2 more Puget Sound orcas predicted to die in critically endangered population

January 2, 2019

Two more orcas are ailing and probably will be dead by summer, according to the region’s expert on the demographics of the critically endangered southern residents.

Ken Balcomb, founding director of the Center for Whale Research, said photos taken of J17 on New Year’s Eve showed the 42-year-old female has so-called peanut head, a misshapen head and neck caused by starvation. In addition K25, a 27-year-old male, is failing, also from lack of sufficient food. He lost his mother, K13, in 2017 and is not successfully foraging on his own.

“I am confident we are going to lose them sometime before summer,” Balcomb said.

Drone photography this past summer showed K25 to be noticeably thinner, and photos taken of him again in this winter show no improvement, Balcomb said.

Several whales were documented to be pregnant back in September, but so far there has been no sign of any babies. The southern residents have not had a successful pregnancy in three years.

The troubling news comes on top of a grim year in 2018 for the southern residents, the J, K, and L pods of fish-eating orcas that frequent the Salish Sea, which includes Puget Sound and the transboundary waters of the United States and Canada, as well as the West Coast of the United States.

The southern resident population is at a 35-year low after three deaths this past year in four months. There are only 74 left. “I am going to stop counting at 70,” Balcomb said. “What is the point?”

Losing J17 would be a blow to the southern residents because she is a female still of reproducing age, said Deborah Giles, research scientist for University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology and research director for nonprofit Wild Orca. 

Giles said she was not surprised to hear about K25. The social dynamics of the southern residents, in which older females help their pod, and especially their sons by sharing food, is both a blessing and a curse if that female dies, Giles said.

“These large, adult, hungry males benefit by the females in their family,” Giles said. “There probably is still family foraging going on, but not like he had when his mom was alive.”

As for J17, “that is the worst of those two, the thought of losing her, she is such an important member for the southern resident community,” Giles said.

J17 is the mother of J35, or Tahlequah, who moved people around the world when in 2018 she carried her dead calf that lived for only one half-hour on her head for more than 1,000 miles over the course of 17 days.

The family already has been through a lot.

“We have no idea what that grandmother went through, watching her daughter carry around that baby as long as she did,” Giles said. “What would that have been like. To watch your daughter go through that grief and not have much you can do about it.”

The same family in 2016 also lost J54, a 1-year-old whale the whole family tried to support, especially his sister, J46, feeding him, and lifting the baby whale up with their teeth every time he started to sink. “The other whales were trying to support him,” Balcomb said. “He had tooth rakes all over his body, but it wasn’t malicious, he was sinking.”

It is hard to confront a new year with two whales already failing, Giles said. “It is this anticipatory grief. I am worried. And I am afraid.”

Drone photography taken this past September showed the southern residents went into the winter thinner than they were when the whales arrived in the San Juan Islands last summer. They also are thinner than the northern residents, which have been steadily growing in population for the past 40 years in their home waters primarily in northern B.C. and southeast Alaska, where they have access to more fish, and cleaner and quieter water. The northern residents gave birth to 10 new calves last year.

The southern residents look particularly thin next to the seal-eating transient, or Bigg’s, killer whales.

“They are like marshmallows,” Balcomb said.

The coming year is not looking any easier for the southern residents in terms of their food supply. The whales mostly eat chinook salmon.

Ocean conditions and poor river migration, with warm water and low flows, have hurt chinook salmon returns in the past several years. Even Columbia River fall chinook, a bright spot by comparison in the region, came back to the river in such low numbers last summer that a rare emergency fishing closure was enacted on the river from the mouth all the way to Pasco.

Only 186,862 fall chinook made it back below Bonneville dam in 2018, 65 percent below the 10-year average. Returns over Bonneville of jacks, or immature chinook, which can be a reliable predictor of this year’s return, were down to 61 percent below the 10-year average.

Columbia River chinook are important to the whales because they are among the biggest, fattiest fish of all. The whales also target chinook returning to rivers in Puget Sound, and in the summer, to the Fraser River. Those runs have been declining as well.

