The guide is just one step in resolving conflicts between ships
and whales, but it seems like a worthwhile move. If people who
control the ships are willing to put scientific information into
action, they could avoid cumbersome regulations along with
unintended consequences that sometimes arise from political
“The purpose of this guide is to help mariners reduce their risk
of striking and killing, or seriously injuring a cetacean (whale,
dolphin or porpoise),” writes researcher Lance Barrett-Lennard in a
preface to the guide. “It includes descriptions of frequently
encountered whales and dolphins, locations along the coast where
cetacean densities are highest, and simple measures they can take
to greatly reduce their risk of striking a whale, dolphin or
“I have yet to meet a mariner who doesn’t feel terrible if his
or her ship hits a cetacean … so I know the motivation to reduce
strikes is there,” Lance continued. “The key is knowing how to do
it. To that end, I hope that bridge crews on vessels transiting
through B.C. coastal waters will use the information in this guide
to reduce the risk of hitting a whale on their watch.”
If we can celebrate the life of a person who has died, it seems
fitting to me that we should celebrate the long, productive life of
a killer whale known as Granny.
Granny, officially designated J-2, was the oldest orca in the
three pods of Southern Residents. Possibly more than 100 years of
age, her longevity is something we can only hope to see among the
other orcas that frequent Puget Sound.
Granny was the longtime leader of J pod. In a matriarchal
society like the orcas, offspring stay with their mothers for life.
Generally, the older females lead the way, and Granny was almost
always seen at the front of the pack as J pod moved through the
For a long-lived intelligent orca, it is hard to imagine the
amount of knowledge she must have accumulated through the years. I
tend to think that Granny had a personal history with nearly every
cove and inlet in the Salish Sea. I think she understood the
movement of salmon and where the fish would congregate before
heading up the streams. It must have been tough for her to watch
the decline of the whales’ once-abundant prey.
A federal program that uses satellite transmitters to track
killer whale movements has been suspended after pieces of a metal
dart associated with a transmitter were found embedded in the fin
of an orca discovered dead two weeks ago in British Columbia.
The whale, L-95, a 20-year-old male named “Nigel,” was found
dead floating near Nootka Island along the west coast of Vancouver
Island. He was the same whale who was tracked for three days off
the Washington Coast by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries
Science Center after they attached a satellite transmitter on Feb.
The attachment, which involves the use of a dart with sharp
metal prongs, was routine in every way and has not been directly
implicated in the death of the animal, according to a
statement from NOAA officials.
Still, finding pieces of metal still embedded in the dorsal fin
of the whale has already sparked a reaction from opponents of the
darting procedure, including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale
Research on San Juan Island. I expect further expressions of
sadness and anger from others over the coming days.
“In my opinion, the tag attachment methodology was overly
barbaric and defective from the get-go, and the entire tagging
program should be rethought and evaluated for efficacy,” Ken said
in a prepared
“The NOAA/NMFS tagging program is certainly injuring and
disfiguring these endangered icons of the Pacific Northwest, and it
is my subjective opinion that it is adversely altering their
behavior toward benign vessel interactions to approach them for
photo-identification,” he said.
Ken noted that the cause of L-95’s death has not been
determined, so the relationship to tagging could be coincidental,
but two transient killer whales also went missing after tags were
attached. Those deaths could be coincidental as well, he added, but
other tagged whales are still carrying around pieces of embedded
The 20-year-old male orca was found dead and in an advanced
state of decay on March 30 by researchers from Canada’s Department
of Fisheries and Oceans. A necropsy revealed “fair to moderate body
condition” and no clear sign of death. See the
DFO news release for a few other details.
Although there was no sign of infection where the satellite tag
pierced the dorsal fin, “veterinarians are investigating whether
the tag attachment penetration sites may have provided a pathway
for infection,” according to the NOAA statement. “Additional tests
are underway to determine presence of disease agents such as
viruses or bacteria that will provide further details as to the
cause of death.”
When the satellite transmitter was first attached, the
researchers “noted the outline of the ribs were slightly visible on
several members of L pod, including L95, but observed nothing
suggesting a change in health status.”
