Category Archives: Marine mammals

Orcas hunting for salmon: Not worth the effort in Puget Sound?

Trying to understand what motivates Puget Sound’s killer whales is difficult enough when the orcas are nearby. But now that they have abandoned their summer home — at least for this year — researchers are not able to easily study their behaviors, their food supply or their individual body conditions.

L-84, a 29-year-old male named Nyssa, was thought to be in good health when he went missing.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

Not so many years ago, we could expect the orcas to show up in the San Juan Islands in May, presumably to feast on spring chinook returning to the Fraser River in British Columbia and to streams in northern Puget Sound. Those chinook have dwindled in number, along with other populations of chinook in the Salish Sea, so it appears that the orcas may not come back at all.

Apparently, they have decided that it isn’t worth their time and effort to set up a summer home in the inland waterway. They have gone to look for food elsewhere, such as off the west coast of Vancouver Island, where it is harder for researchers to tell what they are eating and exactly where they are going.

The whales were out there somewhere this past week when Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research announced that three whales had been missing long enough to declare them deceased. He had been consulting with experts and observers in Canada. See my Water Ways post from Tuesday.

Food is the big issue for the southern resident killer whales. They have been judged to be in overall worse body condition than the northern residents — an entirely separate group that normally stays farther up the coast in British Columbia. Experts are reporting that the northern residents have been venturing south more often than they used to. Perhaps the cultural divide between the two resident groups has begun to weaken.

It’s all in the realm of speculation, of course. Last year, I shared some ruminations about what could have happened if the endangered southern residents had not grown up in a culture of eating chinook salmon. I mentioned some interesting research papers on the topic. See Water Ways, Aug. 30, 2018.

Food is the key. Despite other problems that humans have caused — including toxic chemicals, noise and general disruption — food is at the heart of the matter. When you are hungry and searching for food, you don’t have much time for social interaction — and making babies takes a back seat to survival.

Even when southern resident females do get pregnant, they suffer a high rate of miscarriage, often coming late in pregnancy. Food and stress are related to these problems, according to research by Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology whose work I reported in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound in 2016.

Although the term “starvation” is often tossed around loosely, few if any of the dead whales are actually starving to death from lack of available food. They may have stopped eating when they got sick or for some other reason. Illness can be brought on by a weakened condition in conjunction with reduced immunity caused by toxic chemicals in their food. It’s more complex than “starvation,” as writer Jeff Rice of the Puget Sound Institute points out in a new story posted in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

A low reproductive rate and unexpected deaths continue to drive the population downward. Some deaths can be predicted when the whales loose so much body fat that they reach a condition called “peanut head,” but other deaths come quickly and unexpectedly.

“We had expected two of the three deaths, having chronicled their decline during the past year,” Ken Balcomb said in an email on Friday. “But L84’s death was unexpected. He was a vibrant male who appeared healthy.”

When apparently healthy whales disappear, experts are left wondering what happened. Years ago, this kind of sudden disappearance was more typical of their final departures, because the whales were in better condition. Other factors, such as ship strikes and Navy operations were sometimes suspected, and disease is always a lurking threat.

Finding ways to improve the chinook runs should help the whales, and that effort continues despite some disagreement about how to go about it. But larger forces are also at play, such as long-term shifts in ocean conditions and changes in the climate that reverberate through the entire food web.

Laura Blackmore, executive director of Puget Sound Partnership, issued a statement Thursday that reflects what many Northwest residents may be feeling.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the presumed deaths of three endangered southern resident orcas, L84, K25, and J17,” Laura wrote. “These new losses cut deeply, and we grieve with all those who mourn these symbols of Puget Sound.

“Our orcas are dying because the marine environment they live in is ailing and there are too few salmon for them to eat,” she continued.

“The Puget Sound Partnership stands with Governor Inslee, the governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force, and the many tribes, government agencies, organizations, businesses and individuals who are committed to helping recover the orca population. Together, we can help by restoring salmon runs, quieting the waters of Puget Sound, and getting toxic chemicals out of our waterways.”

New government policies and laws are being implemented, she said. Meanwhile, there are some things that we all can do. Here are her suggestions for individual action:

  • Help restore salmon runs. Volunteer on a habitat restoration project. See orca.wa.gov for links to organizations involved in habitat restoration.
  • Quiet the waters of Puget Sound. If you’re a boater, give orcas space. Follow the BeWhaleWise guidelines for whale watching.
  • Keep toxic chemicals out of our waterways. Stop using toxic chemicals in your home or on your landscape; fix vehicle leaks; and have your vehicle oil changed by a professional.
  • Learn about southern resident orcas, and pass the information on to others.
  • Speak up for orcas. Vote. Make sure your local, state, and federal representatives know how important orcas are to you.

