Tag Archives: NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center

Orca-tracking project ends for this year when satellite tag falls off

This year’s research project tracing the movements of Southern Resident killer whales has ended after 96 days of tracking L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nyssa.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. // NOAA map

It was the longest period of tracking among the Southern Residents since the satellite-tagging studies began in 2012. The transmitter carried by L-84 lasted three days longer than a similar deployment on K-25 in 2013. The satellite tags, which are attached to the dorsal fins of the whales with darts, often detach after about a month.

The nice thing about this year’s study is that it covered the entire month of April and much of May, according to Brad Hanson, project supervisor for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. That tells the researchers something about the movement of the whales later in the year than previous deployments have revealed.

A satellite tag on J-27 (Blackberry) in late December extended the total tracking period to more than four months.

Looking back through the tracking maps since February, it is clear that L-84 and his entourage have spent much of their time moving up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. They seem to favor hanging out near the mouth of the Columbia River. On a few occasions, they have ventured into Northern California.

Nyssa (L-84) and his entourage traveled north into Canadian waters the first week of May. NOAA map
The whales quickly returned to the U.S., ending the tracking project when the satellite tag fell off near the Columbia River. // NOAA map

On May 6, they took their only jaunt north into Canadian waters, reaching Estavan Point (halfway up Vancouver Island) two days later. They continued north another day, nearly reaching Brooks Peninsula (about three-fourths up Vancouver Island) on May 9. Then they headed back south, ending this year’s tracking program near the Columbia River.

Just before the satellite tag fell off, biologists from Cascadia Research Collective caught up with the whales on May 21 south of the Columbia River. The researchers noticed that the tag was loosening, and no further satellite signals were picked up.

The tracking studies, combined with efforts to collect samples of feces and fish remains, are designed to identify where the whales are spending their time in winter months and what they are finding to eat when salmon are more scarce. All of this could lead to a major expansion of their designated “critical habitat” and increased protections in coastal waters. As of now, critical habitat for the whales does not extend into the ocean, and NOAA has concluded that more information is needed before changing the designated protection area.

Within the next month or so, all three Southern Resident pods should head into Puget Sound, congregating in the San Juan Islands, as chinook salmon return to Canada’s Fraser River and other streams in the Salish Sea.

Meanwhile, J pod seems to be hanging out in waters around the San Juans, possibly waiting for the other pods to show up. Plenty of observers have been filing some great reports and related photos with Orca Network.

That link also includes recent reports of seal-eating transient killer whales that have traveled as far south as the Bremerton-Seattle area, perhaps farther. A few humpback whales have been sighted in northern Puget Sound.

Killer whale tagging and acoustic studies provide increasing details

L-84, a 25-year-old male orca named Nyssa, has been carrying a satellite transmitter for more than two months now, allowing researchers to track the movements of Nyssa and any whales traveling with him.

Typical of recent travels by the L- and his entourage, the whales traveled north and south of the Columbia River from April 14 to 20.
Typical of recent travels by L-84 and his entourage, the whales traveled north and south of the Columbia River from April 14 to 20. // NOAA map

Nyssa, the last survivor of his immediate family, tends to stay around L-54, a 38-year-old female named Ino, and Ino’s two offspring, L-108 (Coho) and L-117 (Keta). Often, other members of L pod are with him, and sometimes K pod has been around as well, according to observers.

The satellite tracking is part of an effort to learn more about the three pods of Southern Resident killer whales, which are listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. That means they are headed for extinction without changes that increase their rate of survival.

The Navy, which has long been training off the West Coast, has been supporting some of the research in hopes of finding ways to reduce inadvertent harm from its active training in that area, officials say.

Over the past week, the whales moved well offshore near Grays Harbor, then returned to the entrance of the Columbia River. NOAA map
Over the past week, the whales moved well offshore near Grays Harbor, then returned to waters at the entrance of the Columbia River. // NOAA map

Since L-84 was tagged on Feb. 17, the whales have been generally traveling up and down the Washington and Oregon coasts. At various times, researchers — including biologists from Cascadia Research — have been able to get close enough to collect fecal samples from the whales and scales from fish they are eating. The goal is to determine their prey selection at this time of year. Chinook salmon are their fish of choice, but they will eat other species as well.

