be better spent on education —
specifically on educating lawmakers about the needs of salmon and
killer whales, he quipped.
As of July 1 — the date of the annual orca census — the
population of the three Southern Resident pods stood at 83. That’s
the number that will be reported to the federal government. Since
then, Samish has gone missing, so the ongoing count falls to 82,
pending the status of Polaris and her son.
Samish was considered part of the J-2 (“Granny”) family group.
Her living offspring are Hy’shqa (J-37), Suttles (J-40) and
Se-Yi’-Chn (J-45). Samish was the grandmother to Hy-Shqa’s
4-year-old son T’ilem I’nges.
Polaris is the first offspring of Princess Angeline (J-17), who
is still living. Her first offspring, a female named Star (J-46),
is now 7 years old. J-54 is her second offspring.
It is fairly well known that the three pods of killer whales
that frequent Puget Sound are listed as endangered under the
Endangered Species Act. It is also well known that their primary
prey — chinook salmon — are listed as threatened.
It can’t be good that the whales are struggling to find enough
to eat, but we are just beginning to learn that the situation could
be dire for orca females who become pregnant and need to support a
growing fetus during times of a food shortage.
Sam Wasser, a researcher known for figuring out an animal’s
condition from fecal samples, recently reported that about
two-thirds of all orca pregnancies end in miscarriage. And of those
miscarriages, nearly one-third take place during the last stage of
pregnancy — a dangerous situation for the pregnant female.
In a story published today in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound, I report on Sam’s latest studies, along with
other work by a team of biologists who are using unmanned aircraft
(drones) to keep track of the physical condition of the Southern
Resident orcas, including pregnant moms.
Sam’s latest study involves measuring hormones in killer whales,
which can tell us a lot about a whale’s condition. The story of how
hormones change under varying conditions is a little complicated,
but I hope I was able to explain in my article how this works. When
adding the effects of toxic chemicals that mimic hormones, we begin
to understand the conditions that may be critical to the whales’
long-term survival or their ultimate extinction.
One longtime assumption, which may be shot down by the hormone
studies, is that the whales’ most difficult time for food comes in
winter, when salmon are generally scarce. These new studies by Sam
and his colleagues suggest that the greatest problem comes in the
spring, when the whales return to Puget Sound to discover that
spring runs of chinook salmon can no longer be found — at least not
in significant numbers.
The work with a drone carrying a high-resolution camera is
providing precise measurements about the length and width of each
killer whale. Pregnant females are especially interesting, and it
will be important to document whether physical changes observed in
the drone study can be correlated with hormonal changes seen in the
“We’ve moved toward some great sophisticated technology,” Lynne
Barre told me. “These great technologies combined can tell us more
than any one method can … such as when and where food limitations
might be affecting their health and reproduction.”
Lynne heads NOAA’s Protected Resources Division in Seattle and
oversees recovery efforts for the endangered Southern
By the end of this year, NOAA is expected to release its
five-year status report on the Southern Resident orcas. In addition
to reporting on many new findings, the document will re-examine the
risk of extinction for these killer whales and consider whether
actions proposed to help them have been carried out.
Last year, the Southern Residents were listed among eight
endangered species across the country that are headed for
extinction unless recovery actions can be successful. The eight,
selected in part because of their high profiles, are known as
“Species in the Spotlight.” In February, five-year action plans
were released for all eight species.
The plan called
“Priority Actions for Southern Resident Killer Whales” (PDF 2
mb) focuses on three primary factors affecting the whales’
survival: a shortage of food, high levels of toxic chemicals and
effects of vessels and noise. The concise 15-page document
describes some of the work being carried out on behalf of the
whales, although new ideas are coming forth all the time.
When Lolita, a female orca held captive since 1970, was listed
among the endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales,
advocates for Lolita’s release were given new hope. Perhaps the
listing would help Lolita obtain a ticket out of Miami Seaquarium,
where she has lived since the age of 5.
But a U.S. district judge ruled last week that the Endangered
Species Act could not help her. While the federal law prohibits
human conduct likely to “gravely threaten the life of a member of a
protected species,” it cannot be used to improve her living
conditions, according to the
ruling (PDF 3.3 mb) by Judge Ursula Ungaro in the Southern
District of Florida.
“We very much disagree with the decision, and we will be
appealing it,” said attorney Jared Goodwin, who represents the
plaintiffs — including the People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals (PETA), the Animal Legal Defense Fund and Orca Network.
Over the objections of attorneys for Miami Seaquarium, the judge
said the plaintiffs have a right to sue the aquarium, but Lolita’s
care and well-being falls under a different law: the Animal Welfare
The judge noted that the National Marine Fisheries Service,
which is responsible for marine species under the ESA, had
previously stated that keeping threatened or endangered species in
captivity is not a violation of the ESA. NMFS also deferred
enforcement activities to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While the ESA prohibits listed species from being “harassed,”
Judge Ungaro said the term takes on a different meaning for animals
held in captivity, since the law is designed to conserve species in
the wild along with their ecosystems.
