Tag Archives: Southern Residents

Orca tagging raises questions about research

Killer whale researchers and advocates are beginning to stir a little bit in response to a proposal by federal researchers who want to attach satellite transmitters to the dorsal fins of up to six Puget Sound killer whales. I reported on the plan in Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

The benefits of these satellite tags would be to track the Southern Residents during winter months when they head out into the ocean and disappear for periods of time. Knowing where the whales go is important if people are going to protect their habitat, according to Brad Hanson, chief investigator with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, a research arm of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

It is conceivable that the whales are visiting some favored spots for hunting salmon. Finding and protecting important forage areas from human intrusion could increase the whales’ chances of long-term survival, officials say.

On the other hand, some observers are raising concerns about this research project as well as the cumulative effects of all research on the endangered killer whales. To attach a satellite transmitter, a boat must get close enough to an orca for an operator to fire a dart from an air gun. The dart penetrates the skin on the dorsal fin of the animal.
Continue reading

Samish Tribe names the newest member of J Pod

The Samish Tribe recently held a formal ceremony to name J-45, a killer whale first spotted in March. See the Kitsap Sun, March 5. The young orca is the son of J-14, named Samish.

It is becoming a tradition for the Samish Tribe to name the offspring of the whale we call Samish, now a 35-year-old female. Samish is the granddaughter of J-2, or Granny as she is called. Granny is possibly the oldest living orca among the Puget Sound whales.

Officials with The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor participated in the naming ceremony Saturday. They provided the account below, which I think you will enjoy reading.

By the way, some of our local orcas have shown up in Central Puget Sound, where they were sighted this morning between Fauntleroy and Southworth. I have not yet heard if these animals have been identified. (Note: I updated this with a story late this afternoon.)

The Samish Indian Nation Names New Calf J-45

Friday Harbor — On Saturday, October 17, 2009, the Samish Indian Nation held a traditional potlatch naming ceremony for J-45, the newest J Pod calf in the Southern Resident Community of orcas.

The Whale Museum participated in the ceremony by providing ceremonial gifts for the attendees as well as a greeting by Executive Director Jenny Atkinson. The museum was asked to appoint a witness to the ceremony. Because of her role as the Orca Adoption Program Coordinator and the storykeeper of the whales, Jeanne Hyde was named.

“It was an honor to be asked to witness, ” Jeanne noted.
Continue reading

What would Puget Sound’s killer whales really want?

Two hearings regarding proposed boating regulations to protect Puget Sound orcas from noise and disturbance have brought out a variety of opinions. Folks involved in the whale-watching industry showed up in large numbers, as did sport and commercial fishers.

Scott Veirs, who studies the acoustics of killer whales, blogged about last night’s meeting in Seattle:

“Overall, there were strong objections to the entire suite of alternatives — from the 200 yard viewing distance to the no-go zone. People for Puget Sound went on record saying that a no-go zone was a step too far. And Ken Balcomb (Center for Whale Research) voted for no action.

“I was left with a profound disappointment that so many felt so unfairly burdened by the proposed rules. If the people who most intimately and consistently share the southern resident’s habitat aren’t willing to make a sacrifice to preserve the basis of their livelihoods, how can we expect the public to act selflessly for our regional icons: the orca and the salmon?”

I thought the piece put together by reporter Mark Wright of KCPQ-TV (viewer above right) provided a nicely summarized and balanced perspective on the issue, though it did not examine the scientific issue.

To dig more deeply, take a loot at the extensive list of comments compiled by the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2007 when “potential vessel regulations” were being discussed. Information about the proposed rule — including questions and answers — can be found on the page “Regulations on Vessel Effects.”

A few odds and ends in recent days:
Continue reading

Now the Puget Sound orcas have been accounted for

When the Southern Resident killer whales came south out of Canada over the weekend, all three pods were together for a time.

Biologists for the Center for Whale Research were able to identify all known members of all three pods on Sunday, which means that none of the whales have died the past few months. It also means that apparently no new babies have been born.

Here’s the report filed Sunday along with some great photos by the Center for Whale Research.

