Tag Archives: Pacific Ocean

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.

Group petitions to expand orca critical habitat

Because Southern Resident killer whales spend so much time foraging in the Pacific Ocean, the coastal waters from Washington to Northern California should be designated for special protection, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Southern Resident killer whales NOAA photo
Southern Resident killer whales // NOAA photo

The environmental group listed research conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service — including ongoing satellite-tracking studies — in a new petition to the agency. The “Petition to Revise the Critical Habitat Designation …” (PDF 340 kb) calls for the West Coast to be designated as critical habitat from Cape Flattery in Washington to Point Reyes in California. The protected zone would extend out nearly 50 miles from shore.

Environmental activists have long argued that the whales depend on more than the San Juan Islands, Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca for their survival. Those inland areas, currently designated as critical habitat, are where the whales normally spend most of the summer months. But when winter comes around, where the whales go has been a relative mystery until recent years.

Map by Curt Bradley / Center for Biological Diversity
Map by Curt Bradley / Center for Biological Diversity

An intensive research program has pointed to the conclusion that all three pods venture into Pacific Ocean, and K and L pods travel far down the coast. Research methods include a coastal network of people watching for whales, passive recorders to pick up sounds from the orcas, and work from large and small research vessels. Satellite tracking has allowed researchers to map the whales’ travels. (See Water Ways, Jan. 14.) In addition, forage activity has been observed where rivers drain into the ocean, and many researchers believe that the Columbia River may be especially important.

In addition to the proposal to expand critical habitat, the petition calls for NMFS to include man-made noise among the characteristics getting special attention. The petition states:

“Moreover, in revising the critical habitat designation for Southern Resident killer whales, NMFS must also preserve waters in which anthropogenic noise does not exceed levels that inhibit communication, disrupt foraging activities or result in hearing loss or habitat abandonment.

“A variety of human activities, including shipping operations, have the potential to impair these functions by generating additional ocean noise, resulting in the acoustic degradation of killer whale habitat.

“Global warming and increasing ocean acidification, both products of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, also contribute to rising levels of ambient noise.”

Characteristics already considered in protecting the orcas’ critical habitat include water quality, prey quality and abundance, and adequate room to move, rest and forage.

I thought it was interesting that the Center for Biological Diversity would petition the agency to expand critical habitat for the Southern Residents at a time when federal researchers are building a pretty strong case to do that on their own.

Sarah Uhlemann, a senior attorney at the center, told me that she sees the petition as supportive of those research efforts, which seem to be building toward a legal and policy shift:

“They have been putting a lot of funding into that research, and we’re thrilled about that. The agency has been pretty clear that it does intend to designate critical habitat in the winter range.

“This petition puts them on a time frame. They have 90 days to decide if the petition may be warranted… Within a year, they must inform the public about what their plans are.

“This is supportive of what the agency already has in mind. It just gives them a little kick to move forward faster.”

The Endangered Species Act defines critical habitat as “the specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species … on which are found those physical or biological features … essential to the conservation of the species and … which may require special management considerations or protection.”

Within critical habitat, federal agencies are required to focus on features important to the survival of the species.

The petition mentions a recent study suggesting that Southern Residents may require consistent availability of chinook salmon, rather than “high numbers of fish that are only available for a short period of time.” If those findings hold up, coastal foraging may be critical to the population’s survival, the petition says, citing work by Katherine Ayres of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology.

The Ayres study concludes that the whales become “somewhat food-limited during the course of the summer” and, therefore, “the early spring period when the whales are typically in coastal waters might be a more important foraging time than was previously thought.”

It could be pointed out that the Southern Residents spent little time in Puget Sound this year, and researchers speculate that they may have been finding better prospects for food among the more abundant runs of chinook returning to the Columbia River.

While J and K pods have have begun to rebound in population, L pod has declined to historic lows, totaling only 36 individuals last fall. Where there is uncertainty, the petition calls on NMFS to act on the side of protection. The petition states:

“Without proper oversight, human activities will continue to degrade this region, compromising the continued existence of habitat characteristics required for the population’s survival and recovery. As NMFS is aware, anthropogenic pressures have already contributed to the decline of salmon stocks throughout the northwestern United States.

“Nutritional stress resulting from low Chinook abundance may act synergistically with the immunosuppressive effects of toxic contaminants, present in prey species from both coastal and inland marine waters, causing Southern Residents to experience a variety of adverse health effects, including increased mortality. The population may be unable to adapt to further reductions in prey availability.”

In a news release, Sarah Uhlemann expressed her concerns for the whales:

“These whales somewhat miraculously survived multiple threats over the years, including deliberate shootings and live capture for marine theme parks. The direct killings have stopped, but we can’t expect orcas to thrive once again if we don’t protect their critical habitat.

“Killer whales are important to the identity and spirit of the Pacific Northwest and beloved by people across the country. If this population of amazing, extremely intelligent animals is going to survive for future generations, we need to do more to protect their most important habitat.”

Ocean issues pick up steam along the West Coast

I’m not sure how serious to take the “West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health,” but some good things may come from it.

I realize that it is mainly a plea for federal money to deal with issues affecting the Pacific Ocean and the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California.

Beyond that, the new 116-page plan released this week is much more focused than I expected when Govs. Chris Gregoire, Ted Kulongoski and Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to work together in September 2006.

I’m not sure where things will go from here, since the governor’s agreement lacks any kind of formal government structure usually required to accept and disburse federal funds. Nevertheless, ocean issues have become more pronounced today than they were just two years ago:

  • There’s a greater understanding of a dead zone off the coast, along with a realization that more research is desperately needed.
  • Climate change has grown in importance as a national issue, and the governors want help in figuring out where coastal inundation will take place.
  • Offshore energy issues are bigger today than just a united front against oil drilling on the continental shelf. The discussion now includes elements of when and where to locate turbines that can produce electricity from winds, tides and currents.
  • Poisonous bacteria and algae have grown in significance, and many West Coast fish stocks are in worse shape.

“While Washington is making significant strides with state initiatives such as the Puget Sound Partnership, the crisis facing salmon this year is an example of why we must address these issues together as a region,” Gregoire said in a press release. “Our waters know no boundaries. This plan commits us to combining our resources and ideas, and prioritizes restoring and maintaining the health of our marine and coastal waters to ensure a sustainable future.”

The plan provides a fairly concise discussion of the major problems facing our oceans, particularly the Pacific. To check out the plan, press releases and correspondence, go to the West Coast Oceans Web site and click on “documents.” Reporter Lisa Stiffler wrote about the issue in today’s Seattle PI, while Kenneth Weiss and Michael Rothfeld covered it for the L.A. Times.

The seven priority areas listed in the new plan are:

• Ensuring clean coastal waters and beaches;
• Protecting and restoring healthy ocean and coastal habitats;
• Promoting the effective implementation of ecosystem-based management of our ocean and coastal resources;
• Reducing adverse impacts of offshore development;
• Increasing ocean awareness and literacy among our citizens;
• Expanding ocean and coastal scientific information, research and monitoring; and
• Fostering sustainable economic development throughout our diverse coastal communities.