Category Archives: Marine mammals

Impassioned task force faces the challenge of saving endangered orcas

Passion for saving Puget Sound’s killer whales is driving an exhaustive search for ways to restore the whales to health and rebuild their population, but hard science must contribute to the search for workable answers.

I recently updated readers on the efforts of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, appointed by the governor to change the course of a population headed toward extinction. Read the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound or the version reprinted in the Kitsap Sun.

I began the story by mentioning the term “no silver bullet,” a term I have heard numerous times from folks involved in the task force. They are emphasizing how difficult it is to restore a damaged ecosystem, while orcas wait for food at the top of a complex food web. All sorts of people are looking for a quick fix, something that will increase the number of Chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary prey — within their range, which includes the Salish Sea and Pacific Ocean from Vancouver Island to Northern California.

The quickest and simplest answers:

  • Increase the number of fish produced in hatcheries,
  • Kill large numbers of seals and sea lions that eat Chinook,
  • Tear down four Snake River dams, or
  • Strategically reduce fishing that catches Chinook before the whales have a chance to eat them.

If any of these ideas seems like a quick-and-easy solution to you, then read my story for an overview of the problem and then go deeper by reading up on the subject. Each of these issues is subject to extensive scientific and political debate.

While my story touched on these issues, I will try to cover them more thoroughly as the task force goes about its deliberations and develops an emergency plan scheduled for completion this fall. The task force is also asked to develop a long-term strategy for the whales, which probably involves restoring a healthy food web — an effort coordinated by the Puget Sound Partnership.

I have to admit that I was amused by an online comment in the Kitsap Sun: “It is an easy fix,” the commenter asserted. “Stop all salmon fishing for several years; yes, including the Indians.”

I’m not sure the writer even read my story, but I have heard this simple proposal before. It definitely sounds easy, and eliminating all salmon fishing would be an interesting experiment. But the tremendous economic, political and cultural consequences makes the idea a nonstarter. Besides, the whales wouldn’t even touch the large numbers of chum, pink, sockeye and coho salmon produced naturally and in fish hatcheries throughout the Northwest.

Some experts do believe that fishing should be curtailed further to protect wild Chinook and other “weak stocks.” Certainly the benefits and problems of hatcheries remain a subject of ongoing scientific and social debate. The killer whales bring a new urgency to the discussion of salmon management — but humans remain part of the equation.

I can see how the killer whale task force is trying to maneuver through a minefield of political, economic and social issues to solve an environmental problem. Solutions must be logical and convincing to build enough support for action — even when the goal is to save something universally cherished, such as the killer whales. And so passion and hope continue to be blended with science, and we will see what comes out in the end.

At the last task force meeting, the death of a newborn orca was on the minds of many members, as national and international news reports described the mother, named Tahlequah, carrying her dead calf for days on end. The members also were thinking about a 3-year-old calf that was near death from malnutrition as experts prepared to take steps to bring her food and medication (NOAA Fisheries website).

While the task force’s efforts are focused on what the science tells us, Stephanie Solien, co-chair of the group, started off the meeting with a heartfelt discussion about how people are feeling a desperate need to help the orcas.

“What the J-pod orcas have clearly shown in their actions speak more profoundly than any human words,” she said. “This is what they have told the world: It is human actions that are responsible for the dead and stillborn calves, the sick and starving adults and the declining condition of the environment in which they live.

“As the grieving mother orca labored through the Salish Sea carrying her dead calf without rest, she brought us all to attention, demonstrating that her future and the future of her species is in our hands right now…,” she said. “We are together in what we feel, and we must be together in our actions. The only option for her survival and for ours is to act collectively with one strong determined will.”

You can listen to Stephanie reading her entire statement at 6:23 in the first video on this page.

Maia Bellon, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, was among others who reflected personally on Tahlequah’s loss and the human connection.

“There is nothing worse than a parent who has to let their child go, and many of us have had those experiences within our lives,” Maia said, adding that emotion can be a force to bring people together with a common goal.

“I am feeling strength from this room and know that we have a chance here and now to seize the opportunity to make a difference for the future of the killer whale,” she continued. “I close by giving a scientific fact: Killer whales need to eat to survive. That’s science. We have an obligation from the bottom of our food web all the way to the top to make this happen. And that includes restoring and sustaining a healthy ecosystem.”