The satellite tracked L-95 for three days and then stopped.
Researchers assumed the transmitter had fallen off, but they were
not able to meet up with the whales before the research trip
Expressing extreme sadness, agency officials say they are
concerned that parts of the dart were found imbedded in the
“These tag attachments are designed to fully detach and leave
nothing behind,” says the NOAA statement. “Of 533 deployments, only
1 percent are known to have left part of the dart in the animal
upon detachment, although several of these have been in killer
“The team has halted tagging activities until a full
reassessment of the tag design and deployment is completed to
reduce risk of this happening again.”
Ken Balcomb recalled that he had complained about the tagging
program several years ago as officials were debating whether the
endangered Southern Resident population should become involved. Ken
says he was assured that previous problems had been fixed and that
he should simply document any problems he sees.
“Clearly with L95 still retaining tag hardware in his wound
site, the hardware attachment issues have not been fixed,” Ken says
in his latest statement. “I suggest evaluating the cost efficiency
and data already gathered from sighting reports, photo-ID, and
tagging to determine whether any additional studies of SRKW
distribution are justified.”
The tracking studies have been used the past few years to
document not just the areas where the killer whales travel but also
areas where they linger and forage for food.
NOAA’s explanation of the tagging program, its benefits and
potential changes to the “critical habitat” protections for the
killer whales are outlined in a
question-and-answer format, including specifics about the death
of Nigel, L-95.
Meanwhile, a young female orca, estimated to be two weeks old,
has been identified as a Southern Resident by DFO scientists. Cause
of death was not determined, but it was likely that the animal died
from birth complications, officials said. The calf was found March
23 near Sooke, B.C.
Analysis of blood and tissue samples are expected in three to
four weeks for both the calf and L-95, according to the
An open letter from me to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center
for Whale Research, on the 40th anniversary of the research
Congratulations on 40 years of superb research regarding the
killer whales of the Salish Sea and their relationships to all
living things. Your unprecedented work has helped us all understand
the behavior of these orcas and how quickly their population can
decline — and sometimes grow. I admire your steadfast efforts to
find answers to the mysteries of these whales and to push for
efforts to protect them.
On a personal note, your willingness to take time to explain
your findings to me as a news reporter will always be appreciated.
The same goes for Dave Ellifrit and all your associates through the
I was fascinated with the blog entry posted on Friday, which
showed the log book you began compiling during your encounters with
killer whales on April 8, 1976 — the very first time you described
these animals after forming the organization. The distant words on
the page demonstrate how much you — and the rest of us — have
learned, and it demonstrates that good research is a matter of
step-by-step observations. I hope everyone gets the chance to read
these pages, and I look forward to the next installment in the
Thank you for your dedication, and I look forward to many
more years of reports from you and your associates at the Center
for Whale Research.
With highest regards, Chris.
The Orca Survey Project began on April 1, 1976, under a contract
with the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct a six-month
survey to figure out how many killer whales lived in Puget Sound.
Ken was able to use an identification technique developed by
Canadian biologist Mike Bigg. By identifying individual orcas,
researchers came to understand each of their families, their lives
and even their unique behaviors — which I would call
“personalities” for want of a better term.
Speaking of personality, if I’m not reading too much between the
lines, I see Ken’s scientific perspective mixed with his fondness
for the animals in the
first log entry about mooring the boat and staying the night in
“In the evening, we went for a hike into town for dinner and a
few beers with the local folks at the Town Tavern. We spread the
word and handout of the ‘study’ to all who would receive them. Most
folks were takers, but a few were concerned as to which side we
were on. People imagine sides of the killer whale controversy —
mostly leave them alone, or catch them to show to the folks from
Missouri. Our description of a killer whale study by photo
technique seemed to sit well with all ‘sides,’ though there were a
few skeptics, I’m sure.”
