Tag Archives: Puget Sound orcas

Death toll for 2016 includes six orcas
from the Salish Sea

UPDATE, Jan. 2
The Center for Whale Research has announced that J-2, known as “Granny,” has apparently died. The oldest orca among the three Southern Resident pods, Granny was one of the first Southern Residents identified when Ken Balcomb began his Orca Survey in 1976. At the time, she was estimated to be at least 45 years old and probably in her 70s, putting her likely age at more than 100. Ken’s tribute to Granny can be read on the Center for Whale Research website. More to come.
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When it comes to the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound, a year can make all the difference in the world. Last year at this time, we were celebrating a remarkable baby boom — eight new orca calves over the previous 12 months. See Water Ways, Dec. 16, 2015.

J-34, named DoubleStuf, with Mount Baker in the background. Photo taken last February before his death this month. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
J-34, named DoubleStuf, swimming last February with Mount Baker in the background. The 18-year-old male died this month.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

Another new baby was added in January of this year, for a total of nine. But if 2015 was the boom year, then 2016 turned out to be a major bust, with six orca deaths recorded during the calendar year.

The latest death among the Southern Residents was J-34, an 18-year-old male named DoubleStuf. He was found dead floating near Sechelt, B.C., northwest of Vancouver, on Dec. 20. Check out the tribute and wonderful photos on Orca Network’s webpage.

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Talks begin on salmon seasons, with orcas nearby

The annual North of Falcon process is about to get under way again, beginning with a public meeting in Olympia on Tuesday. During Tuesday’s meeting, state, federal and tribal managers are expected to outline their preseason forecasts of abundance for each salmon species. See meeting announcement in the Kitsap Sun and on the North of Falcon website.

Chinook salmon are the primary prey for Puget Sound's killer whales. Here, J-40 grabs a fish off False Bay, San Juan Island
Photo by Astrid Van Ginneken, Center for Whale Research.

This year, there will be a new elephant in the room … actually, something as large as an elephant — a killer whale. But more about that in a moment.

The process of determining how many salmon of each species are available for harvest and how to divide up the catch has become a complex project involving commuter simulations, policy discussions and demands from fishing constituents. The goal is to make abundant stocks of salmon available for harvest while protecting “weak runs” — particularly those listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Sure, the process has its flaws, but I have not heard of any better ideas for protecting weak runs outside of stopping all fishing for a period of time. So far this year, I haven’t had time to get a head start on what salmon managers are thinking, but I’ll be following the discussions as they move along.

I’ve been thinking about the comments people sometimes post on this blog, blaming all the salmon problems on commercial fishing, tribal fishing or the locations of fishing nets. Because such comments are often based on a lack of knowledge, I was wondering if such folks ever consider attending these meetings to find out how fishing decisions are made. The meetings, which are open to the public, begin with general discussions and get more technically oriented right up to the point when final decisions are made in mid-April.

While the fishing issues are complex by themselves, it is becoming clear that anglers and tribal fishermen may soon need to share their chinook salmon — a highly prized sport and table fish — with another species, the Southern Resident killer whale, an endangered species.

In a letter to salmon managers (PDF 1.5 mb), Will Stelle, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, announced that he would convene a series of workshops to study the relationship between chinook fishing and the survival of the Puget Sound orcas:

“The basic question NMFS must answer is whether Chinook salmon fisheries that affect the abundance of prey available to the killer whales are significantly and negatively affecting the well-being of the Southern Resident population and, if so, how those negative effects might be reduced.

“At the conclusion of the scientific workshop process, NMFS and others will be better able to determine what recovery actions are appropriate and, more specifically, whether and under what conditions additional constraints on salmon fishing may be necessary.”

As recently as 2008, the federal agency concluded that fishing at the levels allowed through the North of Falcon process had no serious effects on the whales. But, according to Stelle, more recent analyses may show otherwise:

“Our conclusions, which are preliminary at this point, strongly suggest that the amount of Chinook available to the whales in comparison to their metabolic requirements is less than what we estimated in the 2008 consultation, particularly during those summer months when the whales spend considerable time foraging in the Salish Sea.

“This change results from several factors, including but not limited to revised estimates of the metabolic requirements of the whales, their selective preference for larger Chinook salmon, and inclusion of a broader range of years to represent expected variations in the abundance of Chinook salmon available to the whales.”

While allocations for killer whales may not be explicit this year, the workshops could result in reduced harvest under the next Puget Sound Chinook Management Plan. For a more detailed discussion of the early analysis, download “Effects of Fisheries on Killer Whales” (PDF 345 kb).

For an outline of the proposed discussions, go to “A Scientific Workshop Process to Evaluate Effects of Salmon Fisheries on Southern Resident Killer Whales (PDF 21 kb).

To read a news story on the topic, reporter Craig Welch touched on the issue in the Feb. 11 edition of the Seattle Times.

Behavior of Puget Sound orcas is raising concerns

The Southern Resident killer whales, which frequent Puget Sound, are acting a little strangely of late and their actions are making a few people nervous.

I always look forward to hearing about their arrival to the San Juan Islands in early June. Ideally, someone will see all three pods of orcas getting together in one big reunion called a “superpod” with more than 80 whales splashing about together.

Last year, the superpod occurred on June 3, according to Howard Garrett of Orca Network. Sometimes the orcas show up earlier than that and sometimes they come in later, but generally by mid-June all three pods are hunting chinook in and around the San Juans.

Their “late” arrival this year is not the only thing that’s disconcerting, however. J pod, which is generally in and out of our inland waters frequently, was gone the entire month of April. Now the pod is gone again and has not been seen since May 25.

Also worrisome is how the whales have split into smaller family groups. Nine animals in L pod (known as the L-12s) have been around until possibly leaving today. Meanwhile, twice that many whales in L pod are somewhere unknown.

Two members of K pod have been in and around the islands, but another 16 or so whales are somewhere else.

“It is very worrisome,” said Susan Berta of Orca Network. “I know a lot of researchers who want to wait for the data, but things seem to be changing and we are getting these oddities. Also, they are absent more and more.

“All the naturalists that we have talked to are just really surprised at this,” Susan told me. “They think that it is not something good to have these bits and pieces of pods showing up and the larger groups not showing up.”

Nobody knows where most of the orcas are right now, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Brad Hanson, a researcher with the National Marine Fisheries Service. It’s pretty clear that there aren’t many salmon in the San Juan Islands at the moment.

We are either seeing a weak run of chinook salmon or a late run, Brad told me. Maybe the whales have found some fish somewhere else.

“It’s like when you go fishing, do you leave fish to find fish?” he asked. “If they are in a spot with adequate foraging opportunities, they may just stay there.”

There are rumors of more abundant salmon in the Queen Charlotte Islands in Canada — a vast area with lots of inlets where orcas could easily go unreported.

“These animals are mobile predators,” Brad noted. “They can move throughout their range in a very short period of time. Fish are either late or low, but they are not present right now. We hope they (the whales) are taking advantage of fish somewhere else.”

Lack of food in low-fish years has serious implications for the whales’ reproductive capabilities, as Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research recently documented. The abundance of fish could well determine whether the Southern Resident population rebuilds or goes extinct. That’s why so much attention is being paid to saving the salmon, for the sake of the entire ecosystem.

“If the whales were here now, we’d be concerned,” Hanson said, “because it would mean they’re not finding fish somewhere else.”