Maia’s statement begins at 35:28 in the first video, and there are other heartfelt thoughts offered as each task force member has a chance to speak during the introductions. The remainder of the first video covers initial options presented by the leaders of the task force’s working groups.

The second video includes reports that followed a break-out session in which members gave their opinions about the various options. A public comment period begins at 40:35 in that video.

An orca mom’s mourning adds new clue to another mysterious death

UPDATE: Aug. 11, 9 p.m.

After I posted this blog entry this evening, I received this note from Ken Balcomb:

Hello all,
J35 frolicked past my window today with other J pod whales, and she looks vigorous and healthy. The ordeal of her carrying a dead calf for at least seventeen days and 1,000 miles is now over, thank goodness. She probably has lost two others since her son was born in 2010, and the loss of her most recent may have been emotionally hard on her.

—–

It has been heart-breaking to follow the story of the 20-year-old orca mom named Tahlequah (J-35), who has been carrying her dead newborn calf for nearly three weeks. But Tahlequah’s travails might add new insight into the mysterious death of a 3-year-old orca, who washed up on the Long Beach Peninsula in 2012.

Ken Balcomb, the dean of killer whale research in Puget Sound, has always maintained that the young whale, designated L-112, was killed by a concussive blast of some sort that caused massive trauma inside her skull. He suspects that military operations were to blame.

A 3-year-old orca known as L-112 shown here before her death in 2012.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

The Canadian Navy acknowledges that it was conducting exercises near the U.S.-Canada border up to seven days before the dead whale was found. The activities, which included the use of sonar and detonations, started 85 miles northwest of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and ended up inside the Strait. The detonations were said to be too small to kill a whale except at a very close range.

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Amusing Monday: Salish Sea photo contest shows diversity of local species

Nearly 900 photographs highlighting the diversity and biodiversity of our inland waterways were submitted to the “Salish Sea in Focus” photo contest, which just announced the winners yesterday.

“One Fish, Two Fish” by Nirupam Nigam of Hoquiam
First place in Fish category, “Salish Sea in Focus” photo contest

“We’re thrilled with the quality and diversity of the photos — not only the winners but throughout the whole contest,” said Justin Cox, communications director for The SeaDoc Society, which sponsored the contest. “They capture the Salish Sea beautifully, which is everything we hoped for when we envisioned ‘Salish Sea In Focus.’”

The Grand Prize in the contest was awarded to Bruce Kerwin of Bainbridge Island, whose photo shows the furled tentacles of a giant Pacific octopus at Sund Rock on Hood Canal. Other winners were named in five categories plus an additional award for photographers under age 18.

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Two deaths, no births for Southern Resident orcas over the past year

Two deaths — no births. The annual census of Puget Sound’s resident orcas shows a continuing decline in their population, as the normally social killer whales focus their attention on finding enough food to survive.

Crewser, or L-92, a 23-year-old male orca who died in recent months. // Photo: Dave Ellifrit, CWR

The latest whale to go missing and presumed dead is 23-year-old Crewser, or L-92, according to Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research. Crewser was last seen alive by CWR staff in November. That was before coastal observers reported that he appeared to be missing from L pod earlier this year. On June 11, Ken and his fellow researchers got a good look at both J and L pods in the San Juan Islands and concluded that L-92 was indeed gone. (Check out the CWR report on L-92.)

Crewser was one of the so-called Dyes Inlet whales, a group of 19 orcas that spent a month in the waters between Bremerton and Silverdale in 1997. (I described that event for the Kitsap Sun in 2007.) Crewser was only 2 years old when he was with his mom, Rascal or L-60, during the Dyes Inlet visit.

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Amusing Monday: Wildlife cameras keep advancing in technology

There’s nothing like spending some relaxing time in a natural environment. It does a body good — mentally and physically — to go into new or familiar surroundings while basking in the full-bodied sights and sounds of a forest, a stream or a marine shoreline.

We are fortunate in the Puget Sound region to have easy and free (or low-cost) access to all sorts of natural places. If we are lucky, we may catch a glimpse of wildlife and incorporate the sighting into our memory of that place.

What we don’t normally see, however, are the natural behaviors of wildlife away from people, because the presence of humans often changes what they are doing — nor would we want to impose on their lives any more than we already do.