Three more orca deaths take census count down to 73 Southern Residents

Four orca deaths and two births over the past year brings the official population of southern resident killer whales to 73 — the lowest number since the annual census was launched in 1976.

L-84, a 29-year-old male named Nyssa, is among three southern resident orcas newly listed as deceased. Here he is seen catching a salmon. // Photo: Center for Whale Research

This evening, the keeper of the census — Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research — sadly announced the deaths of three orcas who have not been seen for several months.

In past years, Ken waited until he and his staff have several opportunities to search for any whales that appear to be missing. But this year the whales have stayed almost entirely away from their traditional hunting grounds in the San Juan Islands, where they once stayed for nearly the full summer.

In an unusual move this year, Ken relied on reliable observers from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans as well as other biologists along the west coast of Vancouver Island. The missing whales were not seen during multiple encounters with the Canadians, Ken told me.

The reason the whales have not spent any time in Puget Sound is fairly obvious, Ken said. Their primary prey, chinook salmon, have not been around either.

We can hope they are getting enough to eat wherever they are.

“They were finding fish up north off Tofino,” Ken said. “They were not big salmon, but there were lots of eight-pounders. They seemed to be getting those.”

Tofino is about 140 miles up the west coast of Vancouver Island from Victoria. At Swiftsure Bank, near entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the whales appeared to be going after sablefish, also known as black cod, according to reports.

“They were eating those and then chasing some salmon,” Ken reported.

It is often speculated that the reason that southern residents specialize in chinook is the amount of calories they get from the fatty fish, compared to the amount of energy they must expend to catch them. This cultural preference was adopted by the whales perhaps thousands of years before chinook populations were decimated by human development.

Ken is under contract to the federal government to deliver a count of the southern residents as of July 1 each year, based on sightings in Puget Sound. He has until October to provide a final report, but the numbers are certain enough now to end the speculation.

“We are saddened to report that three adult killer whales (orca) are missing and presumed dead as of July 1, 2019,” Ken announced this evening in a news release.

“These whales are from the extremely endangered southern resident killer whale population that historically frequents the Salish Sea almost daily in summer months. Due to the scarcity of suitable chinook prey, this population of whales now rarely visits the core waters of its critical habitat: Puget Sound, Georgia Strait and the inland reach of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.”

The three whales he has declared deceased:

  • J-17, a 42-year-old female named Princess Angeline: A matriarch in J pod, Princess Angeline was the mother of Tahlequah (J-35), who carried her dead calf on her head for an unprecedented 17 days. Princess Angeline, named after Chief Seattle’s daughter, was reported in poor health during the winter. She is survived by two daughters, Tahlequah (J-35) and Kiki (J-53); a son, Moby (J-44); a granddaughter, Star (J-46); and a grandson, Notch (J-47).
  • K-25, a 28-year-old male named Scoter: He should have been in the prime of his life, but reports of poor body condition started in the winter. Scoter is survived by two sisters, Spock (K-20) and Deadhead (K-27), and a brother, Cali (K-34).
  • L-84, a 29-year-old male named Nyssa: He was the last of a large family group known as the L9’s.

The first of the four whales to die since July 2018 was Scarlet (J-50), who was the subject of rescue actions last summer and the subject of an ongoing controversy about what should or should not have been done to save her. See Water Ways, Sept. 14, 2018. I also featured Scarlet in a story about intervention with killer whales, Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, Feb. 4, 2019.

The two calves born into the southern resident clans this year were L-124 (gender unknown), born in January to L-77 (Matia), and J-56, an unnamed female born in May to J-31 (Tsuchi).

The current population of 73 southern residents is the lowest since 1976, when Ken first began his orca population survey following capture operations that removed a significant number of orcas for the aquarium trade. His first count was 71, but the actual population may have been higher, since this was so early in the survey. The population recovered to 98 animals in 1995. Since then, the trend has been generally downward with only a few upticks.

Increasing the urgency to restore natural salmon runs is the only hope of saving the killer whales, Ken told me, adding that government officials are off track by increasing hatchery production and allowing more fishing.

“They are not looking at the death spiral,” he told me.

In July 2018, we reported that two deaths and no births had taken place in the previous year, dropping the southern resident population from 77 to 75. Now the official population has dropped again by two, with 73 animals still surviving.

Orca researchers spot newest member of J pod and find that she’s a girl!

