A research team led by Brad Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries
Science Center has been tracking K and L pods off the coast of
Oregon and California, most recently offshore of Washington’s
Satellite transmissions from two
killer whales, K-25 and L-88, show their pods crossing the Columbia
River this morning.
Map by Robin Baird with NOAA data
The team left Newport, Ore., on Friday aboard the 209-foot
research vessel Bell M. Shimada. The crew caught up with K pod the
following day with the help of a satellite transmitter attached to
K-25, according to reports. Most if not all of L pod was seen
swimming with the K pod whales near Cape Blanco, off the southern
coast of Oregon.
The research team attached a new satellite tag to L-88, a
20-year-old male named Wave Walker. The new tag will provide
another method of following the whales if the tag attached to K-25
should fall off, as expected sooner or later. It has already stayed
attached for more than two months, about twice the average life of
the satellite tags.
I have not yet connected with Brad Hanson, but I talked to Robin
Baird of Cascadia Research, who has been getting reports from the
crew. Robin told me that the researchers have been able to obtain
multiple fecal and/or fish-scale samples on most of the days they
have been at sea.
Those samples will aid in meeting the primary goal of the
cruise, which is to figure out where the whales are going and what
they are eating during the winter months while away from Puget
The satellite tags have allowed the research ship to stay with
the whales even when the weather and their lack of vocalizations
have made them hard to find, Robin said. As a result, this research
cruise has been more efficient than past ones in terms of both time
The research trip, which was scheduled for 21 days, will be cut
in half because of the federal spending cuts related to the
sequester, according to a statement issued by this afternoon by the
Fisheries Science Center.
The travels of K-25 over the past two months are shown in an
animation produced by staff at Northwest Fisheries Science
Center. (In my browser, the north and sound portions of the map are
cut off even in full-screen view, but the movements shown are still
The latest report shows both tagged whales swimming offshore of
Willapa Bay on the Washington Coast, having crossed the Columbia
River mouth this morning. The full trip can be viewed on maps
posted on the website called
Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.
Researchers are tracking K and L
pods aboard the NOAA vessel Bell M. Shimada. Click on the
image and insert the ship’s name to view its recent travels.
/ NOAA photo
The little streams and tributaries on the Kitsap Peninsula and
elsewhere in Puget Sound are destined for special attention under a
proposal to designate critical habitat for Puget Sound steelhead.
See my story in
today’s Kitsap Sun.
Acoustic tags help researchers track
the movement of steelhead in Puget Sound.
Kitsap Sun file photo
When it comes to endangered and threatened species, most of the
attention has been given to Puget Sound chinook, which migrate to
the larger rivers and often spawn in mainstem waters and larger
As a reporter, I’ve also paid attention through the years to
Hood Canal summer chum, which come into the streams along Hood
Canal in the late summer and early fall. They generally spawn in
the lower part of the streams, because water has not yet arrived to
fill upstream tributaries.
Steelhead are an entirely different kind of fish, coming into
our local streams in the winter months and swimming upstream as far
as they can go. Steelhead may not die after spawning, so they can
repeatedly return to spawn again and again.
With adequate rains, there is almost no place on the Kitsap
Peninsula where steelhead cannot go. In that respect, they are
similar to coho salmon, a fall spawner that remains on the
borderline for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Many
biologists tell me that protections for steelhead will go a long
way to protecting our depressed coho runs as well.
What is needed more than anything is more research on the
ecological values of the smaller streams on the Kitsap Peninsula
and South Sound region. Where have steelhead been found
historically, and what can we do to improve the habitat for
On the positive side, it is often easier to fix the smaller
streams. Culverts can be replaced, side channels created and
streamside vegetation planted, all at less cost than on our major
On the other hand, given our tight state and federal budgets, we
are not likely to see more money for salmon and steelhead
restoration. We’ll probably have to spread the existing dollars
further. In fact, I’ve been told that some people in chinook
territory have tried to slow down the steelhead-recovery effort,
because it will mean less money for chinook recovery. And they may
have been successful.
