Tag Archives: Southern Resident killer whales

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.

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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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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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?

Lummi Nation joins effort to bring Lolita home to Puget Sound

The Lummi Nation, an Indian tribe near Bellingham, recently joined the 25-year-long struggle to bring the killer whale named Lolita back to her home waters of Puget Sound, where she was captured and removed 47 years ago.

The tribe’s involvement could change the nature of the ongoing battle entirely, according to Howard Garrett of Orca Network, who has been leading the effort.

Trailer to a movie in production about the Lummi Nation's effort to bring Lolita home.

“I feel like we are at a whole new level of synergy and mutual support as we bring out our passions and abilities and professional skills,” Howie told me during a phone call from Miami, where he and Lummi leaders were visiting the 52-year-old whale.

Lolita, also known by her Native American name Tokitae, has lived all these years in a relatively small tank at Miami Seaquarium, performing twice each day for visitors to the marine park.

Members of the Lummi Nation contend that what happened to Tokitae was a kidnapping, and her aquatic prison violates native traditions that hold orcas in high esteem. An estimated 40-50 orcas were captured or killed during roundups during the late 1960s and early ‘70s, officials say, and Tokitae is the last living orca taken from Puget Sound.

“There is no way they should be getting away with putting these mammals in captivity for a show,” Steve Solomon, Lummi Natural Resources Commissioner, said in video segment for WPLG Channel-10 News in Miami. “Those are our brothers and sisters that were taken.”

Some have compared Lolita’s capture and removal with actions surrounding Indian boarding schools, where Native American children were taken after being forced to leave their families and give up their native culture.

Orca Network and other groups have proposed bringing Lolita back to Puget Sound and caring for her in a blocked-off cove on Orcas Island until she is ready to head out into open waters, possibly joining her own family. Orca experts believe that her mother is Ocean Sun, or L-25, and that Lolita would be able to recognize the voice of her mom and other L-pod whales.

The cost of the proposed sea pen on Orcas Island and moving the whale by airplane is estimated to cost about $3 million. Howie said he has no doubt that the money can be raised, especially with the help of the Lummi Tribe. Orcas Island is just across Rosario Strait from the Lummi Reservation west of Bellingham.

There is some talk that the Lummi Nation could use its treaty rights to force action if the Miami Seaquarium continues to resist. The Lummi are signatories to the Point Elliott Treaty, which guarantees the right of native people to hunt, fish and gather shellfish. Courts have ruled that tribes also have a vested right in protecting the habitat, but their moral argument to bring Lolita home might be stronger than their legal one.

Eric Eimstad, general manager of Miami Seaquarium, said the killer whales in Puget Sound are listed as endangered, and there are clear concerns about their lack of food, boat noise and chemical runoff.

“The focus should not be on a whale that is thriving in her environment in Miami,” Eimstad said in a statement.

“After more than 47 years, moving Lolita from her pool, which she shares with Pacific white-sided dolphins, to a sea pen in Puget Sound or anywhere else would be very stressful to her and potentially fatal,” he continued. “it would be reckless and cruel to treat her life as an experiment and jeopardize her health to consider such a move.”

Experts can be found on both sides of the issue, and nobody denies that Lolita’s tank is smaller than any captive orca habitat in the U.S.

While in Miami today, Howie was able to watch Lolita in action. He told me that he wore a floppy hat and sunglasses to escape notice, since he has been kicked out of Miami Seaquarium several times for being an “activist.”

“She is looking good,” Howie said of Lolita. “It was encouraging to see that she is not weak. In fact, she is strong. She made four breaches up and out of the water.”

That’s a good indication that this whale could not only survive a flight across the country, but she could thrive, he said. Any treatments she gets, such as antibiotics, would be continued as long as necessary.

Meanwhile, the Lummi contingent is planning a 30-day journey throughout the country to raise awareness about the plight of Lolita. They will take along a large totem pole of an orca, which is now being carved.

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who is hoping to be Florida’s next governor, has signed onto the campaign to bring Lolita home. He opened a press conference yesterday in which he was joined by numerous supporters, including Lummi leaders.

“The time is right to do the right thing and finally free this captured endangered whale,” Levine said. “It was my honor to host the Lummi Nation on this historic day, as we continue the fight to bring Tokitae home to her native waters.”

The first video on this page is a trailer for a movie in production. Producers Geoff Schaaf and Dennie Gordon of Los Angeles are following the Lummi involvement in the tale of Tokitae, which they say is emblematic of the larger story about saving the salmon and all the creatures that live in the Salish Sea.

