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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Ol’ Tom, Brier Island’s resident orca

January 8, 2018

Ol’ Tom was spotted on Wednesday by a local fisherman off the coast of Brier Island. DANIEL KENNEY

Ol’ Tom showed up on the same day that Brier Island was finally blessed with a bit of sunshine.

Snow and grey skies had dominated the landscape for seven days straight, and this tiny Digby Neck community of 172 souls needed a boost.

Maybe their old friend, the curious and playful killer whale, knew this when he greeted one of its residents Wednesday morning, marking the sixth straight year he’s been spotted frolicking (with no other killer whale in sight) in the mouth of the Bay of Fundy.

Daniel Kenney was out lobster fishing and Ol’ Tom hung around long enough for him to snap a few pics of the spectacle.

News travelled fast. Amy Tudor, a community resident and whale watching tour guide, was overjoyed. She shared the news on Facebook, photos and all, to great fanfare.

“He’s a Fundy favourite and he’s very out of place around here,” said Tudor.

“We don’t have an orca population here, so when we get a visit from Ol’ Tom, it is very exciting news in our community. He’s unusual. He breaks a lot of orca rules.”

For starters, orcas typically travel in packs. Not so for Ol’ Tom, who arrives on his own or, on occasion, with a school of dolphins. In fact, he appeared to be joined by what looked like a porpoise Wednesday, said Tudor.

But he’s almost always up for a good time, having been photographed or

videotaped heckling fisherman for bait or using buoys as toys. During the summer of 2012, he was photographed breaching completely out of the water.

He’s identified by a distinct nick in his dorsal fin. His name was given to him by a researcher who likened his reoccurring presence to that of a tomcat.

Last photographed in July, he makes his presence known usually from late summer to early fall. This is the first time he’s been snapped this early in the year.

“Either it’s really early on in his 2018 visit or he’s late on his 2017 visit,” said Tudor with a laugh.

She last saw him in the flesh while leading a whale watching tour off Brier Island in 2014.

“He’s very social. He’ll swim alongside the boat. If he’s in a good mood, he’ll swim along and show his tail.”

Hal Whitehead, a Dalhousie University biology professor and whale expert, said it’s unusual for killer whales to be travelling alone, but he figures maybe Ol’ Tom has no other option.

“One presumption is that all the other members in his group have died,” said Whitehead.

“They are very social and they have a very particular group they go around with and only very rarely do they switch. He’s making a living but his social needs are not being met by other killer whales, but I’m just speculating.”

As for Ol’ Tom swimming with dolphins and making friends with Brier Island residents, that doesn’t surprise Whitehead.

“It would suggest that dolphins aren’t what heeats. Perhaps he’s more

of a fish eater, and different whale and dolphin species are quite often seen with each other. They are all very social creatures, and that may be another way for him to get his social fix.

“The entrance to the Bay of Fundy is extremely productive, all kinds of creatures to eat. Killer whales have an incredibly diverse diet so he could be eating seals, bottom fish, herring, sea birds or porpoises.”

Either way, the countdown for the next sighting has begun.

“We have so many people signing up to our tours in September and early October just so that they might get a glimpse of him,” said Tudor.

“The hardest times are when you see him and have to part ways. You never know if you’re going to see him again.”

Source: Truro Daily.com

Shore Lore: When killer whales came to the Cape

August 8, 2017

Labor Day has come and gone, yet some things haven’t changed. Off-Cape visitors are still aplenty, and, yes, the sharks are still out there as well.

Many of you might be wishing that there’s something in the ocean that can take down a great white shark. There is, but those denizens of the deep are rare visitors to the Cape’s surrounding waters.

We’re talking about the killer whale, or, orca.

A pair of orcas were spotted off Chatham just last summer. In 1982, a 15-foot female killer whale, named “Geraldine” and “Gemini” (depending on who you asked), roamed the waters of Provincetown Harbor and Wellfleet near the Massachusetts Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary.

However, during the 1940s and 1950s, numbers of orcas were higher in the waters around Cape Cod, according to the late Col. Eugene Clark of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Clark witnessed an attack of orcas on a small school of pilot whales near Lewis Bay in Hyannis on the morning of March 2, 1949. According to an article penned by Clark in the Aug. 12, 1959 edition of the Cape Cod Times, the pilot whales were attacked by the orcas outside of the bay and then sought refuge in the shallower water, resulting in several of them being beached.

“I closely examined six dead whales,” Clark wrote. “Each of them bore injuries received from killer whales.”

The next day, one of the orcas left its pack and ventured closer to shore near Great Island in Yarmouth, circling many of the pilot whales that had been rescued by the Hyannis harbormaster and his crew. Clark and many others watched this for several hours.

“When the killer reappeared it would be right in the center of the school, having taken a huge bite out of the belly of one of the pilot whales on its way up,” Clark observed. “Several times we observed pilot whales leaping straight up into the air with a huge wound on their belly and just dripping with blood.”