Winter storms and waves create challenging conditions to study the whales, but the satellite-tagging program has helped researchers find them, said Brad Hanson, who is leading the study for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Brad told me that he is thrilled that the satellite tag on L-84 has remained in operation so long, allowing more and more data to be collected. Satellite tags are designed to fall off after a time, and the compact batteries will eventually run out of juice.

“This is the latest (in the season) that we have had a tag on a Southern Resident,” Brad said. “Who knows how long it will last? The battery will probably make it until the end of May, and the attachment looked good the last anyone saw the tag.”

The research is not just about figuring out where the whales travel, Brad said. It is about finding out which areas are important to them.

While tracking the whales by satellite, the research is being expanded with the use of acoustic recording devices deployed in key locations along the coast. The goal is to find ways to track the whales with less intrusion. But how does one know where they are located during periods when the whales go silent — sometimes for days at a time? Those are the kind of questions that researchers hope to answer by correlating the acoustic and satellite data together, Brad said.

With Navy funding, 17 recorders are now deployed along the coast, including one recorder many miles offshore to pick up whales that get out into the deep ocean.

“We have certainly reduced a lot of the mystery,” Brad said. “The main issue — and what the Navy is interested in — is how they mitigate for marine mammal presence.”

Knowing that killer whales can be silent, the Navy has largely relied on visual sightings to determine the presence of the animals. During high waves, that may not be a reliable method of detection. The answer, based on tracking the whales, could be to move the training operations farther offshore — beyond the continental shelf, since the Southern Residents appear to rarely go out that far.

The Southern Residents are among the most studied marine mammals in the world, yet it is not entirely clear why their population is not recovering. An upcoming effort will begin to look at whether new information about the health condition of the whales can be teased out of existing fecal and biopsy samples or if new methods of study are needed to assess their health.

Meanwhile, raw data from various studies continue to pour in, challenging NOAA researchers to focus on specific questions, complete their analyses and share the findings in scientific reports. According to Brad, ongoing staff cutbacks makes that final step even harder than it has been in the past.

L-pod and K-pod whales continue their travels along the West Coast

L-84, a 25-year-old male killer whale named Nyssa, continues to transmit his location and that of his traveling companions who keep moving north and south along the West Coast, going as far south as Eureka, California.

Here’s a quick update, going back to when the orca was first tagged:

K-pod and L-pod whales cross California border before turning back this week. NOAA map
K-pod and L-pod whales cross the California border before turning back this week. // NOAA map

A satellite transmitter was attached to L-84 on Feb. 17 by researchers from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center during a research cruise focused on the Southern Resident whales. Since then, the orca — often see with whales from K and L pods — moved south past the Columbia River into Central Oregon before turning back north on Feb. 21.

On Feb. 25, the researchers were following the whales in the research vessel Bell M. Shimada off Westport in Washington when another group of L pod whales showed up. It was at that time that a new calf was spotted with L-94, a 20-year-old female named Calypso.

The whales headed south and reached Tillamook Head in Northern Oregon on Feb. 27, then they turned north and reached La Push in Washington on March 1. For the next eight days, the whales moved back and forth in the north-central areas of the Washington Coast before moving south to Grays Harbor on March 12.

On March 13, they began an excursion to the south, reaching the Columbia River on March 14, Cape Falcon on March 15, Depoe Bay on March 16, Coos Bay on March 18, and the California border on March 20.

At that time, marine mammal researcher Jeff Jacobson, based in Northern California, caught up with the whales and confirmed that K pod and a portion of L pod remained with the tagged whale L-84. The whales kept moving south to Cape Mendocino (south of Eureka, Calif.) on March 22 (Sunday), before turning back north, reaching the Rogue River (just north of the Oregon state line) on Tuesday.

