Tag Archives: killer whales

Endangered Species Act can’t help Lolita, judge says in legal ruling

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.

Lolita has lived in a tank at Miami's Seaquarium since age 5. Photo courtesy of Orca Network
Lolita has lived at Miami’s Seaquarium since age 5.
Photo courtesy of Orca Network

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 Act.

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, quoting NMFS.

“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.

Previous “Water Ways” blog entries:

Orca Awareness Month includes many activities

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.

Logo

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, according to 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 Month.

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.”

EcoFest

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 the press release (PDF 77 kb) from Stillwaters Environmental Center or visit the Stillwaters website.

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 Lyons (see 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 extinction.

Orca Awareness Month is recognized in Washington state in a proclamation from Gov. Jay Inslee (PDF 474 kb). In British Columbia, a proclamation was issued for the first time by the attorney general and lieutenant governor. For BC residents, a new Facebook page, Orca Month BC, is available.

With killer whales, expect the unexpected

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.

A 6-year-old killer whale from L pod, known as L-73, chases a Dall’s porpoise in this historical photo taken in 1992. Photo: Debbie Dorand, Center for Whale Research
A 6-year-old killer whale from L pod, L-73, chases a Dall’s porpoise in this historical photo taken in 1992.
Photo: Debbie Dorand, Center for Whale Research

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 whales.

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 them.

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 behavior.

A 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 Sound.

Dead orca could reignite controversy over satellite tracking program

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.

L-95, named Nigel, was found dead March 31. File photo: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada
L-95, named Nigel, was found dead March 31.
File photo: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada

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. 23.

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 statement.

“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 darts.

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 ended.

Expressing extreme sadness, agency officials say they are concerned that parts of the dart were found imbedded in the fin.

“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 whales.

“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.

I remember the controversy well, as NOAA researchers were convinced that the data gathered would be worth what they considered an insignificant amount of risk. Check out “Orca tagging raises questions about research” from Dec. 8, 2010, and “Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags” from Dec. 28, 2010.

“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 DFO statement.

Medical records to be compiled for individual orcas in Puget Sound

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.

Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. This is the kind of information that could become part of their medical records. Photo: Pete Schroeder
Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. This kind of information could become part of the orca medical records. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

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 could include:

  • 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 pregnancy; and
  • 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 said.

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.

Will new guidance reduce hearing loss in whales and dolphins?

A new controversy is beginning to rumble over the potential injury to marine mammals from sounds transmitted in the water.

Transient killer whales Photo: Kitsap Sun
Transient killer whales // Photo: Kitsap Sun

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.

Proposed noise guidance

The new “Draft Guidance for Assessing the Effects of Anthropogenic Sound on Marine Mammal Hearing” is a major revision from guidance in effect since the late 1990s. The document is currently going through its third public comment period since the end of 2013, having been updated and reviewed by three expert panels.

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 NOAA Fisheries.

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 be experienced.

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 porpoises.

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 NOAA Fisheries’ website.

“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.

USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett. U.S. Navy photo
USS Shoup, a Navy destroyer based in Everett. // U.S. Navy photo

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 been revealed.

“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 other, location.”

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.

Research on ocean noise could help save whales

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.

J-1, known as “Ruffles,” uses echolocation clicks to locate chinook salmon as a tanker approaches in Haro Strait near the San Juan Islands. J-1 was the oldest male among the Southern Resident killer whales when he died in 2011. Photo: beamreach.org (CC BY SA)
J-1, known as “Ruffles,” uses echolocation clicks to locate chinook salmon as a tanker approaches in Haro Strait near the San Juan Islands. J-1 was the oldest male among the Southern Resident killer whales when he died in 2011. // Photo: beamreach.org

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 military exercises.

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 whale.

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 Sea.

“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.
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      1. Sounds from a passing ship

Sounds from a passing ship are picked up on a hydrophone in Haro Strait.
Sound file: beamreach.org


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“The noise does extend up into the range where whales hear well,” Scott told me, “but that does not answer whether it matters to killer whales.”

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 noted.

“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 ocean.

Digital acoustic recording tags are used to measure sound levels felt by killer whales. NOAA photo
Digital acoustic recording tags are used to measure sound levels felt by killer whales. // NOAA photo

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 noise.

“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. See 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 Sun.

“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.

