Mystery of orca’s death only deepens with new info

The unusual death of L-112, a young female orca apparently killed by “blunt force trauma,” continues to fuel discussions about what may have killed her and what should be done about it.

Kenneth Hess, a Navy public affairs officer, posted a comment today on the recent blog entry “Balcomb wants to know if young orca was bombed.” In his comment, Hess repeats that the Navy did not conduct any training with sonar, bombs or explosives in the days preceding L-112’s death. He called it “irresponsible and inaccurate” to blame the Navy for “blowing up” the whale.

Another new development today is an e-mail I received from Lt. Diane Larose of the Canadian Navy, responding to my inquiry about any explosive devices used in the days before L-112 was found dead on Feb. 11. Read the e-mail (PDF 16 kb) I received:

“On February 6, 2012 HMCS Ottawa was operating in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, specifically in Constance Bank, conducting Work Ups Training including a period of sonar use and two small under water charges as part of an anti-submarine warfare exercise. These small charges were used to get the ships’ company to react to a potential threat or damage to meet the necessary training requirement.”

In talking to experts involved in the investigation, it seems unlikely that L-112 could have been injured or killed in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then wash up dead on Long Beach five days later. So the mystery continues.

In tomorrow’s Kitsap Sun, I’m reporting that environmental groups on both sides of the Canadian border are calling on their respective navies to disclose all the specific activities during the 10 days leading up to the discovery of L-112’s carcass at Long Beach on Feb. 11. The groups also are calling for a complete cessation of sonar use for training and testing in the Salish Sea.

Check out three letters submitted to the navies involved, including one from U.S. and Canadian scientists:

Letter from 18 U.S. conservation groups (PDF 52 kb)
Letter from six Canadian conservation groups (PDF 212 kb)
Letter from 20 U.S. and Canadian scientists (PDF 156 kb)

Meanwhile, I’ve heard from a few people who may call on the National Marine Fisheries Service to declare an “Unusual Mortality Event” related to the death of L-112 and possibly the deaths of other killer whales.

Unusual Mortality Events are normally associated with the mass stranding of whales or dolphins. UMEs are not normally declared in relation to the death one animal, no matter how unusual. Still, some of the seven criteria for declaring a UME include sudden or unexpected declines in populations, especially endangered ones. See NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources page for the list of criteria.

A UME is declared after consultation with a specially appointed working group that includes scientists, agency officials and members of conservation groups. Members are selected for their expertise in biology, toxicology, pathology, ecology and epidemiology.

I’m not sure what more could be gained by declaring a UME for Southern Resident killer whales, but Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council told me that it could intensify the investigation into the death of L-112. It is a way to bring widespread attention to the issue, he said.

Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, said such a declaration could help increase access to historical records. He is interested in possible correlations between specific Navy activities — currently classified — and the deaths of marine mammals. Ken mentioned the deaths of L-60 and L-90, as well as L-112.

“It is baffling to demographers why this (Southern Resident) population is doing so poorly compared to the northern population,” Ken told me. “Something weird is going on, and that’s a consensus.

“In the early days, Mike Bigg (a Canadian orca researcher) and I were amazed that females seemed to be immortal. We just didn’t have many female deaths, and it was clearly related to their long life spans.”

The story has changed over the past 35 years, Ken said, and the number of recent deaths of females is driving the species closer to extinction.

Ken is clearly worried. Years ago, he would not have been so outspoken. I recall when Ken was a typically reserved, cautious scientist. But actions taken to shift environmental factors in favor of the orcas have been slow or nonexistent. Meanwhile, the future of these killer whales — a genetically distinct population — still hangs in the balance.

9 thoughts on “Mystery of orca’s death only deepens with new info

  1. Where does discrimination and favoritism end?

    Years ago, we let the spotted owl play havoc with the logging industry and destroyed lifelong loggers livelihood in fear logging would destroy the newly discovered spotted owl habitat.

    Today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife plan to kill off the barred owls because they are apparently taking over terrain from the spotted owls. The spotted owls MAY go extinct if the barred owls are not killed….but this time logging will be allowed.
    Should humans play God and decide one owl species is worth more than another species?