The tracking effort provides information about the whale’s travels and where they may be catching fish. Work from research vessels often involves collecting fecal samples and pieces of dead fish to identify what the whales are eating during the winter and early spring.

Spotting newborn orca increases success of ocean research cruise

With less than a week remaining on the 21-day research cruise, Brad Hanson and company sighted a newborn orca in L pod swimming in coastal waters off Westport on Wednesday. The mother appears to be L-94, a 20-year-old female named Calypso.

A newborn orca with its mother L-94, named Calypso, near the entrance to Grays Harbor on the Washington Coast. The research vessel Bell M. Shimada can be seen in the background. NOAA photo by Candice Emmons
A newborn orca swims with its mother L-94, Calypso, near the entrance to Grays Harbor on the Washington Coast. The research vessel Bell M. Shimada can be seen in the background.
NOAA photo by Candice Emmons

The new calf is the third to be born to Southern Residents since Christmas. That’s a nice turnaround, considering that no babies were born in 2013 and 2014, except for the one born right at the end of last year. Still, at least one more calf is needed to surpass even the annual average over the past 10 years. To keep this in perspective, six calves were born in 2010, though not all survived.

“It is encouraging to see this (new calf), particularly in L pod,” Brad told me in a phone call yesterday afternoon. Hanson is a senior researcher for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

The current research cruise also has been among the most exciting and productive since the effort began in 2004, he said. The research vessel Bell M. Shimada was able to follow J pod up into Canada’s Strait of Georgia before switching attention to K and a portion of L pod, which then traveled down the coast of Washington past the Columbia River into Central Oregon. Satellite tags attached to males in the two groups helped the research team stay with the animals. In past years, the whales have not always been easy to find for observation and tracking.

So far, more fecal and scale samples were collected in 2013 than this year, but that could still be surpassed. This was the first time that all three pods have been observed in one year, and it was the first time that researchers saw two groups of L pod whales coming together in the open ocean.

“Both 2013 and this cruise were extremely productive,” Brad told me. “We have been able to observe variability between pods as well as variability between years.”

As I mentioned in Water Ways on Tuesday, learning where the whales travel in winter and what they are eating are essential elements for extending legal protections to the coast as part of a new critical habitat designation for the Southern Residents.

With unusually good weather and sea conditions for February, the researchers have learned a great deal about the whales as well as the conditions in which they live — including the presence of sea birds and other marine life, the abundance of plankton and the general oceanographic conditions, Brad noted.

“I would rather be lucky than good any day,” he said of the fortuitous conditions that have made the trip so successful. See NOAA’s Facebook page for his latest written notes.

The two groups of L-pod whales apparently came together early Wednesday about 15 miles off the coast near Westport. The whales were tightly grouped together when Hanson and his crew approached in a small Zodiac work boat.

“It looked like a bunch of females were all gathered up when we saw this calf pop up,” Brad said. “It is really exciting. The calf looks great.”

The young animal had the familiar orange tint of a newborn with apparent fetal folds, which are folds of skin left from being in the womb. It was probably no more than two days old and very energetic, Brad said.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said the baby in L pod might not have been spotted so early in the year were it not of the research cruise. L pod usually returns to Puget Sound in April or May.

“Seeing these calves is great, but the question is: Will they make it into summer,” Ken said in an interview with Tristan Baurick, a reporter with the Kitsap Sun (subscription).

Without winter observations, many orcas born during those months — especially whales in K or L pods — might never be known, since the mortality of young orcas is believed to be high.

As of this afternoon, the research vessel Shimada was off the Long Beach Peninsula north of the Columbia River (presumably with the whales). This is the general area where the orcas and their observers have been moving about for the past day or so.

Orca research continues, but will it add critical habitat along the coast?

It’s all about the data when it comes to critical habitat for the Southern Resident killer whales, or so they say.

Researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center have piled up a lot of data this year, which could be just what is needed to expand the endangered orcas’ critical habitat from Puget Sound and the inland waterways out to the open ocean along the West Coast.

