Orca ‘apocalypse’: half of killer whales doomed to die from pollution

September 27, 2018

At least half of the world’s killer whale populations are doomed to extinction due to toxic and persistent pollution of the oceans, according to a major new study.

Although the poisonous chemicals, PCBs, have been banned for decades, they are still leaking into the seas. They become concentrated up the food chain; as a result, killer whales, the top predators, are the most contaminated animals on the planet. Worse, their fat-rich milk passes on very high doses to their newborn calves.

PCB concentrations found in killer whales can be 100 times safe levels and severely damage reproductive organs, cause cancer and damage the immune system. The new research analysed the prospects for killer whale populations over the next century and found those offshore from industrialised nations could vanish as soon as 30-50 years.

Among those most at risk are the UK’s last pod, where a recent death revealed one of the highest PCB levels ever recorded. Others off Gibraltar, Japan and Brazil and in the north-east Pacific are also in great danger. Killer whales are one of the most widespread mammals on earth but have already been lost in the North Sea, around Spain and many other places.

“It is like a killer whale apocalypse,” said Paul Jepson at the Zoological Society of London, part of the international research team behind the new study. “Even in a pristine condition they are very slow to reproduce.” Healthy killer whales take 20 years to reach peak sexual maturity and 18 months to gestate a calf.

PCBs were used around the world since the 1930s in electrical components, plastics and paints but their toxicity has been known for 50 years. They were banned by nations in the 1970s and 1980s but 80% of the 1m tonnes produced have yet to be destroyed and are still leaking into the seas from landfills and other sources.

The international Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants came into force in 2004 to tackle the issue, but Jepson said the clean-up is way behind schedule. “I think the Stockholm Convention is failing,” he said. “The only area where I am optimistic is the US. They alone produced 50% of all PCBs, but they have been getting PCB levels down consistently for decades. All we have done in Europe is ban them and then hope they go away.”

The researchers said PCBs are just one pollutant found in killer whales, with “a long list of additional known and as yet unmeasured contaminants present”. Further problems for killer whales include the loss of key prey species such as tuna and sharks to overfishing and also growing underwater noise pollution.

The new research, published in the journal Science, examined PCB contamination in 351 killer whales, the largest analysis yet. The scientists then took existing data on how PCBs affect calf survival and immune systems in whales and used this to model how populations will fare in the future. “Populations of Japan, Brazil, Northeast Pacific, Strait of Gibraltar, and the United Kingdom are all tending toward complete collapse,” they concluded.

Lucy Babey, deputy director at conservation group Orca, said: “Our abysmal failures to control chemical pollution ending up in our oceans has caused a killer whale catastrophe on an epic scale. It is essential that requirements to dispose safely of PCBs under the Stockholm Convention are made legally binding at the next meeting in May 2019 to help stop this scandal.” Scientists have previously found “extraordinary” levels of toxic pollution even in the 10km-deep Mariana trench in the Pacific Ocean.

“This new study is a global red alert on the state of our oceans,” said Jennifer Lonsdale, chair of the Wildlife and Countryside Link’s whales group. “If the UK government wants its [proposed] Environment Act to be world-leading, it must set ambitious targets on PCB disposal and protect against further chemical pollution of our waters.”

The research shows that killer whale populations in the high north, off Norway, Iceland, Canada and the Faroes, are far less contaminated due to their distance from major PCB sources. ”The only thing that gives me hope about killer whales in the longer term is, yes, we are going to lose populations all over the industrialised areas, but there are populations that are doing reasonably well in the Arctic,” said Jepson.

If a global clean-up, which would take decades, can be achieved, these populations could eventually repopulate empty regions, he said, noting that killer whales are very intelligent, have strong family bonds and hunt in packs. “It is an incredibly adaptive species – they have been able to [live] from the Arctic to the Antarctic and everywhere in between.”

He praised the billion-dollar “superfund” clean-ups in the US, such as in the Hudson River and Puget Sound, where the polluter has paid most of the costs: “The US is going way beyond the Stockholm Convention because they know how toxic PCBs are.”

Source: The Guardian.com

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Another pod of killer whales spotted in Hawaiian waters

May 15, 2017

A family-owned tour company on the Big Island has become the latest group to make a rare whale sighting in Hawaiian waters.

Video sent to Hawaii News Now by Fair Wind Cruises shows a pod of rare killer whales swimming in waters off the South Kona coast.

The company says the video was taken during a ‘snorkel and barbecue’ cruise on Saturday morning.

The animals are typically associated with Hawaii, though they have been known to visit occassionally. Experts say only about 350 killer whales have been spotted in island waters, and they tend to be much smaller than those found in waters across the Pacific Northwest.

