Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags

Early in December, I wrote about a plan to attach satellite transmitters to selected Puget Sound killer whales by shooting darts into their dorsal fins. At the time, lots of people offered questions and concerns, but few had taken a strong position. See my story in the Kitsap Sun of Dec. 5.

Since then, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and others involved in research, education and advocacy have come out against the tagging program as currently proposed. On the other hand, several other researchers are encouraging the federal government to push the tagging program forward.

After 140 days, marks are apparent where barbs of satellite tag entered the dorsal fin of the transient killer whale known as T-30.
Click to enlarge

As Ken explained it to me, his bottom line is that the information gathered by tracking the whales by satellite may not be worth the injury caused by shooting barbed darts into the whales’ fins. He argues that more follow-up investigation is needed into the short- and long-term effects of the darts, which eventually work their way out.

Ken was actually the first to apply for a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct the tagging program with barbed darts. While not wishing to criticize his fellow researchers, Balcomb said he had been overly assured that the risk of injury was exceedingly small.

“I was shown pictures of almost-healed wounds,” Ken told me. “I was given assurance that there was not an issue. I didn’t even think about these titanium leaves coming out and leaving a hole that size (in the fin).”

The current design of the dart used to attach satellite transmitters to killer whales.

The turning point was when Ken saw a photo of a transient killer whale, T-30, who had carried one of the satellite tags. (See the picture, above right.) He said the long-term scarring was “ugly and unacceptable to me personally,” and he believed that many whale supporters also would object.

Ken turned down the approved tagging permit — in part because it was granted as an amendment to his existing permit for photographing and identifying orcas as part of his ongoing census. If unacceptable injury were to occur to the subject whales, he said, his entire permit could be suspended. That, in turn, would prevent him from continuing the identification work he has done for more than 30 years.

Ken elaborated in a Dec. 18 letter written to the National Marine Fisheries Service:

“I have subsequently seen other very serious tag wound injuries and dangerous attachments on other killer whales, and I remain concerned that tag attachment development and deployment have not yet proceeded far enough along to be considered humane, safe or publicly acceptable for SRKW (Southern Resident Killer Whale) use.

“I have repeatedly discussed my concerns with the NMFS applicant (Brad Hanson) and other colleagues and have seen little progress toward minimizing or eliminating these types of potential injury and tag delivery stressors in the development protocol…

“I do not belittle the truly amazing accomplishments made so far by the tag developers, but I suggest that development should include minimizing trauma to the animals. They are not our lab rats.”

Balcomb said it appears that the goal of the satellite tagging program is to increase the useful life of the tag itself, which includes going to larger barbs, rather than trying to minimize tissue damage. Even so, the use of larger barbs has added little to the tracking time, he said. Perhaps more experimentation should be conducted with smaller barbs.

Ken questions how much can be learned by satellite tags alone, as he writes:

“Yes, we might find some frequented areas that the tagged whales visited simply with tag data. But without a followup, we would not know if the ephemeral track was just the tagged whale(s), a subgroup, a matriline or a pod, and we would know nothing about what is going on with the animals at the time.”

While follow-up in a boat may be desirable, adverse winter weather in the ocean and difficulties in scheduling federal research vessels are still big questions, Ken told me. A less-invasive approach would be to post lookouts on high bluffs along the coast to alert researchers when killer whales passed by, as is done with gray whales.

Brad Hanson, a federal biologist who applied for the permit, said the kind of “unbiased” information provided with satellite tagging has proven invaluable with other whale species as well as transient killer whales. Other tracking methods — including personal observations and listening buoys — may be valuable, he said, but they can miss subtle or surprising movements of the animals.

“We have spent a lot of time and energy looking at this, and we think we have done a very thorough job looking at the impacts,” Brad told me. “None of them are serious enough in relation to survivorship or things that might have an adverse impact on the population…. The type of tissue impacts we see are well within the range of what occurs naturally.”

Balcomb acknowledges that the tag wounds are not permanent in most cases and that killer whales are frequently bitten or scratched by fellow orcas. But he questions whether it is the proper role of researchers to increase the number of wounds, given that the population is listed as “endangered.”

Other groups commenting on the proposed tagging permit (with thanks to Orca Network for compiling these comments):

The North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association (PDF 196 kb) raised several questions, which Brad Hanson (PDG 100 kb) answered in a lengthy letter of his own.