Puget Sound steelhead were listed as “threatened” nearly five
years ago. The Endangered Species Act calls for designating
critical habitat within one year of the listing, but NOAA concluded
that the designation was “not determinable” at that time. Now, more
information is available, the agency says.
Elsewhere, five populations of West Coast steelhead were listed
as “threatened” in August 1997, and four others were listed in
March 1998. Critical habitat for all nine listed species of
steelhead was proposed in February 1999 and completed a year later.
(Their status was later reconsidered, which led to the official
listing date actually coming after designation of critical
habitat.) As a result of a lawsuit, the court scheduled the
deadlines for those steelhead.
Biologists are now working on a recovery plan for Puget Sound
steelhead in consultation with local governments throughout the
region. The ESA does not provide a firm deadline for approving a
recovery plan, although federal agencies attempt to get them done
within a few years after listing.
It appears that the findings of the report are substantially the
same as what I reported in a
Kitsap Sun story on May 6. If you haven’t read the story, I
think you will find all the comments interesting.
The next step will be for NOAA officials to issue
recommendations from the report. In light of the findings and the
uncertainty about the effects of reduced fishing, it seems likely
that more studies will be proposed rather than an immediate
adjustment to harvest.
I’ll continue to follow this story through the public review
process, which is planned for early next year. Updates and related
documents can be found on
The management plan for Puget Sound chinook fisheries will
remain in effect through next year, after which time it will need
to be updated in consultation between state and federal agencies.
Chinook are a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species
NOAA’s webpage, “Puget Sound Chinook Resource Management
NOAA has agreed to conduct a status review to determine if Puget
Sound’s killer whales should remain on the Endangered Species
The agency received a petition from the Pacific Legal
Foundation, which claims that the three Southern Resident pods
should be considered just a part of a larger population of orcas.
According to the PLF, the Southern Residents do not meet the legal
definition of “species” that qualifies them for listing:
“The term ‘species’ includes any subspecies of fish or
wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any
species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when
The 62-page PLF petition
(PDF 384 kb) — filed on behalf of three parties, including
California farmers — argues from a carefully constructed legal
analysis that says NOAA should never have listed the Southern
Residents in the first place.
When I first read the petition in August, I believed it was just
an effort to rehash the legal arguments that NOAA went through
during the listing process, following a federal court order in
2003. But NOAA apparently sees things differently, according to a
release issued yesterday:
“NOAA said the petition presents new information from scientific
journal articles about killer whale genetics, addressing issues
such as how closely related this small population is to other
populations, and meets the agency’s standard for accepting a
petition to review.”
NOAA apparently is taking a close look at a 2010 study
led by Malgorzata Pilot, which was used by the petitioners to
argue that the Southern Residents are not genetically isolated.
From the petition:
“The significance of the findings of Pilot et al. (2010) is
“First, they demonstrate with data that social interactions
among killer whale pods do occur in the wild and they occur more
frequently than has been reported (i.e., many interactions are
simply ‘missed’ by human observers who cannot watch a vast area of
ocean to take note of killer whale pod interactions, 24 hours a
day, 7 days a week, year round)….
“Second, Pilot et al. (2010) explain why inbreeding is not a
problem even though killer whales rarely disperse outside of natal
“Third, Pilot et al. (2010) explain why mtDNA haplotypes (groups
of genes that are inherited together by an organism from a single
parent) can be highly divergent among ecotypes but not nuclear DNA
markers….Therefore, if only mtDNA is considered in an analysis, the
loss of mtDNA variation in populations (also referred to as lineage
sorting) can give an erroneous appearance of populations (and
putative species) being genetically isolated because they are
trying to maintain taxonomic differences while at the same time
ecotypes and populations are not isolated for nuclear genetic
Sorry if that’s a little technical, but it shows why NOAA
decided to take up to an additional nine months to decide if the
petitioners have a case based on arguments about genetic isolation.
Are the Southern Residents a distinct population segment of the
The petitioners argue that NOAA improperly declared the Northern
Pacific killer whales (Northern and Southern Residents) as a
subspecies, making the Southern Residents a DPS of a subspecies —
which, they argue, is illegal under the Endangered Species Act.
