Researchers worried killer whale population will flatline with female deaths

November 13, 2016

VANCOUVER — The death of a single wild animal is not usually significant, but for an endangered species of killer whales the loss of a young female has some experts worried that the population may reach a point where it stops growing.

There are only 80 killer whales among the southern residents — a clan of orcas that live in the waters off southern British Columbia and Washington State — and the death of each female is a lost opportunity to increase the pod.

Ken Balcomb, senior scientist for the Centre for Whale Research, said the recently deceased orca called J28 follows a trend of females dying either late in pregnancy or not long after giving birth.

“This has got to stop,” he said. “The population is not going to recover if we don’t have reproductive females.”

J28 gave birth to a male calf in October last year.

Researchers noticed something was wrong last January, Balcomb said, when she began losing weight.

The 23-year-old orca died in October near the Juan de Fuca Strait separating Vancouver Island from Washington state.

Her newborn calf also looked thin, and Balcomb said his survival without a mother was unlikely.

J28’s body was not recovered so the cause of death remains uncertain, but Balcomb said he suspects an inadequate food supply and toxins are to blame.

Killer whales have been found to carry high levels of toxins in their blubber, the result of pollutants in the water and in their food.

The whales — and their neighbouring northern residents which ply the waters off B.C. and Alaska — rely predominantly on chinook salmon but also eat chum and coho.

Balcomb said in years chinook and other fish stocks are poor, the orcas are forced to metabolize their blubber, subsequently releasing toxins into their blood and organs.

Hunger is particularly problematic for pregnant orcas that need extra food to carry their babies to term, he said.

Another female orca died over the summer, and more than 50 per cent of pregnancies end in miscarriage.

But Lance Barrett-Lennard, director of cetacean research at the Vancouver Aquarium, said aerial photos he has been collecting on southern residents don’t show the appearance of starving whales, despite a poor chinook run this year.

Barrett-Lennard said the photos, collected in partnership with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, provide accurate information on the orcas’ body composition.

Images captured in September found that although the orcas were thinner compared with images captured in September 2015, they appeared to be in generally good condition.

“Most of them are not emaciated by any means,” he said. “(J28) was the outlier, she was the unusual one.”

That doesn’t rule out the possibility that J28 died as a result of an illness triggered by toxins.

John Ford, a research scientist for Canada’s Fisheries Department, said there are a lot of uncertainties about how toxins affect orcas, but most researchers believe it suppresses their immune systems, making them more susceptible to diseases.

The effects of toxins also appears to vary between pods, which leaves researchers with even more questions on how to protect them, Ford said.

Efforts to increase salmon stock and other environmental protections that include monitoring and restricting shipping traffic and industrialization of the coast are in place to give the orcas a better chance at survival, Ford said.

“All you can do is make their habitat better for them,” Ford said.

While the population of the southern residents is down, Ford said they aren’t in crisis yet with their numbers stronger than they were in the 1970s when they dwindled to only 71 orcas.

Northern residents are faring even better, with a population of about 300.

But Balcomb said the death of J28 should sound an alarm that stricter measures are needed to limit fishing and environmental degradation of rivers and waterways, including the installation of dams, to protect the orcas’ food supply and prevent more deaths.

“It is a human problem, but the whales are suffering from the effects of these problems,” he said.

Source: www.TheSpec.com

Ottawa says killer whale protection part of $1.5 billion marine protection plan

November 8, 2016

Killer whale

Ships off the West Coast could be forced to yield the right of way to killer whales as part of a federal ocean protection plan, says a Liberal MP.

The $1.5-billion plan to improve Canada’s ability to respond to oil spills and take measures to protect its oceans includes moves to reduce shipping noise and vessel traffic in sensitive zones in an effort to protect endangered southern resident killer whales, Jonathan Wilkinson of North Vancouver said Tuesday.

Wilkinson, the parliamentary secretary for the minister of environment and climate change, said the southern resident killer whales are an iconic West Coast species that require habitat improvements to ensure plentiful salmon stocks as a food source and protection from shipping traffic.

He said the whale protection plan has nothing to do with the federal government’s decision due next month on approval of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. The project proposes to triple the bitumen-carrying capacity of the pipeline from near Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C., and increase the number of tankers leaving the Vancouver-area.

“The ocean protection plan needs to be put into place irrespective of any decision on a particular pipeline,” Wilkinson said.

Environmental groups say studies confirm the proposed pipeline’s shipping traffic would harm whales and the way to protect them is to reject the project.

Wilkinson said the marine protection plan also involves developing co-management strategies with coastal and indigenous communities to designate areas “where we may restrict ship movements.”