I actually looked over many of these pages from Ken’s log a
number of years ago, but for some reason they take on new meaning
now as we look back over 40 years of research and realize how far
we’ve come in understanding these killer whales — not forgetting
how much more we have to learn.
log book entry appears to be a description of the first direct
encounter Ken experienced from a boat at the beginning of his study
on April 8, 1976, as he came upon K and L pods off Dungeness Spit
“We cruised toward the large group of whales, first at 2300 RPM
and then reducing to about 2000 RPM as we approached to within ½
mile of the whales. It was very apparent that the whales were
initially concerned with avoiding us. They dove and came up several
minutes later a good long distance astern of us, toward Port
Angeles. We turned and proceeded toward the large group again and,
at a distance of about 400 yards, they porpoised briefly and dove
again for several minutes.
“Both we and the whales did not behave calmly for the first hour
of the encounter. Rain was spoiling our opportunities for
photographs, getting our cameras all wet and dampening our spirits.
Even at slow speed and with patience, we did not closely approach
the group of 25 whales, so we started toward a smaller group a
little farther offshore.
“By 10:05, things seemed to have calmed down considerably. By
maintaining 1050 RPM and taking slow approaches, we were tolerated
by one male in company with a female and a calf about 11 ½ feet.
The main group of 25 whales calmed down immediately and resumed a
leisurely dive interval of about one minute to one min. 50 seconds
down, still proceeding westerly.”
Remember that this was only months after the final capture of
killer whales in Puget Sound. (See
account from Erich Hoyt for PBS Frontline.) What were the
intentions of this boat approaching them? In time, these whales
came to realize that Ken and his crew would do them no harm.
If only they could know how much human attitudes around the
world have changed over the past 40+ years.
Capt. Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society,
has condemned the Humane Society of the U.S. for forming an
alliance with SeaWorld, saying SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby “has found
his Judas,” and HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle “single-handedly put the
brakes on the movement inspired by Blackfish.” Read the full
Sea Shepherd’s website.
SeaWorld and the Humane Society of the U.S. are urging President
Obama to take a stronger stand against whaling by the Japanese
harpoon fleet, which recently returned to Japan with 333 dead minke
whales, all killed in the Antarctic.
“The United States is well-positioned to lead a comprehensive
effort to persuade Japan to abandon commercial whaling as an
anachronism that is imprudent, unnecessary for food security, cruel
and economically unsound,” states the
letter to Obama (PDF 464 kb), signed by Joel Manby, president
and CEO of SeaWorld, and Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of
Combining forces to oppose commercial hunting of marine mammals
throughout the world is one element of a negotiated agreement
between SeaWorld and HSUS. Of course, the most notable parts of
that agreement specified that SeaWorld would discontinue its
breeding program for killer whales and halt all theatrical
Water Ways, March 17.
This year’s whale hunt in the Antarctic was endorsed by the
Japanese government, which considers dead whales to be lethal
samples of tissue collected during an annual “research” trip, which
ultimately puts whale meat on the commercial market.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 2014 that the whale
hunt, as carried out at that time, failed to meet scientific
standards. As a result, the Japanese government took a year off
from whaling, altered its plan and continued the whale hunt at the
end of last year going into this year. This time, Japanese
officials declared that they would no longer be subject to
international law on this issue, so a new lawsuit would be
Meanwhile, an expert panel of the International Whaling
Commission took a look at the new “research” plan and concluded
that Japan still had not shown how killing whales conforms to the
requirements of research, given options for nonlethal research. See
of the Expert Panel …”
Last week’s report by the Japanese Institute of Cetacean
Research said the whalers were able to obtain all 333 minke whales
proposed in the plan. It was the first time in seven years that the
full sampling was completed, because Sea Shepherd Conservation
Society was not there to interfere, according to the report on the New
Scientific Whale Research Program in the Antarctic Ocean.
Of the 333 whales, males numbered 103 and females 230. Of the
females, 76 percent were sexually mature, and 90 percent of the
mature females were pregnant, suggesting a healthy population of
minke whales, according to the report.
The letter from Manby and Pacelle acknowledged that the U.S.
government had joined with 30 nations in December to write a letter
voicing concerns about Japan’s decision to resume whaling. But the
Manby-Pacelle letter also complains that the U.S. has given up its
leadership role on the issue, ceding to New Zealand and Australia
for the legal battles.
