Tag Archives: health assessment

Orca health assessment, legal rights, and two upcoming presentations

The ongoing shutdown of the federal government has kept federal marine mammal biologists and administrators from paying close attention to the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales. The folks I know at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center must be going crazy over their inability to do their jobs, which have always been central to the survival of our beloved orcas.

To take a breath sample, mist from an orca’s blow is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for pathogens. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

But now a coalition of non-government orca experts plans to step in to at least conduct an initial health assessment of two orcas showing signs of “peanut head,” an indicator of malnutrition that frequently leads to death. Initial plans for taking minimally invasive fecal and breath samples were developed during a meeting of the minds on a conference call yesterday. Further efforts, such as medical treatment, would need special authorization from federal officials.

I won’t go into further details here, since you can read the story published this morning by the Puget Sound Institute.

Treaty rights related to orcas

After all my years of covering killer whale issues, it is interesting to see the emergence of the Lummi Nation as a major participant in the orca discussions. Kurt Russo, senior policy analyst for the Lummi Sovereignty and Treaty Protection Office, told me that tribal members have a spiritual connection with the orcas that goes back thousands of years. The inherent right to commune with the “blackfish” or “qwe i/to! Mechtcn” was never superseded by treaties signed between the tribe and the U.S. government, so these rights still stand, he said.

A letter from Lawrence Solomon, secretary of the Lummi Nation, outlines the tribal position.

Based on moral concerns, the tribe supports strong actions to save the Southern Resident orcas from extinction. That should involve a health assessment for the two orcas that seem to be in declining health, Kurt said. Feeding the two whales and providing medicine to help them recover could be part of the plan, he added. Whether the tribe could support capturing the whales to nurse them back to health is a controversial question that has not yet been resolved among tribal members, he said.

“How does the moral obligation define that scenario?” Kurt wondered. “It would be traumatic to take a whale away from its family. There is not a firm decision yet about that solution.”

Finding a way to feed the entire population of 75 Southern Residents could be critical to their survival, Kurt said, and it might require setting up feeding stations where the whales could come for food.

“The killer whales are sending a message,” Kurt said. “It’s now or never. We will soon know if the Salish Sea is going to remain an ecosystem that can be repaired. It’s not an issue of more science. We have to act on what we know.”

Legal rights for orcas themselves

A coalition of various groups today unveiled a declaration proclaiming the inherent rights of the Southern Resident orcas to exist. The recognition comes with some urgency, according to the group, because a new calf was recently born — the first birth in three years.

“We’d be having very different conversations if we approached recovery with the orca’s best interests in mind,” said Elizabeth M. Dunne in a news release.

“The orca shows us how our current laws are not remedying the severe decline of entire ecosystems – from the Salish Sea to the Columbia River basin and Snake River watershed,” said Dunne, who helped draft the declaration. “We must adopt a framework recognizing that ecosystems have the rights — to exist, flourish, evolve, to sustain life, and to be restored to a healthy state — if we truly want to save the orca, and ultimately ourselves, from extinction.”

Among its provisions, the Declaration of the Rights of the Southern Resident Orcas calls for the immediate creation of a stewardship board for the Salish Sea based on a rights-of-nature framework. It should include a guardian representation for the Southern Resident Orcas, according to the petition.

Movie: “The Whale” to play in Port Orchard

The true story of Luna, a young killer whale separated from his Southern Resident community, will be shown tomorrow (Thursday) at 6:30 p.m. at Dragonfly Cinema in downtown Port Orchard. Kitsap County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido invited me to be on hand after the movie to answer questions and talk about orcas.

Luna, or L-98, made his appearance suddenly in 2001 in Nootka Sound along the West Coast of Vancouver Island, where he became lonely and developed a habit of seeking out human companionship. An effort to capture the orca and return him to the Salish Sea failed amidst a conflict between the Canadian government and the local band of First Nations people.

In a move review I wrote for Water Ways in September 2011, I called “The Whale” a beautiful film for its photography and careful portrayal of characters and situations. It was not easy to balance the varying viewpoints, but I thought filmmakers Suzanne Chisholm and Michael Parfit pulled it off accurately.

I happen to know something about this story, because I was in Nootka Sound for two weeks leading up to the attempted capture of Luna and for a short time after the project was abandoned. I was the so-called “pool reporter” representing U.S. media, and I became acquainted with Mike and Suzanne.

Ways of Whales Workshop

On Saturday, the annual Ways of Whales Workshop, including speakers and presentations on a variety of marine mammal topics, will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Coupeville Middle School, 501 S. Main St, on Whidbey Island.

Speakers and their topics include:

  • Howard Garrett of Orca Network on Lolita/Tokitae;
  • Cindy Elliser of Pacific Mammal Research on harbor porpoise status and identification;
  • Stephanie Norman of Marine-Med and Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network on harbor porpoise health and diseases;
  • Sandra O’Neill of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife on contamination in herring, salmon and orcas;
  • Amy Carey of Sound Action on nearshore habitat protection and regulatory reform; and
  • Deborah Giles on Southern Resident killer whale research.