The judge took note of the complaints about Lolita’s living
conditions, including the small size of her tank, harassment by
white-sided dolphins that live with her and the lack of shade or
other protection from the weather. But those aren’t conditions to
be judged under the ESA, she said.
“Thus, while in a literal sense the conditions and injuries of
which plaintiffs complain are within the ambit of the ordinary
meaning of ‘harm’ and ‘harass,’ it cannot be said that they rise to
the level of grave harm that is required to constitute a ‘take’ by
a licensed exhibitor under the ESA,” she wrote.
Judge Ungaro also cited statements made by NMFS in response to
comments from people who want to see Lolita released into a sea pen
or possibly into open waters. Such a release, “could itself
constitute a ‘take’ under Section 9(a)(1) of the act,” she said,
“The NMFS noted concerns arising from disease transmission
between captive and wild stocks; the ability of released animals to
adequately forage for themselves; and behavioral patterns developed
in captivity impeding social integration and affecting the social
behavior of wild animals,” the judge wrote.
Jared Goodman, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said the judge
needlessly applied a separate definition of “harassment” to captive
versus wild animals. Conditions at the aquarium are clearly
harassment for Lolita, he said, and the Endangered Species Act
should provide the needed protection.
The Animal Welfare Act, which should require humane treatment
for captive animals, is long out of date and needs to be revised
based on current knowledge about marine mammals, he said.
The same plaintiffs filed a new lawsuit in May against the
Department of Agriculture for issuing a new operating license to
Miami Seaquarium without adequately considering the conditions in
which Lolita is being kept. Previously, a court ruled that the
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service acted properly when it
renewed the license for Miami Seaquarium each year, because the law
does not require an inspection for an ongoing permit.
That is not the case with a new license, which was required when
the Miami Seaquarium came under new ownership as the result of a
stock merger in 2014, according to the lawsuit. Federal inspectors
should have reviewed the legal requirements to certify that
Lolita’s tank and other facilities met the standards before issuing
a new license, Jared said. According to documents he obtained
through public disclosure requests, it appears that the federal
agency simply “rubber-stamped” its previous approvals, he said,
adding that a formal review would show that the aquarium in
violation of animal welfare rules.
As the legal battles go on, it is difficult to see how Lolita is
any closer to being “retired” to a sea pen in Puget Sound where she
was born, although Howard Garrett of Orca Network and other
supporters have developed a plan for Lolita’s return and even have
a specific site picked out. See “Proposal
to Retire the Orca Lolita.” (PDF 3.5 mb).
Meanwhile, with SeaWorld’s announcement
that it will no longer breed killer whales or force orcas to
perform for an audience, a new group called The Whale Sanctuary
Project is looking for sites to relocate whales and dolphins that
might be released. The project has received a pledge of at least $1
million from Munchkin, Inc., a baby product company. For details,
check out the group’s website and a
press release announcing the effort. I should point out that
SeaWorld officials say they won’t release any animals.
June is Orca Awareness Month in the Salish Sea. And, as we’ve
seen in recent years, the Southern Resident killer whales are not
around to help kick off the month-long celebration.
J pod, one of the three Southern Resident pods, typically moves
in and out of Puget Sound through the winter and into spring, but
none of the whales have been seen in inland waters since May 18,
Orca Network. On May 24, the same groups were seen off the West
Coast of Vancouver Island.
Let’s hope they are finding plenty to eat, then come home to the
San Juan Islands in time for Orca Sing at Lime Kiln State Park on
June 25, when people will gather to serenade them. Meanwhile,
plenty of other events will be held during Orca Awareness
Another annual event, planned for this Saturday, is EcoFest,
which has been revamped this year as a more active festival, rather
than a lineup of information booths. Organizers are calling the
event in Kingston “a community science and nature festival.”
A nature walk followed by tips on bird watching, solar power,
medicinal plants and green construction techniques are part of the
festivities, along with music and food. For information, download
press release (PDF 77 kb) from Stillwaters Environmental Center
or visit the Stillwaters
The following day, this Sunday, is the kickoff celebration for
Orca Awareness Month, including a Baby Orca Birthday Bash at Alki
Beach Bathhouse, 2701 Alki Ave. SW in Seattle. Live music by Dana
Water Ways, Jan. 25), face painting, orca bingo and other
activities are planned.
For the remainder of the month, activities include an
informational webinar June 9, a discussion about the toxic threat
June 16, “Orcas in Our Midst” workshop June 18, a march for
endangered orcas June 24, “Orca Sing” June 25, “Oil, Orcas and
Oystercatchers” forum June 25, and “Orca and Salmon: An Evening of
Storytelling” June 29. These and several events yet to be scheduled
can be followed on the Orca
Month website or the Facebook page.