“In the United Kingdom, in Latin America, and elsewhere, whale
welfare is high on the diplomatic agenda with Japan and other
whaling nations,” the letter states. “We believe that it is time
for the United States to re-assert itself as a champion for whales,
and to take a stronger hand in pressing Japan to relinquish
Among the steps that should be considered, according to the
The U.S. delegation to the International Whaling Commission
should be empowered to threaten Japan with sanctions, though
details were not specified in the letter.
The U.S. government should include provisions against whaling
in international trade agreements.
Japan’s potential assets should be surveyed as a prelude to
invoking the Pelly Amendment to the Fisherman’s Protective Act of
1967. The amendment allows a ban on imports of fishing products
from a country that violates international fishery conservation
rules — including those of the IWC.
Meanwhile, the successful Japanese whale hunt has motivated
environmental groups throughout the world to call on their national
governments to confront Japan directly, at least in diplomatic
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has confronted the
Japanese whaling ships on the high seas in years past, is
rethinking its plans for the future, according to Capt. Peter
Hammarstedt, chairman of Sea Shepherd Australia’s Board of
“Sea Shepherd was handicapped by the new ICR strategy of
expanding their area of operations and reducing their quota,
meaning that the time to locate them within the expanded zone made
intervention extremely difficult with the ships that Sea Shepherd
is able to deploy,” Hammarstedt said in a
This past season was an opportunity for world governments to
find the resolve to uphold international conservation law, he said.
The Australian and New Zealand governments could have sent patrols
to protect declared sanctuaries, but they failed to do so, “and
this has served to illustrate that the only thing that has proven
effective against the illegal Japanese whaling fleet has been the
interventions by Sea Shepherd,” he added.
Jeff Hansen, Sea Shepherd Australia’s managing director, said
the Australian and New Zealand governments have offered false
“The majority of Australians wanted the Australian government to
send a vessel to oppose the slaughter,” Hansen said. “They did not.
Sea Shepherd requested that the Australian government release the
location of the whalers. They refused. Instead, the governments
responsible for protecting these magnificent creatures stood by, in
the complete knowledge that both federal and international crimes
were taking place. This empty response from authorities in the wake
of the ICJ ruling is a disgrace.”
Hammarstedt hinted that Sea Shepherd might be back later this
year when the Japanese ships take off for another season of
“Sea Shepherd will soon have a fast long-range ship,” he said.
“More importantly, Sea Shepherd has something that the Australian
and New Zealand governments lack — and that is the courage, the
passion and the resolve to uphold the law.”
Dave Ellifrit and Deborah Giles provide a detailed update of
their encounter with J pod on Thursday. All the whales in the pod
were accounted for except for the newest calf. Encounter #14, Feb.
The youngest orca among the Southern Residents was missing when
J pod returned to Puget Sound this week. Ken Balcomb of the Center
for Whale Research delivered the sad news of the calf’s
“After an extended encounter with all members of J pod on Feb.
25, 2016, Center for Whale Research reluctantly announces that the
newest member, designated J55, is missing and presumed dead,” Ken
stated in a news release
The calf was first reported Jan. 18 in Puget Sound by NOAA
researchers, including Brad Hanson, who reported the newborn
swimming with J-14, a 42-year-old female named Samish, and her
daughter, J-37, a 15-year-old female named Hy’Shqa (pronounced
Along with the birth, Brad announced the death of a newborn,
apparently born to 20-year-old J-31, named Tsuchi, who was pushing
around her deceased calf. See
Water Ways, Jan. 19.
The mother of J-55 was never identified. It could have been
Samish or Hy’Shqa. Ken says it is even possible that the mother was
12-year-old J-40, named “Suttles,” the youngest offspring of Samish
who is just entering the reproductive age.
J-55 could have been missing as early as Jan. 19 — the day after
the calf was first seen. Researcher Mark Malleson encountered some
members of J pod in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where he
photographed 14 whales, including Samish’s family. He did not see
J-55, but the whales were widely dispersed, he said.
