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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Everything you need to know about the killer whales spotted off North Wales coast

June 10, 2018

One of the mammals has been identified as John Coe from the West Coast Community who was last seen in Ireland in March

Experts have identified one of the two killer whales seen off the North Wales coast this weekend.

The two orcas were spotted by Holly Page, the RSPB and visitors at South Stack near Holyhead on Saturday.

They are thought to be part of a group known as the West Coast Community which are normally seen around the Hebrides in Scotland.

Ceri Wyn Morris, a marine mammal specialist for Natural Resources Wales said: “We occasionally get sightings of killer whales in Welsh waters, but it is rare to have a sighting backed up with such good photographs which enable us to identify the actual individuals.

“Two killer whales were photographed off South Stack, and we can see that one of them – a large bull killer whale, has a distinctive notch in his dorsal fin.

“We can recognise this individual as ‘W01’ also known as John Coe – one of the West Coast Community of killer whales, usually found off the west coast of Scotland.

“The identity of the second animal is less clear but it is possible that it’s another male from the same group.”

Ceri said John Coe was last seen off Dingle in Ireland in March of this year, after travelling over 600km in just seven days from Mull.

The West Coast community of killer whales are the only ‘resident’ population of killer whales in the UK. Other killer whales do visit Scottish waters from Norway and Iceland, but they are thought not to mix with the resident West Coast Community.

Ceri added: “Sadly only eight individuals remain in this group, and in the 20 years that they have been studied, they have never been observed to have produced a calf. It seems that this group is at high risk of going extinct within our lifetime.

“In 2016, one of the group, a female named Lulu was found dead on the Hebridean island of Tiree in Scotland.

“A post-mortem revealed that sadly she died after having been entangled in fishing ropes.

“Further analysis revealed a shocking story – the levels of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCB ) pollution in her blubber were extremely high.

“PCBs are toxic chemicals banned in Europe in the 1980s, but they persist in the environment and find their way into the ocean.

“As killer whales are at the top of the food chain, PCBs accumulate in their blubber. The PCB levels found in Lulu were shockingly high – 20 times higher than the ‘safe’ level that we would expect whales and dolphins to be able to manage with.

“She was deemed one of the most contaminated animals on the planet – raising questions about the future of this small and diminishing group of resident killer whales.”

Ceri explained that while it is incredibly exciting to see killer whales in Wales, they are not the only marine mammals to inhabit our waters .

Bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, grey seals and Harbour porpoises are frequently seen off our coasts.

Anyone who sees marine mammals in Wales is encouraged to report their sightings to www.seawatchfoundation.org.uk experts understand how marine mammals are using our seas.

The information help Natural Resources Wales improve our evidence on the diversity of Welsh marine wildlife to conserve it now and in the future.

Source: Daily Post.co.uk

Two killer whales spotted off Co Kerry

March 7, 2018

Two large killer whales have been spotted off the Blasket Islands in Co Kerry.

Rarely seen in Irish waters, it is believed the orcas may be hunting seals in the area.

The killer whales have been identified and belong to a pod of well-known orcas normally seen off the Scottish Hebrides.

The two males were spotted by a group of whale watchers around 3km south of Great Blasket Island.

Nick Massett, of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, said the killer whales came within 60m of their boat and the close encounter took his breath away.

“This was the first time I’ve seen a killer whale here and there’s just something about them. They’re awesome. They are an apex predator and you just know that. You can sense that. They have a presence about them.”

The notchings on one of the dorsal fins was quickly identified as those belonging to ‘John Coe’, a well known killer whale.

The large male was first photographed off the Scottish Hebrides over 35 years ago.

The second orca has been identified as ‘Aquarius’.

They are members of a small pod of eight animals called the Scottish West Coast Community.

Local whale watcher Britta Wilkens believes the killer whales may have ventured south in search of seals.

“We know that killer whales are predators and eat both fish and other sea mammals. There is a large colony of over 1,000 grey seals on Blasket Island and perhaps they are hunting those.”

