Tag Archives: Southern Residents

K pod reverses course at Point Reyes, heads north

UPDATE, Jan. 17, 2013

It looks like K-25 and his companions did a little zig-zagging yesterday, also turning south and then north again. The latest report from this morning shows them near Coos Bay.
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UPDATE, Jan. 16, 2013

K pod crossed the Oregon border yesterday on their way back north. The latest satellite data from this morning places the orcas near Port Orford, Ore., according to an update from Robin Baird of Cascadia Research, who is helping with the tracking effort.
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UPDATE, Jan. 15, 2013

After turning around at Point Reyes Friday night, K pod has proceeded north. The latest satellite data from this morning showed the whales at Crescent City, Calif., about 20 miles from the Oregon border. The orcas are still traveling north, but will they come back to Puget Sound?
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Killer whale experts were anticipating yesterday that K pod might make it to Monterey Bay and perhaps a little farther south, as I described in a story in this morning’s Kitsap Sun.

K-25 1-12

Everyone was wondering exactly where these whales would linger and where they would eventually turn around and return north.

Robin Baird of Cascadia Research Collective reported this morning that satellite data showed that the whales had turned around last night after reaching Point Reyes, which is north of San Francisco Bay. They continued rapidly north, reaching Bodega Bay this morning.

Where K pod will travel next is anyone’s guess. But, if we’ve learned anything through the years about Southern Residents, we know that they will remain unpredictable. I’ll keep reporting their travels as long as they seem interesting.

New L pod calf reported among rare superpod

A new calf was spotted today in L pod. The baby, L119, is the offspring of L77, Matia.
Photo courtesy of Jeanne Hyde via Capt. Jim Maya

UPDATE, June 3

The Center for Whale Research has reported the apparent absence of two additional Southern Resident killer whales as a result of an encounter last Tuesday by center researchers Dave Ellifrit, Erin Heydenreich and Barbara Bender.

In addition to L-112, the 3-year-old female found dead near Long Beach in February, and J-30, a 17-year-old male who has not been seen since December, the research team reported that two older females appear to be missing. They are L-5, estimated at 47, and L-12, estimated at 78. (Their ages are estimates, because the annual census that keeps track of every birth and death began 36 years ago.)

“We will wait for a couple more good encounters with L pod before writing them off to make sure they were not just missed,” the researchers said in their report of the encounter, which also includes 10 photos.

Orca Network has tentatively removed all the missing whales from its list of living orcas, leaving the number of survivors at 85.
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Killer whales return to Salish Sea — with new baby

Killer whales of the Salish Sea and Puget Sound returned to the San Juan Islands with a newborn calf yesterday, as I described in a story for tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun.

The newborn orca, K-44, was photographed with his mother in Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

While J pod and portions of K and L pods have been seen in inland waters lately, the major portion of K and L pods have not been around for weeks.

I was ready in early June to write about their return, because that is often when they arrive in Washington state to spend much of the summer. On Tuesday of this week, when L pod was reported off the West Coast of Vancouver Island, I began checking with marine mammal and salmon experts to find out what might be keeping the orcas away.

I was getting ready to write something about the missing orcas and their search for chinook salmon when they suddenly showed up with the new baby. I will save some ideas about the orca-salmon connection until I can put my thoughts into a coherent form. For now, it’s good to celebrate the arrival of the newborn with no apparent deaths among the orcas seen so far.

Of course, nobody knows how long they will stay or where they will travel over the next few months before heading into Central and South Puget Sound in the fall.

The new baby, designated K-44, is one the youngest calves ever identified by gender. (He’s a boy.) Frequently, months or even years will go by before researchers get a good look or photograph of their undersides. Check out diagram at Center for Whale Research (click on “Questions & Answers”) to see how you can tell males from females.

Websites worth watching:

Orca Network’s sightings page (with signup for e-mails)

Salish Sea Hydrophone Network (with links to past and present underwater sounds)

Whale of a Purpose

Center for Whale Research

It's a boy! / Photo: Center for Whale Research

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.

