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

Southern Resident Killer Whales are Dying of Starvation

October 31, 2016

j-28-this-year-10-31-16.jpg

The West Coast’s most celebrated marine mammal is in big trouble, and its supporters are pleading for the removal of four big dams that are killing off the species’ food supply.

At a somber ceremony in Seattle on Friday, cetacean biologists announced that two more members of the Southern Resident killer whale population’s “J pod” had died of apparent starvation in October, bringing the total population of Southern Resident orcas to 80.

The reason: Southern Resident killer whales eat Chinook salmon. And since we’ve built dams on the majority of their spawning habitat, there aren’t enough Chinook salmon to go around.

At the Seattle event, held Friday at Pier 66 on that city’s waterfront,, whale advocates noted the recent losses of J-28, a breeding-age female orca born in 1993, and her calf J-54, until his death the youngest member of the J pod, born in 2015. Both whales were observed in weak, even emaciated condition in the weeks and days before their deaths. They were preceded in death by J-14, a 42-year-old female who went missing in August, and the young male J-55, who died in January only a handful of days old.

Source: www.kcet.org

Orca deaths in Puget Sound raise alarm for Killer Whale experts

October 29, 2016

Pacific Northwest marine biologists had some grim news on Friday, as at least one more orca death was confirmed in the Puget Sound area in Washington state, further gutting a killer whale population that is edging toward historically low levels.

According to the Seattle Times, a mother whale codenamed J28 had gradually become sicker over the past several months, before vanishing from her “J-Pod” family group on or around October 19. She was about 24-years-old at the time, an age normally considered ideal for breeding, and was instantly recognizable due to a nick on her dorsal fin. Her carcass has yet to be spotted by whale watchers, but the orca may have died in the Strait of Juan de Fuca sometime last week.

An obituary for J28 written by Center for Whale Research director Ken Balcomb was published by the West Seattle Blog, and details the specifics of what may have led to her death.

“J28 was noted to be losing body condition in January 2016, presumably from birthing complications, and by July was clearly emaciated. If her carcass is ever found an examination of her ovaries may reveal how many ovulations/pregnancies she actually had, as well as her proximate cause of death (probably septicemia).”

The Seattle Times report quoted Orca Network spokesman Howard Garrett, who believes the death of J28 may have also led to the death of her 10-month-old calf, codenamed J53. He said that the calf was still in the nursing stage, and that his 7-year-old sister, J46, went through a “heroic effort” to save him and their mother.

Garrett also observed nicks and scratches on J53’s skin, which had most probably been a result of his sister and aunt trying to keep him on the surface by using their mouths to hold on to him. He believes J53 may have already been in a state of malnourishment, as the calf’s mother may not have had enough milk to feed him with “for quite a while.”

Balcomb’s documentation of the mother orca’s death included some passages on the steps J46 took to care for her relatives.

“(J53’s) sister, J46, had been catching and offering salmon to her mother and little brother for several months while mom was ill, but that was simply not enough nutrition provided to three whales by one little female no matter how hard she tried.”

All in all, there are only about 80 orcas following the death of J28 and the uncertain fate of J53. Balcomb says that’s close to the lowest population counts in decades, which is a big concern considering the lack of population growth in the two decades preceding the current decline.

Southern resident killer whales can be found in Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and in the vicinity of the San Juan Islands, the Seattle Times wrote. The animals were classified as an endangered species in 2005, as a result of a sharp downtick in population count from about 100 whales in the late-1990s to approximately 80 in 2001. Despite a mild increase in killer whale count in the years that followed, their numbers were back down to about 80 as of 2014.

Following that decline, nine calves were born between December 2014 and January 2016, with J53 being among the more recent births. But that positive development was negated by seven deaths, including three calves (J53 presumably included), and four adults, with J28 being the latest casualty.

In a report from KOMO News, Balcomb said that that certain measures need to be taken in order to prevent further orca deaths and to ensure existing populations receive enough food. And that may be facilitated by breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River in order to allow enough salmon availability for the surviving killer whales.

Source: www.Inquisitr.com

These eight baby killer whales are beating the odds

October 9, 2016

J50, nicknamed Scarlett, seen with the J16 family, is one of 8 orcas born in 2015 that is still alive, researchers say.

Whale watchers say eight orcas born in the past several months appear to be thriving, bolstering the endangered southern resident population that frequents Puget Sound.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association, an industry group, said Monday, Oct. 3, that the so-called “Class of 2015” is all alive and well — good news for a population that has averaged about three new babies a year since 1976.