Orca Awareness Month was started 10 years ago by Orca Network
and has been adopted by Orca Salmon Alliance, made
up of organizations working to expand awareness of the relation
between killer whales and salmon, both considered at risk of
I hope you have time for one more blog post about killer whales
this week. I am reminded again that, while we strive to understand
animal behavior, we must not judge them in human terms.
I just returned home from the three-day Salish Sea
Ecosystem Conference in Vancouver, B.C., where orca researcher
Deborah Giles of the Center for Whale Research reported on some
seemingly odd behavior among our Southern Resident killer
The bottom line is that fish-eating orcas are occasionally
attacking and sometimes killing marine mammals, specifically harbor
porpoises and Dall’s porpoises. Apparently, they are not eating
It will take more study to learn why this is happening, and
Giles is eagerly seeking new observations. One possible reason is
that young killer whales are practicing their hunting skills on
young porpoises. Please read my story in the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound.
I also wrote a story on the opening
remarks by keynote speaker Dr. Roberta Bondar, a Canadian
astronaut, neurologist and inspired observer of nature and human
team of reporters from Puget Sound Institute were assigned to
cover the Salish Sea conference, with the goal of writing at least
10 stories about research that was revealed during more than 450
presentations. I’m working on stories that will combine
observations from multiple researchers into common themes. These
stories will be released over the coming days and weeks. You may
wish to sign up for notifications via the Encyclopedia of Puget
A federal program that uses satellite transmitters to track
killer whale movements has been suspended after pieces of a metal
dart associated with a transmitter were found embedded in the fin
of an orca discovered dead two weeks ago in British Columbia.
The whale, L-95, a 20-year-old male named “Nigel,” was found
dead floating near Nootka Island along the west coast of Vancouver
Island. He was the same whale who was tracked for three days off
the Washington Coast by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries
Science Center after they attached a satellite transmitter on Feb.
The attachment, which involves the use of a dart with sharp
metal prongs, was routine in every way and has not been directly
implicated in the death of the animal, according to a
statement from NOAA officials.
Still, finding pieces of metal still embedded in the dorsal fin
of the whale has already sparked a reaction from opponents of the
darting procedure, including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale
Research on San Juan Island. I expect further expressions of
sadness and anger from others over the coming days.
“In my opinion, the tag attachment methodology was overly
barbaric and defective from the get-go, and the entire tagging
program should be rethought and evaluated for efficacy,” Ken said
in a prepared
“The NOAA/NMFS tagging program is certainly injuring and
disfiguring these endangered icons of the Pacific Northwest, and it
is my subjective opinion that it is adversely altering their
behavior toward benign vessel interactions to approach them for
photo-identification,” he said.
Ken noted that the cause of L-95’s death has not been
determined, so the relationship to tagging could be coincidental,
but two transient killer whales also went missing after tags were
attached. Those deaths could be coincidental as well, he added, but
other tagged whales are still carrying around pieces of embedded
The 20-year-old male orca was found dead and in an advanced
state of decay on March 30 by researchers from Canada’s Department
of Fisheries and Oceans. A necropsy revealed “fair to moderate body
condition” and no clear sign of death. See the
DFO news release for a few other details.
Although there was no sign of infection where the satellite tag
pierced the dorsal fin, “veterinarians are investigating whether
the tag attachment penetration sites may have provided a pathway
for infection,” according to the NOAA statement. “Additional tests
are underway to determine presence of disease agents such as
viruses or bacteria that will provide further details as to the
cause of death.”
When the satellite transmitter was first attached, the
researchers “noted the outline of the ribs were slightly visible on
several members of L pod, including L95, but observed nothing
suggesting a change in health status.”
The satellite tracked L-95 for three days and then stopped.
Researchers assumed the transmitter had fallen off, but they were
not able to meet up with the whales before the research trip
Expressing extreme sadness, agency officials say they are
concerned that parts of the dart were found imbedded in the
“These tag attachments are designed to fully detach and leave
nothing behind,” says the NOAA statement. “Of 533 deployments, only
1 percent are known to have left part of the dart in the animal
upon detachment, although several of these have been in killer
“The team has halted tagging activities until a full
reassessment of the tag design and deployment is completed to
reduce risk of this happening again.”
Ken Balcomb recalled that he had complained about the tagging
program several years ago as officials were debating whether the
endangered Southern Resident population should become involved. Ken
says he was assured that previous problems had been fixed and that
he should simply document any problems he sees.