Orca Network (PDF 128 kb):

“Examination of the short and long term consequences of tag attachment, as described in the above comment letters, appear to be potentially serious despite the observations of only slight flinching at the time the tag is attached. Although pain and discomfort are often highly variable and difficult to assess or predict even in ourselves, the insertion of barbed points extending 2.5” into tissue would almost certainly result in some discomfort at minimum, and possibly some considerable level of pain from the time the tag is attached until the tag drops off and the wound completely heals, especially if the wound becomes infected as the tissue around the tag decomposes and the tag exits the wound. If significant blood vessels are affected, or if the immune systems of the tagged animals are compromised by persistent toxicity, it seems plausible that the animals could suffer systemic infections or illnesses.”

Pacific Scientific Research Group (PDF 28 kb), which was created to advise government officials about marine mammal issues, offers a reminder that the group has repeatedly called for better data, including the use of satellite tags:

“It now appears that NMFS is now going through the permit process to make long-overdue progress on the Pacific SRG’s recommendation to initiate satellite tagging of Southern Resident killer whales. As the Pacific SRG has noted in its recommendations, there is a both need and urgency to conduct these studies, and the Pacific SRG supports this research.”

Pacific Whale Watch Association (PDF 12 kb):

“To be clear, no one would like to know where the SRKW go in the winter more than our members. However, since the methods used to tag are still too invasive and since whatever findings would not directly affect their survival, we respectfully object to attaching satellite transmitters in this manner.”

Marine Education and Research Society (PDF 524 kb)

“We have found that while satellite tagging may be largely beneficial to the conservation and management of some cetacean populations, this method is not ideal for use on southern resident, northern resident and transient killer whales. This is for 5 reasons …”

The Whale Museum (PDF 1.1 mb):

“Much is known about where the Southern Resident orcas go, but this knowledge has played no apparent role in the recent permitting by NOAA of Naval warfare training in exactly the near-shore areas of Washington, Oregon and California that the orcas are known to frequent.

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent by NOAA on coastal surveys and ship surveys and these found SRKWs at the mouths of salmon rivers in Washington, Oregon and California. More thousands of dollars were spent using passive acoustic surveys at the heads Juan de Fuca, Nitnat and Quinault undersea canyons which also detected orca vocalizations.

“However, these direct observations of orcas in the shallow waters of the west coast apparently played no role in NOAA’s granting a permit to the Navy for their desired activities. Therefore we cannot see a compelling need to use an invasive technique to show similar data trends when the existing data observations were not used, or were not adequate, to take conservation measures that would have prevented potential impact to whales in areas and times of the year when they have been demonstrated to use the area.

“We recommend that the permit process for any invasive research on this endangered population be revised to include public notification, an extended comment period and public hearings in King County and San Juan County. There should be time for this because as of the date of this letter, December 2010, there is nearly a year before any winter habitat studies can commence…

“With public hearings on San Juan Island and in Seattle, the public may better understand what has been learned from previous tagging studies, what considerations go into selecting whales for tagging… and how the findings from the proposed research would contribute to the conservation and recovery of this population.”

21 thoughts on “Orca researchers divided over use of satellite tags

  1. I find this disturbing. Even if the tags cause no more damage than a naturally caused wound, such damage, along with any associated risk, is cumulative. This is a extremely small and unique population of long-lived, endangered animals and each member is critically important to its long-term persistence. Deliberately wounding them is unacceptable. The data do not appear necessary for any imminently pending action and can be gained using less invasive means. The humane aspect is also very disturbing. I’m very surprised that this study is even being considered.

    BlueLight, they are just as much “cash cows” for government researchers as well. Your tax dollars pay for quite a bit of research that is of questionable value.

  2. “BlueLight, they are just as much “cash cows” for government researchers as well. Your tax dollars pay for quite a bit of research that is of questionable value.”

    Exactly, Angela. If so much research is of “questionable value” (and I agree) then we ought to make damn sure we don’t have multiple agencies and “non-profits” (yeah, right) getting paid to conduct it.

  3. “… persistent toxicity, it seems plausible that the animals could suffer systemic infections or illnesses.”

    Pacific Scientific Research Group (PDF 28 kb), which was created to advise government officials about marine mammal issues, offers a reminder that the group has repeatedly called for better data, including the use of satellite tags:..”

    Now here is a government created entity crying out to shoot whales for ‘research’. How – exactly – is adding more misery, risking the very creatures we’re sworn to protect helpful to them?

    It seems to me humans are the whales worst enemy…or so it has proven to date. Those huge, intelligent, trusting creatures so totally at the mercy of the merciless human (humane NOT) aspect of another government funded outrage…. the only question to me: Can they survive us?

