Tag Archives: Southern Resident killer whales

Ken Balcomb offers his personal observations about J-32’s death

UPDATE, DEC. 17, 2014
A news release sent out yesterday by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans confirms what Ken Balcomb suspected when I interviewed him on the day the necropsy was performed. See also Associated Press story by reporter Phuong Le.
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Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has written an excellent report about the recent death of J-32, the Southern Resident orca that died with an unborn and decomposing offspring inside her.

J-32 awaiting necropsy on Bates Beach near Courtenay, B.C. Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research
J-32 was taken to Bates Beach near Courtenay, B.C., for the necropsy conducted Saturday.
Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research

Ken’s report talks not only about his observations of the necropsy, which I reported in Water Ways on Saturday, but it also includes his observations as he watched the young whale grow up:

“The decade around the millennium was a difficult time for the J10 matriline – J32’s mom (J20) died at the age of seventeen in 1998 when J32 was only two years old; her grandmother (J10), who took over her care, died at the age of thirty-seven in 1999, when J32 was only three years old; and her uncle (J18) died at the age of 23 in 2000. All died young relative to the average lifespan of 50+ for females and 29 for males in this species.

“Fortunately, auntie J22 at age thirteen gave birth to a baby (J34) in 1998, and provided orphaned J32 the required nurturing of a ‘mom’. With that nurturing from grandmother and auntie, including perhaps a little milk, J32 made it through her infancy and into her teens to be a very vivacious young whale, full of energy.”

Ken writes eloquently about his concerns regarding the high levels of toxic contaminants carried in the blubber of the Southern Resident orcas. The contaminants are known to cause problems with the immune and reproductive systems. They also can cause brain deficits that can lead to behavior disorders. He writes:

“These pollutants are released to circulate in the bloodstream when the whales’ blubber fats are metabolized for energy when fresh food is scarce. It is like having a freezer full of tainted and freezer-burned food that you never have to eat unless there is nothing in the grocery store. When nothing else is available the bad stuff is taken out of storage and circulated for body needs.”

Ken also repeats his plea for people to take action in the face of ongoing disaster for the local killer whale population — including this sudden death of a young mother known as Rhapsody and her unborn offspring.

“This is a very ugly situation for the population of Southern Resident killer whales – our beloved orca. I think we must restore abundant healthy prey resources ASAP if these whales are to have any chance of avoiding extinction. The critical point for their recovery may already have passed. I hope not, but it will soon pass if we do not take immediate action.”

Ken’s full report is well worth reading. It can be found on the website of the Center for Whale Research or you can download the title, “Preliminary Necropsy Report for J32” by Kenneth Balcomb, Center for Whale Research.

Killer whale, age 18, was pregnant when she died

One of the last photos taken of J-32, Rhapsody, shown here in the lead at right. The picture was taken in Speiden Channel on Nov. 29, five days before she was found dead. Photo courtesy of Melisa Pinnow, via Orca Network
One of the last photos taken of J-32, Rhapsody, shown here in the lead at right. This picture was taken in Spieden Channel, San Juan Islands, on Nov. 29, five days before the female orca was found dead.
Photo courtesy of Melisa Pinnow, via Orca Network

Like many people, I was shocked and saddened by the death of J-32, an 18-year-old female orca who had offered an avenue of hope for the recovery of the endangered killer whale population in Puget Sound.

We now know from yesterday’s necropsy, that Rhapsody, as she is called, was pregnant at the time of her death.

“Yes, she was pregnant, near-term, 80 percent or plus,” Ken Balcomb told me last light after participating in the examination of the body near Courtenay, B.C.

The actual cause of death is not yet certain, but it is likely that the fetus died in the uterus, resulting in a necrotic condition that eventually broke down the mother’s tissues, according to Ken, founder of the Center for Whale Research. There were no signs of trauma that would suggest injury of any kind, he added.

Dr. Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist in charge of the necropsy, removed J-32’s uterus with the intact fetus inside. Dr. Rafferty told me that he plans to take images of the fetus in utero tomorrow before continuing the examination. He said he would be unable to provide any information until he receives approval from his client, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

As in other post-mortem examinations of killer whales, experts will examine tissues, blood and body fluids in multiple ways to gauge the general health of the animal as well as the cause of death. The Southern Resident pods — J, K and L — are known to carry some of the highest loads of toxic chemicals of any marine mammals in the world. The whales may also undergo nutritional stress because of a shortage of their primary prey, chinook salmon.