Movement of K and L pods along the Oregon Coast from Friday to Monday. NOAA map
Movement of K and L pods along the Oregon Coast from Friday to Monday. // NOAA map

NOAA announced in today’s Federal Register that the agency would consider expanding critical habitat, as allowed by the Endangered Species Act, and possibly make other changes to the designation over the next two years. What is needed, the agency said, are more data.

On Dec. 28, a satellite transmitter was attached to J-27, a 24-year-old male named Blackberry, who was tracked as J pod moved about from the Strait of Juan de Fuca up into the Strait of Georgia until the tag came off on Feb. 15. The following day, a new satellite tag was attached to L-84, a 25-year-old male named Nysso. K and L pods were tracked out to the ocean and down the coast to Oregon.

A research team led by Brad Hanson aboard the vessel Bell M. Shimada has kept track of J pod, then K and L pods since leaving Newport, Ore., on Feb. 11. According to the latest report from the researchers, K and L pods traveled south last week to the Umpqua River in Central Oregon, where they abruptly turned north on Saturday.

The whales continued north on Sunday, sometimes 10 miles offshore.

“We observed a lot of surface active behavior throughout the day — lots of spy hops — and at one point we observed numerous whales repeatedly breaching over a several-minute period,” according to notes from the cruise.

The researchers observed no apparent foraging for several days and the whales remained quiet, with the exception of a several-hour period shortly after the breaching episode. As of yesterday morning, they were still off the Oregon Coast and heading north.

The tracking data and up-close observations from this year’s cruise appear to fill in some major data gaps — especially for J pod, whose winter movements were not well known, according to NOAA researchers.

In 2012, the first tag deployed on the Southern Resident allowed the researchers to track J pod, but only for three days before the tag came off. In 2013, a tag on L-87, which frequently traveled with J pod, provided 30 days of data about J pods movements in the Salish Sea, particularly in the Strait of Georgia (where they spent a lot of time this year).

Another tag in 2013 allowed K and L pods to be tracked along the West Coast all the way to California.

Sightings from land and shore, along with acoustic recordings of the whales also are included among recent findings.

We won’t know until 2017 if NOAA has amassed enough data to expand the critical habitat to coastal regions, perhaps as far as Northern California, as proposed in a petition filed in January of last year by the Center for Biological Diversity. For the decision announced today in the Federal Register, the data are not enough. This is how it is stated in the notice:

“While data from new studies are available in our files and have begun to address data gaps identified in the 2006 critical habitat designation, considerable data collection and analysis needs to be conducted to refine our understanding of the whales’ habitat use and needs. Additional time will increase sample sizes and provide the opportunity to conduct robust analyses.

“While we have been actively working on gathering and analyzing data on coastal habitat use, these data and analyses are not yet sufficiently developed to inform and propose revisions to critical habitat as requested in the petition.”

In addition to the geographic areas covered by the killer whales, the agency must identify the ‘‘physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species.’’ Such features include food, water, air, light, minerals or other nutritional requirements; cover or shelter; sites for breeding; and habitats protected from disturbance.

Once specific areas are identified for protection, the agency must make sure that the value of protection for the killer whales outweighs the economic costs and effects on national security.

Update on the travels of J pod along with new calf

map 1-12

J pod crossed the Canadian border and came into Puget Sound over this past weekend, allowing Brad Hanson and his fellow researchers to meet up with whales.

Brad, of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was able to locate the killer whales from a satellite transmitter attached to J-27, a 24-year-old male named Blackberry.

As you can see from the chart, the whales swam south, then turned back north near Vashon and Maury islands. The researchers met up with them Saturday morning on their return trip past Seattle’s Elliott Bay, according to an update on the project’s website.

The newest baby in J pod, designated J-50, was spotted with J-16, according to the report from Hanson and crew. Other reports have indicated that J-36 was also nearby, so it appears that the new calf’s mother still is not certain. Researchers agree that the mom is either J-36, a 15-year-old orca named Alki, or else Alki’s mother — 42-year-old J-16, named Slick.