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Whale watchers update guidelines; Canada to restrict salmon fishing

Commercial operators who take visitors on whale-watching cruises in the Salish Sea have vowed to follow new, more restrictive guidelines to reduce noise and disturbance around the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.

The new guidelines, adopted by the Pacific Whale Watch Association, go beyond state and federal regulations and even beyond the voluntary “Be Whale Wise” guidelines promoted by state and federal agencies and many whale advocacy groups. For the first time, the commercial guidelines include time limits for watching any group of whales.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government has announced that it will restrict fishing for chinook salmon — the killer whales’ primary prey — to help save the whales from extinction. The goal is to reduce fishery removals of 25 to 35 percent, but details have yet to be released. More about that in a moment.

The new whale-watch guidelines are based largely on recent research into much how much noise reaches killer whales when multiple boats are in the vicinity, said Jeff Friedman, president of the PWWA.

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Amusing Monday: Young artists inspired by endangered species

I’m hoping you will enjoy another dose of kids’ art, this time related to endangered species. An art contest was recently completed in concert with the 13th annual Endangered Species Day, which was this past Friday.

“Hawksbill Sea Turtle” by grand prize winner Brandon Xie, a fourth-grader in Lexington, Mass.
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

More than 1,500 students from around the United States entered this year’s “Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest,” according to organizers. The goal of the contest is to encourage public appreciation for imperiled wildlife and to increase support for saving endangered species.

“The artwork created by this generation of young people is clearly demonstrating how they think deeply about the plight of endangered species,” said Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition, which sponsors the contest. “It is clear that they recognize not just our role in impacting wildlife and plants, but also our opportunities to bring them back from the brink of extinction. Each work of art is an inspiration to all of us to do more, to save more,” she said in a statement.

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Voluntary no-go area on San Juan Island stirs conflict over orcas

Fishermen in the San Juan Islands are being asked to make sacrifices this summer to help Puget Sound’s fish-eating killer whales. Whether the voluntary actions will make much difference is open to speculation.

A voluntary “no-go zone” for boats cruising the western shoreline of San Juan Island has been announced by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Boaters are asked to stay one-quarter mile offshore for most of the island’s west side. A half-mile protective zone around Lime Kiln Lighthouse is part of the voluntary no-go zone. (See map.)

“This voluntary no-go zone is a good step in helping to reduce human impacts in an important foraging area for Southern Resident killer whales,” Penny Becker, WDFW’s policy lead on killer whales, said in a news release.

Years ago, the western shoreline of San Juan Island was a primary hangout for whales, which eat mostly chinook salmon during the summer months. In recent years, however, declines in chinook runs have reduced the time spent by the whales in any one location, so the effects of the voluntary closure are likely to be muted.

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Amazing stories of place are retold at Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference

The Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference opened in Seattle yesterday with a reflection on people’s intimate, personal relationships with nature. The mood was heightened by an elaborate welcoming ceremony from Native American leaders who live on the shores of Puget Sound.

I would like to share an idea I had, but first let me report that Gov. Jay Inslee and former Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell offered their own personal experiences at the beginning of the conference. Please check out the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

The conference this year has attracted more than 1,300 scientists, policymakers and other interested people. About 700 presentations are scheduled.

The welcoming ceremony yesterday began with an Indian song accompanied by drumming. Tribal leaders continued the ceremony by presenting Indian blankets to “witnesses” who have played important roles in protecting the Salish Sea.

Personal stories told by members of the local tribes have a special significance. For native people, telling stories is part of an oral tradition that goes back thousands of years. Their strong “connection to place” reaches back well beyond anyone’s own memory.

Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, said he is pleased to work with scientists and various officials on the problems facing the Salish Sea. Chief Seattle, a member of the Suquamish Tribe, was a boy when Capt. George Vancouver first explored Puget Sound in 1792. Vancouver anchored his ship for several days near the south end of Bainbridge Island. His crew was hungry for fresh meat, having been limited to dried rations during the long journey, Leonard said.

The Suquamish people brought the English men a deer to feast on, he said. Chief Seattle carried that experience of sharing with white settlers throughout his life until he led his people to sign over their lands in exchange for a promise that hunting and fishing would go on.