▪ J50, nicknamed Scarlett, was first seen on Dec. 30, 2014;

▪ J51, nicknamed Nova, was seen on Feb. 15, 2015;

▪ L121, nicknamed Windsong, was seen mid-February 2015;

▪ J52, nicknamed Sonic, was seen March 30, 2015;

▪ L122, nicknamed Magic, was seen Sept. 4 or 5, 2015;

▪ J53, nicknamed Kiki (short for Kikisoblu), was seen on Oct. 24, 2015;

▪ L123, nicknamed Lazuli, was seen early November 2015;

▪ J54, nicknamed Dipper, was seen Dec. 1, 2015.

Another calf, J55, was spotted on Jan. 18 but was presumed dead because it never has been seen again.

The update on the orca calves came the same week that NOAA Fisheries said the work of one of its scientists may have led to the death of an orca in the local pods.

A whale found dead off Vancouver Island in March was likely the victim of a fatal infection after a scientist failed to adequately sterilize a research tag that was shot into its body.

The tags contain satellite-linked transmitters that allow tracking of where the whales go in winter when they leave Puget Sound, in an effort to aid their recovery.

Natural forces also threaten the southern resident population.

“Every time we had a baby born to this population last year, people got giddy,” said Michael Harris, executive director of the PWWA. “And awesome as the news always was, I guess we sometimes had to be a buzzkill. We had to remind everyone that wild orcas have a 50 percent mortality rate out there, that half of these babies don’t make it through their first year. It’s a coin flip, we said.

“Well, now we can breathe a little easier.”

There are only 82 whales in the J, K and L pods today. According to NOAA Fisheries, all killer whale populations are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but only the southern resident population and a transient population have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Orca Network, a nonprofit agency based on Whidbey Island, reports that as of Sept. 12, the spike in births has left the J pod with 28 members, the K pod with 19 and the L pod with 35.

These pods consist of approximately seven post-reproductive females (over 42 years old), 28 adult females (10 to 42 years old), 21 mature or adolescent males (over 10 years old), eight juvenile females (under 10 years old), 16 juvenile males (under 10 years old) and two juveniles of unknown genders.

Satellite tag infection killed orca

October 5, 2016

SEATTLE – A male orca died due to an infection caused by satellite tagging, NOAA announced Wednesday.

L-95 was found dead about a month after NOAA scientists tagged the Southern Resident orca in February. Pieces of the hardware were found in the orca’s tissue. A necropsy, recently finalized, revealed that the injury caused a lethal infection leading to the whale’s death.

NOAA officials believe human error may have contributed to the fungal infection. During the tagging process the tag fell into the water. Before it was attached to L-95 is wasn’t cleaned per NOAA protocol, which requires the tag to be cleaned with alcohol and bleach – it was only cleaned with alcohol. The tag was also attached near very important blood vessels, which could have allowed the infection to enter the ocra’s bloodstream quickly.

The research began in an effort to understand where the whales traveled during the winter when they leave Puget Sound in hopes of supporting the endangered species.

Eight whales have been tagged since the research began in 2012. So far, none but L-95 have been confirmed dead due to the process. However, critics have vocalized concern that it would eventually happen.

“The NOAA/NMFS tagging program is certainly injuring and disfiguring these Endangered icons of the Pacific Northwest, and it is my subjective opinion that it is adversely altering their behavior toward benign vessel interactions to approach them for photo-identification,” wrote Center for Whale Research Senior Scientist Ken Balcomb soon after L-95 was found dead. “I discussed these shortcomings with Dr.’s Mike Ford and Brad Hanson several years ago and was told the sat tagging program would proceed in spite of my concerns; and, I was instructed to simply document tag healing and report any issues to them, which I have done. I do not know if these problems have been reported up the chain of command to the NOAA/NMFS Permit Office, but the feedback I have been receiving is that the hardware issues of yesteryear have been “fixed”.

Balcomb said for the last two years he has been talking with government officials about barbs remaining in orcas after tags have fallen off. He said he has seen infected flesh around the barbs on orcas and calls the practice “barbaric.”

Balcomb also raised concerns about the purpose of tagging the animals. He said the research of where the orcas are traveling isn’t needed because it has been documented for years. Balcomb said resources need to be reallocated to provide more food for the animals, such as removing damns and culverts.

“I was showing the researchers and the permit office the photographs of hardware left in whales, the infections that festered, the injuries that were not minor, the potential invasive agents that could get in there through a wound. It was like, this is unthinkable really. You wouldn’t do this to your kids,” Balcomb said Wednesday. “It doesn’t make any sense to me to be stuck on more and more study, research, and statistical mumbo-jumbo when we know that they’re predators, they need food and we know what food they need. All we need to do is provide it.”

NOAA stopped tagging orcas after L-95’s carcass washed ashore. They will not continue with the research in the near future.

None of the Southern Resident orcas tagged by NOAA are currently wearing the sattelite tags, and none are known to have any hardware left in their tissue.

