Two recently found dead orcas determined to be from Southern Resident population

April 15, 2016

Southern Resident orca

Two whales recently discovered dead in British Columbia have been identified as Southern Resident Killer Whales, according to an April 13 press release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada released the news of the two whales earlier in the day.

The first, a neonate found near Sooke on March 23, was identified as a Southern Resident by the Vancouver Aquarium genetics team. The female calf was less than two weeks old. Further analysis will be done to determine which pod the calf belonged to.

A initial necropsy done March 25 did not indicate a cause of death.

The second, an adult male, was found floating west of Notka Island off Vancouver Island on March 30, according the the Canadian agency. It was identified as L95 of the Southern Resident population from a scar caused by a satellite tag deployed earlier this year by NOAA. The whale was approximately 20 years old.

L95, also known as Nigel, was recognizable by his distinct saddle patch markings and social intermingling when many pod mates were present, according to The Whale Museum on San Juan Island.

No clear cause of death was apparent in an initial necropsy done April 1 on L95, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. However, gross dissection and X-rays of the tag site indicated the tag petals were left behind when the tag detached, but revealed no apparent localized or tracking inflammation.

“The cause of death for L95 has not yet been finally determined pending further analysis, but the tagging injury and death were considered coincidental,” Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research senior scientist, said in a press release last week.

Balcomb added that two other satellite-tagged transient whales have gone missing or died after being tagged and maybe coincidental losses, as well.

“However, it is not coincidental that 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 with restructuring tissue around the attached hardware,” Balcomb said in the center’s press 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.”

Balcomb went on to say NOAA’s tagging is adversely altering the whales’ behavior toward benign vessel interactions, approaching them for photo identification. With L95 still retaining some of the satellite tagging hardware in his wound, the hardware issues have not been fixed as Balcomb said he was told by NOAA.

“I suggest evaluating the cost efficiency and data already gathered from sighting reports, photo-I.D., and tagging to determine whether any additional studies of SRKW distribution are justified,” he said.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association is also calling for an immediate moratorium on the dart-tagging of the Southern Resident Orcas, according to an April 14 press release.

“We don’t know yet if this dart-tagging had anything to do with L95’s death, but it certainly didn’t help,” Michael Harris, PWWA executive director, said in the release. “It’s also not needed. It follows a long pattern we’ve seen from NOAA Fisheries, this eagerness to go out and collect mountains of data and then never get around to analyzing it.”

In other news regarding the Southern Residents, J53, a calf born in 2015, is confirmed female, according to a Center for Whale Research press release on April 14.

“Photographs of the calf sent to CWR earlier this week by Jill Hein and Sara Hysong-Shimazu confirm that the calf is female,” the center said. “Only one other calf in the so-called ‘baby boom’ has been confirmed female, J50.”

All of the other eight surviving calves born during a 16-month period are male, except for L123 whose sex remains unknown at this time.



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