‘John Coe’ has been seen off the Irish coast on a number of occasions since he was first sighted here in 2009, most recently in June 2016.

It is believed the killer whales may be venturing further south due to dwindling food supplies.

“There’s a lot of concern for this pod. It’s been in long-term decline. They haven’t reproduced in two decades or more. They unfortunately seem to be dying out,” added Mr Massett.

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group is urging the public to report any further sightings of killer whales on its website www.iwdg.ie.

Source: rte.ie

Scientists will test beached orca body found in Shetland

January 16, 2017

The dead orca was spotted at the uninhabited beach at Linga, with Scottish Natural Heritage later confirming that it was an adult.

Local manager Karen Hall said the organisation is keen to get samples from the whale to find out more about its death and to see if it was in a photo ID catalogue.

Staff from the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme are also considering coming to Shetland from their base in Inverness to assess the orca.

It was discovered almost a year after one of the last nine remaining resident killer whales in the UK was found dead on a beach in the Inner Hebrides.

That orca, known to researchers as Lulu, was discovered beached on Tiree on January 3 last year.

Lulu was one of a pod of orcas that patrol the waters around the Hebrides and eastern Irish coast.

Scientists now believe there might be just eight animals remaining in the pod, the only resident orca community in British waters.

No calves have been born since researchers first began tracking the West Coast orcas in the 1980s, with some biologists claiming pollution in the water has led to high rates of infant mortality.

Scotland’s only resident family of killer whales seems doomed to die out.

The small, isolated population of five males and three females have never produced offspring since studies began, raising fears it faces imminent extinction.

Some killer whales have been discovered to regularly travel over 800 miles from Iceland each summer.

Source: Herald Scotland.com

Orca washed up near Walls

January 13, 2017


A DEAD orca has washed up on a beach on an island near Walls.

The marine animal was spotted at the uninhabited Linga on Thursday and Scottish Natural Heritage later confirmed that it was an adult.

Local manager Karen Hall said the organisation is keen to get samples from the whale to find out more about its death and to see if it was in a photo ID catalogue.

She said it was “quite unusual” to see a killer whale washed up on Shetland’s shores as they are used to being near land.

Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS) staff are interested in coming to Shetland from their base in Inverness to assess the orca.

The group said on Facebook: “It is in a fresh condition and SMASS is going to attempt to get to the island to do a necropsy and hopefully establish the cause of death.

“This is a unique opportunity to learn more about these important members of the marine ecosystem, however given its location it is going to be logistically challenging and at this point in time we are unsure whether we will be able to get to the island at all.”

Source: shetnews.co.uk

Grisly footage shows post-mortem on a baby killer whale that was perfectly HEALTHY when it was beached on Scottish Island by Storm Caroline and died

December 22, 2017

  • The baby killer whale was swept inland by Storm Caroline’s 100mph winds 
  • Scientists carried out post-mortem on the three metre-long creature in Shetland
  • The gruesome footage shows the orca being cut apart and its organs examined
  • It is understood the four-year-old whale calf suffered an agonising death

A post-mortem on a killer whale calf swept 25 metres inland by Storm Caroline has confirmed the creature was healthy when it was stranded.

Grisly footage shows the orca being cut apart and its organs examined – all of which appeared to show no signs of pre-existing damage.

The clip shows veterinary pathologist Dr Andrew Brownlow carrying out an autopsy on the whale after it was dumped in a field by the 100mph storm.

The marine animal expert from the Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme travelled to Eshaness in Shetland earlier this week to conduct the investigation.

It is understood the four-year-old whale calf suffered an agonising death when it became stranded on shore while still alive, on December 7.

The three-metre long animal was discovered by a member of the public on the west coast of Shetland’s main island.

In the gruesome clip, Dr Brownlow and staff from the Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary roll the whale onto its stomach before taking various measurements.

At the start he describes the aims of the autopsy, saying: ‘The thing we’re really interested in, given its a killer whale, is these animals feed right at the very top of the food web.