The second and third videos make up an excellent two-part series by reporter Louis Aguirre of Miami’s WPLG-Channel 10 News. He digs into the controversy over Lolita, including a visit to Puget Sound and what could be Lolita’s temporary home near Orca Island.

Can carefully planned fishing seasons help the endangered orcas?

Salmon harvests in Puget Sound have been shared between Indian and non-Indian fishermen since the 1970s, when the courts ruled that treaties guarantee tribal members half the total catch.

Now a third party — Puget Sound’s endangered orcas — could take a seat at the negotiations table, at least in a figurative sense, as their shortage of food becomes a critical issue.

It isn’t at all clear how fishing seasons could be structured to help the Southern Resident killer whales, but the issue was discussed seriously at some length yesterday, when the 2018 salmon forecasts were presented to sport and commercial fishers. Thus began the annual negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers to set up this year’s fishing seasons.

General areas, in blue, where fishing closures in British Columbia are planned to provide extra salmon for Southern Resident killer whales.
Map: Department of Fisheries and Oceans

Penny Becker, a wildlife manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said a steady decline in the body mass of the Southern Residents has been observed, as the population fell to a 30-year low of 76 animals. People are calling for emergency measures, she said, noting that both Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature are working on ideas to protect the whales. See Water Ways Feb. 23 and Water Ways Feb. 17 and the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, Nov. 2, 2017.

Concerns are running equally high in British Columbia, where the orcas spend much of their time in the Strait of Georgia. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has proposed an experiment with fishing closures this year in four areas frequented by the orcas:

  • Mouth of the Fraser River
  • West side of Pender Island
  • South side of Saturna Island, and
  • Strait of Juan de Fuca

“The primary objective of the proposed measures is to improve chinook salmon availability for SRKW by decreasing potential fishery competition, as well as minimizing physical and acoustic disturbance in key foraging areas to the extent possible,” states a “discussion paper” (PDF 1.9 mb) released Feb. 15.

The closures would be in place from May through September this year, with increased monitoring to measure potential benefits to the whales. Comments on the proposal are being taken until March 15.

Canadians also are working with ship owners to see if noise can be reduced significantly by slowing down large vessels moving through the Salish Sea. Previous studies have shown that noise reduces the ability of whales to communicate and to find food through echolocation. Experts are compiling the results of the “Haro Strait Vessel Slowdown Trial” conducted last year.

One bill in the Washington Legislature would require boaters to slow down to 7 knots when in the vicinity of killer whales.

Limiting fishing in specific areas of Puget Sound, such as the west side of San Juan Island, could be implemented through state-tribal negotiations, Penny said. The closures would occur during summer when chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary prey — are in the area. One option would be to implement the closures on certain days of the week.

Some people have talked about giving the orcas a clean break from whale watchers, and that could involve excluding whale-watch boats from salmon-rich areas at the same time as the fishing closures.

“We’re looking for creative solutions to make this work within our constraints,” Penny told the group.

One fisherman at the meeting said every person on the water should automatically turn off his motor and sit still when whales are approaching. It’s a courtesy to help the killer whales find fish, he said, and anyway the fish are not going to bite on one’s line while whales are around. Generally, they don’t stay long in one place.

One bill in the Legislature would help the Southern Residents by increasing hatchery production of chinook salmon in Puget Sound. Reaction to the idea has been mixed, because hatchery salmon have been known to affect the fitness and genetic makeup of wild salmon. If approved, the boost in hatchery production would likely be a temporary solution.

Sport fishermen generally like the idea of increased hatchery production, because they would be encouraged to catch all the hatchery fish not eaten by killer whales.

The hatchery bill, HB 2417, was approved unanimously by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. No further action has been taken so far, but its provisions could be attached to the supplementary budget with funds specified for hatchery production.

Tuesday’s meeting in Lacey launched the beginning of the negotiations between state and tribal salmon managers, a process known as North of Falcon. The name comes the fishery management area from Cape Falcon in Oregon north to the Canadian border. The full schedule of meetings and related documents can be found on the WDFW website.

Forecasts approved by WDFW and the tribes predict poor returns of several salmon stocks this year in Puget Sound, the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia River, resulting in limited fishing opportunities.