The whales’ behavior is changing as their food sources dwindle. They are arriving later and later in the San Juan Islands, because the Fraser River chinook runs they seek in those waters have so declined. The southern residents also are no longer often seen in large groups, in a pattern of feeding, then socializing, then resting before going on to a new spot.

“They do not have enough fish to feed them, they are spread out all over, we never seem them like it was 30, 40 years ago, when they would travel and find fish, then be playful, then rest, then travel again, that was the pattern,” Balcomb said.

“You don’t see them resting any more, they have to work all the time, every day.”

He said proposals put forward for the whales in the governor’s $1.1 billion budget for orca recovery, including a temporary ban on whale watching of the southern residents don’t go far enough.

“We need bold action,” Balcomb said. “Natural rivers and more chinook salmon.”

Source: Seattle Times

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How beluga whales, orca births are linked

December 31, 2018

Montreal diverted its sewage to the St. Lawrence River; shortly thereafter beluga whales started dying. The deaths were blamed on tanker traffic. No deaths were reported before or after restoration of the sewage treatment.

Victoria is just now in the process of building a Sewage Treatment Facility to serve only the Greater Victoria area, rather than pushing the stuff into the ocean. Until completed and in operation, the region will continue to discharge an average of 82 million litres a day into the ocean.

The orca pods in southern B.C. waters haven’t a surviving birth in five years.

Sewage does not only contain human waste it has in it everything dumped into our toilets. Medications and everything flushed out of bodies, chemicals, spoiled products thru our garburator’s. Making it a deadly source of contamination.

Most of Vancouver’s sewage goes to treatment plants. The older parts of the sewage and stormwater system use one pipe that carries both sewage and stormwater combined. Raw sewage frequently backs up into the stormwater system dumping 36 billion litres of untreated effluent from outfalls in Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster each year. Stormwater overloads the system and discharges from 42 combined underwater outfalls, so people never see the raw sewage that harms marine life all around the outfalls. The worst outfall empties into Burrard Inlet at the north end of Clark Drive. Huge volumes of raw sewage discharge regularly from this site. A large area of the ocean floor is smothered by human feces, and other excrement. The plume reaches New Brighton Park. Outfalls are at Brockton Point, Coal Harbour, English Bay, Kitsilano and five in False Creek. More than a dozen go directly into the Fraser River, where juvenile salmon spend months acclimatizing to saltwater environment.

Greater Vancouver Regional District has set a 50-year timeline for eliminating these raw sewage discharges. Fisheries and Oceans Canada considers them a violation of the Fisheries Act.

Source: Medicine Hat News

6.2 million Chinook Salmon fry die after power outage at hatchery

December 17, 2018

Last week’s windstorm cut the power to the Minter Creek Hatchery in Pierce County, in turn causing 6.2 million Chinook Salmon fry to die. The back up generator failed which caused the pumps that brought water into the tanks to fail.

The fish were kept in incubators at the hatchery. According to a press release from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the inventory of fish lost are 4.2 million Deshutes fall Chinook fry, 1.5 million Minter Creek fall Chinook fry and 507,000 White River spring Chinook fry.

“It’s a severe loss. It’s a challenge to try to recover from something like this. This particular species is not as age-class sensitive as other salmon species. But this is going to have a significant impact on adult returns,” said Jim Jenkins, WDFW South Puget Sound Hatchery Operations Manager.

The department was raising the White River spring Chinook as part of the state’s early efforts to provide more food for Southern Resident orcas. The Deschutes and Minter Creek fall Chinook were part of WDFW’s ongoing hatchery operations that support state fisheries.

“The department is conducting an analysis to determine the root cause of what went wrong so that we can improve procedures at Minter Creek and our other hatcheries to help ensure this doesn’t happen again,” said Eric Kinne, WDFW hatchery division manager.

Source: Koman News.com

Gov. Inslee proposes $1.1 billion budget to aid Puget Sound orcas

December 13, 2018

Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced his proposals for the state’s 2019-21 budget Thursday, and among the list of priorities is a $1.1 billion investment in the region’s orca population.