The Center for Whale Research operates under a policy to delay
the announcement of a possible death among the Southern Residents
until a thorough survey of the entire pod can be conducted, noted
Deborah Giles, the center’s research director. That survey was
carried out on Thursday, when J pod returned to Puget Sound.
“Although the loss of any calf is a blow to the Southern
Resident killer whales and a setback to the struggling population,
it is not entirely surprising that one of the ‘baby boom’ calves
did not survive its first few months,” Giles said in the news
release. “As many as 50 percent of newborn calves do not survive
their first year.
“Nevertheless,” she added, “the loss of this calf underscores
the need to recover the whales’ primary prey base – Chinook salmon
– if the Southern Resident population of whales is to survive and
The “baby boom” refers to nine calves being born in just over a
year, something not seen for nearly 40 years. All those births have
infused new hope into the future of the orca population, which is
listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
The death of J-55 brings the total number of Southern Residents
to 84 — not including Lolita, who is living in Miami
Meanwhile, killer whale researchers in the NOAA research vessel
Bell M. Shimada continue to follow members of K and L pods off the
Washington Coast. Brad Hanson, who is leading the research team,
said he has not identified all the whales traveling together, but
they include various family groups in both pods.
The ship located the whales on Tuesday near LaPush and followed
them south to the entrance of Quinault Canyon offshore of the
Water Ways, Wednesday.)
On Monday afternoon, the day before the Shimada arrived, Mark
Malleson reported an encounter with members of L pod in the Strait
of Juan de Fuca. He was able to spot the whales near the town of
Jordan River, across the strait from Sekiu.
“The first whales observed were L72 and L105 westbound,” Mark
wrote in a report to the Center
for Whale Research. “The rest were spread to the south and were
doing long dives. They started to feed and group up at 1730 (5:30
p.m.). We left them at 1800 northwest of Clallam Bay, as they were
still heading west towards Cape Flattery (the northwest point of
the Olympic Peninsula).”
After the Shimada met them Tuesday morning near LaPush to the
south, the whales continued south and spent most of the day
Wednesday in the Grays Harbor area, Brad reported.
“The whales were extremely spread out such that we lost contact
with them for a couple of hours due to reduced visibility and no
vocalizing,” the researchers reported in a Facebook
post. “By the afternoon, we relocated them and were able to
stay with them all night.
“This morning (Thursday) they were off the entrance to the
Columbia River and after traveling a few miles south, they turned
north and were just north of the shipping channel entering the
Columbia River by this evening. Weather conditions in the afternoon
were spectacular and we were able to conduct small boat operations
with the whales.”
In an email, Brad told me that the researchers have observed
“surface activity” that would suggest foraging for salmon, and they
have collected some fecal samples to identify what fish they were
eating. The weather turned from “spectacular” on Thursday to “bad
but not horrible” yesterday, but Brad was expecting some fierce
winds and waves tomorrow.
Erich Hoyt, who has spent most of his life studying whales,
returns to Puget Sound in October for talks in Olympia, Tacoma and
I enjoyed interviewing Erich last year before he visited this
Water Ways, May 3, 2014.) We talked about the ongoing capture
of killer whales in Russia, where government officials refuse to
learn a lesson from the Northwest about breaking up killer whale
families and disrupting their social order.
“Much of the rest of the world has moved on to think about a
world beyond keeping whales and dolphins captive,” Erich wrote in a
blog entry. “Not Russia. Not now. It’s all guns blazing to make
all the same mistakes made years before in other countries.
“Of course, it’s not just Russian aquarium owners and captors,”
he continued. “China, too, is about to open its first performing
killer whale show, and Japan aquariums continue to go their own
way. There are people opposed to captivity in Russia, China and
Japan, but they are not in the majority.”
Erich’s talk in Olympia on Oct. 10 is titled, “Adventures with
orcas in the North Pacific.” He will speak again on the topic the
next day in Tacoma. On Oct. 13, he goes to West Seattle to speak on
“Ants, orcas and creatures of the deep.” For details and tickets,
go to Brown Paper
The three talks are produced by The Whale Trail, an
environmental group, in partnership with local sponsoring
organizations. Donna Sandstrom, founder and director of The Whale
Trail, said Erich comes to Puget Sound after the births of five new
orcas in J, K and L pods. This provides five more reasons to
restore the Puget Sound killer whale population, she said.