‘They eat marine mammals which themselves eat fish, they eat everything else. So whatever is going on with killer whales is representative of whatever else is going on in the ocean.

‘This year and the last couple of years we’ve found quite alarming results with killer whales, not of this population but of ones that are off the coast of the western isles, what’s called the west coast community.

To see photos of the necropsy visit the source at Daily Mail.co.uk

Watch killer whale wash up on beach in Galway

July 17, 2017

The body of a rare killer whale was found on beach near Roundstone.

This video shows a killer whale washed up on a beach in Galway.

The Connemara native came across a rare type of dolphin on while out strolling on his local beach over the weekend

Roundstone man Ronan Davis was on Dolan beach with his camera on hand when he spotted the unusual creature washing up on the rocks nearby.

Davis said that it wasn’t unusual for sea creatures to find their way to his local shore, but added that he had never quite seen anything like the killer whale.

“I’d walk here a lot, every day with the dog. You’d find a lot of stuff in the form of dolphins or birds washed in and different things like that but killer whales? No.”

Ronan took snaps of the creature and sent the photos on to the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) who confirmed it to be a male killer whale.

“They confirmed what it was and told me that only 18 of them have washed in in the last 100 years so it’s pretty rare.”

“Id say it was around 25ft, I was asked by the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group to get a sample today so I went back to get a sample of it’s skin and took a tooth as well, so I got a good look.”

The killer whale, or Orca as it is also known, is the largest member of the dolphin family and is known to prey mainly on fish.

Although a rare sight, this isn’t the first time they have been in Irish waters this summer, just last month a large family of them were spotted by a team of researches off the coast of Kerry.

Source: Irish Mirror.ie

The world’s most toxic whale: Orca Lulu contaminated with extreme levels of PCB pollutant

May 5, 2017

A killer whale found dead on the Scottish island of Tiree had one of the highest levels of PCB pollution ever recorded, scientists say.

Lulu, well known to researchers as one of the last surviving whales in the waters around Britain, died after becoming entangled in fishing rope in January 2016. The Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme and the University of Aberdeen conducted an in-depth investigation of Lulu’s corpse and were shocked by the findings. The headline on its website called the killer whale the “most contaminated on the planet.”

Veterinary pathologist Andrew Brownlow said studies have shown that killer whale populations can have very high levels of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB).

“The levels in this case are some of the highest we’ve ever seen,” he said. “We know Lulu died from becoming entangled, but, given what is known about the toxic effects of PCBs, we have to consider (the contamination) could have been affecting her health and reproductive fitness.”

Analysis of Lulu’s blubber revealed PCB concentrations 100 times higher than the accepted toxicity threshold for marine mammals, the stranding scheme reports. High PCB levels are linked to poor health, impaired immune function, increased susceptibility to cancers and infertility.

Once PCBs get into the marine environment, they accumulate through food chains and are difficult if not impossible to remove, Brownlow said.

The investigation revealed that Lulu was at least 20 years old but apparently never reproduced, despite being much older than the average age for maturity in killer whales. Brownlow called Lulu’s apparent infertility an ominous warning and said it is “increasingly likely that this small group will eventually go extinct.” Lulu lived in a pod of about eight whales.

PCBs were banned in the US in 1979. From the 1920s until their ban, an estimated 700,000 tonnes of PCBs were made for things such as microscope oils, electrical insulators, capacitors, and electric appliances such as television sets or refrigerators, the US National Ocean Service says. PCBs were also sprayed on dirt roads to keep the dust down. Traces of PCBs have been detected in people and animals around the world.

Lulu’s skeleton is preserved at National Museums Scotland. The stranding scheme was set up in 1992 to analyse and report data for all marine mammals, marine turtle and basking shark stranding.

Source: scmp.com

UK killer whale died with extreme levels of toxic pollutants

May 2, 2017

One of the highest concentrations of toxic pollutants ever recorded in a marine mammal has been revealed in a Scottish killer whale that died in 2016.