“We’re still fighting to get the government to honor that promise,” Leonard said. Still, much has been accomplished the past few years as portions of the Salish Sea ecosystem have undergone restoration, he added.

The land and water have spiritual significance, Leonard said. “Our ancestors are with us here. We have a covenant with the land and water.”

At the end of his talk, Leonard noted that he had a few minutes left on the schedule, so he asked Bardow Lewis, vice chairman of his tribe, to speak three minutes — no more. Bardow asked if people would rather have a speech or a story. Many people shouted, “story.”

Bardow began a condensed version of his tale by describing Doe Kag Wats, a near-pristine estuarine marsh near Indianola in the northern part of the Kitsap Peninsula. The name means “place of deer.” To tribal members, it remains a “spiritual place,” he said, just as it has been since ancient times.

One evening as the sun was going down, Bardow said he was digging clams with his daughter, who he could observe by watching her long shadow without having to look up. He kept his head down, focusing on the clams buried in the beach at Doe Kag Wats.

Out of the corner of his eye, Bardow saw a deer approaching, but he kept his head down to keep from frightening the animal away.

The deer kept approaching until she was standing right next to him, he said. She nudged him with her head, which alarmed him, but he kept digging until she nudged him again, practically pushing him over. Bardow got up, and when the deer started walking away, he followed her. She led him to the stream that feeds the estuary. There, stuck in the mud, was a baby deer.

Bardow said he was able to free the fawn from the mud, and a wonderful feeling came over him. “I cried — in a joyful way,” he said. “I learned more that day than I did in my lifetime.”

The event has opened his eyes to the possibility of other experiences, Bardow said., But his three-minute time limit was up before he could share another story.

“I think I might have been a deer in a previous life,” he said. “We have to keep these beautiful places and spread that out to all places where you live.”

While I may never enjoy such a profound experience, I would like to think that I would be open to that. Still, I would think that everyone who has spent meaningful time on or around the Salish Sea probably has had at least one experience to share.

One of my own favorite stories was from a dark night in 1997, when I was out in a boat on Dyes Inlet with whale researcher Jodi Smith. I was watching the lights of Silverdale when we were suddenly immersed in the sound of orcas speaking to us over a hydrophone. You can read the story as I originally wrote it on the Kitsap Sun website, and you can listen to the recording that Jodi made that night (below).

      1. whale

I know that many researchers presenting their work at the Salish Sea conference have exciting findings to convey, and I listen with keen interest, even though the talks are sometimes dry. I also know that the speakers feel a bit rushed to explain everything in 12 to 15 minutes. But wouldn’t it be nice if they could find a way to reduce their discussion about scientific methods — such as how they control for variables — and tell us a brief story?

I don’t think we lose our scientific or journalistic credibility if we allow ourselves to be captivated by a special moment that we have experienced in the Salish Sea.

Killing of baby orca raises questions about whales’ social structure

By now, you may have heard about the male transient killer whale who attacked and killed a newborn orca while the baby was swimming next to its mother.

A newborn transient orca swims next to its mother shortly before being attacked by an unrelated adult male orca. // Photo: Jared Towers

Jared Towers, a researcher with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, witnessed the killing. He said he was both “horrified and fascinated” by the event, which he described as the first case of infanticide ever reported among killer whales. The incident took place in Canadian waters near the north end of Vancouver Island.

Jared told reporter Bethany Lindsey of CBC News that the distressing scene is something that he will never be able to unsee, but he did his best to observe and record the rare incident.

This killing of a tiny calf by an unrelated male orca has been troubling me since I first heard about it more than a week ago — and that’s what I told longtime orca researcher Ken Balcomb when I called him on the phone.

“I was shocked, as was Jared,” Ken told me. “It is very unusual. The interesting thing is that we know the individual who killed the baby. We don’t know why it happened. It could have been just a squabble of some sort.”

It wasn’t just the male orca involved. The attacker’s mother also played a role in keeping the mother of the calf at bay and ultimately dragging the dead baby away.

In the animal world, infanticide occurs in a myriad of situations among terrestrial species, including lions, rodents and even primates, Jared recounted in a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports. The practice of killing infants of the same species has also been observed in three types of dolphins.

The situations are too rare to identify specific causes, Jared noted, but several hypotheses have been put forth. The leading suggestion is that the death of the infant causes the mother to stop lactating and makes her fertile again. That means the attacking male may have a chance to integrate his genes into the population, as opposed to a competing male.