In response to NOAA’s status review, the Center for Biological
Diversity, which fought the first legal battle over the listing,
news release saying that nothing has changed in the realm of
science. The population qualifies as a DPS, because it is one of
only a few to feed extensively on salmon; it has a unique dialect;
and it is genetically unique.
Stated Sarah Uhlemann, an attorney at the Center for Biological
“It would be a tragedy to strip Washington’s most iconic species
of protections. Only around 85 southern resident killer whales are
left, and their Endangered Species Act listing is critical to the
population’s recovery in Puget Sound.
“Nothing has changed in the science to show that orcas are
faring any better or are somehow suddenly undeserving of endangered
species protections. Although the agency’s decision to consider the
delisting petition is unfortunate, the species’ status is unlikely
to change as a result of the agency’s review, and these
irreplaceable killer whales will almost certainly keep their
Other news stories on NOAA decision to review the listing:
Linda Mapes, Seattle
Times, “California farmers want orcas taken off
Meanwhile, in terms of classifying orcas, there is an ongoing
effort to include captive killer whales among the population listed
See Water Ways, Oct. 24, 2010.
And there’s a new story by
Associated Press reporter Dan Joling, who writes about an
effort to declare transient killer whales a new species and name
them for the late Michael Bigg, a killer whale researcher who
developed today’s common method for identifying individual
I didn’t realize until this morning that the YouTube video I
posted contained only about a fourth of the original half-hour
“Orphan Orca: Saving Springer” program. I’ve replaced it with the
full version I found on Vimeo. Sorry for the oversight.
A celebration of Springer’s dramatic rescue, which began 10
years ago this week, will be held a week from Saturday, June 23, at
Seattle’s Alki Bathhouse.
Springer, of course, is the female orca who was captured near
the Seattle-Vashon ferry lanes, moved to Manchester for a time and
then reunited with her extended family near the north end of
Vancouver Island. See
Kitsap Sun, June 12, 2002, and watch the video on this page,
which was produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
“The Springer success story is an inspiration for all of us
working in these marine waters,” Lynne Barre of the NOAA’s
Northwest Fisheries Science Center said in a news release. “The
relationships forged by Springer have helped foster successful
international cooperation of many conservation efforts, including
oil spill prevention and response, fisheries management and habitat
“Springer’s reunion is an unqualified success — the only project
of its kind in history,” said Donna Sandstrom of The Whale Trail in
the news release. “But today our whales are in trouble. We hope
Springer’s success inspires people to join us in working on issues
facing orcas today, with the same urgency, commitment and
Sandstrom is organizing Seattle’s free event, which will feature
a welcome dance by the Duwamish Tribe’s Singing Feet dancers.
The Le-La-La Dancers, a First Nations troupe from Victoria, will
appear in Seattle for the first time and perform a
killer-whale-mask dance and other traditional dances. (Members of
the group greeted Springer with the same mask when she returned
home to her family 10 years ago.)
A celebration in Telegraph Cove, where Springer was released in
2002, is scheduled for July 12 to 15.
On Tuesday, a celebration was held at Vancouver Aquarium.
It is believed that 2-year-old Springer strayed into Puget
Sound, far from her home waters, after her mother died. Remarkably,
it was at the same time that Luna, a 2-year-old male orca from the
Southern Resident pods, was found in Nootka Sound on the West Coast
of Vancouver Island.
After I broke the news of these two young whales in foreign
waters, the unusual circumstances drew international attention. A
rescue for Luna was never completed, and he was tragically killed
by a propeller of a large boat three years later.
Springer was taken back into her pod, and it appears she was
watched over by her aunt. Springer’s story continues, and
researchers are waiting for the day she is observed with her own
Orca Network is reporting that researchers at the Center for
Whale Research have determined that L-112s family is alive and
well. The identification used photos taken by Greg Schorr and Erin
Falcone of Cascadia Research when the two spotted members of K and
L pods off Westport on April 29.
Because of the trauma sustained by L-112, there had been
speculation that other members of her family may have been killed
Federal law-enforcement officers have launched an investigation
into the death of the orca L-112, with an emphasis on looking for
those who may have been involved in her fatal injuries.