Source: Hawaii News Now.com

‘Killer’ catch: Fishermen film rare orca encounter in waters off Niihau

March 15, 2017

KEKAHA, Kauai (HawaiiNewsNow) – With a fishing line in the water as he made his way from Kauai to Niihau on Sunday, Kyle Ruiz was hoping for a big catch.

Instead of making one with his reel, he made one with his camera.

Ruiz and several friends were aboard a fishing boat when they filmed a pod of what appear to be killer whales about five miles off the coast of Niihau — a rare sighting of an animal that isn’t typically associated with Hawaiian waters.

“First we thought it was false killer whales, but then we seen how big they were and the white on the face,” Ruiz told Hawaii News Now. “We knew it was the real killer whale.”

In the video, whales with large dorsal fins and white markings around the eyes can be seen breaching waters within about 100 feet of the boat.

Only about 350 killer whales have been spotted in island waters, and they tend to be much smaller than those found in the Pacific Northwest.

Source: Hawaii News

Menopause Mystery: Why Do Female Killer Whales Experience The Change Of Life?

January 12, 2017

Menopause is a mystery to evolutionary biologists, but new insights could come from a long-term study of killer whales.

In these whales, the explanation may lie in a combination of conflict and cooperation between older and younger females, according to a report published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

Killer whales are one of only three species known to have menopause — the others are pilot whales and humans. Researchers have long wondered why it was that these few species evolved to have females that spend so much of their lives unable to have babies.

Killer whales start reproducing around age 15, but stop having calves in their 30s or 40s, even though they can live for around a century.

A team led by behavioral ecologist Darren Croft of the University of Exeter decided to search for answers with the help of an unusual long-term study of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest. There, since the 1970s, researchers have carefully collected information on the births and deaths of individual whales that live in family groups.

Contained within the data is an intriguing clue about why female whales may stop reproducing later in life.

When older females reproduce at the same time as their daughters, who live alongside them, the calves of the older mothers are nearly twice as likely to die in the first 15 years of life. But when older mothers had calves in the absence of a reproducing daughter, their calves did just fine.

“It’s not that older mothers are bad mothers, that they’re not able to raise their calves as younger mothers,” says Croft. “It’s that when they enter into this competition with their daughters, they lose out and their calves are more likely to die.”

The competition may center on access to food, says Croft, because there’s good reason to believe older females feel more pressure to share their precious fish with the others around them.

That’s because, in killer whales, females mate with males from other groups but then rejoin their families. That means when a new calf is born, its father is not around, and females start their lives in a situation where their relatedness to the group is rather low.

As a female grows older and starts having calves that stay with her, however, she develops more kinship ties to those around her. “It may be that older females are more likely to share, and younger females are less likely to share food,” says Croft. That would mean younger females would have more resources to lavish on their own calves.

It’s clear that in these whales, older females play an important role in the survival of not just their own calves, but all of the family members they live with. “If an old female dies, her son’s risk of dying in the year following her death is over eight times higher than if his mother was still alive,” says Croft, “and these are adult sons, these are not juveniles, these are 30-year-old, fully grown males.”

The idea that older females safeguard and enhance their genetic legacy by protecting and providing for their children and grandchildren has been an influential explanation for why menopause evolved. It’s known as the Grandmother hypothesis, and was developed by anthropologists who studied hunter-gatherer cultures.

But Croft thinks that alone isn’t enough to account for menopause, because other long-lived, social species, like elephants, have older females that help their group but continue to bear young until the end of life. “Just the fact that these old females can store information and share that with the group and increase their survival doesn’t explain why they stop reproducing,” says Croft.

Proponents of the Grandmother hypothesis, however, may not be so convinced that intrafamilial conflict plays an important role.

Anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, at the University of Utah, says the killer whales are fascinating, but that they’re hard to study. “They’re doing all kinds of stuff where you can’t see it, and even to get demographic data is just so tricky, because they’re all underwater and they’re long-lived,” she says.

She points to one recent study on food-sharing in killer whales that found older females share fish with their older adult sons, perhaps to maximize the males’ ability to sire more babies.

If that’s the case, she says, “it’s not the older females and younger females in competition, it’s the older females contributing to the enormous success of their sons, and then those baby whales are all born somewhere else. They’re not competing, because their moms are elsewhere.”

Source: npr.org

Drones Used For Whales, Dolphins Research In Hawaiian Waters

August 1, 2016

. . . Within their research, they had encountered killer whales. These are rarely seen in Hawaii. They also found one pod of orcas off the coast of Maui and another off the coasts of Big Island. Olsen explained that if the populations of whales and dolphins decrease, the ocean food chain becomes unbalanced and could impact the entire ecosystem.

