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.



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.


SeaWorld seeks OK for new orca encounter stage

November 2, 2016

A year after announcing it would phase out its longstanding Shamu show in San Diego, SeaWorld is asking the California Coastal Commission this week for permission to start constructing a stage for its new orca encounter.

If the commission signs off at its meeting on Friday, SeaWorld says it could begin construction in January, with completion expected by April.

To date, the company has described the revamped killer whale attraction in broad terms, explaining that visitors to the park would no longer see the orcas engaging in theatrical, synchronized leaps and dives but instead would be able to witness the marine mammals’ natural behaviors like hunting, eating and communicating.

Those theatrical shows will end this year, and the San Diego park will be the first to debut the new attraction, with the Orlando and San Antonio parks to follow.

In its application submitted to the commission — whose staff is recommending approval — SeaWorld is proposing to dismantle Shamu Stadium’s existing show set, now dominated by four LED screens and a giant depiction of a whale tail. In their place would be a new backdrop behind the show pool designed to mimic an outdoor coastal setting in the Pacific Northwest.

The new scenery will be a pastoral landscape, incorporating a rugged coastal inlet, artificial Douglas fir trees, cliffs, and waterfalls. The set will be framed by a rockwork facade fashioned from fiberglass, with no part of the backdrop higher than 30 feet.

Complementing the scenery will be a large video screen that will feature imagery of killer whales in the wild, along with graphics and other information about the orcas to help educate SeaWorld visitors.

In addition, various stairways within the stadium will be demolished and reconstructed, and there will also be sound and lighting upgrades.

The company emphasizes that the project involves no reconstruction or modification of the pools where the orcas are housed.

That’s a major departure from a $100 million plan, since abandoned, that the Coastal Commission approved last year to double the volume of the orcas’ habitat. While the commission OK’d the plan, it imposed a condition that SeaWorld cease breeding its orcas.

The company protested, but months later, responding to mounting public pressure, announced it would end captive breeding of its killer whales at all three SeaWorld parks. It also said it would no longer move forward with the tank expansion project.

Plans for the new orca encounter drew several letters of support, including some from its former critics like the Humane Society of the United States and state Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, who two years ago introduced a bill that would have outlawed captive orca breeding and prohibited SeaWorld from using orcas in its shows.

“I applaud SeaWorld’s commitment to end orca breeding and phase out their orca shows and believe that their actions demonstrate a forward-looking, humane and market-responsive approach,” Bloom wrote in a letter to the commission.

Although Bloom favored the changes made by SeaWorld, he still pursued legislation signed into law in September that will outlaw orca breeding and captivity programs. The new legislation also prohibits California parks from featuring killer whales in performances for entertainment purposes. They could, however be used for educational presentations.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which has called on SeaWorld to release its killer whales into seaside sanctuaries, was critical of the new orca attraction.

“By decorating its underwater prisons with a backdrop of a fake ocean stretching out behind them, SeaWorld would make a mockery of the animals’ lack of opportunity to swim in the real ocean,” the activist group said in a statement. “This marketing ploy is designed to deceive visitors while doing nothing for the orcas floating listlessly in tiny concrete tanks.”

In recommending approval of SeaWorld’s design for its new orca experience, the commission staff imposed conditions focused more on the construction in order to minimize noise impacts on the orcas and to avoid interfering with public access.

SeaWorld, for instance, said that its construction contractor will work with the orca trainers to address any issues they might observe as they monitor the orcas during the construction period.

To minimize noise impacts, SeaWorld said the construction work will be screened by 8-foot-tall panels and when louder work, such as demolition, occurs, the whales will be moved into the pools farthest away.

SeaWorld San Diego said it has no issues with the staff conditions and “will comply with the conditions outlined in the staff report.”

Source: San Diego Union

Update – New orca stage approved November 3, 2016

Concerns for Puget Sound orcas prompts talk of dam breaches

November 2, 2016

Researchers who track the endangered population of orcas that frequent Washington state waters have said that three whales are missing or believed dead since summer.

The most recent death of a 23-year-old female known as J28 and likely her 10-month-old calf drops the current population to 80, among the lowest in decades, according to the Center for Whale Research on Friday Harbor, which keeps the whale census for the federal government.

A 42-year-old female whale was reported missing during the center’s July 1 census.

Center senior scientist Ken Balcomb said late last week that orcas, particularly mothers and their babies, are struggling because they don’t have enough food, a primary factor in the population’s decline.

He and others called for four dams on the Lower Snake River to be breached to open up habitat for salmon. They said the best opportunity to save the orcas is to restore runs of salmon eaten by the killer whales.

“We know what we need to do, feed them,” Balcomb said at a news conference on the Seattle waterfront surrounded by supporters who held signs calling for the dams to come down.

Those opposed to removing the Lower Snake dams say they provide low-cost hydroelectric power and play a major role in the region’s economy.

J28 was believed to have died in the Strait of Juan de Fuca sometime last week, leaving behind a 10-month old whale that won’t likely survive without her, Balcomb said. The mother appeared emaciated in recent weeks, he said.

The number of southern resident killer whales has fluctuated in recent decades, from more than 100 in 1995 to about 80 in recent years, as they have faced threats from pollution, lack of prey and disturbance from boats. They were listed as endangered in 2005.

The whales have a strong preference for chinook salmon, which are typically larger and fatter fish, but those runs have been declining.

“There’s no reason these dams couldn’t be breached,” said Jim Waddellof the group DamSense.

Source: Register

Yachtie’s killer whale escort to Mooloolaba

November 1, 2016

ON THE HUNT: Killer whales shadowed Mike Middleton's boat as he sailed from Double Island Point to Mooloolaba.