    Sharon O’Hara

  4. Maybe it goes without saying, but I’d like to point out that nobody is interested in conducting research that has no value. But without research, we would have no idea whether we were poisoning ourselves with pollution. We would have no idea how to keep hundreds of species from going extinct. In fact, we would not even know which animals are in need of help, which ones are already gone and whether our efforts to protect the survivors are doing any good.

  5. What does the “research” say about our efforts to protect “surviving” salmon, Chris? Are we doing any good?

    And if it goes without saying that nobody is interested in conducting research that has no value it, also, goes without saying that nobody is advocating for NO research. Nice attempt to cast the case for efficiency and accountability as extreme, though.

  6. BlueLight, I might appreciate your comments more if you really talked about “efficiency and accountability” among research organizations. But it seems you would rather throw out snide remarks about well-respected groups, as if this somehow contributed to the discussion.

    As for your question about salmon, the simple answer is: Yes, research shows that our efforts are helping salmon. I’ve written about this on many occasions. Specifically, I would point you to a seven-part series on Hood Canal summer chum, beginning with “An Upstream Battle: Summer Chum Pulled Back from Brink of Extinction.”

  7. Chris, not even you could believe in the need for research more than I do. I realize we sometimes we have hard lines to cross for the future greater good – But not this.

    In this case, the government ya hews have already demonstrated they are out there shooting whales with barbed darts and hoping for the best. With all these scientific minds, you would think they could think up ways to research without damaging the vulnerable creatures they claim to want to help.

    I am becoming sickened with the growing knowledge that government agencies are coming into being without regard that they seem to duplicate what volunteer groups are already doing – better.

    Thanks for bringing this to light… Sharon

  8. I asked you to seek efficiency and accountability from the Puget Sound Partnership. You didn’t seem to “appreciate” that.

  9. And, for the sake of accuracy(!), summer chum cannot go “extinct” as they are not a species but a population. They may be extirpated, in which case they can be restored. Extinction is final.

    The proper headline, therefore, should read: Upstream Battle: Summer Chum Pulled Back From the Brink of Extirpation (but I know that doesn’t have quite the “ring”).

  10. Tough one. I read Ken’s letter, and he raises quite a few excellent questions. Why are we so committed to this type of tracking when we have a large database of long-term data on this species? Where is the coordination between non-profits, state, federal and B.C. on seasonal tracking efforts in order to master logistics? Exactly where are the data gaps and what are we trying to accomplish – is this a critical habitat study?

    Looking at Brad Hansen’s letter, Mr. Hansen says that…”By
    tagging whales, we essentially have the animals tell us where they go, 24 hours a day, and what areas are most important to them. Elsewhere, satellite tags have been used by other researchers to identify previously unknown habitats of importance for whales, and to assess the degree to which the movements and ranges of the animals overlap with potential anthropogenic threats (e.g. entanglement in fishing gear or ship strikes).”

    Could it be that this information will be used to follow in the footsteps of the East Coast, where mandatory ship speeds and shipping lane closures have helped conserve the Endangered Right Whale? (See http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/shipstrike/ )

    Could it be that this information would help with the Navy’s expansion of training activities off of the entire Washington, Oregon, and California coastlines, by alerting the DoD to “hands off” protected areas before training starts?

    What is even more interesting, is that NOAA’s own conservation plan,which Ken Balcomb contributed to states that tagging methods which are “non-invasive is desirable” (section B.10, p. V-39). Ken also brings up coordination between the state and the DFO. The plan states in B.11 that “A long-term research plan is in
    development and will be coordinated with WDFW and DFO (NMFS 2006b).” Ken has excellent points.

    Plan is available online here:

    It is clear, for example, the Dr. Bruce Mate, of OSU who also works with the same companies that develop these tags (Wildlife Computers from Washington), needs to track blue whales for purposes of wave energy siting off the coast of Oregon and Naval activities. Dr. Mate is working on new tagging technology funded by the Navy for these reasons.

    It is less clear why NOAA needs to invasively tag orcas. I agree with Ken Balcomb’s letter – Detail does not exist about what the data will be used for or why they are collecting it. What activities are triggering the need for NMFS to apply for 300 incidental harassment permits to tag 87 individuals (The Whale Museum Letter)? Ship strikes? Naval actions? Whale watching? Lack of food? Contamination and illness? All of the above/Other? Not even the letter from the Pacific Science Research Group had real details.

    Public meetings would help explain what the actions are that trigger the need for this data, and how the data will be used – especially when the Conservation Plan calls for less invasive means of tagging Orcas.