The last sighting of the animal was Nov. 29. Her body was found floating near Courtenay on Thursday, Dec. 4. She was a “remarkably small” killer whale, about 15 feet long, Ken said. Females normally grow to between 16 and 23 feet.

Rhapsody was born in 1996. Her mother, J-20 or Ewok, died when she was 2 years old. The young whale was then raised by her Aunt, J-22 or Oreo. Rhapsody is survived by her aunt and two cousins. (See Orca Network’s news release about the death.)

At age 18, she was at the beginning of her reproductive life, with a potential to add several babies to the dwindling population of Southern Residents, now at 77 animals. J pod is down to 24 orcas, with only a few reproductive females at this time.

Ken Balcomb said he hopes Saturday’s necropsy will reveal whether J-32 had ever been pregnant before, since killer whales typically become fertile around age 12 and often give birth by age 15. Her mother was 13 when she was born, Ken noted.

When the ovaries expel an egg, it leaves a little white scar tissue behind. If the egg is fertilized and grows, the scar tissue is notably larger, Ken explained.

An average female gives birth every five years, Ken said. That rate should be adding three or four calves to the Southern Resident population each year.

“Three years ago, I predicted that they should be having 19 babies by now,” Ken said.

Instead, the population is declining, with no surviving calves born last year or this year. A baby born to L-86 in September of this year was reporting missing a little more than a month later.

Rhapsody was the third adult to die this year. Also missing and presumed dead are L-53, a 37-year-old female known as Lulu, and L-100, a 13-year-old male known as Indigo.

Howard Garrett and Susan Berta of Orca Network may have spoken for many of us with this comment: “We cannot express how tragic this loss is for this struggling, precariously small, family of resident orcas of the Salish Sea.”

Killer whales expected to head south any day now

UPDATE, Oct. 4
Orca Network reported a brief appearance of J pod this week near San Juan Island: “On Wednesday, October 1, J pod plus L87 Onyx and a few K pod members shuffled in small groups spread out up and down the west side of San Juan Island for over eight hours, then returned around midnight and continued vocalizing near the Lime Kiln hydrophones for another few hours.”
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As chum salmon swim back to their home streams in Puget Sound this fall, three killer whale pods — the Southern Residents — can be expected to follow, making their way south along the eastern shoreline of the Kitsap Peninsula.

Whale viewing locations by Orca Network. Click on image to view Google map.
Whale viewing locations by Orca Network. Click on image to view Google map.

These forays into Central and South Puget Sound could begin any day now and continue until the chum runs decline in November or December. The Southern Residents, which typically hang out in the San Juan Islands in summer, have not been spotted for several days, so they are likely somewhere in the ocean at the moment, according to Howard Garrett of Orca Network.

This year, Orca Network has created a map of good viewing sites to help people look for whales from shore. As the orcas move south into Puget Sound, Orca Network’s Facebook page becomes abuzz with killer whale sightings. Observers can use the information to search for the whales from shore.

From my experience, it takes a bit of luck to find the orcas, because they are constantly moving. But the search can be fun if you consider it an adventure and don’t get too disappointed if you don’t find the whales right away.

Howie said expanding the network to include more land-based observers can help researchers track whale movements and occasionally go out to pick up samples of their fecal material or food left over from their foraging, helpful in expanding our knowledge about what they are eating.

Whale reports may be called in to Orca Network’s toll-free number: (866)-ORCANET, emailed to info@orcanetwork.org, or posted on Facebook, www.facebook.com/OrcaNetwork.

The new Viewpoints Map shows locations where killer whales have been sighted in the past, or else they lie along a known route of their travels.

I told Howie about a few good viewing locations in Kitsap County, based on my experiences, and he said he would welcome ideas from others as well.

“It’s a work in progress,” Howie said. “They just need to be locations that are public and accessible.” If you know of a good whale-watching spot, you can contact Howie or his wife Susan Berta by email, info@orcanetwork.org.

If offering a location for the map, please give a clear description of the site and state whether you have seen whales from that location or just believe it would work based on the view of the water.

Some people have expressed concern that real-time reports of whale movements may encourage boaters to go out and follow the orcas in Puget Sound, disturbing their feeding behavior at a critical time of year. But Howie says Orca Network has increased its reporting through the years and has not heard of many problems.

“It seems like a potential problem that never really happens,” he said.

Winter weather and rougher seas makes it difficult to find the whales from the water, Howie noted. As in summer, boaters are required by federal regulation to avoid interfering with their travels. See the “Be Whale Wise” website.