UPDATE, JULY 8, 2019

The Center for Whale Research today released notes of Friday’s encounter with J pod, including the newest one, J-56.
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The baby killer whale first seen at the end of May (Water Ways, June 1) has been identified as a female by the Center for Whale Research, after members of J and K pods were observed in the San Juan Islands on Friday.

The newest Puget Sound orca, J-56, with her mother, J-31, a 24-year-old female named Tsuchi.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

It was the first time that any of the orcas have been seen in Puget Sound waters in more than two months, the center noted in a written statement. Years ago, all three pods of southern residents would typically return to the inland waters in late May or early June. Their absence in recent years has been blamed on a shortage of chinook salmon — their primary prey.

On Friday, the arrival of J and K pods was welcomed by a crowd of people at Lime Kiln State Park on the west side of San Juan Island, where observers are able to watch the whales from shore.

“Near Pile Point, San Juan Island, the new mother J-31 swam around in circles with her new calf and three other young females,” the center reported. “It looked very much like they were showing off this new addition to the population. In a very brief moment, the baby popped to the surface with its underside exposed, revealing it was a female!

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Transient orcas visit Dyes Inlet, thrilling many shoreside observers

UPDATE: Friday, June 28

To put the finishing touches on this story, the orcas headed out of Dyes Inlet late yesterday afternoon and entered Rich Passage by about 4:30 p.m., according to multiple Facebook accounts. The whales apparently turned south, then headed across Puget Sound, where there were spotted by passengers on the Bainbridge Island ferry about 6:15 p.m. They spent a short time in Seattle’s Elliott Bay before heading north in the main channel of Puget Sound, reaching somewhere between Kingston and Edmonds as darkness fell.
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UPDATE: Thursday, June 27

Mark Sears reported this morning that he had identified the two groups of transient killer whales, which are reportedly still in Dyes Inlet today. One group is known as the T36 group, led by a 49-year-old female (T36), who is accompanied by her 21-year-old daughter (T36B) along with other family members. The other family group is known as the T99s, including a 35-year-old female and her family. In all, Mark said, there were 10 or 11 orcas sighted yesterday.
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A group of about eight transient killer whales came to visit the Bremerton-Silverdale area today (Wednesday), exciting lots of people who watched from shore.

An orca calf was among the transient killer whales visiting Dyes Inlet today (Wednesday).
Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

Mark Sears and his grown daughter Maya, both federally permitted orca researchers, caught up with the whales in Sinclair Inlet and began taking photos to identify the individual animals.

Mark, who lives in West Seattle, got word of the whales coming south while they were still off Bainbridge Island.

“They must have been flying through Rich Passage,” he said, noting that the whales passed in front of Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, then abruptly turned back and headed into Port Washington Narrows. They swam under the Manette Bridge at 2:01 p.m., then under the Warren Avenue Bridge nine minutes later, he said.

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Ocean acidification gets attention in four bills passed by the U.S. House

The issue of ocean acidification gained some traction this week in the U.S. House of Representatives, where bipartisan support led to the approval of four bills designed to bring new ideas into the battle to save sea life from corrosive waters.

If passed by the Senate, the legislation would allow federal agencies to set up competitions and offer prize money for the best ideas for reducing ocean acidification, adapting to ongoing changes or solving difficult research problems. The bills also foster discussions about climate change by bringing more people to the table while providing increased attention to the deadly conditions that are developing along the coasts and in estuaries, such as Puget Sound.

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer

“We know that changing ocean chemistry threatens entire livelihoods and industries in our state, said U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, in a press release. “There are generations of folks in our coastal communities who have worked in fishing and shellfish growing — but that’s endangered if we don’t maintain a healthy Pacific Ocean.”

Later in this blog post, I will reflect on other Kilmer-related issues, including the so-called Puget Sound Day on the Hill.

In a phone conversation, Rep. Kilmer told me that he was encouraged with the widespread support for a bill that he sponsored called the Ocean Acidification Innovation Act of 2019 (HR 1921), which passed the House on a 395-22 vote. The bill would allow federal agencies to sponsor competitions and offer prize money for the best ideas. Money would come out of existing funds that agencies use for related purposes. The bill was co-sponsored by Northwest Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, along with Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, an Oregon Democrat, and Rep. Don Young, an Alaskan Republican. Five representatives from coastal areas in other parts of the country added their names to the bill.

“There is a legitimate problem, and people are beginning to see the impacts of the changing ocean chemistry,” Derek said. “This should a bipartisan issue.”