    If humans can interfere without proof our Navy training is destroying Orca whales and control national security Navy training beyond reasonable environmental concerns – to regulate the Navy training around the Orca whale – what if – a few human generations from now – another whale species moves in on the Orca territory – will the Orca scientists insist on removing the competition as the U. S. Fish and Wildlife plan to do to the barred owl in favor of the spotted owl?

    When did natural evolution go out of fashion?

  2. I am passing along this press release from Susan Berta and Howard Garrett of Orca Network. — Chris

    Press release: Navy Exercises harm NW Marine life

    The untimely and tragic death of a 3-year old female orca designated as L112, who represents in large measure the hope for recovery of the Southern Resident Orca Community after decades of shootings, captures for revenue generation, pollution of their habitat and decimation of their essential prey, demonstrates the apparent disregard for marine life by the US Navy relative to training priorities.

    Although chemical examination of the fluids obtained from L112’s cranium and other organs has been delayed for up to several months due to cross-border permitting issues, every line of forensic evidence resulting from the gross necropsy of her carcass and the examination of her head revealed that she had been impacted by a powerful explosion coming from her right side. Southern Resident Orcas are bonded for life with their maternal families, so there is little doubt that L112’s mother, brother, and probably several other close relatives were also killed or maimed by the same explosion or explosions.

    The attached letter to the editor by Ken Balcomb, Executive Director and Chief Scientist of the Center for Whale Research, helps clarify that the Navy was acting outside the legal parameters they are entrusted to uphold when they killed L112 and probably her maternal family, and have redacted specific information on lethal training exercises they are required to provide.

    No killing is allowable, and yet L112 was killed. The other attached letters (see blog entry above — Chris) express the response of scientists and non-governmental organizations to these and other developments, including the operation of sonars from the dock at Naval Station Everett (in the presence of two Gray whales, a situation we alerted the Navy of and received no response), and the sonars detected from the HMSC Ottawa that quite likely impacted members of K and L pods.

    The dangers resulting from international hostilities are obvious. No doubt many potentially hostile nations are deploying silent diesel-electric submarines the must be detected and destroyed if they threaten US assets. However, the resulting destruction of the Southern Resident Orca Community, and a wide array of marine life, is a price too high to pay to maintain a state of permanent war. As intelligent mammals, is it possible to use our powers of deduction and reason to formulate a way to avoid killing off the marine life that sustains us while maintaining our safety and economic security?

    Susan Berta & Howard Garrett
    Orca Network

  3. @Sharon O’Hara huh?? You think the protection of the highly endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population (of which less than 90 survive) is “favoritism”? I don’t know what you are talking about, but it isn’t “natural evolution”. What does this have to do with evolution? You really believe this incredible population should be sacrificed in the name of *where* naval training exercises occur? Really, we are not talking about national security here.

  4. Angela, please reread my post and take a deep breath to settle down.

    I don’t think any species is any more precious than another. Don’t they all have their place in our environment until such time as the balance changes?
    I hope the Orcas survive but not at the cost of any other whale species or superseding our national defense system.

    Best wishes…

  5. UPDATE, April 4

    Federal law-enforcement officers have launched an investigation into the death of the orca L-112 with an emphasis on who may have been involved in her fatal injuries.

    “We received a complaint that the death was not due to natural causes, so we are looking into that to see if we can make a determination,” said Vicki Nomura, special agent in charge at NOAA’s Northwest Office of Law Enforcement.

    The decision follows a suggestion by Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research. Ken believes that law enforcement officers will be more successful in getting information from the U.S. and Canadian navies, who, he says, may know more than they’re letting on.

  6. humans, as they have “evolved”, have destroyed the landscape and populations of many animals. If you don’t agree with conservation issues, that’s one thing. But to say that it’s evolution for breeds of animals that have been around for thousands of years to die off due to human interference in their environment are just ridiculous. Being the ones who are destroying this world, it is our duty to conserve as much as we can.

    not saying that i drive a hybrid and whatnot… but i do agree that we should be careful of what we do. every action we make has an equal and adverse reaction on this planet. it’s everyone’s responsibility.