“We received a complaint that the death was not due to natural
causes, so we are looking into that to see if we can make a
determination,” said Vicki Nomura, special agent in charge at
NOAA’s Northwest Office of Law Enforcement.
The decision follows a suggestion by Ken Balcomb of the Center
for Whale Research. Ken believes that law enforcement officers will
be more successful in getting information from the U.S. and
Canadian navies, who, he says, may know more than they’re letting
Since then, I have received a brief progress report on the
overall investigation from the Northwest Region Marine Mammal
Stranding Network. Dyanna Lambourn of the Washington Department of
Fish and Wildlife told me that the document was prepared jointly by
the necropsy team to clear up some misunderstandings that people
Most of the information has been available for awhile, but I
found a couple paragraphs worth noting:
“Based on the approximate date of death, NOAA Fisheries and the
NOAA Hazardous Materials Response Division reviewed environmental
data from early February and found that prevailing wind and
currents, between February 1 and February 11 were predominantly
from the south. In addition, local current conditions are largely
influenced by eddies flowing northward from the mouth of the
Columbia River. This indicates that the animal likely died near the
Columbia River or to the south and could have drifted a substantial
distance before being cast ashore on Long Beach. Other
environmental factors that are being researched include;
earthquakes and if they could cause trauma or disorientation and
sea surface temperature. Diet studies are underway to further
investigate winter feeding habits.”
“We are seeking information from a variety of sources in an attempt
to identify whether human activities may have contributed to the
injuries we observed. Communication with the United States Navy,
Canadian Navy, United States Coast Guard, United States Air Force,
and fisheries managers is on-going or being initiated. NOAA
Fisheries has reviewed reports received by the Marine Mammal
Authorization Program from commercial fishing vessels between
January and February 2012 and found that no incidental mortality or
injuries involving killer whale(s) was reported anywhere on the
west coast during this timeframe.”
A dozen environmental groups say they will boycott the nine
“scoping meetings” the Navy is holding to kick off a new round of
studies regarding testing and training activities in the
In a letter dated March 13 (PDF 16 kb), the groups said the
format of the meetings is not designed to encourage public
discussion or even allow public comment. In addition, the Navy and
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have ignored
ongoing calls for the Navy to better protect marine wildlife and
the environment along the Washington Coast and other biologically
important areas, they say.
Navy's Northwest testing and
training ranges. Click to enlarge.
Map by U.S. Navy
The Navy will seek a new permit from NOAA for the incidental
harassment of marine mammals during testing and training
activities. Most of the activities are identical to what is taking
place now, but some new activities are added — including the
testing of sonar from ships docked at piers.
“As you know, the scoping process is the best time to identify
issues and provide recommendations to agencies on what should be
analyzed in the EIS. However, a process developed for activities
with controversial impacts, like those at issue here, that does not
provide opportunity for the public to testify or speak to a broader
audience, or to hear answers to questions raised by others, and
that fails to engage major population centers is not designed to
help citizens and organizations effectively participate in
agencies’ environmental reviews.”
As you probably know if you follow this blog, a team of
researchers attached a satellite tag to one of the Southern
Resident killer whales a few days ago
(Water Ways, Feb. 22). But the transmission stopped sometime
after Thursday morning, following three days of transmissions used
to track J pod in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Pacific Ocean.
Bell M. Shimada, the research ship
now in search of killer whales. / NOAA
The researchers, led by Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries
Science Center, are now trying to locate J pod during the day to
determine whether the tag fell off or simply stopped
I received this e-mail from Brad yesterday:
“We have been unable to locate them during daylight hours the
last two days. We detected the whales on our towed array on
Thursday evening after sunset near the west end of the Strait of
Juan de Fuca but we were not able to stay with them until daybreak
because they stopped vocalizing and echolocating about 0130 on
“We spent most of Friday searching the central Strait of Juan de
Fuca before heading to Port Angeles late in the evening to avoid an
approaching storm. J pod calls were detected off San Juan Island
late Friday evening. We are waiting for winds to subside and will
resume our search as soon as possible.”