“We share so much with the orcas, we share about the same body temperature, we share about the same heart rate, we share close familial bonds and we share the need to defeat environmental degradation,” Inslee said. “When we save the orcas from toxins, when we save them from climate change, when we save them from pollution — we save ourselves.”

The governor’s proposal targets the lack of prey — Chinook salmon — that orcas rely on. It also addresses pollutants, vessel traffic, and the potential of breaching the lower four dams on the Snake River. The proposal follows up on task force recommendations released earlier this year which Inslee says he is embracing. It also follows the effort to save one ailing orca and the deaths of newborn calves over the past year that garnered many headlines.

The governor’s budget proposal states:

Besides helping orcas, these investments will have significant benefits for the region’s entire ecosystem and complement efforts to recover salmon, tackle climate change, improve water quality and more. These investments are based on actions most likely to yield strong benefits for Southern Residents orcas over the short term while setting up a sustainable, data-driven path for longer-term efforts.

Proposed funding includes:

-$363 million for salmon recovery.

-$296 million for the Washington State Department of Transportation to correct fish passage barriers.

-$6.2 million for greater enforcement with habitat protection laws.

-$75.7 million for the state’s hatchery system.

-$4.7 million to collect pinniped (sea lion) population information and to develop management actions.

-$524,000 to examine issues related to increasing Chinook population by reestablishing salmon runs above Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River.

-$117 million to covert two of the state’s ferries (Jumbo Mark II models) to hybrid-electric ferries (Inslee expects this to save the state $7 million in annual fuel costs).

Breaching the lower four Snake River dams is also mentioned in the proposal, which is part of a current federal process. Inslee wants to put $750,000 toward a task force to study the impacts and mitigation costs of such an action.

-Also included in the budget are proposed actions:

-A temporary three-year ban on all whale watching of Southern Resident orca, to be reviewed afterward to assess its effectiveness.

-$1.1 million for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to enforce the whale watching suspension.

-Increasing the distance between marine vessels and orcas to 400 yards, also a “go slow” zone within half a mile of orcas.

-Increased funding for toxic cleanups, including $3 million for local control programs; $4.2 million to speed up cleanups; $3.5 million to remove creosote structures; $57.8 million to clean up toxic sites; $51 million to reduce stormwater, $32 million to address contaminants from wastewater systems.

-Millions in funding for scientific support of the orca recovery effort.

Click here to read the story on mynorthwest.com.

Source: kiro7.com

Washington governor proposes major steps to prevent killer whales going extinct

December 13, 2018

With scientists warning that the Northwest’s beloved killer whales are on the brink of extinction, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced dramatic plans Thursday to help the population recover — including $1.1 billion in spending and a partial whale-watching ban.

“We are undertaking a herculean effort to save these iconic creatures,” Inslee said in a prepared statement. “It will take action at every level of the environment across our entire state.”

Starved by a dearth of salmon, poisoned by contaminants, and buffeted by vessel noise that hinders their hunting and communication, the orcas that live in the waters between Washington state and Canada’s Vancouver Island have failed to reproduce successfully in the past three years. One grieving whale carried her dead calf on her head for 17 days last summer in an apparent effort to revive it.

There are 74 left in the population, the lowest number since the 1970s, when hundreds of orcas were captured in the region and more than 50 were kept for aquarium display.

Inslee, who is mulling a Democratic presidential run in 2020, detailed the plans as part of his announcement of his priorities for the 2019-2021 state budget. The money would go toward protecting and restoring habitat for salmon, especially chinook, the orcas’ favored prey; boosting production from salmon hatcheries; storm-water cleanup; and quieting vessel traffic.

Nearly $300 million would go toward complying with a court order that requires the state to replace culverts that block the path of migrating salmon.

Money would also support developing plans to move or kill seals and sea lions that feast on Columbia River salmon where they get blocked by dams or other structures, and changing state water quality standards to allow more water to be spilled over dams, helping young salmon reach the ocean.

Inslee called for a new capital gains tax and an increase in business taxes to help cover the tab.

The governor also said he intends to ban commercial whale-watching of the local endangered orcas — known as the southern residents — for three years. He stressed that whale-watching will be allowed for other whales in Washington waters, including nonresident orcas that pass through, and that the state would undertake efforts to promote the industry to offset any lost business.