“The collaborative nature of the Orca Tour demonstrates our shared
commitment to restore salmon, reduce toxins and create quieter
seas,” Sandstrom said.
Among other things, The
Whale Trail is known for promoting shoreside viewing of whales
to reduce interference with their activities. The group maintains a
map of the best places to watch whales from shore.
With the approval of Kitsap County, the organization has erected
a new sign at Point No Point Lighthouse Park near Hansville, a good
spot to watch all kinds of wildlife. The sign offers specific
information about Point No Point as a viewing site and provides
tips for identifying marine mammals.
UPDATE, Oct. 2, 2015
The Navy has released its
final environmental impact statement on Northwest testing and
training operations. The document does not consider an option for
avoiding “biologically significant areas” when using sonar or
explosives, as in the legal settlement for operations in California
and Hawaii. It is yet to be seen whether National Marine Fisheries
Service will add new restrictions when issuing permits for
incidental “take” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Here is
news release (PDF 548 kb).
A legal agreement approved this week to limit the Navy’s use of
sonar and explosives in “biologically important areas” of Southern
California and Hawaii represents a “sea change” in the Navy’s
protection of marine mammals, says Michael Jasny of the Natural
Resources Defense Council.
Encouraged by the cooperative effort to reach an out-of-court
settlement with the Navy, Michael said the deal could have
implications for future Navy activities in the Northwest and
throughout the country.
The NRDC and seven other environmental groups filed suit over
Navy plans to train with sonar and explosives in Southern
California and Hawaii with no specific geographic limitations. The
environmental groups argued that one good way to reduce injury and
death to marine mammals is to avoid areas where large numbers of
whales and dolphins congregate to feed, socialize and
A federal judge ruled in favor of the environmental groups,
saying “it makes no sense” for the Navy to insist that its training
exercises require the use every square mile of ocean. The ruling
drew the Navy into settlement negotiations.
“This settlement resulted from a constructive good-faith effort
on all sides,” Michael Jasny told me by phone. “That, in itself,
represents a real change in the way the Navy has interacted with
the conservation community. It took litigation to create this
window of opportunity to advance policy to be consistent with
Michael said research by the Navy and other groups has shown how
marine mammals are killed and injured by Navy sonar and explosives.
As the science has evolved, so have the tools to reduce impacts —
such as maps showing where marine mammals hang out, maps that can
help the Navy reduce its harm to many species.
Michael said it has been shameful to watch the National Marine
Fisheries Service — the agency charged with protecting marine
mammals — stand by and issue permits that allow the Navy to do
whatever it wants. Now, he added, the negotiations between the Navy
and environmental groups provide a blueprint for how NMFS can
better live up to its mission of protecting marine mammals.
“Frankly, after years of fighting about these issues, we are
seeing folks on both sides very willing to find solutions,” Michael
said. “Folks on the Navy side have generally been willing to come
to the table. The Navy would not have entered into this agreement
if it believed these measures prevented it from achieving their
military readiness objective.”
For its part, the Navy tends to downplay the significance of
this week’s settlement.
“After a federal court ruled in favor of plaintiffs’ claims, the
Navy faced the real possibility that the court would stop
critically important training and testing,” said Lt. Cmdr. Matt
Knight, spokesman for the Pacific Fleet. “Instead, NMFS and the
Navy negotiated in good faith with the plaintiffs over five months
to reach this agreement.”
In a written statement, Knight said the Navy’s existing
protective measures are “significant” and the agreement increases
restrictions in select areas. Those restrictions will remain in
place until the current permit expires on Dec. 24, 2018.
“It is essential that sailors have realistic training at sea
that fully prepares them to prevail when and where necessary with
equipment that has been thoroughly tested,” Knight said in the
statement. “This settlement agreement preserves critically
important testing and training.”
In an email, I asked the Navy spokesman how the agreement might
translate into special protections in other areas, particularly the
Northwest where we know that Navy ships cross paths with many
different kinds of whales and dolphins. His answer was somewhat
“The Navy continues to work with NMFS to develop necessary and
appropriate measures to protect marine mammals,” he wrote back.