Orca tagging raises questions about research

Killer whale researchers and advocates are beginning to stir a little bit in response to a proposal by federal researchers who want to attach satellite transmitters to the dorsal fins of up to six Puget Sound killer whales. I reported on the plan in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

The benefits of these satellite tags would be to track the Southern Residents during winter months when they head out into the ocean and disappear for periods of time. Knowing where the whales go is important if people are going to protect their habitat, according to Brad Hanson, chief investigator with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, a research arm of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

It is conceivable that the whales are visiting some favored spots for hunting salmon. Finding and protecting important forage areas from human intrusion could increase the whales’ chances of long-term survival, officials say.

On the other hand, some observers are raising concerns about this research project as well as the cumulative effects of all research on the endangered killer whales. To attach a satellite transmitter, a boat must get close enough to an orca for an operator to fire a dart from an air gun. The dart penetrates the skin on the dorsal fin of the animal.
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Samish Tribe names the newest member of J Pod

The Samish Tribe recently held a formal ceremony to name J-45, a killer whale first spotted in March. See the Kitsap Sun, March 5. The young orca is the son of J-14, named Samish.

It is becoming a tradition for the Samish Tribe to name the offspring of the whale we call Samish, now a 35-year-old female. Samish is the granddaughter of J-2, or Granny as she is called. Granny is possibly the oldest living orca among the Puget Sound whales.

Officials with The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor participated in the naming ceremony Saturday. They provided the account below, which I think you will enjoy reading.

By the way, some of our local orcas have shown up in Central Puget Sound, where they were sighted this morning between Fauntleroy and Southworth. I have not yet heard if these animals have been identified. (Note: I updated this with a story late this afternoon.)

The Samish Indian Nation Names New Calf J-45

Friday Harbor — On Saturday, October 17, 2009, the Samish Indian Nation held a traditional potlatch naming ceremony for J-45, the newest J Pod calf in the Southern Resident Community of orcas.

The Whale Museum participated in the ceremony by providing ceremonial gifts for the attendees as well as a greeting by Executive Director Jenny Atkinson. The museum was asked to appoint a witness to the ceremony. Because of her role as the Orca Adoption Program Coordinator and the storykeeper of the whales, Jeanne Hyde was named.

“It was an honor to be asked to witness, ” Jeanne noted.
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What would Puget Sound’s killer whales really want?

Two hearings regarding proposed boating regulations to protect Puget Sound orcas from noise and disturbance have brought out a variety of opinions. Folks involved in the whale-watching industry showed up in large numbers, as did sport and commercial fishers.

Scott Veirs, who studies the acoustics of killer whales, blogged about last night’s meeting in Seattle:

“Overall, there were strong objections to the entire suite of alternatives — from the 200 yard viewing distance to the no-go zone. People for Puget Sound went on record saying that a no-go zone was a step too far. And Ken Balcomb (Center for Whale Research) voted for no action.

“I was left with a profound disappointment that so many felt so unfairly burdened by the proposed rules. If the people who most intimately and consistently share the southern resident’s habitat aren’t willing to make a sacrifice to preserve the basis of their livelihoods, how can we expect the public to act selflessly for our regional icons: the orca and the salmon?”

I thought the piece put together by reporter Mark Wright of KCPQ-TV (viewer above right) provided a nicely summarized and balanced perspective on the issue, though it did not examine the scientific issue.

To dig more deeply, take a loot at the extensive list of comments compiled by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2007 when “potential vessel regulations” were being discussed. Information about the proposed rule — including questions and answers — can be found on the page “Regulations on Vessel Effects.”

A few odds and ends in recent days:
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Now the Puget Sound orcas have been accounted for

When the Southern Resident killer whales came south out of Canada over the weekend, all three pods were together for a time.

Biologists for the Center for Whale Research were able to identify all known members of all three pods on Sunday, which means that none of the whales have died the past few months. It also means that apparently no new babies have been born.

Here’s the report filed Sunday along with some great photos by the Center for Whale Research.