“We will definitely have to be creative in developing salmon fisheries this year,” Kyle Adicks, salmon policy lead for WDFW, said in a news release. “I encourage people to get involved and provide input on what they see as the priorities for this season’s fisheries.”

Warm ocean conditions and low streamflows in recent years affected several salmon stocks returning this year. As ocean conditions return to normal, experts hope for improved salmon runs in years to come.

A total of about 557,000 coho returning to Puget Sound is about 6 percent below the average over the past 10 years. Extremely low numbers predicted for the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Snohomish River are expected to force managers to limit fishing in those areas.

While hatchery chinook returning to Puget Sound are expected to be 38 percent higher than last year, the need to protect “threatened” wild chinook could mean ongoing fishing restrictions in many areas.

Next month, NOAA, which oversees threatened and endangered species, is expected to provide guidance for managing this year’s fisheries, including possible discussions about protecting Southern Resident killer whales.

A 10-year “Comprehensive Management Plan for Puget Sound Chinook” is scheduled to be resubmitted this summer in response to comments received from NOAA on the first draft.

Plans for protecting Puget Sound chinook and Southern Resident killer whales have begun to overlap in major ways, as saving one involves saving the other.

Sen. Kevin Ranker breathes new life into Orca Protection Act

The proposed Orca Protection Act, which was declared dead last week in the Washington State Senate, has sprung back to life with the addition of a budget provision that offers a new chance of passage.

Photo: Capt. Jim Maya, 2013

The newly resuscitated bill, approved by the Senate Ways and Means Committee, is nearly identical to the original bill, which includes special protections for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. If approved by both houses, the legislation would impose new restrictions on boaters and drone pilots, increase on-water patrols by state law-enforcement officers and support studies regarding what people can do to save the whales.

The original legislation died on Feb. 14 when the Senate failed to approve it before a deadline passed for bills that had no budget impact, as I described in Water Ways last Saturday. The bill was revived this week when its sponsor, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, used a procedural maneuver to add a new budget provision.

Specifically, Ranker proposed a $5 increase in the cost of special vehicle license plates that depict endangered species, including orcas. The extra money would be used by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for marine patrols and other orca-related activities.

As a result of Ranker’s maneuver, the original bill, SB 6268, will get a new bill number, SB 5886, which is a bill originally submitted by Ranker in March 2017 with no text. A wholesale amendment on Thursday planted the text of the Orca Protection Act into SB 5886, which still carries the title “Relating to natural resources.”

Dave Pringle, Democratic policy analyst who works closely with Ranker, told me that the senator heard support for the maneuver from fellow legislators who wanted a chance to vote on the bill. Ranker expects it to pass the Senate with strong support from fellow Democrats as well as a number of Republicans. Action on the Senate floor could come next week, when the bill would move on to the House.

The bill describes the 76 Southern Resident orcas as “critically endangered” with a population falling to a 36-year low. The whales are important to the ecosystem and to the culture of Washington tribes. The Southern Residents also provide the foundation of a $60-million tourist industry, according to the bill.

The legislation calls for at least 100 law-enforcement patrols during whale-watching season. Remotely controlled aircraft, known as drones, would not be allowed to come within 200 yards of any Southern Resident orca — which is the same limitation for vessels under existing law. The bill also would require vessels to slow to 7 knots within 400 yards of a whale. Current law has no speed limit.

The revised bill adds an exception from the requirements for distance and speed when vessel operators cannot tell that they are too close to the whales because of fog, rain or other weather conditions.

The bill also would require the Department of Fish and Wildlife to make recommendations about what further actions could be taken by the Legislature and state agencies to help restore the orca population. It also calls for meetings and collaborations with wildlife officials in British Columbia to discuss protecting and restoring the orcas.

Orca protection bill stumbles and dies on state Senate floor

State legislation that would increase protection for Puget Sound’s killer whales died this week amidst confusing action on the Senate floor.

Now, orca advocates are pushing a narrower bill approved by the House to limit remote-controlled aircraft around whales, while they also hope for a $3-million budget appropriation to support other orca protection measures.

J pod, one of the three Southern Resident killer whale groups, has recently spent time in the San Juan Islands.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, taken under federal permits: NMFS:15569-01, DFO SARA: 388.

Whether people should be allowed to fly a drone around the endangered Southern Resident orcas seems to be the issue stirring up the most attention in the Legislature — although it is a small part of the overall effort.