Clark added that a Cape police chief attempted to take out the killer whale with “a submachine gun from his department arsenal … with absolutely no effect. He might as well have been throwing doughnuts at the big beast.”

The whale was finally killed by a shot to the head from “a big game rifle … a so-called elephant gun.”

Clark also observed pilot whale beachings in East Dennis and Wellfleet in 1950, where evidence showed that the beached mammals had been attacked by orcas.

In the summer of 1959, schools of the killer whales, ranging in size from 17 to 45 feet, were reported to be following mackerel-seeking tuna into Cape Cod Bay. Fishermen were finding dead tuna floating in the water, with “one great bite taken out of their belly … the trademark of a killer whale,” Clark wrote.

Orcas will eat just about anything smaller than themselves, including tuna, squid, and seals. Sharks are also fair game, as shown in a frequently watched internet video shot in San Francisco Bay.

Will they come to closer to the Cape and chase the sharks away? Scientists seem to think that it’s not likely right now, but in nature, anything is possible.

In 1959, Clark warned that, because of the leviathan’s preference for deep water, “killer whales are no menace to swimmers at area beaches. Swimmers off boats drifting in deep water and skin divers in deeper seas are not so safe.”

Source: Cape Cod. Wicked Local.com

New protection for endangered West Coast whales cancelled by U.S.

June 12, 2017

The Trump administration has thrown out a new rule meant to keep endangered whales and sea turtles from getting tangled in mile-long West Coast fishing nets.

The National Marine Fisheries Service announced Monday it was cancelling the pending limit on the West Coast’s sword-fishing industry — even though the fishing industry itself proposed the new rule.

The regulation was designed to cut the numbers of humpback whales, leatherback sea turtles and other creatures that accidentally get tangled in long, drifting nets.

The regulation allowed for shutting down swordfish fishing with the drift nets for up to two fishing seasons if too many of the endangered animals are getting hurt by the nets.

The federal fisheries service says it decided the new rule wasn’t warranted.

Environmental groups say it’s one of the first such Trump administration rollbacks targeting endangered-species protections off the West Coast.

Source: cbc.ca

Warmer temperatures, more killer whales bad news for belugas: study

May 3, 2017

A study suggests a warming climate and more killer whales could spell bad news for beluga whales in the southwestern portion of Hudson Bay.

The study included researchers at Oceans North Canada, the federal government and the University of Manitoba.

It looked at an attack by killer whales on belugas near the mouth of the Seal River in northern Manitoba in August 2012.

Research showed that after the attack, the belugas scattered northward along the Hudson Bay coastline, away from a traditional calving area near the Seal River.

The study suggests such scattering could impact the survival rate of young belugas.

It also notes that as the climate warms and the water in western Hudson Bay sees longer ice-free periods, the presence of killer whales may grow.

“Here, short-term changes in distribution were recorded in relation to a predation event,” reads the study published in the Canadian Field-Naturalist.

“This change, if occurring multiple times during the longer ice-free season, could have significant biological consequences related to energy expenditure and success in calf-rearing.”

Kristin Westdal, one of the study’s authors, said such attacks don’t have much of an impact yet on the estimated 60,000 beluga population in western Hudson Bay.

But that could change if the ice-free season continues to expand and the killer-whale population grows, she said.

Source: The Spec.com

Ol’ Tom the Orca is back – whale watchers off Brier Island spend time with solitary whale

September 17, 2016

A boat of whale watchers spent 30 to 40 minutes Sept. 17 observing the solitary whale swimming with about 20 or 30 dolphins just off the coast of Brier Island.

Shelley Longeran, research co-ordinator with Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises, has seen Ol’ Tom a few times and gets just as worked up every time.

“Oh yes it was exciting – every bit as exciting as the first time I saw him,” she said to the Courier by phone. “I’ve been doing this 28 years and even to see a humpback I get really excited. You get to know these whales – that sounds funny – but you do, you get to see the different personalities and you look forward to seeing certain individuals.”

Ol’ Tom has been coming into the Bay of Fundy every couple years since at least 2006. Longeran saw him in 2010 and in 2015, swimming with dolphins like he was this year.

Orcas are toothed whales of the dolphin family and, like all dolphins, orcas usually travel in a permanent family social group called a pod. Longeran suspects  Ol’ Tom might have been orphaned.

She has photos of a pod of orcas in the Bay of Fundy in 1999 and she wants to check and see if he was part of that group.

Every orca has a uniquely-shaped saddle patch, which enables whale watchers and researchers to identify and tell them apart.

The first to spot Ol’ Tom this morning was Harold Graham, the owner of Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises.

He often drives to North Point on Brier Island and watches for whales from shore and then directs the boat to the whales.

“He was telling us, ‘There are a couple of humpbacks over there, there is another one over there,’ and then he said ‘Oh there’s an orca out there,’” says Longeran.

Longeran says they also saw about 500 dolphins in the Bay today and nine humpbacks up close with more in the distance.