A YACHTIE has described how his boat was “shadowed” by a pod of killer whales off the Sunshine Coast.

Mike Middleton was sailing from Double Island Point to Mooloolaba on Sunday when the killer whales employed his 50-foot sloop in their hunting games.

Mr Middleton said about eight or nine killer whales stayed close on one side of the boat while some humpbacks swam between the vessel and the shore.

After speaking with a friend who monitors whale movements, he believes the killer whales were in the area picking off straggling humpback whales heading south at the end of the season.

“They were using the hull of my 50-foot yacht as a barrier,” he said.

Mr Middleton, a seasoned wildlife cameraman who was on his way back to the coast after three months filming on the Great Barrier Reef for nature programs, said the killer whales appeared to be “very agitated and moving around a lot – they were on the hunt”.

Male killer whales have a more upright, pointed fin than the females leading Mr Middleton to believe there was at least one male within the pod.

He described the sailing with the orcas alongside as “pretty scaring and intimidating” for a while.

“I was on my own and these things have jumped up and bitten and got people before,” he said.

Mr Middleton parted company with the whales about 4.30pm when he set towards the outside of Old Woman Island.

He believes that with the sun lower in the sky, playing with shadows on the water, they then made a move on the humpbacks, which may have been making towards the shallower water of the Arkwright Shoal to rest.

“It was really interesting how they were shadowing the boat, using the boat as a buffer, keeping the element of surprise up there until they got to a point where the light was just right,” he said.

Coolum Beach resident Helen Bradshaw was having a wine at Stumers Creek with a friend when she noticed splashing offshore by whales which looked different to the humpbacks she is used to seeing.

“I see whales pretty much every day and remember commenting to my friend that they were really different but it didn’t occur to me that they might be killer whales. They were smooth and more streamlined – there was definitely something different about them,” she said.

Mr Middleton pondered whether killer whales had been responsible for the death of a humpback off the southern tip of Fraser Island.

He said he was privileged to witness the whales from a box seat.

“It was really nature at its best. Stunning.”

Source: www.Daily

Southern Resident Killer Whales are Dying of Starvation

October 31, 2016


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.


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.


Orca thrill Abel Tasman visitors

October 28, 2016

Orca close to shore near Anchorage in the Abel Tasman National Park on Friday morning.

Abel Tasman Park visitors ran to the beach to get a glimpse of a pod of orca foraging close to shore.

Three orca drew a crowd of around 15 visitors when they came within metres of the beach near the Anchorage Hut on Friday morning.

The pod foraged in Torrent Bay before moving towards Boundary Bay where they surfaced near some kayakers who had a memorable photo opportunity to add to their national park adventure.

The Department of Conservation’s Anchorage Hut warden, Phil Armit, said orca were only seen in the park about four or five times a year.

The killer whales – actually the largest species of dolphin – are attracted to Tasman Bay and its tidal estuaries by the prevalence of stingrays, their favourite food.

A pod of orca drew a big crowd when they entered the Nelson Haven earlier this month.


Ross Sea becomes Antarctica world’s largest protected area

October 27, 2016

An enormous Antarctic bay, home to penguins and killer whales, became the world’s largest protected marine area on Friday.

A United Nations body sealed the deal after five years of negotiations, at a meeting in Hobart, Tasmania.

“It’s near pristine and how many near pristine parts of the ocean do we have left on the planet?” WWF Australia Ocean Science Manager Chris Johnson told CNN.

Twenty-four nations and the European Union agreed unanimously to declare the Ross Sea in Antarctica an official Marine Protected Area after negotiations brokered by the UN’s Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources

According to the UN, 50% of ecotype-C killer whales (the smallest of the four types of Southern Hemisphere orcas), 40% of Adelie penguins and 25% of emperor penguins live in the area covered by the new park.

“The data collected from this ‘living laboratory’ helps us understand the significant changes taking place on Earth right now,” United States scientist David Ainley, one of the first to call for the area to be protected, said in a statement.

35-year limit on deal

Not everyone is completely happy with the deal however — Johnson told CNN the Ross Sea deal would expire in 35 years.

“While we’re very excited about this we don’t want it to become a precedent for other marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean,” he said.

For a new marine park to be declared, Johnson said every country involved must agree — complete consensus is required.

“This has been a long, ongoing, challenging debate and I believe this one of the compromises in terms of getting that 100% consensus,” he said.

Johnson said the WWF would be working hard to make the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area permanent.

“It’s critical to set aside these really epic spots for diversity, not just as marine parks but as places that can build resistance to the changing climate,” he said.

‘Speedo diplomacy’ helped sway Russia

Russia had voted against the new protected area on five previous occasions before finally agreeing on Friday.

In a statement, a United Nations spokesman gave credit to UN Environment’s Patron of the Ocean Lewis Pugh, who has worked over the past two years to gain Russia’s agreement.

He even swum in the icy waters of the Ross Sea in 2015 to raise attention for the issue, in what was described as “speedo diplomacy.”

“I am overjoyed,” Pugh said in a statement. “The Ross Sea is one of the most magnificent places on Earth. It is one of our last great wilderness areas. This is a dream come true.”

According to the United Nations spokesman, Pugh made multiple trips to Russia to convince officials of the Ross Sea’s value.


Orca and calf spotted near Island Bay in Wellington

October 27, 2016

An orca and her calf in Island Bay on Thursday.

An orca and its calf provided an unexpected highlight for a Wellington woman’s sightseeing tour on Thursday.

The woman was showing a friend around the city on Thursday afternoon when she spotted the killer whales in calm waters off Island Bay.

The mother and calf were seen resting before continuing their journey south via Owhiro Bay.

An orca and her calf in Island Bay on Thursday.