Inslee said he intended to permanently double the size of the “no-go zone” for vessels around orcas to 400 yards (365 meters) and create a “go slow zone” with reduced speed limits within a half-mile (926 meters). The Department of Fish and Wildlife would get $1.1 million for public education and enforcement.

His plans call for converting two state ferries to quieter electric hybrids and building two others as hybrids.

In a written statement, the Pacific Whale Watch Association did not directly address the proposed ban on whale watching. It said it is committed to protecting the whales and that it supports “science-based actions that will best support the future of these whales, including go-slow zones aimed at quieting the waters.”

“Responsible ecotourism is a healthy and critical piece of conservation and education,” the association said.

The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity has sued the federal government for not doing more to protect the full range of the orcas along the West Coast. Catherine Kilduff, the group’s attorney, called Inslee’s plans to reduce vessel noise a good first step.

But, as other environmentalists have done, Kilduff stressed that removing four major dams along the Snake River is essential for the recovery of salmon — and thus for the whales.

A federal court has already ordered the government to consider breaching the dams. Inslee’s proposal includes having a task force examine the implications of that — including whether irrigation, transportation and electricity provided by the dams could be offset, such as by shipping goods by truck or by rail or by boosting wind or solar power generation.

Republican U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, who represent Eastern Washington, said in a written statement Thursday that breaching the Snake River dams is out of the question.

“The people of Eastern Washington whose livelihoods depend on these dams should not be collateral damage for anyone’s presidential ambitions,” they said.

Source: NY Daily News.com

Orca protection measures hurting tourism: Vancouver Island business groups

December 6, 2018

Federal government efforts to save threatened southern resident killer whales could endanger the survival of communities on Vancouver Island whose economies depend on sport fishing and tourism revenues, a coalition of tourism, business and recreational fishing groups said Thursday.

About two dozen leaders gathered at a popular sport fishing marina near Victoria to warn the federal government almost 10,000 jobs are at stake as well as the futures of several cities, towns and villages on the Island that base their incomes on fishing and tourism.

The coalition calls itself Thriving Orcas, Thriving Communities and said the federal government has extended a 5,000 square kilometre critical habitat zone off the southwest coast of Vancouver Island that could result in fishing closures to protect the whales, whose population stands at 74.

Val Litwin, president of the B.C. Chamber of Commerce, said 18 communities have come together to form the coalition.

Karl Ablack of the Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce said recreational fishing generates almost $1 billion for the B.C. economy and employs more than 8,400 people.

He said Port Renfrew, located about 100 kilometres northwest of Victoria, has transformed itself from a struggling forest-dependent community to a vibrant sport fishing destination.

To read the FULL article and watch VIDEO visit the source at Global News.ca

B.C. whale-watching group uses surcharge to boost salmon, science for killer whales

December 3, 2018

A British Columbia whale-watching organization is boosting its passenger surcharge to increase spending on science programs and salmon-recovery projects for killer whale conservation.

VICTORIA — A B.C. whale-watching organization is boosting its passenger surcharge to increase spending on science programs and salmon-recovery projects for killer whale conservation.

Prince of Whales Whale Watching says the conservation fee charged to passengers will rise from $2 to $5 and will be aimed at supporting the endangered southern resident killer whale population.

The company says in a news release the added fee is expected to generate more than $1 million over the next five years with the money going toward orca-based science programs and chinook salmon recovery projects, the preferred food of the resident whales.

Alan McGillivray, owner of the whale-watching company, says the southern resident population is struggling and one of the big reasons is reduced availability of prey.

There are just 74 remaining members of the southern residents that are often found in the waters off B.C. and Washington state.

Source: The Province.com

Mother orca who carried her dead calf at center of hearings over Trans Mountain pipeline

November 29, 2018

Orca mother Tahlequah carried her dead calf for 17 days in July,but her loss is living on among First Nations and Washington tribes that havepresented her as a living witness.