“This has been one of the best summers we’ve ever had: whale wise we’re up and people wise too,” she said.

In a normal summer they document about 140 to 150 individual humpback whales, but this year they identified 170.

Numbers of minke and fin whales are also up, but not right whales – those have moved further north to Cape Breton and the St. Lawrence chasing after food.

Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises will be offering whale watch trips until the Thanksgiving weekend.

Source: www.digbycourier.ca

Orca Pod Spotted Off Cape Cod Likely not Drawn by Seals

August 30, 2016

CHATHAM – Marine biologists do not believe the pod of orcas spotted off Cape Cod last week was drawn to the region by the thousands of seals in the area – like great white sharks.

New England Aquarium researchers confirmed the marine mammals caught on video by fishermen about 12 miles east of Chatham were killer whales. They were able to identify two female orcas, but no adult males could be seen in the video.

Aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse said northwest Atlantic orcas are not like their West Coast brethren which are specialists in feeding on sea lions.

“For some reason the orcas in this region don’t have a history of praying on pinnipeds, seals or sea lions,” LaCasse said.

There has never been an observation or an autopsy showing orcas in the northwest Atlantic feeding on seals, according LaCasse.

“Their primary food source that we are familiar with are squid and fish,” he said. “And they will occasionally hit sea turtles. They’ll hit seabirds as well.”

They are also known to feed on Minke whales in the Newfoundland and Labrador area with some regularity.

LaCasse said it is rare to see a pod of orcas that close to shore in New England waters.

“We are sort of in exceptional times with water temperatures so warm,” LaCasse said. “So animals are breaking out of their normal patterns and their normal feeding areas in search of food.”

A well-known, solitary, adult male killer whale named Old Tom was spotted off the elbow of Cape Cod. Old Tom has been seen frequently over the past few summers in the Bay of Fundy near the Maine/New Brunswick border.

Small pods of orcas have been spotted in recent years in New England waters but are typically found over 100 miles offshore near the edge of the continental shelf.

The orca population in the northwest Atlantic is unknown, but the premier orca expert in region, Dr. Jack Lawson, says their numbers are probably in the hundreds.

“Strangely enough, there are many more orcas off the northwestern coast of Europe between Greenland and Iceland and Scandinavia,” LaCasse said. “And their numbers are in the thousands.”

The video of the pod of orcas can be seen above. The video may not be suitable for younger viewers due to strong language.

Source: Cape Cod.com

 

Fishermen film killer whales off Cape Cod

August 25, 2016

A group of fishermen looking for tuna off Cape Cod recorded video Tuesday of an encounter with a pod of killer whales.

Onboard the Fish Box out of Pleasant Bay were Alex Wyckoff, Matt Ward, Mark Ward and Capt. Justin Daly, according to Wyckoff.

“It’s a killer whale baby,” one of the men shouted as one of at least four orcas passed by the boat.

At one point the whales swam under the boat.

The men continued to troll for tuna but the whales swam next to the boat several times and stayed nearby for 10 to 15 minutes, according to Wyckoff.

Watch the video by Alex Wyckoff here

“This is the best day ever. I don’t even care about the tuna anymore,” one of the fishermen said. “This is amazing.”

The men were tuna fishing about 12 miles east of Chatham, according to Wyckoff.

“One was significantly bigger than the others, one was very small which we thought was a baby, and the other two were different by their dorsal fins,” he wrote in an email about the whales.

Source: Cape Cod Times.com

Orca sighted on German Bank by Southwest Nova Scotia fishermen

August 17, 2016

WEST PUBNICO, N.S. – Crew aboard the MV Angela O, fishing ground fish on the German Bank, had unusual company for several hours earlier this week.

Ronald Amirault shot a short video of the killer whale that showed up behind the boat, pushing on its cables.

He said crew was lucky enough to see another orca three summers ago.

“Same place, same boat,” he said.

The Angela O fishes out of Dennis Point, West Pubnico.

On July 9, Norm Strickland was heading for cod-fishing grounds off Burgeo, N.L., when orcas surrounded his 18-foot boat. As reported in The Gulf News, the orcas kept approaching from the stern and began bumping his boat. The ordeal continued for about 30 minutes until Strickland decided to get closer to land before the orcas capsized his boat.

“When we got near the land where the waves were crashing on the shores, the orcas headed back out to sea, travelling in a west direction,” he said.

Last September, Digby Courier reporter Jonathan Riley wrote about Craig Theriault of Petit Passage Whale Watch who spotted an orca affectionately known as Ol’ Tom. The whale was swimming with a pod of about 200 dolphins near the Northwest Ledge, about four miles off Brier Island.

Theriault notified Brier Island Whale Watch and Seabird Cruises and they immediately sent a boat out to see the orca.

“We were pretty excited – one of the passengers told me some of the thrill was watching the crew get excited. We were all jumping up and down,” said research coordinator Shelley Longeran.

See the Video HERE

Source: www.thevanguard.ca