A decision about whether to attach a transmitter to another orca
in J pod will wait until the researchers get a look at J-26 to see
what may have happened to the transmission. No more than two tags
per year may used to track any one pod. Specific whales were
selected for tags, generally avoiding females that could contribute
to the population.
The ability to track the whales by satellite makes the research
work easier, but it does not change the priorities. Figuring out
where the Southern Residents travel in winter remains a primary
goal of the ongoing research. Two years ago, the crew went to sea
looking for the whales without the option of tagging, using the
same acoustic equipment being used now to find them.
The cruise also is collecting data on birds, zooplankton and
oceanographic conditions, as with the cruise in 2009, Brad told me.
The ability to use the satellite data to track the whales allows
researchers to collect information along the track where the whales
Without information about the location of the whales, the
researchers tend to follow systematic track lines with their
research vessel. When the whales are picked up on the acoustic
array, the effort to locate the animals takes precedence over data
collection. At night, changes in ship speed and heading limits the
type and quality of data that can be collected.
The risks of tagging can be debated, and I’ve tried to share the
concerns. Still, it is easy to see why researchers wish to have
this tool available to them as they try to figure out where the
whales go in winter.
UPDATE: Tracking J pod from 6 p.m.
Monday to 9 a.m. Thursday, using a satellite tag attached to J-26.
This is the northwest corner of Washington state, with Vancouver
Island to the north.
Map: National Marine Fisheries Service
A team of killer whale researchers is tracking J pod by
satellite, after attaching a special radio tag to J-26, a
21-year-old male named “Mike.”
Brad Hanson, who is leading the research team from the Northwest
Fisheries Science Center, said the tagging occurred Monday without
incident as darkness fell over the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
“This is really exciting,” Brad told me today by cell phone from
the NOAA research ship Bell M. Shimada. “This
is something we have been planning on doing for quite a few years
now. Everything worked out to encounter the animals in decent
The map above shows where the whales have traveled since Monday
website showing the tracks, including an explanation of the
project, will be updated roughly once a day.
The goal is to learn where the Southern Resident killer whales
go in winter, what they’re eating and why they choose certain areas
to hang out. Until now, these questions could not be answered well,
because winter sightings were fairly limited.
When I talked to Brad about 4 p.m. Wednesday, the Shimada was
towing an acoustic array near Port Angeles, as the researchers
listened for the sounds of killer whales that might venture into
J pod was fairly spread out Monday during the tagging operation,
and visibility was low Tuesday during heavy rains. As the whales
headed out into the ocean, the crew decided to stay in the strait
to avoid 20-foot seas and heavy winds off the coast. They could
have followed the whales out, Brad said, but the satellite tag
allows the crew to keep track of their location. In rough seas,
there’s a risk that the research equipment will be damaged.
“Everything is weather-dependent,” Brad said. “Our plan is to
try to catch up with them as soon as we can.”
The goal is to collect fecal samples and fish scales — as the
researchers do in summer when the whales are in the San Juan
“That data is extremely valuable in determining the species of
fish,” he said, “and if it’s chinook, what stocks are
The satellite tagging has been controversial among some
researchers and killer whale advocates, but it was approved
following a study of the potential risks and benefits. See Water
Ways entries from 2010:
The researchers are scheduled to be out with the whales until
“We’re keeping our options open,” Brad said. “We will spend as
much time with Js as we can. It looks like we could get one
low-pressure system after another, as is typical for February, but
we might get a break on Friday. Sometimes we’ll get these holes in
the weather system.
“Right now, we’re basically hanging out in the Strait of Juan de
Fuca. If other animals come in, we hope to detect that.”
The tagging permit allows for up to six orcas to be tracked each
year, but nobody expects the number of tagged animals to be close
Data from the satellite transmitter is relayed to a weather
satellite as it passes over. The information is then transferred to
a processing center that determines the location of the
transmitter. Through the process, the information gets delayed a
Also on board the research vessel are seabird biologists and
other experts taking samples of seawater and zooplankton and
collecting basic oceanographic data.