After watching several whales pass by the Center and receiving various reports of more whales up north, both Orca and Starlet (boats) departed. At approximately 4:10 p.m. both vessels encountered J, K, and L pods traveling in tight groups up Boundary Pass. It appears that all members of the three pods were present, totaling 86 whales. The encounter ended at 6:30 p.m. The whales were traveling tight in two groups and continued north up Boundary Pass.
Observers: Ken Balcomb, Howard Garrett, Erin Heydenreich, Emma Foster and Basil Von Ah

Howard Garrett of Orca Network informed me this afternoon that he had received a report that L pod, now intact with the L-12 subpod, had headed back out of the area. I haven’t yet discussed this with folks tracking salmon, but it probably means that the whales are not finding an adequate number of chinook to make it worth staying around.

If anyone has any new information about test fisheries in the San Juan Island area, please pass it on.

Orca Network remains the best single source of information about the movements of whales, because the managers of the Web site take reports from whale watch boats as well as research scientists. The organization posts daily updates, which are sent to anyone who signs up for the e-mail.

Behavior of Puget Sound orcas is raising concerns

The Southern Resident killer whales, which frequent Puget Sound, are acting a little strangely of late and their actions are making a few people nervous.

I always look forward to hearing about their arrival to the San Juan Islands in early June. Ideally, someone will see all three pods of orcas getting together in one big reunion called a “superpod” with more than 80 whales splashing about together.

Last year, the superpod occurred on June 3, according to Howard Garrett of Orca Network. Sometimes the orcas show up earlier than that and sometimes they come in later, but generally by mid-June all three pods are hunting chinook in and around the San Juans.

Their “late” arrival this year is not the only thing that’s disconcerting, however. J pod, which is generally in and out of our inland waters frequently, was gone the entire month of April. Now the pod is gone again and has not been seen since May 25.

Also worrisome is how the whales have split into smaller family groups. Nine animals in L pod (known as the L-12s) have been around until possibly leaving today. Meanwhile, twice that many whales in L pod are somewhere unknown.

Two members of K pod have been in and around the islands, but another 16 or so whales are somewhere else.

“It is very worrisome,” said Susan Berta of Orca Network. “I know a lot of researchers who want to wait for the data, but things seem to be changing and we are getting these oddities. Also, they are absent more and more.

“All the naturalists that we have talked to are just really surprised at this,” Susan told me. “They think that it is not something good to have these bits and pieces of pods showing up and the larger groups not showing up.”

Nobody knows where most of the orcas are right now, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, said Brad Hanson, a researcher with the National Marine Fisheries Service. It’s pretty clear that there aren’t many salmon in the San Juan Islands at the moment.

We are either seeing a weak run of chinook salmon or a late run, Brad told me. Maybe the whales have found some fish somewhere else.

“It’s like when you go fishing, do you leave fish to find fish?” he asked. “If they are in a spot with adequate foraging opportunities, they may just stay there.”

There are rumors of more abundant salmon in the Queen Charlotte Islands in Canada — a vast area with lots of inlets where orcas could easily go unreported.

“These animals are mobile predators,” Brad noted. “They can move throughout their range in a very short period of time. Fish are either late or low, but they are not present right now. We hope they (the whales) are taking advantage of fish somewhere else.”

Lack of food in low-fish years has serious implications for the whales’ reproductive capabilities, as Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research recently documented. The abundance of fish could well determine whether the Southern Resident population rebuilds or goes extinct. That’s why so much attention is being paid to saving the salmon, for the sake of the entire ecosystem.

“If the whales were here now, we’d be concerned,” Hanson said, “because it would mean they’re not finding fish somewhere else.”

Water management in California deemed critical to orcas

Federal biologists are really stirring things up in Northern California. They have determined that the irrigation system in the vast Central Valley farm region jeopardizes the future of several species of fish as well as Puget Sound’s killer whales.

The killer whale angle is worth some discussion — but first the larger picture.

“What is at stake here is not just the survival of species but the health of entire ecosystems and the economies that depend on them,” Rod Mcinnis, southwest regional director for NOAA’s Fisheries Service said in a news release. “We are ready to work with our federal and state partners, farmers and residents to find solutions that benefit the economy, environment and Central Valley families.”