The researchers collected scraps of fish left behind by the orcas’ hunting activities. Fecal samples also were collected. Those various samples will help determine what the whales were eating.

Orca Network published photos taken by whale observers near Edmonds north of Seattle as well as from Point No Point in North Kitsap.

Yesterday, J pod headed out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The map shows them at the entrance to the strait going toward the ocean at 6:15 this morning.

Orca Network reports that K and L pods apparently headed into Canada’s Strait of Georgia on Friday, as J pod moved into Puget Sound. It sounds like the two pods missed each other. We’ll see if they meet up in the next few days.

Meanwhile, at least one group of transient killer whales has been exploring South Puget Sound for more than 50 days, according to the Orca Network report. That’s a rare occurrence indeed. A second group of transients has been around for much of that time as well.

Steelhead could be running into a trap at the Hood Canal Bridge

Fishermen fish for salmon north of the Hood Canal bridge, but researchers say the bridge may be an obstacle to the migration of young steelhead. Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall
Fishermen fish for salmon north of the Hood Canal bridge last week, while researchers say the bridge could be an obstacle to the migration of young steelhead. // Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall

I’ve often wondered if the Hood Canal bridge might be an obstruction for killer whales, which could simply choose to back away from the wall of floating pontoons, which are anchored to the seabed by a confusing array of crisscrossing cables. Old-timers have told me that orcas used to come into Hood Canal more frequently before the bridge was built.

What I never considered seriously, however, was that the bridge could be an obstacle for fish as well. In Sunday’s Kitsap Sun, I wrote about recent findings from a study tracking juvenile steelhead by means of implanted acoustic transmitters. The study was conducted by researchers at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.


The bottom line is that something is happening at the bridge, where many of the transmitters either disappeared or winded up staying in one place near the bridge, continuing to send out their signals for weeks. The leading hypothesis is that seals or other predators are eating the young steelhead, and some of the acoustic tags are being digested and excreted near the bridge.

Why the bridge serves as an obstacle to steelhead remains unclear. But other studies have suggested that steelhead swim near the surface. As they move out of the canal, the fish may encounter the bridge pontoons as a physical barrier, since the concrete structures go down 12 feet underwater. Also, currents around the pontoons could be a strange condition for the fish. If a young steelhead slows down in the process, a harbor seal or other predator could be waiting to take advantage of the situation.

We’ve all heard about sea lions capturing adult salmon by hanging out at fish ladders at Seattle’s Ballard Locks in Seattle or at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. Maybe the same thing is happening at the Hood Canal bridge with smaller prey as the target of the marine mammals.

I was also intrigued by an analysis conducted by Tarang Khangaonkar, a researcher at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Seattle. He told me that in all the models of circulation in Puget Sound and Hood Canal, the bridge tended to be ignored. Since the pontoons go down 12 feet, the bridge disrupts the relatively thin low-salinity surface layer moving out of Hood Canal.

Tarang calculates that the bridge could reduce the circulation by 10 percent or more, which has serious implications, not just for steelhead at the bridge but for the ecological health of all of Hood Canal.

“We have to examine what the bridge is doing,” Tarang told me. “It slows the entire system down. Water quality is maintained in Puget Sound by the flushing effect, which flushes the system out and maintains a balance. Our preliminary finding is that it could slow down by about 10 percent. That effect is cumulative.”

The bridge, he said, could effectively create a more stagnant body of water, where oxygen can become depleted. More study is needed, he said.

Most of the folks I interviewed for this story agreed that the first priority for further research was to see what is happening to the steelhead — and possibly chinook and chum salmon — at the bridge. Studies could focus on the fish, predators and currents at the bridge.

The project is gaining support, but it could require a special legislative appropriation of about $2 million.

Orca-tagging project comes to an end for now

A research project that involved tracking the travels of K pod for more than three months in the Pacific Ocean apparently has ended, as the transmitter seems to have run out of battery power, according to research biologist Brad Hanson.