Current law prohibits a “vessel or other object” from approaching the Southern Residents closer than 200 yards. Using that language, state fisheries enforcement officers have issued at least two citations to people flying their drones over orcas in the San Juan Islands, according to Sgt. Russ Mullins of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In one case filed in 2015, a Mercer Island photographer appealed the citation, saying the law does not apply to drones. The prosecutor in San Juan County eventually dropped the case while requesting a legal clarification from the state Attorney General’s Office.

The opinion from the AG’s Office says the 200-yard limitation for “other objects” should apply to drones flying over the killer whales. The final word, however, would need to come from a judge in a state court.

To eliminate any confusion, Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, last year introduced a bill that would prohibit “unmanned aerial systems” from approaching orcas closer than 200 yards in any direction. The one exception would be if the drone inadvertently flies over the whales while traveling to an unrelated destination. See info for HB 1031.

“My intention is to keep drones away from an icon of our state and to prevent the almost harassment, as some people in my district feel, of our orca whales,” Rep. Lytton testified after submitting her bill.

The concern is not so much about one or two drones, although any could crash and harm a whale, Sgt. Mullins told me. But if the rules do not keep drones away from the whales, it will be only a matter of time before lots and lots of whale watchers bring their drones out to photograph the orcas up close while watching from a boat.

“There is already enough drama and confusion out there,” he said. “We don’t need someone driving his boat as well as his drone around these whales.”

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, said they would prefer to broaden the legislation to keep drones from operating around any threatened and endangered species. But no changes have been made so far, perhaps because the specific law being revised is focused entirely on the protection of killer whales.

The bill to protect orcas from drones passed the House last week on a vote of 67 to 31, with all Democrats in support of the legislation along with about a third of the House Republicans.

In the Senate, Democrats decided to take a broader approach to the issue of orca protection. Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, introduced a bill to complement Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed orca protection and restoration initiative.

The legislation, SB 6268, would more than double the number of marine patrols around the orcas, essentially protecting the animals from aggressive boaters and drone operators anytime the whales are in Puget Sound. Studies have shown that the mere presence of patrol boats leads to greater compliance with the rules, which are designed to allow the whales to find food more easily and to engage in more normal social interactions. The patrols also serve to educate boaters about how to act around the whales.

The cost for the nearly full-time patrols is estimated at about $475,000 per year. If the patrols help save the whales from extinction, it would allow a continuation of the multi-million-dollar tourism industry, not to mention the ecological importance of orcas and the joy that people experience when seeing whales.

Other provisions of the bill would require boaters to slow down to 7 knots anytime they come within 400 yards of a Southern Resident orca. Also included are proposed studies to see how human-generated noise affects the orcas, along with at least one meeting to better coordinate protection and recovery strategies between Washington state and British Columbia in Canada.

The Senate bill appeared to be sailing through the Legislature until Wednesday — the last day to approve bills that originated in the Senate. Democrats were anxious about approving two bills before the end of the day — one dealing with student debt and the other with basic education funding. They thought the so-called Orca Protection Act would be approved with barely a bump in the road.

The first amendment offered to the orca bill was the “ominously numbered amendment 666,” as Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib dubbed it while calling on the amendment’s author, Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside. The hostile amendment would remove any prohibition against using drones around killer whales.

“The orcas are a really a big tourism attraction in the Puget Sound,” Honeyford told the chamber. “This would allow those tourists who have unmanned aircraft or drones or whatever you want to call them to be able to fly them. They are electric, and they are quiet, and they can take pictures. I believe it would be a great increase in tourism.”

With an eye toward the clock, the Democrats decided not to fight the amendment. They knew that the House bill was coming later to deal with drones, and they apparently hoped to get quick approval of the Orca Protection Act. After all, everyone was still speaking in favor of it.

As you can see in the video above, the Democrats were talking fast. But Republicans along with Sen. Tim Sheldon, a right-leaning Democrat from Hoodsport, appeared to be taking their time. Democrats finally gave up and pulled the bill, essentially killing it for this year.

The original bill to limit drones around the orcas, which originated in the House, is still alive after House passage. It is scheduled to be heard on Feb. 20 by the Senate Committee on Energy, Environment & Technology.

Some aspects of the Senate bill, such as the extra patrols around the orcas, could be implemented through the budget, according to Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The House bill is titled, “Concerning the use of unmanned aerial systems near certain protected marine species.” That title does not leave much leeway to resuscitate the Senate bill by heavily amending the House bill, Sen. Rolfes told me.