“Clearly with L95 still retaining tag hardware in his wound
site, the hardware attachment issues have not been fixed,” Ken says
in his latest statement. “I suggest evaluating the cost efficiency
and data already gathered from sighting reports, photo-ID, and
tagging to determine whether any additional studies of SRKW
distribution are justified.”
The tracking studies have been used the past few years to
document not just the areas where the killer whales travel but also
areas where they linger and forage for food.
NOAA’s explanation of the tagging program, its benefits and
potential changes to the “critical habitat” protections for the
killer whales are outlined in a
question-and-answer format, including specifics about the death
of Nigel, L-95.
Meanwhile, a young female orca, estimated to be two weeks old,
has been identified as a Southern Resident by DFO scientists. Cause
of death was not determined, but it was likely that the animal died
from birth complications, officials said. The calf was found March
23 near Sooke, B.C.
Analysis of blood and tissue samples are expected in three to
four weeks for both the calf and L-95, according to the
When a person becomes severely ill, the doctor will usually
check the person’s medical file before offering a diagnosis. In the
same way, researchers are now setting up medical records for each
of the 84 endangered killer whales that frequent Puget Sound.
Orca researchers and other wildlife experts spent the past two
days discussing how to create a medical database for all the
Southern Resident orcas, often described as the most studied marine
mammal population in the world.
Eventually, the information could be used to put an individual
orca under medical observation or even administer medications, such
as antibiotics — but that is likely to be a few years off.
“As a research community, we realize that we are at critical
mass and have enough data to start asking these questions to get
meaningful answers,” said Brad Hanson, research biologist with
NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
Lynne Barre, NOAA’s recovery coordinator for the Southern
Resident killer whales, said researchers in both Canada and the
U.S. have collected data on these animals, which travel into both
countries and down the West Coast.
“Some of these data sets are really large,” she said, “and it
takes technology to bring the data together. There are a lot of
players with different types of data.”
Fortunately, the research community is cooperative on both sides
of the border, Barre said.
Still, it will take formal cooperative agreements to share
available information that will eventually be used in research
reports, said Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with SeaDoc Society, a
nonprofit research organization. The person who collects the
information should have the right to publish his or her findings,
he said, but it would be nice if researchers could post their
observations immediately for the benefit of the whales.
Over the coming year, general observations could be put into the
database, but eventually individual health records for the orcas
Fecal samples, including levels of various hormones;
Breath samples, including the types of bacteria harbored by
individual killer whales;
Observations of skin conditions;
Photos taken from boats and from the air to show body
conditions, including evidence of malnutrition or possible
Blubber samples for some whales, including DNA fingerprints and
other health conditions.
The number of Southern Resident killer whales was on the decline
in recent years until nine new babies were born over the past year
and a half. Individual killer whales can be identified by the shape
and size of their dorsal finds as well as the “saddle patch” behind
the dorsal fin. In addition, the family structures of the Southern
Residents are well known.
Last month, I wrote about how a group of researchers, including
Joe Gaydos, opened my eyes to how disease can be a powerful
ecological force. While researching stories about disease, I
learned about various ideas to monitor Puget Sound for disease
organisms. The idea of creating a health assessment for each killer
whale had been kicked around for awhile. Read about my newfound
understanding of disease in
Water Ways, and find my stories at the Encyclopedia
of Puget Sound.
Kirsten Gilardi, co-director of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife
Health Center at the University of California-Davis, has worked
with mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rowanda, where the animals are
under close human observation and each has its own medical record.
Each gorilla can be identified by a wrinkle pattern on its nose,
besides physical size and other obvious characteristics.
The animals are checked to make sure they are eating, moving
normally and show no signs of coughing or sneezing, she said. “When
they do show signs of illness, the veterinary teams can go in.”
Sometimes antibiotics are delivered to the animal in the field.
If necessary, such as when a gorilla is injured in a snare, the
animal may be anesthetized and treated on the spot or even brought
to a hospital for care.
People also collect fecal samples left by the gorillas and
leaves from plants that they chewed to gain information about
hormones and various bacteria and viruses they may carry.
When the Gorilla Doctors program was started in the 1980s, it
was the first time that veterinarians went in to treat the animals
in their habitat, Gilardi said. Since then, the population has
grown nearly four-fold, and they are the only great apes whose
numbers are increasing in the wild.
Information collected for individual killer whales would not be
so different than what has been collected for gorillas, she
Cynthia Smith, a veterinarian at the National Marine Mammal
Foundation, has assessed wild dolphins affected by the Deepwater
Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In that case, individual
health assessments were used to complete an assessment of the
overall population. From there, management decisions were made to
protect the overall health of the population.
The same kinds of results could come from pulling together
information on the killer whales, she said.
“By setting up a database and using it, you can have a finger on
the pulse of the health of these animals,” Smith said. “Then you
can develop strategies to manage the problems.”