“The Navy’s current protective measures afford significant
protections to marine mammals. That said, the Navy will not
prejudge what measures will be appropriate to address future
The Navy is about to complete an environmental impact statement
that outlines the effects of its testing and training operations in
Puget Sound and along the Washington Coast. In comments on the
draft EIS and proposed permit, environmental groups again called
attention to the need to restrict operations in places where large
numbers of marine mammals can be found. For example, one letter
signed by 18 conservation groups addresses the operational details
in the Northwest Training and Testing Range:
“Despite the vast geographic extent of the Northwest Training
and Testing Study Area, the Navy and NMFS have neither proposed nor
adequately considered mitigation to reduce activities in
biologically important marine mammal habitat. Virtually all of the
mitigation that the Navy and NMFS have proposed for acoustic
impacts boils down to a small safety zone around the sonar vessel
or impulsive source, maintained primarily with visual monitoring by
onboard lookouts, with aid from non-dedicated aircraft (when in the
vicinity) and passive monitoring (through vessels’ generic sonar
“The NMFS mitigation scheme disregards the best available
science on the ineffectiveness of visual monitoring to prevent
impacts on marine mammals. Indeed, the species perhaps most
vulnerable to sonar-related injuries, beaked whales, are among the
most difficult to detect because of their small size and diving
behavior. It has been estimated that in anything stronger than a
light breeze, only one in fifty beaked whales surfacing in the
direct track line of a ship would be sighted. As the distance
approaches 1 kilometer, that number drops to zero. The agency’s
reliance on visual observation as the mainstay of its mitigation
plan is therefore profoundly insufficient and misplaced.”
Even before this week’s out-of-court settlement, environmental
groups were urging the Navy and NMFS to delay completion of the EIS
until they fairly evaluate new studies about the effects of sonar,
explosives and sound on marine mammals. Measures to protect whales
and other animals should include restrictions within biologically
important areas, they say.
This week’s out-of-court settlement included limitations on the
use of sonar and explosives in the BIAs of Southern California and
Hawaii. For details, check out the
signed order itself (PDF 1.5 mb) with associated maps,
or read the summary in news releases by
Earthjustice. Not all BIAs that have been identified are
getting special protection under the agreement.
Biologically important areas for whales, dolphins and porpoises
include places used for reproduction, feeding and migration, along
with limited areas occupied by small populations of residents. For
a list of identified BIAs, go to NOAA’s Cetacean
and Sound Mapping website. For additional details, see NOAA’s
release on the subject.
Michael Jasny said he is encouraged with the Navy’s
acknowledgement that it can adequately conduct testing and training
exercises while abiding by restrictions in specified geographic
areas. He hopes the Navy uses the same logic to protect marine
mammals on the East Coast, including Virginia where seismic
exploration increases the risk; portions of the Gulf of Mexico; the
Gulf of Alaska; the Mariana Islands; and, of course, the Pacific
Zak Smith, an NRDC attorney involved with Northwest sonar
issues, said the settlement in California and Hawaii should
encourage the National Marine Fisheries Service to apply the same
mitigation to testing and training to waters in Washington, Oregon,
California and Alaska.
“I would hope when they come out with a final rule that the
Fisheries Service would have engaged with the kind of management
approach that we did in the settlement,” he said. “The Fisheries
Service and the Navy should sit down and review biologically
significant areas against the Navy’s training and testing
Clearly, if you read through the comments, environmental groups
are dismayed about the Navy’s potential harm to marine mammals and
its failure to address the problem:
“The sonar and munitions training contemplated in the Navy’s
NWTT Draft Environmental Impact Statement is extensive and details
extraordinary harm to the Pacific Northwest’s marine resources….