It is interesting to contemplate how the new National Shellfish
Initiative, announced in June, and the Washington Shellfish
Initiative, announced last week, could change things in Puget
Newton Morgan of the Kitsap County
Health District collects a dye packet from Lofall Creek in December
of 2010. This kind of legwork may be the key to tracking down
pollution in Puget Sound.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan Reid
One of the most encouraging things is an attempt to expand
Kitsap County’s Pollution Identification and Correction (PIC)
Program to other counties, with increased funding for cleaning up
the waters. Check out the story I wrote for
last Friday’s Kitsap Sun, in which I describe the
search-and-destroy mission against bacterial pollution.
As most Water Ways readers know, I’ve been following the ongoing
monitoring and cleanup effort by the Kitsap County Health District
for years with the help of Keith Grellner, Stuart Whitford, Shawn
Ultican and many others in the district’s
water quality program. In fact, just two weeks ago, I discussed
what could be a turnaround for a chronic pollution problem in
Lofall Creek, a problem that has taken much perseverance to
Kitsap Sun, Dec. 2.) Unfortunately, the story is far from
I’ve talked about the importance of old-fashioned legwork in
tracking down pollution, and I’ve suggested that other local
governments use some of their stormwater fees or implement such
fees for monitoring of their local waters. See
Water Ways, June 30, for example.
Water free of fecal pollution has benefits for humans and other
aquatic creatures. Thankfully, Washington State Department of
Health’s shellfish program is
careful about checking areas for signs of sewage before certifying
them as safe for shellfish harvesting. Maybe the new shellfish
initiative will allow the state to open beds that have been closed
for years. That’s what happened in Yukon Harbor, where more than
900 acres of shellfish beds were reopened in 2008. (See
Kitsap Sun, Sept. 25, 2008).
Certifying areas as safe for shellfish harvesting means that
waterfront property owners are safe to enjoy the bounty of their
own beaches. It also offers an opportunity for commercial growers
to make money and contribute to the state’s economy.
Of course, this does not mean that intensive shellfish-growing
operations ought to be expanded to every clean corner of Puget
Sound, any more than large-scale crop farming or timber harvesting
should be allowed to take over the entire landscape.
Some environmentalists have expressed concern that the
Washington Shellfish Initiative could become a boondoggle for
commercial shellfish growers. Laura Hendricks of the Sierra Club’s
Marine Ecosystem Campaign sent me an e-mail noting these concerns
about the expansion of aquaculture:
“Washington State has more native species listed as endangered
than any other state in the USA. We see no mention of the adverse
impacts in this initiative on nearshore habitat, birds and juvenile
“Governor Gregoire and the various speakers failed to mention
that ALL of the pending shoreline aquaculture applications they
want to ‘streamline’ are for industrial geoduck aquaculture, not
oysters. Red tape is not what is delaying these applications…
“Shellfish industry lobbyists who pushed for this expansion are
silent on the following three serious threats to our fisheries
resources, forage fish, birds and salmon:
“1. Shellfish consume fisheries resources (zooplankton —
fish/crab eggs and larvae) according to peer reviewed studies. A
DNR study documented that forage fish eggs did not just stay buried
high on the beach, but were found in the nearshore water column.
Continuing to allow expansion of unnatural high densities of
filtering shellfish in the intertidal “nursery,” puts our fisheries
resources at risk.
“2. The shellfish growers place tons of plastics into Puget
Sound in order to expand aquaculture where it does not naturally
3. Mussel rafts are documented to reduce dissolved oxygen
essential for fish and are known in Totten Inlet to be covered in
invasive tunicates with beggiatoa bacteria found underneath…”
Ashley Ahearn of KUOW interviewed Laura Hendricks, and you can
hear her report on
Have intensive shellfish farms in Puget Sound gone too far in
their efforts to exploit the natural resources of our beaches? Can
shellfish farmers make money without undue damage to the
environment? Which practices are acceptable, which ones should be
banned, and which areas are appropriate for different types of
Other research in our region is needed as well, although it is
clear that environmental trade-offs will be part of the deal
whenever commercial interests cross paths with natural systems. For
a discussion about this issue, check out the executive summary of
the NOAA-funded publication Shellfish
Aquaculture and the Environment (PDF 4.2 mb), edited by Sandra
Needless to say, we’ll be keeping an eye on this process for
years to come.