Report

A 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 populations.
  • “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 soundscape.
  • “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,

Jasny’s recommendations:

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 conservative.”

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.

Orcas travel up and down the coast; NOAA lists ‘priority actions’

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.

Report

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.

“Priority Actions: 2016-2020” (PDF 2 mb) for the Southern Residents includes these ideas:

  • 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.

Bell M. Shimada NOAA photo
Bell M. Shimada // NOAA photo

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.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 24-27 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 24-27
NOAA map

“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.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan 27-31 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan 27-31
NOAA map

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. 22.

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 over 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. 31.

Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 31 - Feb. 9 NOAA map
Travels of orca K-33, Jan. 31-Feb. 9
NOAA map

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).

If you’d like to follow their travels a little more closely and read the notes posted by Brad and his team, visit NOAA’s website, “2016 Southern Resident killer whale satellite tagging.”

Orca Network plans to ‘Livestream’ Ways of Whales Workshop

Tomorrow is the annual Ways of Whales Workshop on Whidbey Island, a chance to enjoy the company of top-level whale experts, careful observers of marine mammals and people inspired by nature.

Ways

Tickets will be available at the door. Go to “Ways of Whales Workshop” for the schedule and details, such as lunch and the post-workshop gathering at Captain Whidbey Inn.

For those who cannot attend, Orca Network is planning to stream the event live on the Internet. Connect with the Livestream network to join the event via computer.

In addition to speakers providing the latest information about orcas, humpbacks and other species, Howard Garrett of Orca Network will discuss progress in the long-running effort to return Lolita, or Tokitae, from the Miami Seaquarium to her original home in the Salish Sea.

For this blog post at least, I will go with Howie’s suggestion that we call the whale “Toki.” “Tokitae” was the first name she was given, and Howie says her trainers and staff in Miami shortened that to “Toki.”

“She is accustomed to being called ‘Toki,’ so now with indications that a combination of changing public attitudes, questionable revenue prospects and legal developments may actually bring her home some day soon, ‘Toki’ sounds fitting and proper,” Howie wrote in a recent email to supporters.

"Toki's retirement home," as Howard Garret calls it. Photo: Orca Network
“Toki’s retirement home” in the San Juan Islands, as Howard Garrett calls it.
Photo: Orca Network

A lawsuit involving Toki is scheduled for trial in May, although the date could change. The lawsuit claims that keeping her in captivity is a violation of the Endangered Species Act. If you recall, she was listed as a member of the endangered Southern Resident pods following a legal dispute with the federal government — but so far that determination has been of little consequence.

The latest lawsuit will consider, at least in part, the plan to return Toki to the San Juan Islands, where she would be kept in an open net pen until she can be reunited with her family. If a reunion does not work out, she would be cared for under better conditions than in a confined tank for the rest of her life, or so the plan goes.

It came as a surprise when Howie told me that attorneys for the Miami Seaquarium plan to visit the exact site in the San Juan Islands where Toki would be taken. One argument will consider which location — a tank in Miami or natural waters of the San Juans — would be more suitable for her health and well-being. Of course, attorneys for the Seaquarium will argue that she has done well enough for the past 40 years, so leave her alone.

Howie said he is hopeful that efforts by the investment firm Arle Capital to sell off the company that owns Miami Seaquarium (Spain’s Parques Reunidos) will help with the cause to return Toki to Puget Sound. (See Reuters report.) Perhaps the whale’s value has diminished as an investment, encouraging corporate owners to try something new?

Orca tracking begins on West Coast, as dead calf appears to be a transient

UPDATE, JAN 16, 2016

The orca calf found dead on the west coast of Vancouver Island has been identified as a transient orca from the Gulf of Alaska population. The finding was based on DNA analysis. The cause of death has not yet been determined. For additional information, review the news release from Vancouver Aquarium.
—–

For the fourth year in a row, federal biologists have attached a satellite tag to one of Puget Sound’s killer whales to track the orcas as they move up and down the West Coast.

On New Year’s Eve, researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center used a dart to afix the tag to the dorsal fin of K-33, a 15-year-old male named Tika. He is the son of 29-year-old K-22, or Sekiu. As of this morning, the tagged whale (and presumably his pod) was at the junction where the Strait of Juan de Fuca enters the Pacific Ocean.