The federal government has earmarked $340 million over the next five years to fund programs to improve the habitat for southern resident orcas and introduce protection measures, he added.

A decade-long U.S. study published two years ago concluded the triple threats of pollution, vessel noise and the availability of food make it almost impossible for the West Coast’s southern resident orca population to increase beyond an estimated number of 80.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said experts don’t consider the southern residents in recovery despite reports of an orca baby boom involving up to eight newborns in the past year.

Kate Moran, head of the University of Victoria’s Ocean Networks Canada, said her department has an underwater listening station gathering data in a shipping lane near the Port of Vancouver. The facility also has an agreement with the coast guard to capture movement data transmitted by large ships.

“So you can imagine, we know where a ship is and we know where the whales are,” she said. “Once we test it and make sure it’s functioning we would send the (whale) alerts directly on board to pilots on vessels.”

Wilkinson said the work done by the school makes it possible to give course advice to ships.

“They can be aware of where the whales are actually active and they can take that information and essentially transmit to the pilots on various ships who can actually course correct to ensure they avoid the whales,” Wilkinson said.

Moran said some shipping lanes on the East Coast of the U.S. have already been changed to avoid whales.

“That kind of work can be done (here), too,” she said.

Wilkinson said the federal plan also includes a spill response centre at Port Hardy and six new lifeboat stations on B.C.’s coast, with three on Vancouver Island at Victoria, Port Renfrew and Nootka Sound near Gold River.

Source: www.CTVnews.ca

SeaWorld seeks OK for new orca encounter stage

November 2, 2016

A year after announcing it would phase out its longstanding Shamu show in San Diego, SeaWorld is asking the California Coastal Commission this week for permission to start constructing a stage for its new orca encounter.

If the commission signs off at its meeting on Friday, SeaWorld says it could begin construction in January, with completion expected by April.

To date, the company has described the revamped killer whale attraction in broad terms, explaining that visitors to the park would no longer see the orcas engaging in theatrical, synchronized leaps and dives but instead would be able to witness the marine mammals’ natural behaviors like hunting, eating and communicating.

Those theatrical shows will end this year, and the San Diego park will be the first to debut the new attraction, with the Orlando and San Antonio parks to follow.

In its application submitted to the commission — whose staff is recommending approval — SeaWorld is proposing to dismantle Shamu Stadium’s existing show set, now dominated by four LED screens and a giant depiction of a whale tail. In their place would be a new backdrop behind the show pool designed to mimic an outdoor coastal setting in the Pacific Northwest.

The new scenery will be a pastoral landscape, incorporating a rugged coastal inlet, artificial Douglas fir trees, cliffs, and waterfalls. The set will be framed by a rockwork facade fashioned from fiberglass, with no part of the backdrop higher than 30 feet.

Complementing the scenery will be a large video screen that will feature imagery of killer whales in the wild, along with graphics and other information about the orcas to help educate SeaWorld visitors.

In addition, various stairways within the stadium will be demolished and reconstructed, and there will also be sound and lighting upgrades.

The company emphasizes that the project involves no reconstruction or modification of the pools where the orcas are housed.

That’s a major departure from a $100 million plan, since abandoned, that the Coastal Commission approved last year to double the volume of the orcas’ habitat. While the commission OK’d the plan, it imposed a condition that SeaWorld cease breeding its orcas.

The company protested, but months later, responding to mounting public pressure, announced it would end captive breeding of its killer whales at all three SeaWorld parks. It also said it would no longer move forward with the tank expansion project.

Plans for the new orca encounter drew several letters of support, including some from its former critics like the Humane Society of the United States and state Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, who two years ago introduced a bill that would have outlawed captive orca breeding and prohibited SeaWorld from using orcas in its shows.

“I applaud SeaWorld’s commitment to end orca breeding and phase out their orca shows and believe that their actions demonstrate a forward-looking, humane and market-responsive approach,” Bloom wrote in a letter to the commission.

Although Bloom favored the changes made by SeaWorld, he still pursued legislation signed into law in September that will outlaw orca breeding and captivity programs. The new legislation also prohibits California parks from featuring killer whales in performances for entertainment purposes. They could, however be used for educational presentations.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which has called on SeaWorld to release its killer whales into seaside sanctuaries, was critical of the new orca attraction.

“By decorating its underwater prisons with a backdrop of a fake ocean stretching out behind them, SeaWorld would make a mockery of the animals’ lack of opportunity to swim in the real ocean,” the activist group said in a statement. “This marketing ploy is designed to deceive visitors while doing nothing for the orcas floating listlessly in tiny concrete tanks.”