When reporting whale sightings to Orca Network, observers are asked to list the species, location, time, direction of travel and approximate number of animals. When reporting killer whales, the number of adult males with towering dorsal fins should be noted. Also report any behaviors, such as breaching, spy-hopping or feeding. Good photographs are especially valuable.

Sighting reports can be found on the Orca Network website, Facebook page or Twitter feed. One can also sign up for email alerts from the website, which includes reports of recent sightings as well as archives going back to 2001. The site also tracks news and research developments.

As Howard stated in a news release:

“We are very fortunate to live in a place where we can look out from nearby shorelines and see those majestic black fins parting the waters. We are thankful for the hundreds of citizens who report sightings each year, providing valuable data to help in recovery efforts for the endangered Southern Resident orcas.”

Orcas Dyes

What we know and don’t know about killer whales

This week’s report about Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales contained little new information, but the intent was not to surprise people with important new findings. The report (PDF 14.3 mb), published by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was a nice summary of 10 years of research and ongoing efforts to unlock the secrets of the mysterious Southern Residents.

NOAA also released the video, at right, which sums up the report with great visuals. Make sure you go full-screen.

On Wednesday, I participated in a telephone conference call to link reporters with killer whale experts in our region. On the line were Lynne Barre, Mike Ford and Brad Hanson, all with NOAA Fisheries out of Seattle. I’ve been wrapped up with other reporting assignments, so the Kitsap Sun’s editors chose to run a solid story by Associated Press reporter Phuong Le. See Kitsap Sun, June 25.

Let me make a few quick observations:

Lynne Barre said one of the greatest mysteries, to her, is why killer whales suddenly go missing. It’s a vexing problem, and I always get a little nervous when the whales return in the spring. One year, six of the Southern Residents failed to show up. It was a real blow to the close-knit orca community and to the struggling population, and I’ve never forgotten the dismay of everyone who cared about these animals.

Healthy killer whales seem to go missing as often as elderly or sick ones. Only a few bodies ever wash up on the beach. Even when one is found, the cause of death often remains uncertain, as in the case of L-112, found to have died of “blunt-force trauma” from some unknown object.

Much more needs to be learned about disease in the animals, Lynne said. Future research could involve more tissue biopsies and breath samples in an effort to identify early signs of disease.

For Brad Hanson, another mystery is the whales’ seemingly unpredictable behavior and their “fundamental relationship with prey.” We all assume that their primary goal in life is to find fish to eat, but how good are they at this essential task? Pretty good, I would guess. Often before we learn that chinook are abundant off the Washington Coast, we find out that the killer whales are already there.

Maybe the reason the whales have been spending so much time away from Puget Sound the last couple years lies in the lower returns of Fraser River chinook, which pass through the San Juan Islands in the summer. Scale and fecal samples have shown that Fraser River chinook are the most consistent prey of the resident orcas.

In previous conversations, Brad has told me that he would love to communicate with the whales, to find out who is in charge and why a group of animals may suddenly turn around and go in the opposite direction. Howard Garrett of Orca Network recalls a time when all three Southern Resident pods were in the Strait of Juan de Fuca heading into Puget Sound. Suddenly K and L pod turned back, while J pod continued on. Howie says it was as if they knew there were not enough fish for the entire population, so J pod went on alone, saying, “See ya later.”

Mike Ford wants to know why the population has not increased more than it has. Could it be some limitation in the ecosystem, such as the fact that other marine mammals — such as seals and sea lions — have been increasing and taking a sizable bite out of the available salmon population? We know that Northern Residents, who also eat fish, don’t overlap territories much with the Southern Residents. Living up north, the Northern Residents have better access to some salmon stocks — including those that originate in Puget Sound. If the Northern Residents get to them first, the fish are not available for the Southern Residents — or so goes one hypotheses. The Northern Resident population has tripled in size, while the Southern Residents have stayed about the same.

Oddly enough, this potential competition for chinook salmon reminds me of exactly what is taking place with regard to commercial fishing enterprises. Washington fishermen complain that the Canadians are taking salmon that should get back to Washington. Canadian fishermen complain that Alaskans are taking salmon bound for Canada. Only Alaskan fishermen — and those who go to Alaska to fish — can catch a portion of the salmon going into Alaskan rivers as well as some destined to travel south.

One of the new things that did come up in Wednesday’s conference call was a renewed effort for U.S. killer whale biologists and managers to work with their counterparts in Canada. “We will be partnering with them on issues of salmon fisheries and how that may affect the whales,” Lynn said, adding that other cross-border efforts could involve vessel regulations and targeted research efforts.