Still, other efforts to protect the orcas could be accomplished with legislative funding of Gov. Inslee’s Southern Resident killer whale recovery program. He is seeking $3 million from the general fund for the next two years.

The governor’s proposal goes well beyond the idea of extra patrols around the whales. Included is increased hatchery production of chinook salmon, the orcas’ primary food; restoration of chinook salmon habitat in streams and estuaries; and steps to reduce seal and sea lion predation on chinook, which are also on the Endangered Species List.

Inslee’s budget proposal also calls for developing oil spill plans to help the orcas in an emergency, since many experts believe that an oil spill could drive the whales to extinction faster than any other problem they face.

“Funding orca recovery is an urgent issue that cannot wait another legislative session,” said Mindy Roberts, director of People for Puget Sound, a division of Washington Environmental Council. “Our region knows all too well the pressures the orcas face. They are starving because they don’t have enough salmon to feed on; toxics in their bodies are released when they go hungry; and vessels are interfering with their abilities to feed and communicate.”

As she told me in an email, “We will be looking for ways to provide emergency funding for short-term solutions identified in the bills that died and in the governor’s budget proposal.”

Remembering an unusual visit from orcas some 20 years ago

It was 20 years ago that people living on Dyes Inlet and in the surrounding community enjoyed a rare visit from 19 killer whales. The 19 orcas, all members of L-pod, stayed an entire month in one place, something never seen before or since. The whales arrived on Oct. 20 and left on Nov. 19.


Orca Audio Slideshow (Needs Flash)

For me, it was a time of awakening to the amazing social structure of Southern Resident killer whales. I had been writing about orcas for years, but I never got to know the individual whales like I did in the fall of 1997.

It was inspiring to learn how their close-knit families generally stay together for life, how orca relatives often help out with caring for the young, how they work together to find and capture food.

I owe much to Kelley Balcomb-Bartok and Jodi Smith, two young researchers who observed the whales for most of the month the orcas were in Dyes Inlet. Kelley describes his observations in the slideshow on this page. He made the recording on the 10th anniversary of the Dyes Inlet visit. Just click on the whale image above.

I wrote a brief summary of the event in a Kitsap Sun story on Oct. 20, 2007.

The year 1997 was close to the high point for the Southern Resident population, which grew to 98 animals. It took about 25 years to reach that number after a large segment of the population was captured and taken away for aquariums. As the Southern Resident population declined after 1997, the Southern Residents were proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act. In 2005, they were declared an endangered species. Today, their numbers have declined to 76, the lowest number in 30 years.

Killer whale experts talk about how orcas in the wild can live as long as humans given the right conditions. Yet things have not been going well for the Southern Residents. Of the 19 whales that visited Dyes Inlet 20 years ago, seven orcas are still alive:

  • L-47, a 43-year-old female named Marina, who has three offspring and two grand-offspring. The two oldest were with her in Dyes Inlet, and a younger calf, L-115 named Mystic, was born in 2010.
  • L-83, a 27-year-old female named Moonlight. She is the oldest daughter of L-47 (Marina) and had her first offspring, L-110 named Midnight, in 2007.
  • L-91, a 22-year-old female named Muncher. She is the second daughter of L-47 (Marina). In 2015, Muncher had an offspring of her own, L-122, a male named Magic.
  • L-90, a 24-year-old female named Ballena who was 4 years old in Dyes Inlet with her mother Baba (L-26), sister Rascal (L-60) and brother Hugo (L-71). Her mother died in 2013, her sister in 2002 and brother in 2006.
  • L-92, a 22-year-old male named Crewser who was 2 years old when he was in Dyes Inlet with his mom, L-60 named Rascal, who died in 2002. Now Crewser is often seen with his aunt, Ballena (L-90).
  • L-55, a 40-year-old female named Nugget. Her oldest offspring, L-82 named Kasatka, was with her in Dyes Inlet along with her 1-year-old calf, L-96, who died a short time after leaving Dyes Inlet. Her next calf, Lapis (L-103), was born in 2003, followed by Takoda (L-109) in 2007 and Jade (L-118) in 2011. All are females except Takoda and the baby who died at a year old. Lapis had her first calf, L-123 named Lazuli, in 2015.
  • L-82, a 27-year-old female named Kasatka who was 7 years old when she was with her mom and baby brother in Dyes Inlet. Kasatka had her first offspring, Finn (L-116), a male, in 2010, making Nugget a grandmother.