  11. My guess is that the plan to harpoon the endangered SR orcas would create quite an uproar among the Seattle community, and the timing of the comment period ensured that the least number of people would be aware of it. They are also applying for a permit to double the number of suction cup tags used each year. Sounds to me like the same information can be gained through use of the suction cup tags, although it would take more time (although I am opposed to increasing this harassment as well). I’m surprised they need more live tissue samples too–what is the action that is driving this particular need? What saddens me is that there are incredible scientists out there that have been collecting high-quality data on these whales for decades using less invasive means. It does not sound to me as if there has been much coordination among entities at all. It’s quite the sexy gem of a project for a government researcher. Are there connections here that haven’t yet been unearthed?

    Can you imagine what would happen to a member of the public if they deliberately wounded one of these 87 endangered whales? My guess is that they would be strung up in a public square *after* being tarred and feathered. It bothers me that a “scientist” would even be proposing a study using these methods on this particular population. The risk is simply too great. Some of these whales are believed to be in their 80s; the idea of deliberately causing them such pain is sickening to think about. Let’s remember that these whales have had every opportunity to kill humans on the water for thousands of years and have not done so. Through research we know they are highly intelligent, self-aware social animals like ourselves–one of a handful of species for which we know this to be true. Right now, these animals show great trust towards the humans that study them without harming them, just as they approach whale-watching boats quite closely. This study could change that. These are *the* most highly visible animals in the water, especially considering their need to regularly come to the surface for air, and they are also able to be acoustically detected through their constant calls to each other. In time, this information would be gradually attained through careful observation. What is the hurry to know it in one season?

  12. Where is the Puget Sound Partnership in all this?
    What are they doing?
    Where do they stand?

    I didn’t realize until recently the huge number of nonprofit environmental organizations that exist and a seemingly equal number of government agencies…and wonder how many duplicate each other. Who pays for it?

    I had thought the PSP would be of great public benefit but I can’t see where they’ve done anything other than build new offices for themselves…paid for by us.

    Whales and elephants lead the list of my favorite animal cultures.

    If we shot barbs at elephants how long would it take for them to distrust and hate humans?
    Sharon O’Hara

  13. Sharon, this is a long article, but if you are interested in elephants, it’s very relevant to your last comment and a fascinating read: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/08/magazine/08elephant.html

    This afternoon I asked a friend of mine if they knew the researcher applying for the satellite-tagging permit–Brad Hanson. They confirmed that they did know of him and said he cared very much about the orcas. I reviewed his education, experience, and publications on the web and some of my assumptions were wrong. For example, he has collaborated with Cascadia Research on prior studies. So, despite my misgivings and opposition to this particular study, I have to say that all evidence suggests he is a very good scientist and would be highly qualified to carry out such a study.

    My friend’s main comment about the study was that she didn’t think the spatial resolution of the sat-tag data was good enough for the intended purposes. I will be trying to find out more on that.

  14. Angela, I complete agree with you and want to thank you for sharing. Sharon and I are on the same page with our support for whales. If you or your organization have anything else you care to share, I would love to hear through you on this forum.

  15. I’d like to add some information to this discussion about satellite tagging. First, check out Cascadia’s website to see maps of transient killer whale movements as tracked by satellite. Below the maps is a discussion about the resolution of individual data points and how the locations are calculated.

    Concerns about the humane treatment of killer whales when using dart transmitters is covered by the Assurance for Animal Care and Use (PDF 416 kb). The document is intended to ensure compliance with federal laws and policies related to animals used in research.

    With that, please continue the discussion. I’ll add more information as it becomes available.

  16. I used the word “extinction” in a story that referred to the potential loss of all early-run chum salmon in Hood Canal, otherwise known as Hood Canal summer chum. BlueLight took exception to this term, which I have heard many times in reference to unique populations defined by the Endangered Species Act.

    I e-mailed Tim Tynan, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, and asked him to help me sort out the terminology. Tim has worked extensively with Hood Canal summer chum. His explanation:

    The quibble here, I think, is whether “extinction” is the appropriate term for describing a race of a species that has vanished. In this instance, the species (Oncorhynchus keta) would still persist in the PNW, but a race (or ESU) of the species (i.e., Hood Canal summer chum) was no longer present. In this case, certain folks might argue that “extirpation” was the right term, as only a component of the species vanished, and the species itself was not extinct, perhaps allowing for resurrection of a summer-run timed chum salmon return in the region over time via straying/colonization and adaptation over the (very) long term.