Source: scienceworldreport.com

Black, white, and rare: Cetacean Program finds killer whales in the main Hawaiian Islands

July 24, 2016

OES1604_HI-TEC

This month the Cetacean Research Program at PIFSC has been surveying the waters around the main Hawaiian Islands to better understand the population structure and abundance of a variety of whale and dolphin species.   We’ve brought along a number of technologies to detect, measure, and track cetaceans and call our effort “HI-TEC”, or Hawaiian Islands- Technology for the Ecology of Cetaceans, 2016. Among the most exciting encounters have been three sightings of killer whales, which are relatively infrequent visitors to the Hawaiian Islands.  They are spotted by recreational boaters every now and then, and their appearance usually makes the news.  NMFS cetacean surveys of the Hawaiian Archipelago have encountered killer whales only four times since 2002, and our research partners have seen them only a handful of times more.

Many people best know killer whales from the populations along the west coasts of the US and Canada.  Killer whales in Hawaii are distinct from those along the west coast of North America in that they have a comparatively narrow and dull colored saddle patch (the patch of gray shading behind and below their dorsal fin).  Killer whales in Hawaii have been observed feeding on other marine mammals, as well as on cephalopods (octopus and squid), somewhat unique relative to other populations that feed exclusively on either fish or mammals.  These observations suggest that Hawaii’s killer whales may have a more general diet than that documented for coastal temperate populations.  A review of all known killer whale sightings in Hawaiian waters from 1994 to 2004, combined with more recent sightings, indicates that killer whales may be present in Hawaii at any time of year.

Over the past two weeks, we found killer whales off the north side of Maui on July 13, off the southern Kona coast of the Big Island on July 16, and again off central Kona while working with our partners from Cascadia Research on July 21.  The two encounters off the Big Island were of the same group, while the group seen off Maui was different, distinguished by the shape of and nicks on their dorsal fins and the shape and coloration of the saddle patches.  Although our previous experience with killer whales in Hawaii has been that they are skittish and rarely stay around long enough for even identification photographs, all three encounters this month were extraordinarily productive.  We were able to collect small tissue samples (or biopsies) from all 5 whales seen off the Big Island, a significant increase in biopsy sample size for killer whales around Hawaii.  The biopsy samples will be used to understand how these killer whales relate to others throughout the Pacific, and can also contribute to foraging and contaminant studies.

We were also able to deploy two satellite tags during our last encounter, which will allow us to understand where else these animals spend their time.  Satellite tags have been previously deployed on one group of killer whales in Hawaii in November 2013 by Cascadia Research.  Those animals traveled halfway to the Marshall Islands before the tag stopped transmitting.  So far, our tagged whales have headed northeast, and are currently about 100 miles northeast of Maui.

During this survey effort, we’ve brought along a new tool: an APH-22 hexacopter that we’re testing for determining the size of dolphin groups and assessing the size and condition of individual animals within those groups.  This hexacopter work has been a partnership with the Cetacean Health and Life History Program at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) and has yielded some amazing images this trip.  During the July 16th encounter with killer whales, the hexacopter team was able to capture some beautiful images, rounding out three incredible encounters with this rarely seen species.

Overall, a rare opportunity to study killer whales has yielded about as much data as we could have hoped to collect: thousands of photographs, tissue samples for genetic analyses, satellite tags for movement studies, acoustic recordings of killer whale sounds, and aerial photographs for measuring individuals.  Success!  What a great week!

Source: pifsblog.wordpress.com

Underwater video captures rare killer whale sighting off Oahu

June 2, 2016

Amazing home video recently shot off Oahu’s North Shore shows an orca, also known as a killer whale, swimming around a fishing boat.

Waialua resident Jarret Kuni was out fishing with his friends when he spotted it.

“I was reeling a fish in and I noticed a shadow under the boat. I thought it was a shark, but then when it surfaced, my friend realized it was a whale,” he said.

Kuni grabbed his GoPro and stuck it in the water, and was amazed to see how close the whale got to their boat.

He said it’s one of the coolest things he’s ever encountered in the ocean.

“I’ve never seen a killer whale that close. It was literally like under our boat. We thought it was trying to bump us over or something, because our boat was like a 27-foot boat and it was almost as big as the boat,” Kuni said. “To see this whale kind of made my day.”

David Schofield, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says orca sightings in Hawaii are rare and happen about once a year, if at all.

“We don’t believe we have any resident killer whales or orcas here in Hawaii. They’re usually just kind of cruising through at different times of the year,” he said.

Kuni says they were about 10 miles offshore when they spotted the orca.

Watch the video at it’s source, Khon2.com