Changing the water system to meet the requirements of threatened and endangered species could reduce water supplies by 5 to 7 percent, significantly affecting farm production and drinking water supplies. Several proposed projects — valued at hundreds of millions of dollars — could help balance that out. To see the technical reports, go to NOAA’s Web site on the issue.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger objected to the findings in a written statement:

“This federal biological opinion puts fish above the needs of millions of Californians and the health and security of the world’s eighth largest economy. The piling on of one federal court decision after another in a species-by-species approach is killing our economy and undermining the integrity of the Endangered Species Act. I will be asking for a meeting with Secretary Salazar and Secretary Locke to discuss our concerns with these biological opinions, and my Administration will be pursuing every possible avenue to reconcile the harmful effects of these decisions.”

Court action is almost certain.

Reporters Kelly Zito of the San Francisco Chronicle and Colin Sullivan of the New York Times’ “Greenwire” do a good job in fleshing out this story from the California perspective.

It’s interesting to see the federal biologists address the plight of the Southern Resident killer whales with respect to water use in California. These orcas frequent Puget Sound, but they are spending a great deal of their time along the West Coast down to Monterey Bay. The bottom line in the biological opinion is that salmon availability along the coast could be a key factor in whether the population is able to avoid extinction.

Environmental groups were quick to argue that if water operations in Northern California can raise the risk of extinction to intolerable levels, then surely the dams on the Columbia River ought to be a concern.

“The recent National Marine Fisheries Service conclusion linking destruction of salmon habitat to harm to killer whales is a breath of fresh air,” said Kathy Fletcher, executive director for People for Puget Sound in a statement. “Our killer whales are at critically low numbers, and NMFS has recognized that what we do to salmon in freshwater impacts our orcas in the ocean. But it doesn’t make sense to protect salmon for whales to eat in California while at the same time ignoring the effect of dams on fish in the whales’ backyard.”

The issue of what to do about the dams remains before a federal judge. The Obama administration is considering whether to continue with the Bush approach to leave the dams in place or revisit the issue.

“The fiction that the dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers have no effect on the food supply for orcas is one of many failings in the Columbia and Snake River biological opinion,” said Steve Mashuda of Earthjustice, which represents the groups in the case. “Our killer whales shouldn’t have to travel all the way to Monterey Bay to find a decent meal.”

To understand why the federal biologists consider water activities in California critical to the survival of the Southern Resident killer whales, I’ve pulled some comments from the Biological Opinion and Conference Opinion on the Long-Term Operations of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project (PDF 12.7mb):

Continue reading

I missed a chance to explain (again) the plight of the orcas

A new study in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (PDF 432 kb) failed to excite me, mainly because most of the findings were not new, let alone profound. The first story released by the Associated Press “buried the lead,” as reporters say, because the unidentified writer apparently had no sense of the research that has gone on for years.

I wrote a story about this study in my own way, focusing on the new stuff. See Thursday’s Kitsap Sun.

What I failed to realize was that many people have not paid close attention to the research findings of the past few years. Nor did I recognize that we now have a reason to explain it all again — namely the fact that last year’s presumed deaths of seven Puget Sound orcas raise new interest and questions about the population stability.

I think it is worth referring back to a more extensive story I wrote on this subject following a wide-ranging research conference in April of 2006 along with a related story about the makeup of the population itself.

Puget Sound chinook are more contaminated with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls than chinook from other areas, even though all chinook spend most of their lives in the ocean. The new finding helps explain why the Puget Sound whales contain some of the highest levels of pollutants in the world.

Two rapid declines in orca populations — starting in 1980 and again in 1996 — were linked to a coastwide decline of chinook in the same time period.

Chemicals banned years ago, such as PCBs and DDT, still show up in Puget Sound chinook, but in lower numbers. Meanwhile, toxic flame retardants, a new class of persistent chemicals, are building up and could be having biological consequences for the orcas.

Chinook salmon have declined in size since the 1950s. Now it takes nearly two chinook to provide the same energy and nutritional value that one salmon provided years ago.

So maybe I missed the boat last week by not taking the time to place the new study into its fuller context. In my defense, I’ve been working on a couple of long-range projects to be published in the future and have neglected some of the low-key reporting and blog-writing I typically do every day.