The Dyes Inlet experience is something I will never forget, and I know many other people in the Puget Sound region feel the same way. I would be happy to publish stories from those who would like to share their experiences. Feel free to write something in the comments field below.

One of my favorite memories from that time was going out at night in a boat on Dyes Inlet with researcher Jodi Smith. All the other boats had gone home. The air was cold and quiet. Jody dropped a hydrophone down into the water, and the speaker on the boat burst forth with all kinds of pops and screeches coming from the whales. You can read the story I wrote in the Kitsap Sun archives and listen to the recording we made that night (below).

      1. Whales in Dyes Inlet

During that time in 1997, I personally got to know some of the leading marine mammal experts in our region. I even developed some ever-lasting friendships. While I wish that things would go better for our beloved orcas, I am thankful, on this Thanksgiving Day, for that time 20 years ago.

Orcas and seals compete for a limited number of chinook salmon

It’s always been troubling to me that the Southern Resident killer whales, which frequent Puget Sound, have struggled to maintain their population, while other fish-eating resident orcas seem to be doing much better.

Killer whale chases a chinook salmon
Photo: John Durbin, Holly Fearnbach, Lance Barrett-Lennard

Now several researchers have analyzed the energy needs of all the seals, sea lions and killer whales that eat chinook salmon along the West Coast, from California to Alaska. The study provides a possible explanation, one that is consistent with what many scientists have suspected all along. Here’s how I explained it in a story written for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound:

“Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales are waiting at the end of a long food line for a meal of chinook salmon — basically the only food they really want to eat.

“Ahead of them in the line are hundreds of salmon-craving killer whales in Alaska and British Columbia. Even farther ahead are thousands of seals and sea lions that eat young chinook before the fish have a chance to grow to a suitable size for orcas.”

My story contains plenty of numbers to explain what this is all about.

This issue of competition for food is not a simple one to discuss or resolve. But the new paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports, adds an important perspective when trying to answer the question: “Do we have too few salmon or too many marine mammals?”

From a historical viewpoint, the answer must be that we have too few salmon. But from a management perspective, we might have to conclude that the ecosystem is out of balance and that we have been restoring some marine mammal populations faster than we are restoring the salmon that they eat.

In an intriguing study published in March in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution (PDF 840 kb), a group of West Coast researchers investigated whether it is better to recover populations of prey species first, followed by predator species, or if it is better to recover predator species first, followed by prey species.

Protecting predators first — which is usually the way humans do things — may slow the growth of prey species or even trigger a population decline, the report says. That creates a problem for predators that specialize in that one kind of prey as well as for those that have no access to alternative prey.

It may seem logical to rebuild the prey species first, the authors say. But, with some exceptions, recovering prey species first causes the combined predator and prey populations to peak at high levels that are unsustainable in the overall ecosystem.

“In the real world,” the paper states, “transient dynamics like these that result from eruptions of prey populations can lead to surprising cascades of ecological interactions and complex but often mismatched management responses.”

The authors conclude that the fastest way to restore depressed populations is through synchronous recovery of predators and prey by carefully rebuilding two or more populations at the same time.

Management tactics may include culling predators even before optimal population numbers are reached. Such actions require careful study, as culling may produce unexpected consequences, according to the report.

Other options include protecting multiple species within protected geographic or marine areas or focusing on single species by protecting select habitats or reducing human exploitation.

For Southern Resident killer whales, the question will be whether populations of other marine mammals — particularly harbor seals in Puget Sound —should be controlled. If so, how would people go about doing that?

One related issue that needs more study is the effect that transient killer whales are having on the Salish Sea population of seals and sea lions. As the Southern Residents spend less time searching for chinook salmon in the inland waterway, the seal-eating transients are being spotted more and more by people along the shores of Puget Sound.

Some studies estimate that the transients need an average of one to two seals each day to maintain their energy needs, although we know these whales also eat smaller sea otters and larger California and Steller sea lions, as well as an occasional gray whale.

Are the transients culling the population of harbor seals in Puget Sound or at least limiting their growth? Even before the transients were showing up frequently, biologists were telling us that the overall harbor seal population appeared to be peaking and perhaps declining.

It would be interesting to create a future-looking computer model that could account for populations of salmon and marine mammals under various scenarios — including possible management actions by humans and the ongoing predation by transient killer whales.

If we want to keep things more natural while helping out the Southern Residents, maybe somebody could come up with a strategy to attract and maintain a healthy population of seal-eating transient orcas within the Salish Sea.