Less likely reasons, at least in this situation, involves the goal of reducing the number of mouths to feed when food is scarce for a given population. In some species, an infant may be cannibalized for food. But in this case food is not especially scarce for transients, which eat seals and sea lions. Also, there was no evidence of feeding, such as oil on the water or birds in the air, Jared reported.

“Lastly,” Jared writes, “non-adaptive explanations for infanticide purport that it is a socially pathological behavior that may be conducted accidentally or as a result of environmental stressors.”

Killer whales as pathological killers? That’s something to ponder. But, again, there is no evidence to point to a particular cause in this case.

I can’t help but wonder if transient killer whales, which eat marine mammals, may be more prone to committing infanticide than resident killer whales, which eat only fish. No doubt the male transient would know the technique for killing an orca calf, which is about the size of a sea lion.

Ken Balcomb has observed teeth marks on some of the Southern Resident killer whales, sometimes the result of juveniles playing too rough.

“Usually it’s a young whale biting a big whale,” he said. “They don’t have any hands, so they just bite. We’ve seen young whales tussling around together.”

On rare occasions, Ken has also observed serious wounds on some whales, including one adult male whose dorsal fin was bent over during an apparent attack by another orca. The size and shape of the teeth marks, known as rakes, provide clues to the size of the attacker. But since nobody sees most of the serious attacks, the cause or behavior leading up to the incidents will never be known.

In the recent case, which occurred in December 2016, Jared and his fellow researchers went out to observe a group of transients, whose calls had been picked up on hydrophones. When the researchers got to the area just north of Johnstone Strait, they saw an older female, known as T068, swimming with her 32-year-old son, T068A. The two were following a group of three orcas swimming unusually fast.

In that second group was a 13-year-old mother with a 2-year-old calf along with her 3-year-old sister, who exhibited bleeding wounds on her sides and loose flesh on her dorsal fin. About a mile ahead was the 28-year-old mother of the two sisters, T046B, who was accompanied by three young whales, an 8-year-old, a 5-year-old and a newborn.

The entire group of related whales came together just before noon near Haddington Island, while the two unrelated whales were about 200 yards behind and still following.

The attack apparently began about 20 minutes later with observations of splashing and erratic movements, then the male attacker was seen to move away from the group. The other whales followed. When they all came together, they began circling vigorously. That’s when the researchers caught up with the whales and noticed that the baby was no longer with its mother.

The male attacker “swam close past the research boat, and the fluke of the neonate could be seen in his mouth with the body intact trailing underneath his lower jaw,” states the report.

The baby’s mother seemed to chase the male attacker, while the attacker’s mother attempted to block her way.

“Intense vocal activity could be heard through the hull of the boat, so the hydrophone was deployed,” the report says. “A wide variety of excited discrete and aberrant pulsed calls, whistles, and percussive sounds were recorded….

“At 12:35, (the baby’s mother) rammed (the male) near the surface with sufficient force to cause a noticeable undulation through his body, sending blood and water into the air,” the report says.

The event was over about as quickly as it began, with the male carrying away the dead baby. Later the male’s mother was seen carrying the lifeless calf. The larger family group followed the two, staying about 200 yards behind and off to one side.

The researchers followed for another hour and a half, when underwater video showed that neither the male nor his mother had the baby. A short time before, they were seen circling as if paying attention to something below them. As darkness fell, the researchers broke off the observations and headed home, but not before noticing that the male had the intact baby in his mouth again, as he and his mother continued on.

Jared said it is not surprising that the attacker’s mother assisted her son, “because bonds between maternally related killer whales can be particularly strong.” After all, orca moms are known to help their sons find food and even share food with them. The mother’s bloodline would be continued through her son by the killing, provided that the dead infant was not his offspring and that he could later mate with the baby’s mother.

Killer whales are top predators and complex creatures. Their actions cannot always be explained. I remember being surprised to learn that resident orcas occasionally kill harbor porpoises, but they never eat them. See my story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

My discussion with Ken brought me back to the harsh reality of our world. Maybe we can’t fully explain why a male killer whale would attack a newborn of his own kind. But who can explain why a human being would abuse and sometimes kill his own child or take a gun and kill a large number of strangers?