Tagged whale

“This has been a phenomenal deployment,” Brad told me yesterday after it appeared he had logged the final transmission from K-25. “It has been a quantum leap forward for us in terms of understanding what is going on.”

K-25 is a 22-year-old male orca who was implanted with a satellite tag on Dec. 29. The battery was expected to last for 32,000 transmissions, and it actually reached about 35,000, said Hanson of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. No data arrived yesterday during the normal transmission period.

The three months of satellite tracking data will be combined with fecal and prey samples from a 10-day research cruise to serve up a wealth of information about where the Southern Resident killer whales go and what they eat during the early part of the year, Brad said. Until now, this has been a major blank spot in the understanding of these whales, he noted.

The information gathered over the past three months should prove valuable in management efforts to protect and restore these orcas, which are familiar to human residents of the Puget Sound region. After the data are analyzed, federal officials should be able to say whether they have enough information to expand “critical habitat” into coastal areas for the endangered killer whales. If not, we should know what additional information may be required.

Brad says he feels a high level of anticipation from his fellow killer whale experts who are eager to learn of the research findings, especially the results of what the whales are eating.

“We have a tremendous amount of data, and we’re trying to push it through as quickly as we can,” he said.

Brad says he won’t release the findings until the analysis is further along. But he did dangle this intriguing tidbit in front of me: The whales are NOT eating chinook salmon exclusively.

The tracking project has another benefit, Hanson said. It will bring new meaning to more than three years of acoustic data (recorded sounds) picked up by hydrophones dispersed along the Washington Coast. Until now, it was not possible to determine the locations of the whales from their sounds alone, because the sounds could be picked up from many miles away. Now, thanks to tracking data, the intensities of their calls and echolocation clicks can be correlated with distance to a greater extent. Researchers are developing a computer model to identify possible locations from as much as seven years of hydrophone data in some places.

The tracking project began on Dec. 29, when K-25, named Scoter, was darted with a satellite tag near Southworth in Kitsap County. K-25 and presumably the rest of K pod then moved out into the ocean. Check out the tracks on NOAA’s satellite tagging website.

“We were extremely lucky to get that tag at the end of the season,” Hanson said.

It was K pod’s last trip into Puget Sound for several months, he noted, and it is a real challenge to get close enough to dart a killer whale, especially when only certain ones are candidates for the tag.

By Jan. 13, the whales had reached Northern California, where they continued south, then turned around at Point Reyes north of San Francisco Bay. They continued to wander up and down the West Coast, including Northern California, into early March. After that, they began to stay mainly off the Washington Coast with trips into northern Oregon. They seemed to focus much of their attention near the Columbia River, where early runs of salmon may be mingling.

The research cruise, originally scheduled for three weeks, ran from March 1 to March 10, cut short by the federal budget sequestration. By following the whales, researchers were able to collect 24 samples of prey (scales and/or tissues of fish) plus 21 fecal samples from the whales themselves. Shortly before the cruise, K pod met up with L pod, probably off the Washington Coast.

The ability to track the whales and the fortune of decent weather were major factors in the success of the research cruise, Brad said. In contrast, several previous cruises had netted only two prey samples and no fecal samples.

“We are ecstatic about the amount of data we collected in such a short period of time,” Brad told me. “If we would have had 21 days instead of 10, just think what we could have done.”

Tagging the whales with a dart, which penetrates the skin, has been controversial among whale observers. Some contend that we already know that the whales spend time in the Pacific Ocean, and maybe that’s enough.

But Brad says many detailed findings from the past three months were never known before — such as how much time the whales spend off the continental shelf and how much time they spend in and around canyons at the edge of the shelf.

The sampling of fish scales and fish tissues should reveal not only the species of fish, but also specific stocks of salmon as well as their age, Brad said.

“Are they actually targeting the larger and older fish?” he wondered. “Some fish are resident on the continental shelf. Are they targeting those? Are they going after the ones they can easily detect, which means not going after the smaller fish?”