Tracking Tika (K-33) from the tagging point in North Kitsap to the Pacific Ocean. // Map: NOAA
Tracking Tika (K-33) from the tagging point in North Kitsap to the Pacific Ocean. // Map: NOAA

Data from the tagging project could be used to expand the designated “critical habitat” for the endangered orcas to areas outside of Puget Sound. I’ll explain more about the tagging project in a moment, but first an update on the death of a newborn killer whale.

Deceased orca calf

If you haven’t heard, a young killer whale was found dead on Dec. 23 on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The dead whale was transferred to Abbotsford, B.C., where a necropsy was performed on Christmas Day by some very dedicated people.

The immediate concern among orca observers was that the calf was one of the eight orcas born during the “baby boom” that started in December 2014. Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center said that was never a real possibility. The dead calf was too young (being only a few days old) to be one of the eight Southern Residents born over the past year or so, Brad told me.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the newborn female was not a Southern Resident orca who died before anyone spotted her with her family. But folks at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island says everything points to the whale being one of the seal-eating transients, also known as Bigg’s killer whales.

“Everything is screaming ‘transient,’” said Deborah Giles, research director for CWR.

Deborah has been consulting with Dave Ellifrit, a CWR field biologist who has the uncanny ability to identify individual killer whales at a glance. Dave and Deborah have seen photos of the young orca’s carcass — which, I’m sorry to say, looks to me like nothing more than a dead marine mammal.

“The shape of the jaw is more robust in a transient,” Deborah told me, adding that the overall shape of the head and the “eye patch” (an elongated white spot) appears different in transients. Other interesting facts about the young whale could be revealed in the upcoming necropsy report. I’m not sure if lab analysis of the whale’s DNA will come out at the same time, but most details are expected within two or three weeks.

Although the death of any killer whale is unfortunate, transients have been doing better overall than Southern Residents. Even with eight new births, the Southern Resident population is still four animals short of the 88 seen just five years ago. And they have a long way to go before reaching the 98 orcas reported in 2004 among the three Southern Resident pods.

For Southern Residents, prey availability has been listed as one of the likely factors for their decline. The J, K and L pods depend mainly on chinook salmon, a species listened as threatened and struggling to survive along with the orcas.

Transients, on the other hand, eat mainly marine mammals, which remain in plentiful supply. Transients that roam along the coast and enter inland waters (“inner-coast transients,” as they’re known in Canada) were increasing by about 3 percent a year up until 2011, when the population reached about 300, according to a report by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Today’s population is uncertain, despite efforts to photograph and identify as many whales as possible each year, according to Jared Towers, cetacean research technician for DFO. Because of their nature, some transients spend significant time in remote areas where they may not be seen by anyone.

Several older transients among this population have died in recent years, countering the effect of increasing births, Jared told me. Still, with an abundance of marine mammals, particularly harbor seals, the population may still have room to grow.

Another group of rarely seen transients is known as “outer-coast transients.” This group, which may include transients reported in California, is estimated at more than 200 animals, although the estimate is less certain than for the inner-coast groups. For details, check out the 2012 research report by DFO (PDF 2.1 mb).

More on tagging study

Since 2011, studies using satellite tags have revealed the winter movements of the Southern Resident orcas as well as some of their favorite feeding grounds. The data are still being gathered and compiled, but they could point to coastal areas that should be protected as prime habitat for the whales, according to Brad Hanson.

This year’s data could provide additional information about how the whales respond to strong El Nino conditions in the North Pacific, which could affect prey availability, Brad told me.

The tag was attached to K-33 while the orcas were offshore of North Kitsap (see map). Over the next day or so, K pod traveled out through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and remained just outside the entrance to the Pacific Ocean.

Perhaps those K pod whales were waiting there for another group of four orcas from K pod, known as the K-14 matriline. It turns out that the K-14s were hanging out with J-pod whales, who were heading west to join them, according to reports on Saturday by the Center for Whale Research.

Weather on the coast has been horrendous of late, Brad said, but it would be nice to get some eyes on the water to see which whales are traveling with the tagged orca, K-33. Cascadia Research Collective, based in Olympia, is part of the effort, along with the University of Alaska. Supplemental funding has been provided by the U.S. Navy.

Additional satellite tags may be deployed later to track the spring movements of the whales before they return to Puget Sound in late spring. For information about the tagging project, visit the webpage “NOAA’s Southern Resident killer whale tagging.”