Even using the Navy and NMFS’s analysis, which substantially
understates the potential effects, the activities would cause
nearly 250,000 biologically significant impacts on marine mammals
along the Washington, Oregon, Northern California, and Southern
Alaska coasts each year – more than 1.2 million takes during the
5-year life of a Marine Mammal Protection Act incidental take
I’m not sure it is necessary for me to point out that without
significant changes to the Navy’s current plans, we are likely to
see another lawsuit over routine testing and training
Researchers have listed more than 100 “biologically important
areas” for whales and dolphins living in U.S. waters, all reported
in a special issue of the journal
Aquatic Mammals (PDF 22.9 mb).
The BIAs may provide useful information, but they are not marine
protected areas, and they have no direct regulatory effect, said
Sofie Van Parijs, a researcher at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries
Science Center and guest editor of the special report.
“They represent the best available information about the times
and areas in which species are likely to be engaged in biologically
important activities,” Van Parijs said in a news
release. “We encourage anyone planning an activity in the ocean
to look at this information and take it into consideration to
understand and reduce adverse impacts on marine species.”
Project managers can use information in the report for offshore
energy development, military testing and training, shipping,
fishing, tourism, and coastal construction. Underwater noise,
generated by most human activities in or on the water, can affect
large areas of whale territory.
Separate articles were written about seven regions of the
country, with three of them in Alaskan waters. The lead author for
West Coast regional report (PDF 4.5 mb) is John Calambokidis of
Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia.
The West Coast report identified 29 BIAs covering areas
important for blue whales, gray whales, humpback whales and harbor
porpoises in Washington, Oregon and California. BIAs for blue
whales and humpback whales are “based on high concentration areas
of feeding animals observed from small boat surveys, ship surveys
and opportunistic sources,” the report says.
BIAs for gray whales focus on their migratory corridor from
Mexico to Alaska, along with primary feeding areas for a small
resident population known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group, or
PCFG. This group, believed to be genetically distinct from the
migratory whales, spend most of their time between Northern
California and Canada’s Vancouver Island.
The BIAs for gray whales in Washington are around the northwest
tip of Washington, including Neah Bay; in Saratoga Passage east of
Whidbey Island; and around Grays Harbor on the coast.
The PCFG could be a key factor in determining whether the Makah
Tribe of Neah Bay is granted a permit to hunt for gray whales in
Washington state waters and limiting potential limits on any hunts
approved. It was interesting that the BIA report came out at almost
the same time as an environmental impact statement on the Makah
The impact statement evaluates alternatives for whaling,
including a tribal proposal to hunt up to five whales a year but no
more than 24 whales in six years. Various alternatives include
plans to limit hunting seasons to reduce the risk of killing a
whale from the Pacific Coast Feeding Group and to cease hunting if
a quota of these whales is reached.
“This is the first step in a public process of considering this
request that could eventually lead to authorization for the tribe
to hunt gray whales,” said Donna Darm, NOAA’s associate deputy
regional administrator, in a
press release. “This is the public’s opportunity to look at the
alternatives we’ve developed, and let us know if we have fully and
completely analyzed the impacts.”
For details on this issue, including the EIS and instructions
for commenting on the document, check out NOAA’s website on the
Makah Whale Hunt.
Returning to the study of biologically important areas, no BIAs
were established for endangered fin whales, because of
discrepancies between sightings and expected feeding areas and
uncertainty about their population structure.
The BIA assessment did not cover minke whales, killer whales,
beaked whales and sperm whales but the authors recommend that
future work cover those animals as well as looking into special
breeding areas for all the whales.
A future BIA for killer whales could have some connection to an
ongoing analysis by NOAA, which recently announced that it needs
more information about Southern Resident killer whales before
expanding their critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act.
Water Ways from Feb. 24.
In the overall report, BIAs can be established if they have any
of the following characteristics:
Reproductive areas – Areas and times within
which a particular species selectively mates, gives birth or is
found with neonates or calves,
Feeding areas – Areas and times within which
aggregations of a particular species preferentially feed. These
either may be persistent in space and time or associated with
ephemeral features that are less predictable but are located within
a larger area that can be delineated,
Migratory corridors – Areas and times within
which a substantial portion of a species is known to migrate; the
corridor is spatially restricted.
Small and resident population – Areas and
times within which small and resident populations occupy a limited
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.
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
“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
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
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
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
“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.