The cruise also collected all kinds of information about the ecosystem, ranging from ocean depths to zooplankton to the kinds of birds seen in the area. All that information will feed into a description of the essential habitat the whales need during their winter travels.

During the cruise, another whale, L-88, a 20-year-old male named Wave Walker, was tagged as an “insurance policy” to allow the whales to be tracked if K-25’s transmitter failed. A shorter dart was used on L-88, and the tag apparently fell off about a week later.

The ocean environment is very different from Puget Sound, where the habits of the whales are well known, Brad explained. In the San Juan Islands, groups of whales are rarely far apart compared to the scale of the ocean, he noted.

In the ocean, the orcas were generally grouped up during resting periods. Sometimes Ks and Ls were together; other times they were apart. When they were foraging, however, the individual animals might be spread out for miles.

Brad said he expects to put the new information into some kind of agency report, probably followed by a peer-reviewed journal article.

“We have put a lot of time and effort to get to this point,” he said, adding that the researchers feel a sense of accomplishment now that the effort has paid off.

Researchers attach new tag to orca in L pod

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 Willapa Bay.

Tags from two killer whales, K-25 and L-88, show their pods crossing the Columbia River this morning. Map by Robin Baird with data from NOAA
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 Sound.

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 and fuel.

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 Northwest 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 amazing.)

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.
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

Highway runoff can kill coho before they can spawn

Stormwater runoff from highways has been found to contain one or more toxic compounds that can bring on sudden death in coho and possibly other salmon as well.

Researchers Kate Macneale (left) and Julann Spromberg place a coho salmon into a tub of stormwater at Grover's Creek Hatchery in North Kitsap. Their studies have revealed that urban stormwater can kill coho before they are able to spawn in a stream. Photo courtesy of Tiffany Royal / Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission
Researchers Kate Macneale (left) and Julann Spromberg place a coho salmon into a tub of stormwater at Grover’s Creek Hatchery. Their studies have revealed that urban stormwater can kill coho before they are able to spawn.
Photo: Tiffany Royal/Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

Researchers from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center first noticed the problem in Seattle’s Longfellow Creek, which gets a high volume of stormwater when it rains. Returning adult coho were dying in the stream before they could spawn.

The problem was confirmed last fall at Grover’s Creek Hatchery in North Kitsap, where coho were placed into tanks containing highway runoff. Even after days of rain, the runoff was deadly, causing the fish to become disoriented and die within hours. This was not a disease process but a severe physiological disruption of the salmon’s metabolism.

On Monday, I reported on these dramatic new findings made by Nat Scholz and his colleagues at NOAA. Since then, the story was picked up by the Associated Press and has appeared in dozens of publications and news digests across the country.

I won’t go into detail about the study here, because most of what I know is the story. See Kitsap Sun, Jan. 21. Toward the end, I describe some actions that Kitsap County officials are taking to keep highway dirt and debris from getting into local streams, even before the deadly compounds are identified.

I’ll continue to follow this story as scientists try to narrow down the list of possible toxic compounds that are causing the problem. The next step will be to take clues from tissues removed from the dying salmon at Grover’s Creek Hatchery.

Naturally, these new findings raise many questions about how the unknown chemicals affect the fish so rapidly and where these compounds come from. Could it be from automobile tires or exhaust, or could it be something in the road material itself? Are certain chemicals acting synergistically to heighten the problem? Answering these questions could make a significant difference for urban streams and possibly for rural streams as well.

Personally, I can’t help wondering about the salmon that survive. It’s not easy to find a coho stream where highway runoff does not contribute something to the flow. If these compounds can kill a fish in concentrations found in stormwater, what are they doing to fish exposed to lower concentrations? Are the salmon that survive as successful in finding a mate and conducting their spawning rituals as salmon not exposed at all?

I’m not sure where this line of research will lead, but the early implications appear to be quite serious. On an optimistic note, if the compounds can be identified, Washington state has a reputation for reducing or eliminating toxic chemicals at the source.