The health-assessment project is supported by a grant from the
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, funding from NOAA Fisheries
and private support from SeaDoc Society donors.
A new controversy is beginning to rumble over the potential
injury to marine mammals from sounds transmitted in the water.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, also called NOAA
Fisheries, is moving closer to finalizing new “technical guidance”
for assessing temporary and permanent hearing loss in whales and
dolphins caused by human activities — including Navy sonar, seismic
explorations and underwater explosions. The guidance will be used
for approving “take” permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act
and Endangered Species Act.
Meanwhile, in another development, Navy officials have
acknowledged that Navy personnel made a mistake by using sonar in
Puget Sound without getting approval through the chain of command.
I’ll describe the circumstances of that event in a moment.
The new guidance is focused on hearing loss rather than how the
behavior of marine mammals might change in the presence of loud
noise. Since foraging and social activity are essential among
whales and dolphins, further guidance is expected to assess how
animals may be affected in other ways by noise.
The new guidance does not include mitigation measures for
minimizing the effects of sound. In some cases, the new information
may lead to additional protections for the animals, but in other
cases protections may be reduced, according to information from
Currently, regulators use a single noise threshold for cetaceans
(whales and dolphins) and a single threshold for pinnipeds (seals
and sea lions). They do not account for the different hearing
abilities within the two groups or how different types of sound may
The new acoustic threshold levels divide sounds into two groups:
1) impulsive sounds lasting less than a second, such as from
airguns and impact pile drivers, and 2) non-impulsive sounds, in
which the sound pressure rises and declines more gradually, such as
from sonar and vibratory pile drivers. Measures account for both
peak sound pressure and cumulative sound exposure.
Marine mammals also are divided into groups based on their
general range of hearing. There are the low-frequency cetaceans,
including the large baleen whales; the mid-frequency cetaceans,
including the dolphins; and the high-frequency cetaceans, including
The pinnipeds are divided into two groups. The eared seals,
including sea lions, have a somewhat wider hearing range than true
seals, including harbor seals.
After years of covering the effects of sonar and other noise,
I’m just beginning to understand the complexity of how sound is
measured and the mathematics used to calculate levels at various
locations. At the same time, the guidelines are growing more
complex — as they should to model the real world. New thresholds
account for the duration of sound exposure as well as the
intensity, and they somewhat customize the thresholds to the
animals affected. For additional information, see NOAA’
Fisheries webpage on the guidance.
Despite incorporating new studies into the guidelines, some
acoustics experts are finding serious problems with the methods
used to arrive at the new thresholds, according to Michael Jasny of
the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC, an environmental
group, has a long history of battling NOAA Fisheries and the Navy
over sound exposures for marine mammals.
“This is an extremely technical subject,” Michael said, noting
that he relies on experts who have provided comments on the
methodology. “By and large, NMFS has drunk the Navy’s Kool-Aid with
the exception of low-frequency effects, even though the Navy’s
science has been sharply criticized.”
The statistical analyses leading to the guidelines are so flawed
that they call into question how they could be used to protect
marine mammals, Michael said, pointing to a paper by
Andrew J. Wright of George Mason University.
“These are high stakes we are talking about,” Michael said. “We
are talking about damaging the hearing of endangered species that
depend on their hearing to survive.”
The effects of sound on behavior, which are not described in the
new guidelines, may be just as important, he said, since too much
noise can impede an animal’s ability to catch prey or undertake
social behavior that contribute to the perpetuation of the species.
NOAA Fisheries needs to move forward to raise the level of
protection, not just for injury related to hearing but for other
effects, he said. One can review a series of related studies on
“If these guidelines are not improved, at least to address
fundamental statistical errors, then it is easy to imagine that
they might be legally challenged — and they would deserve to be,”
Michael told me.
Sonar in Puget Sound
As for the Navy’s mistake with sonar, the story goes back to
Jan. 13 of this year, when acoustics expert Scott Veirs of Beam
Reach Marine Science picked up the sound of sonar on hydrophones in
the San Juan Islands. About the same time, Ken Balcomb of the
Center for Whale Research was observing transient killer whales to
the south in Haro Strait.
At first, Scott believed the sonar may have been coming from the
Canadian Navy ship HMCS Ottawa, but Canadian officials were quick
to deny it. His suspicions shifted to the U.S. Navy. He was
disturbed by that prospect since the Navy stopped using sonar
during training exercises in Puget Sound shortly after the USS
Shoup incident in 2003. For a reminder of that incident, check my
story in the
Kitsap Sun, March 17, 2005.
Later, the requirement for approval from the Pacific Fleet
command became an enforceable regulation when it was added to the
letter of authorization (PDF 3.4 mb) issued by NOAA Fisheries.
The letter allows the Navy a specific “take” of marine mammals
during testing and training operations.