  7. We are polluting our own planet.

    Ch. 9 had a great program on whales the other night. Their filmed interaction with humans was breathtaking.
    I believe they were gray whales, not orcas but the information was fascinating none the less..

    Animals, just as humans, do evolve. The strongest and smartest survive because they adapt to conditions humans and the environment give them – such as pollution and the money making whale chasing tour boats.

  8. Sharon, species do not “evolve” on human time scales unless they have extraordinarily short generations and there is some sort of directed selection taking place (e.g., laboratory mice, fruit flies). Humans are not “evolving” either, merely adapting their behavior to new conditions where possible. Whales are not “evolving” or “adapting” to the changes humans are making to the environment because the changes occur much faster than their species could ever adapt to. The agent of evolution is natural selection on individuals; the mortality must occur before they reproduce; orcas do not reproduce until they are in their teens–that is much too long of a generational period for any adaptation apart from behavioral changes. I.e., the population merely declines until birth rates cannot keep up with mortality rates and gradually goes extinct. As far as I know, there are no studies correlating behavior of whales around humans and tour boats with increased survival. The gray whales on their Baja calving grounds appear to initiate contact with humans out of their own curiosity and enjoyment–this is not an example of evolution or adaptation, but of habituation and perhaps more evidence of the intelligence of whales. There is no evidence that whales that avoid people suffer higher mortality rates than those that approach the tour boats. One would expect the opposite–that whales *avoiding* boats, shipping lanes, human activities, and inland waters filled with carcinogenic toxins would have higher survival rates. This is why it is so important to protect each individual orca of this population as if it was an irreplaceable treasure–a female is even more important because of her future potential to reproduce. A population of less than 90 individual animals is about as close to extinction as you can get, especially when dealing with an animal that requires 12 years or more just to reach sexual maturity. I hope this explains a little better why the loss of this one whale is so important.

  9. Angela, thanks for the explanation. I understand your passion for the orca whale survival and I share it to a point.

    It seems to me that whales swimming in polluted waters, eating toxic fish might well produce weaker, more vulnerable offspring unable to cope as well as their parents. I don’t know.

    “One would expect the opposite–that whales *avoiding* boats, shipping lanes, human activities, and inland waters filled with carcinogenic toxins would have higher survival rates.”

    I would expect a better outcome if they avoid humans and human activity entirely.
    The problem comes because not all humans are respectful of our wild creatures and could cause them harm if we lead them into trusting humans.

    Read more:
    “David Williams, currently a PhD student at the University of Cambridge and co-author on the paper, added: “The loss of these animals has been a zoological puzzle since the time of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. At that time, many people didn’t believe that human-caused extinctions were possible, but Wallace argued otherwise. We have now shown, 100 years later, that he was right, and that humans, combined with climate change have been affecting other species for tens of thousands of years and continue to do so. Hopefully, now though, we are in a position to do something about it.”

    Professor Rhys Green, an author on the paper from the University of Cambridge and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said: “Most previous studies have argued that the extinction of mammoths and other megafauna is linked separately to either human pressure or climatic change.

    Our work indicates that they had their devastating effect working together. This previous combination of unusual patterns of climate change and direct human pressure from hunting and habitat destruction is similar to those to which we are subjecting nature to today and what happened before should be taken as a warning. The key difference this time is that the climate change is not caused by fluctuations in the earth’s rotation axis but to warming caused by fossil fuel burning and deforestation by humans – a double whammy of our own making. We should learn the lesson and act urgently to moderate both types of impact.”

    More information: Quantitative global analysis of the role of climate and people in explaining late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions, March 5, 2012 edition of PNAS. “

    “…And if the Miami blue never returns to Bahia Honda, Duquesnel still wants to make the park’s environment better for all butterflies landing there.
    “Even if Miami blue goes extinct, we should still remove iguanas,” he says.”

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