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A second orca calf has been born among the Southern Residents

A new orca calf in J pod is seen swimming with several females.
Photo: John Forde and Jennifer Steven, The Whale Centre

A new baby orca has been born in J pod — one of the three critically endangered Southern Resident pods — and a new wave of hope is rippling through the community of whale supporters.

The calf was spotted and photographed Thursday off the West Coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia by John Forde and Jennifer Steven. The encounter was just south of Gowland Rocks in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.

“That was really exciting,” Jennifer told me about the encounter. “We are super hopeful that this calf will make it and add to the population.”

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Gray whale deaths lead to declaration of ‘unusual mortality event’

As more gray whales wash up dead on beaches in Puget Sound and along the West Coast, NOAA Fisheries has declared an “unusual mortality event” to mobilize additional research into what is killing these massive marine mammals.

Aerial images, such as this one off Central California, help biologists assess the condition of gray whales as part of a declared “unusual mortality event.”
Photo: Southwest Fisheries Science Center and SR3 under federal permits NMFS 19091 and MBNMS 2017-8.

About 70 gray whales have been found dead so far this year along the shorelines of California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, with another 73 in Mexico and five in Canada. That’s the most since the year 2000, when more than 100 gray whales were stranded along the U.S. West Coast, triggering a previous unusual mortality event, or UME.

Many of the dead whales have shown signs of emaciation, suggesting that they failed to find enough food in the Arctic last summer, a time when they need to build up enough energy reserves to make it through the winter. Each year, the Eastern North Pacific gray whales travel from their feeding grounds in Alaska to their over-wintering areas in Mexico. As they return north at this time of year, they could be exhausting the remainder of their fat reserves, experts say.

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Amusing Monday: Student artists share views of rare species

A student art contest focused on endangered species produced some impressive paintings and drawings this year for the 14th annual Endangered Species Day, which was celebrated this past Friday.

The contest, called Saving Endangered Species Youth Art Contest, is sponsored by the Endangered Species Coalition. It gives the young artists and their audience a chance to understand species at risk of extinction. Some choose plants and animal that are well known; others go for the obscure.

Texas blind salamander by ©Sam Hess
Image: Endangered Species Coalition

The grand prize this year was awarded to Sam Hess, a first grader from Portland, Ore. He depicted a Texas blind salamander, a rare cave-dwelling species native to just one place, the San Marcos Pool of the Edwards Aquifer in Hays County, Texas. The salamander, which grows to about 5 inches, features blood-red gills for breathing oxygen from the water.

The art contest, for students K-12, is sponsored by the Endangered Species Coalition, including more than 450 conservation, scientific, education, religious, recreation, business and community organizations.

“We owe it to this generation of children to pass down healthy ecosystems brimming with wildlife,” said Leda Huta, the coalition’s executive director, in a news release. “Every year, their artwork demonstrates how deeply they feel for nature and all of its wondrous creatures – large and small.”

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Ghost-net busters are entering a new era of hunting and removal

My mind is unable to grasp, in any meaningful way, how much death and destruction was caused by fishing nets that were lost and abandoned through the years.

Filmed in 2007, this KCTS-9 video describes the problem of ghost nets and a project that would eventually remove nearly 6,000 nets.

Nearly 6,000 of these so-called “ghost nets” have been pulled from the waters of Puget Sound over the past 17 years. Until removed, they keep on catching fish, crabs and many more animals to one degree or another.

We can support responsible fishing, but those of us who care about Puget Sound must never again allow lost nets to be forgotten, as if “out of sight, out of mind” ever worked for anyone.

The latest concern, as I reported last month in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, is that 200 or more ghost nets are still lurking at depths below 100 feet, which is the level considered safe to operate by divers with normal scuba gear. Remotely operated vehicles (unmanned submarines) are being developed to go after nets remaining in deep water, where they are killing crabs and many other deep-water species — including rockfish, some of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

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Female orca in declining health shows amazing signs of recovery

The killer whale J-17, known as Princess Angeline, seems to have made a remarkable recovery since December, when the 42-year-old female was diagnosed with “peanut head” — an indicator of malnutrition that almost always leads to death.

Princess Angeline, J-17, in Admiralty Inlet Sunday
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research
Federal permits: NMFS 21238 / DFO SARA 388

Now Princess Angeline looks much better and shows few signs of that dire condition, said Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research who got a good look at her Sunday when J pod came into Puget Sound.

“Since New Year’s Eve, J-17 has fared much better than we expected,” Ken told me. “They must have found some winter food up in Georgia Strait.”

At one point, Ken had said it would be a “miracle” if she were ever seen again.

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