During Wednesday’s conference call, nobody talked about the potential effects of military activities and the possible injury from Navy sonar until a reporter brought up the issue. The question was referred to NOAA Fisheries headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., where officials review the Navy’s operations and issue incidental take permits. That was the end of that discussion.

I know the Navy is conducting research in an effort to reduce harm to killer whales and other marine mammals. I get the sense, however, that more could be done immediately if connections were made between knowledgeable killer whale researchers in our region and those making decisions on the opposite side of the country.

SouthernResidentKillerWhalePhoto

K pod makes rare spring visit to South Sound

K pod, one of the three pods of orcas that frequent Puget Sound, came south through the San Juan Islands yesterday and were spotted in South Puget Sound late this afternoon.

It’s quite unusual to see K pod coming into Puget Sound this early in the year, noted killer whale researcher Brad Hanson of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

K pod contains 19 orcas and is often seen with other pods, but not this time. If history is any indication, they will soon be heading back out to the ocean. They are more likely to begin hanging out in the San Juan Islands in late May or early June.

Susan Berta of Orca Network told me that whale researcher Ken Balcomb had been out with the whales Sunday and was able to account for all the animals (no deaths), but there were no new babies either.

Brad said his crew collected two fecal samples, but they may not be representative of ocean feeding, since the whales have been around for more than a day. Research has been focusing on what Southern Resident orcas eat when they are in the ocean.

The whales may have been spotted first this morning by a crew on one of the Seattle ferries. The report to Orca Network was a single killer whale a mile north of Alki Point, about mid-channel, at 7:30 a.m.

The K pod reports came amidst other reports of transient killer whales heading north from Point No Point about 9:30 a.m., passing Whidbey Island an hour later and off Everett in the early afternoon, according to reports on Orca Network. Another group of transients was reported on the other side of Whidbey in Admiralty Inlet and later seen heading west in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Because of the multiple transient reports, Brad said he was caught by surprise this morning when he went out and found all of K pod swimming south in Colvos Passage off South Kitsap.

Normally, resident orcas first pass Vashon Island on the east side and come north through Colvos Passage.

“We kept getting all these weird reports,” said Susan, who was kept busy posting updates to Orca Network’s Facebook page. “We heard about one lone orca off Alki, then another group, and I said, ‘I wonder if that is K pod all strung out down there.’ We were not expecting that.”

Susan said it is rare, but not unprecedented, for residents to come into Puget Sound in early spring. In March 2006, K and L pods arrived together and went all the way south to Olympia.

Video shows 30 days of tracking J pod orcas

Tracking J pod for 30 days — mostly during the month of January — lends support for the idea that this group of Southern Resident killer whales strongly depends on the inland waters of the Salish Sea, perhaps more so than K and L pods.

A satellite transmitter was attached to L-87, a 22-year-old male orca named Onyx who has been spending his time with J pod. The tracking effort is part of a study to determine where the whales travel in winter. While one month of tracking doesn’t prove much, it is interesting to know that J pod can hang out for days around Texada Island in the Strait of Georgia without being noticed.

The following video, courtesy of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, depicts travels of the whales from Dec. 26, when the tag was attached, to Jan. 23, when the tag apparently fell off.


View large in new window.

The tracks end just as the orcas seem to be leaving the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but so far we don’t know if they continued or turned back.

When the whales moved into Central and South Puget Sound, as shown by the satellite tracks, observers watching from shore and on ferries reported the whales each time, noted Brad Hanson, who is leading the tracking study for the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. On the other hand, the whales were infrequently reported while in the Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan de Fuca, he said.

“One thing that was interesting to see,” he noted, “is that the movements are completely different from what they do in summer.”

In summer, J pod often moves north into Canada but not much beyond the Fraser River near Vancouver. These winter travels show the J pod moves farther north and stays in the northern part of the Strait of Georgia for extended periods of time.

What they are finding there to eat has not been fully studied, but some percentage of chinook salmon reared in local waters are known to stay inside the Salish Sea, never swimming out to the ocean.

Past studies based on recorded killer whale calls have shown that J pod moves into the open Pacific Ocean on occasion, but the whales rarely travel very far down the coast. The recording equipment was moved this winter to strategic locations to better distinguish how far south J pod travels in winter, Brad said.