Within days of this year’s sonar incident, Scott learned from
observers that two Navy ships had traveled through Haro Strait
about the time that sonar was heard on a nearby hydrophone. Navy
Region Northwest confirmed the presence of Navy vessels.
Later, Scott received an email from Lt. Julianne Holland, deputy
public affairs officer for the Navy’s Third Fleet. She confirmed
that a Navy ship used sonar for about 10 minutes at the time of
Scott’s recording. The ship was identified as a guided missile
destroyer — the same type as the Shoup — but its name has never
“The Navy vessel followed the process to check on the
requirements for this type of use in this location, but a technical
error occurred which resulted in the unit not being made aware of
the requirement to request permission,” according to Lt. Holland’s
email to Scott. “The exercise was very brief in duration, lasting
less than 10 minutes, and the Navy has taken steps to correct the
procedures to ensure this doesn’t occur again at this, or any
Because no marine mammals appeared to be injured, the story kind
of faded away until I recently contacted Lt. Holland to tie up some
loose ends. She ignored my questions about whether disciplinary
actions had been taken against any Navy personnel. “The Navy has
taken appropriate action to address the issue, including reissuance
of specific guidance on the use of sonar in the Pacific Northwest.”
The memo was sent to “all units in the Northwest.”
After I reopened the discussion, Scott did some acoustic
calculations based on figures and graphs he found in a Navy report
on the Shoup incident. He located published estimates of the source
levels and concluded, based on NOAA’s old thresholds, that marine
mammals within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) would experience noise
levels likely to change their behavior (level B harassment).
Based on the data available, Scott could not conclude whether
the transient killer whales in Haro Strait were within that range,
but he said it was encouraging that Ken Balcomb did not notice any
changes in their behavior. It was also helpful that the sonar was
used for a relatively short time.
“It was a little nerve racking to hear the Navy was making
mistakes,” Scott said, “but we can give them a pat on the back for
doing the exercise during the day” when lookouts on the ship at
least have a chance to spot the animals.
In the underwater world, where hearing can be more important
than sight, whales are being bombarded by a cacophony of sounds,
which started cluttering up their lives when the first steamships
were launched into the ocean.
Now, after 200 years, people are beginning to care about the
kinds of noise imposed upon marine mammals and other creatures. To
a limited extent, research can now answer this important question:
How are humans affecting marine life with noise coming from our
ships and boats, our ocean exploration and construction, and our
It is time to think about how we can apply new scientific
knowledge in a more meaningful way than current regulations, which
depend on putting a “safe” distance between one vessel and one
A month ago in
“Amusing Monday,” I featured the music of Dana Lyons, who wrote
a song about sound from the perspective of the whales. The song got
me to thinking about how the sailing ships of yesteryear must have
been so much more pleasant for the whales — assuming, of course,
that they weren’t whaling ships.
Scott Veirs, an oceanographer, joined forces with his dad,
physicist Val Veirs, to operate a hydrophone network based in the
San Juan Islands, where they study the sounds of whales, ships and
anything else that makes sounds in the waters of the Salish
“We are trying to get a statistically significant
characterization (of sound),” Scott told me. “For me, the question
is: Does this make a difference for certain species? To be honest,
I’m seeing lots of evidence in the emerging literature that ship
noise really does make a difference.”
Scott and Val, along with acoustics expert Jason Wood, recently
published a research paper in the journal “Peer J.,” in which they
describe their acoustic encounters with more than 3,000 ships
passing by their hydrophones. Through careful calibration of their
instruments, they were able to calculate sound levels at the source
— which can tell us which ships and boats produce the most noise
before attenuation of the sound through the water. Check out the
news release, or read the entire article.
It has long been known that cargo ships and other large vessels
produce low-frequency sounds that can travel great distances in
seawater. That adds to an overall background noise that seems to be
increasing over time. For baleen whales, who communicate with
lower-frequency sounds, this changing soundscape could be something
like the difference between a person living downtown in a busy city
and a person living in the country.
In an interesting but unplanned study after the 9/11 attacks of
2001, researchers were able to show that right whales in Canada’s
Bay of Fundy had lower stress hormone levels immediately after the
attacks. That’s when ship traffic — and noise — were significantly
lowered. The findings were limited to the short time frame that
ship traffic diminished, but the researchers were fortunate that
fecal samples from another study could be used to measure stress
hormones before and after 9/11. Review the paper:
Evidence that ship noise increases stress in right whales.
It was not a big surprise that large ships can affect baleen
whales, but Scott and his colleagues were able to show that large
ships produce not only low-frequency sounds but also high-frequency
sounds in the hearing range of killer whales.