Other outside reporters, not having as much history with these whales or choosing a more engaging news angle, went well beyond the most recent study, emphasizing the role of toxic chemicals and not the limited findings in this new report. Note the story in Environmental Health News by Editor Linda Cone.

A couple of clarifications should be made for those reading Cone’s story:

  • “At sea” means beyond the fresh-water streams, which includes Puget Sound, where some chinook live all year round.
  • The larger number of salmon needed to nourish Puget Sound orcas, compared to their northern cousins (50 percent more?), is recognized as an imprecise figure. The number of fish sampled was small, and salmon used for the comparison were in different reproductive stages.


Overall, Cone’s story is worthwhile, reminding us of the critical issues in the effort to recover the orca population. I guess that’s one reason I write this blog, Watching Our Water Ways. I can point folks to other resources when I don’t do the primary reporting myself.

Thoughts about the Puget Sound orcas that have died

It was sad and disturbing to find out that seven Puget Sound killer whales have died so far this year.

We haven’t had that number of deaths since 1998 — the year after 19 orcas visited Dyes Inlet between Bremerton and Silverdale. To those who study these whales, the orcas aren’t just seven animals in a herd; they are individuals with unique characteristics; they are members of an extended family that stays together for life.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research believes the deaths are related to a shortage of chinook salmon seen this year from California to Washington to British Columbia. I went into some detail about this in a story in today’s Kitsap Sun. I also included a brief “obit” on the animals that died.

I would like to take a moment to remind myself and others that it is unlikely that the deaths were caused by a single factor. I have long been intrigued by the prospect of synergism in these animals, and I would hope that researchers will one day be able to accumulate enough data to support or deny this hypothesis.

What I’m talking about is this: Researchers have promoted three principal causes of the decline in Puget Sound whales, officially known as Southern Residents. They are toxic chemicals (such as PCBs) that have accumulated in their bodies, lack of prey (chinook primarily), and stresses caused by noise, whale-watching boats and other things. For more info, check out the recovery plan for the Southern Residents.

Follow this train of thought:

  • PCBs and other chemicals are believed to damage the orcas’ immune systems and reduce their ability to fight off disease.
  • If the animals are not getting enough food, they draw upon fat reserves in their blubber. Metabolizing these fats tend to release the toxic chemicals into their bloodstream, exposing their immune systems to more chemicals and further increasing their risk of disease.
  • Although the whales seem accustomed to whale-watching boats, anything that causes them to use up excess energy to replenish their energy supplies by hunting for food cannot be a good thing, especially in times of a food shortage. Uninformed boaters sometimes interfere with the whales’ travel during foraging, and noise caused by boats is believed to decrease their efficiency in finding fish through echolocation (their natural sonar system).

In my mind, all of these factors tend to work together. What is often hard to sort out is whether an animal dies of starvation or disease. When food is in short supply, disease may set in before an animal literally starves to death. Also, especially for a hunting species, a disease can reduce their ability to get food, so the outcome is the same. For many species, a higher-level predator may kill an individual that is starving or diseased. But with an animal at the top of the food web, such as killer whales and humans, the dynamics may be different.

I guess I’m just trying to point out that it could be an oversimplification to say the whales starved to death, even if food were a certain factor.

With regard to news sources, I have to confess that this story of the seven missing whales has been in the wind since Oct. 8, but I missed it. Howard Garrett and Susan Berta of Orca Network put something on their Web site, but I overlooked it. Richard Walker, editor of the Journal of the San Juans had talked to Ken Balcomb about that time, but I missed his story until someone pointed it out to me.

Finally, several people have mentioned the coincidental stranding of a killer whale on the island of Kauai in Hawaii. Diana Leone of the Honolulu Advertiser reported that the 18-foot female was emaciated and had “cookie-cutter shark bites” and whale lice, all signs that it had been sick for some time.

CNN posted a user-generated video about the whale.

I understand that researchers are trying to see if the female orca, who was euthanized, can be connected with previous sightings.

I looked up a 2004 Marine Mammal Stock Assessment Report (PDF 56 kb) for a little background. It says Hawaiian killer whales are rarely seen, but the best population estimate is 430. Minimal genetic data indicate that the animals may be related to Gulf of Alaska transient killer whales.