    Under the ESA, NMFS defines “species” as “any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.” (See “Definition of ‘Species’ Under the Endangered Species Act: Application to Pacific Salmon.”)

    For the purposes of the ESA, a salmonid population (or group of populations) is considered “distinct” (and hence a “species”) if it represents an evolutionarily significant unit (ESU) of the biological species. A population must satisfy two criteria to be considered an ESU:
    1) It must be reproductively isolated from other conspecific population units; and
    2) It must represent an important component in the evolutionary legacy of the species.

    Bearing on your question, if Hood Canal summer chum vanished, a unique “species” (ESU) would be gone. In this case, and considering our definition of an ESU as a “species,” your use of the term “extinction” in your blog would be valid.

    In my ESA writings directed at summer chum (biological opinions, the “Summer Chum Salmon Conservation Initiative” sections that I authored), I use the term “extirpated” to refer to known, discrete, individual spawning aggregations that were part of the Hood Canal summer chum salmon ESU, but went to “0” spawners over all consecutive brood years (e.g., Chimacum Creek, Big Beef Creek). I would use the term “extinction” if the ESU vanished, which was close to happening in the early 1990s.

    Noteworthy is that the reintroduced summer chum return to Chimacum Creek alone in 2010 (all natural-origin adult fish that are progeny of naturally spawning hatchery-origin fish produced through a now-terminated hatchery supplementation program) exceeded by almost double the total adult return to the entire ESU in 1991. A real success story.

    I hope this helps. And Happy New Year to you.

  17. That last post illustrates one way that “science” is manipulated to further political agendas. It is scientifically incorrect – no matter how many players you can get to say otherwise, Chris – to say Hood Canal Summer Chum might go “extinct”. This parsing is a strategy that allows “environmental” obstructionists to protest anything based on arbitrary – and non-scientific – assertions that the project under question holds unacceptable threats to “unique” populations. Carried to it’s extreme, one could use the tact to protest your neighbor building a house on his lot: the earthworms on his property represents a unique population and – therefore – should be “protected”.

  18. BlueLight,

    This is not political, and I’m sorry you can’t learn something from one of the leading salmon biologists in our region. I try to keep an open mind and am willing to listen to experts who know more than me. That’s why I asked Tim Tynan to weigh in.

    The reason the Endangered Species Act protects unique populations is because the law is attempting to maintain diversity. If all the chum salmon were to disappear except for a few in some distant river in Alaska, we would have lost something beyond belief. Yet, by your definition, it still wouldn’t be extinction.

    By the same token, Hood Canal summer chum have evolved over thousands of years to take a special niche in the ecosystem. They arrive before the fall rains and lay their eggs in the lower portion of many streams on the Kitsap Peninsula. If you wiped out this population, it would not be replaced by the more abundant fall chum, which are genetically programmed to come in later.

    That’s why federal policymakers, guided by legal and scientific minds, decided to protect significant populations with the goal of reversing the threat of extinction.

  19. It isn’t “my” definition, Chris, it is the scientific definition that existed prior to tampering by agenda-ed bureaucrats (and that still exists outside regulatory maneuverings). Coincidentally, those same bureaucrats – under the ESA – “defined” corporations as “persons” (something their fellow liberals are now taking issue with, albeit on another front). Oh what a tangled web we weave…

    If a federal “expert” tells you that two plus two equals five, you may report it as the truth. Your readers don’t have to believe it as such.

  20. Bluelight, the decisions are based on a lot of genetic research that has been conducted in more recent years. Saving genetic diversity is even more important now than before because of changing climate in the Pacific Northwest. Whether you believe the climate change is anthropogenic in origin or not, it is changing. Reducing genetic diversity makes the entire species more vulnerable to extirpation AND extinction from a variety of mechanisms. There is no reason not to be conservative in these matters wherever possible. Do you believe you know more than all of the best scientists in the country? Because this is anything but political. Genetic diversity is a reality. Whether or not you consider it worth saving is political, but that decision is made by people who are informed of the ramifications both pro and con (including economic impact) and make the decision they feel is best for our country’s natural resources. In the case of salmon stocks, the decisions are informed by the fact that these resources are some of the most valuable in the Pacific Northwest, for both people as well as entire ecosystems, including the trees that use the nutrients brought from the sea by the salmon to the upper portions of watersheds and spread through the forest by the dozens of species that feed on the salmon bodies and carcasses. This has been shown through stable isotope studies for over a decade now. The loss of any run in any stream is not just the loss of one species–it has trophic consequences for the entire ecosystem of a watershed.

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