“The noise does extend up into the range where whales hear well,”
Scott told me, “but that does not answer whether it matters to
He said the challenge for orcas is to hear the reflection of
high-frequency clicks sent out by an orca to locate chinook salmon
and other prey. The echolocation clicks are loud as they leave the
whale, but the return signal they are attempting to hear can be
faint unless the fish are very close, Scott said. If other high
frequency sounds, such as from nearby boats, interfere with their
hearing, then the whales may struggle to locate their prey, he
“My greatest concern is how much a single container ship might
decrease the range that a killer whale would be able to hear the
echo,” Scott said. “The impact in terms of decreasing their
foraging range is really kind of scary.”
Studies of various ships might identify what is causing the
high-frequency sounds and lead to a technological solution to the
problem, Scott said. Military ships are designed to be quiet, and
some of that technology could be transferred to commercial vessels.
If the noise from just 10 percent of the noisiest vessels could be
reduced, it could lead to a significant improvement in the noisy
The question of how much high-frequency noise reaches the killer
whales was the focus of a study conducted by researchers from the
University of Washington and NOAA Fisheries. Researchers used
suction cups to temporarily attach digital acoustic recording tags,
or d-tags, to killer whales to measure the level of sound. They
also used laser-positioning equipment operated from a research boat
to measure the size, speed, location and type of vessel emitting
“The goal was to understand this missing but assumed link
between what we see at the surface and what the whales experience
at depth,” said Juliana Houghton, a recent UW graduate and lead
author of the study, who was quoted in a
UW news release.
A key finding was that the number of propellers on a vessel
influenced the sound volume, but the most important factor was the
speed of the vessel — with higher speeds producing significantly
more high-frequency noise. The findings were published in the
journal PLOS ONE.
Taking these and other studies together could help chart a path
toward quieter vessels, less noise around whales and ultimately a
better outcome for marine mammals dependent on underwater
communication and echolocation.
Port Metro Vancouver in British Columbia has taken these ideas
one step further with a hydrophone listening station installed in
the inbound shipping lanes in the Strait of Georgia north of the
U.S. border. The listening station is part of a program called
Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO). The listening
station will monitor the noise of identified ships passing through.
news release from the port.
The video below shows the deployment of the listening station in
the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia.
From what I know about the system, it could potentially lead to
an individual sound profile for each ship entering Canadian waters,
and authorities could investigate whether slowing certain vessels
could reduce noise for whales in the area.
“The ECHO program’s long-term goal is to develop mitigation
measures that will lead to a quantifiable reduction in potential
threats to whales as a result of shipping activities,” Duncan
Wilson, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Port
Metro Vancouver, said in an op-ed piece in the Vancouver
“These mitigation measures may include incentives for the use of
green vessel technology, changes to operational activities of
ocean-going vessels, a certification program for quiet vessels,
and/or the development of noise criteria for vessels entering the
port,” he added.
2013 report by World Wildlife Fund–Canada (PDF 2.6 mb) makes
the case for developing tools to better manage noise. The 96-page
report, which came out of a 2012 workshop on ocean noise in Canada,
concluded that the ability to profile individual ships could lead
to these ideas for reducing noise:
“Use existing data on noise output from different sizes and
classes of vessels, and establish percentage criteria below which
ships should fall. Vessels above the criteria would face pecuniary
consequences, e.g., higher port fees…
“Shipping noise should not be allowed to reduce whale
communication space beyond a certain percentage … Masking is a
significant threat to marine animals.
“Establish a cumulative noise exposure level…, rather than only
maximum event-based exposure criteria for individual
“Develop a report card system that identifies the noisiest 10%
of vessels passing over a noise monitoring station. In the absence
of legislation, letters could be sent to vessel owners advising
them of their noisy ships, and a list of worst offenders could be
published. Letters could also be sent to the owners of quiet ships,
congratulating them on their reduced contribution to the
“Ports could adopt maintenance requirements for noisy ships, as
poor vessel maintenance is the source of extraneous noise on
approximately 10 percent of merchant ships.
“A mandatory phased-in program could be established to
incentivize quietening technologies for retrofitted vessels.
Proposed new projects could require quietened ships.”
Although the United States began regulating the effects of ocean
noise earlier than most countries — as early as the 1980s — U.S.
agencies have been slow to keep up with the best available science,
according to Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense
Council, who wrote a chapter in the WWF report,
Be honest about estimating effects: U.S. sound
thresholds for marine mammals assume that 120 decibels of
“continuous” noise or 160 decibels of “intermittent” noise have an
adverse behavioral effect, while noise above 180 decibels is
considered injurious. But these numbers fail to account for
differences in species, bias in observed impacts and masking
effects. This makes the thresholds “outdated” and “insufficiently
Think cumulatively: Regulators and managers
should look beyond the effects of a single sound exposure to the
effects of noise over time on the population of animals from all
sources of noise.