The adult whale, known as Lulu, was a member of the UK’s last resident pod and a postmortem also showed she had never produced a calf. The pollutants, called PCBs, are known to cause infertility and these latest findings add to strong evidence that the pod is doomed to extinction.

The level of PCBs found in Lulu’s blubber were extreme at 950mg/kg, more than 100 times the 9mg/kg limit above which damage to the health of marine mammals is known to occur. A 2016 analysis showed the average concentration for killer whales in the north-east Atlantic was about 150mg/kg.

Lulu died after becoming tangled in ropes used to haul up creels, the netted cages used to catch lobsters and crabs. But Andrew Brownlow, head of the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme, said: “Given what is known about the toxic effects of PCBs, we have to consider that such a high-pollutant burden could have been affecting her health and reproductive fitness.”

Brownlow, also a veterinary pathologist at Scotland’s Rural College, said: “Lulu’s apparent infertility is an ominous finding – with no new animals being born, it is now looking increasingly likely that this small group will eventually go extinct. One of the factors in this groups apparent failure to reproduce could be their high burden of organic pollutants.”

The examination of Lulu found she was at least 20 years old, well above the age of sexual maturity, which ranges from six to 10 years old. However, analysis of the ovaries shows she never bore a calf. The entire pod may have been left barren, as no calf has ever been seen in the 23 years the group have been monitored.

PCBs were used for decades in electrical equipment but finally banned in the 1980s after the full toxic impacts on people and wildlife were revealed. PCBs, which cause cancers and suppress the immune system, are especially harmful to top predators because they accumulate in fat up the food chain. Killer whales can live for many decades, meaning they can end up with very high levels of PCBs.

“Once PCBs get into the marine environment, they are difficult if not impossible to remove,” said Brownlow. “There are still many PCB stockpiles in Europe, and it is absolutely essential that these toxic reserves do not reach the marine environment.”

Bottlenose dolphins in the north-east Atlantic have also shown both high PCB levels and low reproductive rates. Other PCBs hotspots around the world include the entire Mediterranean and the Black Sea, while specific populations suffering from PCB poisoning include belugas in Canada and polar bears across the Arctic.

In February, scientists discovered “extraordinary” amounts of PCBs had even reached the most remote and inaccessible place on the planet – the 10km deep Mariana trench in the Pacific Ocean.

Source: The Guardian.com

Name an orca calf

April 29, 2017

Orca female SN200 with young calf - Photo: Orca Guardians Iceland

The calf was first spotted on 20 November along the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, in Iceland, and is the latest offspring of female SN200 (West Iceland ID number), known in Scotland as 012.

The group of orcas spends the winter in Icelandic waters, while migrating south to Shetland and Scotland in the spring and summer.

In the past, both countries ran separate naming programs resulting in animals that travel between the two countries having two different names, often resulting in confusion when sightings were reported.

The naming contest has been organised by Orca Guardians Iceland, a non-profit killer whale research and conservation organisation based in West Iceland.

The contest will start on the 4 May on Orca Guardians Iceland’s Facebook page.

Firstly, the public is invited to send in naming suggestions for the calf. Four of these will be selected by an international panel of judges, then the public will have the opportunity to vote on four names and select their favourite, which will then be added to the West Iceland ID catalogue.

The judges come from the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Living Seas Project, Caithness Sea Watching/Orca Watch, Shetland Wildlife, and Orca Guardians Iceland. The contest runs until 19 May.

Hugh Harrop of Shetland Wildlife and creator of the Shetland Orca Sightings Facebook page said he was “absolutely delighted” to be involved.

“It is fantastic how the North Atlantic whale-watching community has pulled together. It’s a great way of raising awareness of these very special creatures,” he said.

A previous contest was won by pupils from Sunnyside Primary School, in Glasgow, who are raising awareness on cetacean conservation issues as part of their curriculum.

More information on the adoption program and the work of Orca Guardians Iceland can be found here.

Source: Shetnews.co.uk