Scientist blasts ‘overly barbaric’ orca tagging system

April 14, 2016

A method of tagging killer whales to track their movements along the Pacific coast is both inhumane and ineffective, according to a prominent researcher south of the border.

Kenneth Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research in Washington, spoke out this week after metal barbs used in satellite tagging were discovered inside the carcass of L95, an orca that washed up on the shore of Vancouver Island earlier this month.

“At least seven other satellite tagged whales are still carrying hardware embedded in their tissues from the attachment fixtures, and some of the wounds have festered,” Balcomb said in a news release.

“In my opinion, the tag attachment methodology was overly barbaric and defective from the get-go, and the entire tagging program should be rethought and evaluated for efficacy.”

Tagging-related injuries aren’t believed to have contributed to L95’s death, according to preliminary results of a necropsy, but Balcomb said there are still serious issues that warrant review.

His concerns have been echoed in B.C. as well. Lance Barrett-Lennard, senior marine mammal researcher for the Vancouver Aquarium, said satellite tags aren’t used in Canada over concerns the attachment system is too invasive.

“I wouldn’t say ‘barbaric.’ I’d say crude, though,” he told CTV News.

Barrett-Lennard said U.S. researchers who use tags often shoot them into a killer whale’s dorsal fin using a crossbow. The arrow falls away and the tag attaches with a pair of spikes that stick into the fin.

Tracking whales is important for conservation, he added, but B.C. has a robust sightings network that provides adequate data for researchers.

“You’ve got to know what challenges they face, what hazards they might run into, what areas you should protect. There’s lots of good reasons for wanting to understand their distribution, and tags are great for that,” Barrett-Lennard said.

“Our position in British Columbia has been: let’s wait until a better attachment system is made.”

There are also doubts about the usefulness of satellite tagging in its current form. The Vancouver Aquarium said tags last less than a month on average, and sometimes only a couple of days, before falling out.

Balcomb believes the process of attaching them is also having an impact on the way orcas react to researchers.

“It is my subjective opinion that it is adversely altering their behavior toward benign vessel interactions,” Balcomb said. “Like any wildlife, they become gun-shy when the interactions with humans become aggressive and they are impacted with bullets, harpoons, or biopsy hardware.”

On Thursday, Michael Milstein of the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration told CTV News the use of satellite tags has been halted indefinitely in light of L95’s necropsy results.

“We’re very concerned that there were parts left behind in L95. That’s not the way these tags are supposed to work, they’re supposed to fully detach and leave nothing behind,” Milstein said.

“We’re committing to a full reassessment of the tag design and the deployment methods before we proceed with any further tagging.”

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