Over the next couple months, researchers will continue to look for opportunities to attach tags to killer whales, he said. A cruise aboard a large research vessel in March will attempt to follow the Southern Residents, identify their feeding areas and determine what they are eating in the ocean.

For more information, check out NOAA’s webpage, “2014 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”

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.”

J pod orcas head out to Pacific Ocean

For the past 10 days, L-87, and presumably J pod, seemed happy to just hang out around Texada Island in Canada’s Strait of Georgia. Then they headed south around the southern end of Vancouver Island and into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, according to researchers with the NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

orcas 1-14

As of this morning, the killer whales had just entered the open ocean, as shown in the map on this page.

L-87, a 22-year-old male orca who travels with J pod, has been tracked by satellite since Dec. 26, when researchers attached a transmitter to his dorsal fin in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. See Water Ways, Jan. 3, 2014.

The pod’s movements around Texada Island can be seen on the series of maps updated every few days by the researchers, led by Brad Hanson. Check out 2014 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.

Killer whale tracking study continues this year

UPDATE, Jan 9
L-87 and presumably J pod never headed out to the Pacific Ocean after going into the Strait of Juan de Fuca last week. Instead, they stayed around the area for a day and a half before heading up Haro Strait, spending at least two days around Canada’s Texada Island. That was similar to the previous trip up through the Strait of Georgia. Check out the latest map by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
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Killer whale researchers are using satellites to track the movements of J pod this year, as part of an ongoing effort to understand where Puget Sound’s orcas travel in winter.

orca tracks 1-3

The day after Christmas, a satellite transmitter was attached to L-87, a 22-year-old male. The whale, named “Onyx,” has been traveling with J pod for at least three years.

Researchers caught up with the pod Dec. 26 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where the satellite tag was attached by shooting a dart into L-87’s dorsal fin.

Brad Hanson, a researcher with Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said less in known about the winter movements of J pod than either K or L pods — even though J pod has a history of spending more time in Puget Sound than the others.

As you can see from the map, the orcas traveled up into the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia, circling Texada Island before returning to Seattle. As of Wednesday night, the whales were about halfway down the Strait of Juan de Fuca on their way to the outer coast. Maps and other information about the tracking project can be found on the blog titled “2014 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”

Hanson and his crew went out to meet the whales off Edmonds on New Year’s Day and collected fish scales and fecal samples the orcas left behind. By analyzing the samples, researchers hope to learn what kinds of fish the whales are eating.

As we’ve discussed, 2013 was an unusual year for all three Southern Resident pods, which spent less time than usual in the San Juan Islands during the summer followed by shorter trips into South Puget Sound during the fall.

Brad, who has been in discussions with salmon experts, speculated that a low run of summer chinook to the Fraser River in Canada coupled with stronger-than-usual chinook runs off the Columbia River may have diverted the orcas to the ocean for longer periods,. They made occasional hunting trips to inland waters in search of prey.

Whether this unusual pattern will continue probably depends on salmon abundance this summer and fall. The Southern Residents have a strong preference for chinook salmon, but they are known to shift to chum in the fall.

Another new method of locating whales in winter has been the deployment of seven acoustic recorders along the West Coast, from Central California to the northwest corner of Washington. Hanson and his associates recently reported results from a five-year study of killer whale recordings along the coast.

Different groups of orcas can be distinguished by their unique calls, or dialects. Southern Residents, in general, were picked up on the recorder most often off the Columbia River and Westport, where they were probably preying on salmon bound for the Columbia River.

One goal of all these studies is to determine whether “critical habitat” for the orcas should be protected outside of Puget Sound. Coastal areas, including areas near the Columbia River, would seem to be good candidates for increased protection for the endangered Southern Residents. Their numbers have dwindled from 97 to 80 animals over the past eight years.

Out of 131 detections on the recorders, J pod was identified 25 times — all on recorders stationed at Cape Flattery at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Meanwhile, K and L pods showed up more often in waters off Southwest Washington, suggesting that the three pods may be going their own ways in winter, with J pod staying farther north. This idea could be supported with the latest satellite tracking of J pod.

The study using satellite tags began in 2012, when a tag was attached to J-26. See Water Ways, Feb. 22, 2012. Unfortunately the tag remained in place only three days. See Water Ways Feb. 26, 2012.

Last year, a satellite tag was attached to K-25, and it remained on from Dec. 29, 2012 (Kitsap Sun, Jan. 5, 2012) through March, when another tag was attached to L-88 (Water Ways, March 5, 2013). The first tag continued transmitting until it ran out of power about April 4 (Water Ways, April 5, 2013). The second tag fell off after about a week.