The whale and the loss of her calf were at the center of prayers, songs and testimony before Canada’s National Energy Board in Victoria, B.C., on Wednesday, as it continued hearings underway for three weeks as part of its reconsideration of a massive expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Suquamish, Swinomish, Lummi and Tulalip Nations traveled to Victoria to offer testimony to the board against the pipeline, and share cultural teachings about the importance of the orca, salmon and the tribes’ treaty-reserved fishing rights.

The small, but influential board approved the project in 2016. Construction was launched, only to be stopped in August when Canada’s Court of Appeals found the board had not adequately consulted with First Nations, or considered the effect of the project’s sevenfold increase in tanker traffic on orcas and the marine environment.

The board in September was given 155 days by the Canadian government to reconsider its recommendations. 

‘I am superbly worried’: West Coast fishermen await decision on restrictions meant to protect orcas

November 25, 2018

A year after the Department of Fisheries and Oceans closed off several West Coast sports fishing area to protect orcas, fishermen say they’re worried more closures are on the way along southern Vancouver Island. 

In 2017, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans closed several areas in the Juan de Fuca Strait to commercial and sport fishing between June and October.

The closure was part of the DFO’s efforts to protect a dwindling population of about 74 southern resident killer whales that feed on chinook salmon, which inhabit those waters in that time period.

Ryan Chamberland, president of the Sooke Region Tourism Association and owner of the Vancouver Island Lodge, says more closures would devastate the small fishing villages along the coast.

“Closing us down — ruining towns, everyone losing equity in their assets and properties, is not going to solve an issue, it’s going to create a crisis,” Chamberland said.

“No one wants to lose their houses and jobs and and their way of lifestyle and opportunities to be on the water.”

The concerns of sports fishermen come at a time when some marine mammal experts say the closures might not even help the endangered southern resident killer whale.

In November, Ottawa announced it wants to establish new areas of critical habitat off the west coast of Vancouver Island for southern resident killer whales— the Swiftsure Bank in the Juan de Fuca Strait between Vancouver Island and Washington state, and La Perouse Bank off Tofino, B.C. 

The DFO says it has consulted on the the critical habitat areas and it’s still planning what fishing restrictions, if any, may be applied next year. Ottawa says designating the area as a critical habitat would also enable it to restrict other activities like whale watching and marine traffic, which some argue disturbs the orcas.

Chamberland was at the Sport Fishing Institute of British Columbia’s annual conference in Vancouver on Thursday, where he says more potential closures were a hot topic.

According to the institute, sport fishing contributes more than $1 billion to the provincial economy each year. 

“I am superbly worried,” he said. “West Coast communities fully depend on the sport fishing industry.”

Effectiveness in question

Andrew Trites, director of the University of British Columbia’s Marine Mammal Research Unit, was also at the conference.

Trites says there isn’t enough evidence to support the view that banning sport fishing has any impact on the southern resident killer whales. 

“I think the intended goal is is all well and good. But I am a bit concerned that management actions are be being put into place without any attempts to determine whether or not they’re effective,” he said. 

Trites doesn’t deny that the southern resident orcas have a food problem — evidence shows that they are thinner than their cousins, the northern resident killer whales.

But he says the more than 600,000 large chinook salmon estimated in the areas where the southern resident orcas roam should be more than enough to feed them.

“The thing is that we tend to look at the food problem as being in our backyard,” he said. 

When they’re not swimming along southern Vancouver Island, Trite says, southern resident killer whales spend the rest of the year along the coast of Oregon and California, where salmon-bearing rivers have been destroyed, dammed or drained.

He says those rivers no longer have enough salmon to feed the killer whales.

There is still some debate about whether marine traffic is blocking the orcas’ access to salmon, Trite says. But the DFO’s restrictions last year didn’t restrict marine traffic — just fishing. 

Worldwide attention

The plight of the whales attracted worldwide attention last summer, after the female orca known as J35 spent 17 days carrying her dead calf as she travelled through West Coast waters.

Only 74 of them remain, and there have not been any documented successful births since 2015. The southern residents are genetically and behaviourally distinct from other killer whales in B.C., and feed primarily on salmon.

Several factors have been attributed to the orcas’ slow demise, including lack of salmon, marine noise and inbreeding.

Source: cbc.ca