In recommending approval of SeaWorld’s design for its new orca experience, the commission staff imposed conditions focused more on the construction in order to minimize noise impacts on the orcas and to avoid interfering with public access.

SeaWorld, for instance, said that its construction contractor will work with the orca trainers to address any issues they might observe as they monitor the orcas during the construction period.

To minimize noise impacts, SeaWorld said the construction work will be screened by 8-foot-tall panels and when louder work, such as demolition, occurs, the whales will be moved into the pools farthest away.

SeaWorld San Diego said it has no issues with the staff conditions and “will comply with the conditions outlined in the staff report.”

Source: San Diego Union Tribune.com

Update – New orca stage approved November 3, 2016

Concerns for Puget Sound orcas prompts talk of dam breaches

November 2, 2016

Researchers who track the endangered population of orcas that frequent Washington state waters have said that three whales are missing or believed dead since summer.

The most recent death of a 23-year-old female known as J28 and likely her 10-month-old calf drops the current population to 80, among the lowest in decades, according to the Center for Whale Research on Friday Harbor, which keeps the whale census for the federal government.

A 42-year-old female whale was reported missing during the center’s July 1 census.

Center senior scientist Ken Balcomb said late last week that orcas, particularly mothers and their babies, are struggling because they don’t have enough food, a primary factor in the population’s decline.

He and others called for four dams on the Lower Snake River to be breached to open up habitat for salmon. They said the best opportunity to save the orcas is to restore runs of salmon eaten by the killer whales.

“We know what we need to do, feed them,” Balcomb said at a news conference on the Seattle waterfront surrounded by supporters who held signs calling for the dams to come down.

Those opposed to removing the Lower Snake dams say they provide low-cost hydroelectric power and play a major role in the region’s economy.

J28 was believed to have died in the Strait of Juan de Fuca sometime last week, leaving behind a 10-month old whale that won’t likely survive without her, Balcomb said. The mother appeared emaciated in recent weeks, he said.

The number of southern resident killer whales has fluctuated in recent decades, from more than 100 in 1995 to about 80 in recent years, as they have faced threats from pollution, lack of prey and disturbance from boats. They were listed as endangered in 2005.

The whales have a strong preference for chinook salmon, which are typically larger and fatter fish, but those runs have been declining.

“There’s no reason these dams couldn’t be breached,” said Jim Waddellof the group DamSense.

Source: Register Guard.com

Yachtie’s killer whale escort to Mooloolaba

November 1, 2016

ON THE HUNT: Killer whales shadowed Mike Middleton's boat as he sailed from Double Island Point to Mooloolaba.

A YACHTIE has described how his boat was “shadowed” by a pod of killer whales off the Sunshine Coast.

Mike Middleton was sailing from Double Island Point to Mooloolaba on Sunday when the killer whales employed his 50-foot sloop in their hunting games.

Mr Middleton said about eight or nine killer whales stayed close on one side of the boat while some humpbacks swam between the vessel and the shore.

After speaking with a friend who monitors whale movements, he believes the killer whales were in the area picking off straggling humpback whales heading south at the end of the season.

“They were using the hull of my 50-foot yacht as a barrier,” he said.

Mr Middleton, a seasoned wildlife cameraman who was on his way back to the coast after three months filming on the Great Barrier Reef for nature programs, said the killer whales appeared to be “very agitated and moving around a lot – they were on the hunt”.

Male killer whales have a more upright, pointed fin than the females leading Mr Middleton to believe there was at least one male within the pod.

He described the sailing with the orcas alongside as “pretty scaring and intimidating” for a while.

“I was on my own and these things have jumped up and bitten and got people before,” he said.

Mr Middleton parted company with the whales about 4.30pm when he set towards the outside of Old Woman Island.

He believes that with the sun lower in the sky, playing with shadows on the water, they then made a move on the humpbacks, which may have been making towards the shallower water of the Arkwright Shoal to rest.

“It was really interesting how they were shadowing the boat, using the boat as a buffer, keeping the element of surprise up there until they got to a point where the light was just right,” he said.

Coolum Beach resident Helen Bradshaw was having a wine at Stumers Creek with a friend when she noticed splashing offshore by whales which looked different to the humpbacks she is used to seeing.

“I see whales pretty much every day and remember commenting to my friend that they were really different but it didn’t occur to me that they might be killer whales. They were smooth and more streamlined – there was definitely something different about them,” she said.

Mr Middleton pondered whether killer whales had been responsible for the death of a humpback off the southern tip of Fraser Island.

He said he was privileged to witness the whales from a box seat.

“It was really nature at its best. Stunning.”

Source: www.Daily Mercury.com.au