Later, researchers discovered that one of the two darts on the tag attached to K-25 was still in place after the transmitter fell off. This was not something seen during extensive testing before deployment, Brad Hanson told me. He suspects that the transmitter was knocked off, perhaps by another whale. Nobody knows how long the dart will remain in place.

Since then, the tag was redesigned with a circular tab at the base of each dart. Now, if a transmitter comes off, the tab will exert drag through the water and help pull out any remaining darts.

While researchers track L-87 and J pod, they will look for opportunities to tag another K or L pod whale to compare this year’s movements to the long travels of last winter. The research team has scheduled a cruise for mid-March to follow the whales and collect additional prey samples.

Orcas still ‘endangered’ as next steps contemplated

Federal biologists have decided, following a yearlong review, that the Southern Resident killer whales should remain listed as “endangered.”

A lot of folks were surprised when the National Marine Fisheries Service agreed to undertake the review, based on a delisting petition from some farmers in California’s Central Valley. As I outlined in a Water Ways post last November, the agency acknowledged that there was new scientific information about the extent to which the Puget Sound whales breed outside their group. Such information could potentially undermine the finding that the Southern Residents are a distinct population segment, a prerequisite for the endangered listing.

After the review, the federal biologists found that most of the new evidence strengthens the position that the Southern Residents — those that frequent Puget Sound — are distinct and unique in other ways essential to the listing. Here’s how I wrote about it in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription required):

“The endangered listing for the Southern Residents hinges on the legal question of whether the three pods constitute a distinct population segment of an identified species or subspecies. Agency scientists maintain that the Puget Sound whales have their own language and preferred food sources, and they don’t breed to a significant degree with other killer whales. They also meet other requirements for listing, such as having their own range of travel and not interacting with other groups of the same species.

“New evidence, however, shows that their range overlaps that of other orcas to varying degrees and that occasional external breeding takes place. Still, agency scientists conclude, new information about genetics, behavior and cultural diversity demonstrates more convincingly than ever that Southern Residents are unique and irreplaceable.”

To read the official findings, check out the Federal Register notice (PDF 270 kb) and the Status Review Update (1.1 mb).

I would speculate that taking on the yearlong review was one way for agency officials to put the new information into official context, as they see it, before a near-certain court battle ensues.

By the way, the attorney for the farmers, Damien Schiff of Pacific Legal Foundation, told me that he feels the agency sidestepped the very information that compelled it to conduct the status review:

“The decision is disappointing because of the result, but it also seems to contradict the service’s own finding … that it had substantial information that delisting may be warranted.

“They cleverly avoided that by mislabeling our information as consistent with the action they took in 2005. They never really engaged with the new evidence they were presented.”

Myoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity said her organization will defend the National Marine Fisheries Service’s findings if the case goes to court. The group led the court battle that resulted in the orcas being listed as endangered in the first place.

I asked Myoko if her group intends to push for further protections for the Southern Residents, such as expanding critical habitat into the Pacific Ocean. She confirmed that such action was a strong possibility and may not wait for the agency’s regular five-year review.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said he has presented research findings about the travels of the whales up and down the West Coast, including forays into Northern California. Recent satellite-tracking of the orcas by agency biologists confirms that their habitat should be protected along the coast to give them a better chance of survival, he said. See Water Ways, April 5, 2013.

So far, critical habitat has been designated for most of Puget Sound, but this year provides evidence that they rely on a much greater area. So far this summer, the Southern Residents have been mostly missing from the San Juan Islands, probably because of a serious decline in the chinook salmon runs returning to the Fraser River in British Columbia. This kind of extended summer absence from inland waters has never been witnessed over the past 30 years — and nobody seems to know where the orcas are now.

I asked Ken what he thought about the petition to list Lolita, also known as Tokitae, as “endangered” along with the rest of the Southern Residents, of which she is a member. Ken said he supports the idea, even if it means nothing regarding Lolita’s welfare or future. Having her included in the federally protected population may be the only way to guarantee that researchers can examine her body after she dies, he said. If nothing else, the orca’s tissues could contain information to help future generations of killer whales.

Back to the decision to keep the Southern Residents on the Endangered Species List, here are a few press releases from involved organizations:

National Marine Fisheries Service (PDF 15.1 kb)

Puget Sound Partnership

Center for Biological Diversity

Orca Conservancy (PDF 1.3 mb)

Pacific Whale Watch Association (PDF 565 kb)