Evolve beyond the near field: The traditional
approach has been a “safety zone,” in which sound sources are
powered down when marine mammals get within a specified range. The
U.S. has begun to move beyond this simple idea to habitat-based
management, including area closures for important habitats when
marine mammals are likely to be present. Also under review are
technical alternatives to reduce noise from ships, airguns (used in
seismic studies) and pile-driving equipment.
For the past month, K-33, a Southern Resident orca bearing a
satellite transmitter, has been moving up and down the West Coast,
presumably with the rest of his pod. I’ll tell you more about those
travels in a moment.
NOAA Fisheries today released a list of “priority actions” for
eight endangered “species in the spotlight,” including the Southern
Resident killer whales of Puget Sound. These species are highly
recognized by the public and considered among those at greatest
risk of extinction.
Protect killer whales from harmful vessel impacts
through enforcement, education and evaluation: This
includes direct interference by boats and ships as well as noise
and other problems to be identified.
Target recovery of critical prey: Because
chinook salmon are known to be the primary food supply for the
whales, efforts must be taken to restore the salmon species to
healthy populations throughout the orcas’ habitat.
Protect important habitat areas from anthropogenic
threats: Since the orcas spend more than half their time
in the ocean, it is important to identify and protect the places
that are important to them.
Improve our knowledge of Southern Resident killer whale
health to advance recovery: Identifying why some whales
are dying at a young age and why some females are unable to
reproduce are among the research efforts taking place.
And that brings us back to K-33, a 15-year-old male orca named
Tika who has been carrying a satellite transmitter on his dorsal
fin since New Year’s Eve. Researchers, including Brad Hanson of the
Northwest Fisheries Science Center, say that it is likely that all
of K pod and possibly part of L pod are traveling with him.
The tracking project is designed to see how far the whales go in
winter, where they linger and what they are eating, as well as any
behavioral observations. The satellite can tell us where they go
and how long they stay, but food and behavioral issues must be
assessed on the water.
Brad and his research team are scheduled to meet up with the
whales during a cruise that begins 10 days from now, on Feb. 20.
NOAA’s research ship, Bell M. Shimada, will leave from Newport,
Ore., and use the satellite data to locate and follow the whales,
assuming the satellite tag stays on that long. Fecal samples and
fish scales could be collected if the weather cooperates.
Brad told me he is eager to get as much information as he can,
as his agency is beginning to put together a plan to protect
coastal areas that are important to the whales. A possible
expansion of the Southern Residents’ critical habitat is scheduled
for next year.
“We’re trying to build up our sample size,” Brad said. “A big
part of critical habitat is not just range. Where are they spending
time, and why are they spending time in those areas?”
The researchers are trying to account for differences among the
pods and smaller groups of whales and how they react under various
conditions. With this being a strong El Niño year, the researchers
would like to see whether the whales are going to different places
or acting differently.
Besides the satellite tags and direct observations, the
researchers are using a network of hydrophones along the coast to
record the sounds of the whales as they swim by. Those recordings
are collected at the end of the season.
In terms of the health assessment — called out as one of the key
actions — fecal samples can be used to identify individual whales
and provide information about hormone levels and other indications
of general health.
Now, let me bring you up to date on the travels of K-33 and his
companions. In my last report on Jan. 19, the whales had reversed
their southerly course after going all the way to Cape Mendocino,
Calif., on Jan. 17. Coming back north, they reached Washington’s
Willapa Bay on Jan. 20, when they turned south again. This time,
they went as far as Alsea Bay in Central Oregon, arriving on Jan.
Continuing the north-south pattern, the whales traveled north
from Alsea Bay all the way up the Olympic Peninsula, turning into
the Strait of Juan de Fuca. On Jan. 25, they reached Point Renfrew
on the southern shore of Vancouver Island, from where they turned
back west and headed out to the open ocean. The next day, they were
Juan de Fuca Canyon, a nutrient-rich area fed by strong
currents rising up from the underwater chasm.
The whales followed the canyon awhile, then made a beeline for
the Hoh River, about halfway down the Washington Coast, reaching
Hoh Head north of the river on Jan. 27. The whales didn’t stay long
but continued south and arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River
on Jan. 29.
From the Columbia River, they turned north and went halfway up
the Long Beach Peninsula before turning south and arriving back off
the Columbia River on Jan. 30. They made another round trip, going
as far as Willapa Bay this time, returning to the Columbia on Jan.
Their back-and-forth travels continued for the next five days,
mostly between Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, sometimes approaching
the edge of the continental shelf.
On Saturday, Feb. 6, the whales took off at a good pace, going
all the way up the coast, turning into the Strait of Juan de Fuca
and passing the town of Sekiu. They remained in that area for about
a day, before turning back toward the ocean and heading down the
coast. As of this morning, they were in the vicinity of Westport
(not yet depicted on the map).