Singer/songwriter Dana Lyons will perform his song “The Great Salish Sea.”

The event is sponsored by Orca Network. Cost for the workshop is $35, or $25 for students and seniors. Lunch is available for an additional $10. Advance registration is highly recommended because of limited seating. Visit www.orcanetwork.org, email info@orcanetwork.org or call either 360-331-3543 or 1-866-ORCANET.

A no-host social will follow at Ciao Restaurant in Coupeville for everyone attending the workshop.

Medical records to be compiled for individual orcas in Puget Sound

When a person becomes severely ill, the doctor will usually check the person’s medical file before offering a diagnosis. In the same way, researchers are now setting up medical records for each of the 84 endangered killer whales that frequent Puget Sound.

Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. This is the kind of information that could become part of their medical records. Photo: Pete Schroeder
Mist from the breath of killer whales is collected at the end of a long pole then tested for dozens of different types of bacteria. This kind of information could become part of the orca medical records. // Photo: Pete Schroeder

Orca researchers and other wildlife experts spent the past two days discussing how to create a medical database for all the Southern Resident orcas, often described as the most studied marine mammal population in the world.

Eventually, the information could be used to put an individual orca under medical observation or even administer medications, such as antibiotics — but that is likely to be a few years off.

“As a research community, we realize that we are at critical mass and have enough data to start asking these questions to get meaningful answers,” said Brad Hanson, research biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Lynne Barre, NOAA’s recovery coordinator for the Southern Resident killer whales, said researchers in both Canada and the U.S. have collected data on these animals, which travel into both countries and down the West Coast.

“Some of these data sets are really large,” she said, “and it takes technology to bring the data together. There are a lot of players with different types of data.”

Fortunately, the research community is cooperative on both sides of the border, Barre said.

Still, it will take formal cooperative agreements to share available information that will eventually be used in research reports, said Joe Gaydos, a veterinarian with SeaDoc Society, a nonprofit research organization. The person who collects the information should have the right to publish his or her findings, he said, but it would be nice if researchers could post their observations immediately for the benefit of the whales.

Over the coming year, general observations could be put into the database, but eventually individual health records for the orcas could include:

  • Fecal samples, including levels of various hormones;
  • Breath samples, including the types of bacteria harbored by individual killer whales;
  • Observations of skin conditions;
  • Photos taken from boats and from the air to show body conditions, including evidence of malnutrition or possible pregnancy; and
  • Blubber samples for some whales, including DNA fingerprints and other health conditions.

The number of Southern Resident killer whales was on the decline in recent years until nine new babies were born over the past year and a half. Individual killer whales can be identified by the shape and size of their dorsal finds as well as the “saddle patch” behind the dorsal fin. In addition, the family structures of the Southern Residents are well known.

Last month, I wrote about how a group of researchers, including Joe Gaydos, opened my eyes to how disease can be a powerful ecological force. While researching stories about disease, I learned about various ideas to monitor Puget Sound for disease organisms. The idea of creating a health assessment for each killer whale had been kicked around for awhile. Read about my newfound understanding of disease in Water Ways, and find my stories at the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Kirsten Gilardi, co-director of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at the University of California-Davis, has worked with mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rowanda, where the animals are under close human observation and each has its own medical record. Each gorilla can be identified by a wrinkle pattern on its nose, besides physical size and other obvious characteristics.

The animals are checked to make sure they are eating, moving normally and show no signs of coughing or sneezing, she said. “When they do show signs of illness, the veterinary teams can go in.”

Sometimes antibiotics are delivered to the animal in the field. If necessary, such as when a gorilla is injured in a snare, the animal may be anesthetized and treated on the spot or even brought to a hospital for care.

People also collect fecal samples left by the gorillas and leaves from plants that they chewed to gain information about hormones and various bacteria and viruses they may carry.

When the Gorilla Doctors program was started in the 1980s, it was the first time that veterinarians went in to treat the animals in their habitat, Gilardi said. Since then, the population has grown nearly four-fold, and they are the only great apes whose numbers are increasing in the wild.

Information collected for individual killer whales would not be so different than what has been collected for gorillas, she said.

Cynthia Smith, a veterinarian at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, has assessed wild dolphins affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In that case, individual health assessments were used to complete an assessment of the overall population. From there, management decisions were made to protect the overall health of the population.

The same kinds of results could come from pulling together information on the killer whales, she said.

“By setting up a database and using it, you can have a finger on the pulse of the health of these animals,” Smith said. “Then you can develop strategies to manage the problems.”

The health-assessment project is supported by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, funding from NOAA Fisheries and private support from SeaDoc Society donors.