After watching several whales pass by the Center and receiving various reports of more whales up north, both Orca and Starlet (boats) departed. At approximately 4:10 p.m. both vessels encountered J, K, and L pods traveling in tight groups up Boundary Pass. It appears that all members of the three pods were present, totaling 86 whales. The encounter ended at 6:30 p.m. The whales were traveling tight in two groups and continued north up Boundary Pass.
Observers: Ken Balcomb, Howard Garrett, Erin Heydenreich, Emma Foster and Basil Von Ah

Howard Garrett of Orca Network informed me this afternoon that he had received a report that L pod, now intact with the L-12 subpod, had headed back out of the area. I haven’t yet discussed this with folks tracking salmon, but it probably means that the whales are not finding an adequate number of chinook to make it worth staying around.

If anyone has any new information about test fisheries in the San Juan Island area, please pass it on.

Orca Network remains the best single source of information about the movements of whales, because the managers of the Web site take reports from whale watch boats as well as research scientists. The organization posts daily updates, which are sent to anyone who signs up for the e-mail.

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.”

Water management in California deemed critical to orcas

Federal biologists are really stirring things up in Northern California. They have determined that the irrigation system in the vast Central Valley farm region jeopardizes the future of several species of fish as well as Puget Sound’s killer whales.

The killer whale angle is worth some discussion — but first the larger picture.

“What is at stake here is not just the survival of species but the health of entire ecosystems and the economies that depend on them,” Rod Mcinnis, southwest regional director for NOAA’s Fisheries Service said in a news release. “We are ready to work with our federal and state partners, farmers and residents to find solutions that benefit the economy, environment and Central Valley families.”

Changing the water system to meet the requirements of threatened and endangered species could reduce water supplies by 5 to 7 percent, significantly affecting farm production and drinking water supplies. Several proposed projects — valued at hundreds of millions of dollars — could help balance that out. To see the technical reports, go to NOAA’s Web site on the issue.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger objected to the findings in a written statement:

“This federal biological opinion puts fish above the needs of millions of Californians and the health and security of the world’s eighth largest economy. The piling on of one federal court decision after another in a species-by-species approach is killing our economy and undermining the integrity of the Endangered Species Act. I will be asking for a meeting with Secretary Salazar and Secretary Locke to discuss our concerns with these biological opinions, and my Administration will be pursuing every possible avenue to reconcile the harmful effects of these decisions.”

Court action is almost certain.

Reporters Kelly Zito of the San Francisco Chronicle and Colin Sullivan of the New York Times’ “Greenwire” do a good job in fleshing out this story from the California perspective.

It’s interesting to see the federal biologists address the plight of the Southern Resident killer whales with respect to water use in California. These orcas frequent Puget Sound, but they are spending a great deal of their time along the West Coast down to Monterey Bay. The bottom line in the biological opinion is that salmon availability along the coast could be a key factor in whether the population is able to avoid extinction.

Environmental groups were quick to argue that if water operations in Northern California can raise the risk of extinction to intolerable levels, then surely the dams on the Columbia River ought to be a concern.

“The recent National Marine Fisheries Service conclusion linking destruction of salmon habitat to harm to killer whales is a breath of fresh air,” said Kathy Fletcher, executive director for People for Puget Sound in a statement. “Our killer whales are at critically low numbers, and NMFS has recognized that what we do to salmon in freshwater impacts our orcas in the ocean. But it doesn’t make sense to protect salmon for whales to eat in California while at the same time ignoring the effect of dams on fish in the whales’ backyard.”

The issue of what to do about the dams remains before a federal judge. The Obama administration is considering whether to continue with the Bush approach to leave the dams in place or revisit the issue.

“The fiction that the dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers have no effect on the food supply for orcas is one of many failings in the Columbia and Snake River biological opinion,” said Steve Mashuda of Earthjustice, which represents the groups in the case. “Our killer whales shouldn’t have to travel all the way to Monterey Bay to find a decent meal.”

To understand why the federal biologists consider water activities in California critical to the survival of the Southern Resident killer whales, I’ve pulled some comments from the Biological Opinion and Conference Opinion on the Long-Term Operations of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project (PDF 12.7mb):

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