Video: Alison Morrow answers your questions on Facebook Live

Source: King5.com – Please visit them for video coverage as well as links to official reports filed on this issue.

New images show healthy, active PNW killer whale calve

October 4, 2016

SEATTLE — The future looks bright for killer whales in Washington state.

Pacific Whale Watch Association Crews are reporting that the eight Southern Resident orca calves appear to be healthy and active.

The latest images of the eight calves show improvement for the Pacific Northwest calf population.

Following the death of several whales in 2014 there was a substantial concern for extinction. In fact, the species were previously petitioned to be listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

“Every time we had a baby born to this population last year, people got giddy,” remembers Michael Harris, Executive Director of PWWA, representing 38 companies operating out of 21 ports in BC and Washington. “And awesome as the news always was, I guess we sometimes had to be a buzzkill.  We had to remind everyone that wild orcas have a 50% mortality rate out there, that half of these babies don’t make it through their first year. It’s a coin flip, we said.  Well, now we can breathe a little easier. . .”

The Center for Whale Research now estimates up to nine babies could be produced by the population each year, but with a high rate of neonatal and prenatal mortality the annual average has been three.

For more information on how to get involved with helping whale research click here.

Source: King5.com

Live stream allows for whale watching anytime, any place

September 26, 2016

A live stream has become an internet viewing sensation allowing you to watch for orcas day and night.

The explore.org live camera aimed at Killer Whales in British Columbia has become a hot spot on the internet for people looking to spend minutes…or hours just whale watching.

This is at Blackney Pass, which is one of the main travel routes for Northern orca families and you will likely be able to see fins of the whale constantly peaking through the surface of the water.

Now is a peak time for seeing the whales, because there are about 150 that live in the waters during the summer months.

You might also be able to see humpback whales and seals on the camera.

 Source: www.waaytv.com

The Loss of Killer Whale J14

September 1, 2016

Perhaps even more than we do, killer whales need their moms. I’m heartbroken to report that the Southern Resident killer whales—a small, endangered group of orcas that spend the summer in Puget Sound—lost J14, one of their best. The scientists who study and know these whales have seen J14’s family—two girls (J37 and J40), one young boy (J45), and a grandson (J49)—but they can’t find her. For a killer whale to not be with its immediate family is almost a sure sign of death.

J14 was particularly special to the Samish Nation, who identified with the whale named Samish. The tribe has named her children and grandchildren in traditional potlatch ceremonies ever since. Samish means “those who stand up and give.” As the matriarch of her family, J14 did just that. Erin Heydenreich at the Center for Whale Research spends her days studying these whales. Erin described J14 as a good mom and a solid leader of her family. J14 piloted the family group. She made important decisions. She held the memories of how things are done, knew when and where the salmon run, and taught the younger generations, so they too, one day, would be good parents. Without its matriarch, a whale family can come undone.

In a study published in Science, scientists found that young killer whale males were three times more likely to die the year after their mother’s death than were males whose mothers were still around. But the moms aren’t just important to young whales. Killer whale males over 30 years old that lose their mom have a risk of death that is more than 8 times their peers, and daughters are also almost 3 times more likely to die.

The bad news isn’t over. Another J pod mom is in trouble. The Center for Whale Research has reported that J28 is showing signs of starvation. She is gaunt, her fat stores are depleted leaving her with a peanut shaped head, and she is lagging behind her family pod. She is also nursing a 7 month old calf. A killer whale mom nurses its calf for about a year. The milk is high in fat to ensure the baby gets a thick layer of blubber—to live off of in times when food is scarce and to keep warm in cold waters. Nobody can say if J54 could survive his mother’s death.

With J14 gone, there are only 82 Southern Resident killer whales left. We can’t let these whales die away. I’ve seen them. They are knowing, gentle, and connected. Humans have ruptured that connection over and over again. In the 1960s and 70s we hunted these whales to put them in marine park tanks and on display. At the same time, we polluted their waters and built dams across the west that devastated the salmon runs the whales feed on. Yet, despite all they’ve been through—and the name we’ve given them—these killer whales remain gentle giants of Puget Sound.

I was lucky enough to find myself on a boat this April with Dave Ellifrit and D. Giles from the Center for Whale Research. We were hardly out of Snug Harbor when he rose from the deep. J26. In our boat, next to this twenty five year old male killer whale, I suddenly felt no bigger than an ant in a walnut shell. Every thought circling through my brain—work deadlines, the snacks I’d packed, what my kid was doing—disappeared. He undulated beside us and then slipped away. We followed. His mom and family, the J16’s, soon appeared. Several family members played in the wake of a freighter headed north. We’ve already lost J14. J28 is at death’s door and might take her young son with her.

Source: nrdc.orgnrdc.org