Feds studying how to expand protections for endangered orcas


Photo: Center for Whale Research
Photo: Center for Whale Research



By Associated Press; KOMO News 


SEATTLE (AP) – The National Marine Fisheries Service is studying how to revise habitat protections for endangered orcas that spend time in Washington state waters.

The federal agency said Monday it is responding to a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity. The group wants to expand protections for southern resident killer whales to include offshore waters from Cape Flattery, Wash., to Point Reyes, Calif.

The agency says it didn’t have enough data or analyses yet to propose revisions requested in the petition. It would publish a proposed rule in 2017 after collecting more data and completing studies.

Spokesman Michael Milstein says the agency is outlining a process to determine whether an expansion of critical habitat is warranted.

The federal government has already designated inland waters of Washington as critical to orca conservation. Such a designation requires federal officials to limit activities that harm the whales.

Second orca calf born to endangered J pod in 2 months

Photo: Center for Whale Research
Photo: Center for Whale Research


By Associated Press


FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. (AP) – A scientist who tracks a group of endangered killer whales that frequents Puget Sound says he’s spotted a second baby born to the pod in the past two months.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research confirmed the newborn orca in J-pod after it was spotted Thursday, the Kitsap Sun reported.

He said the week-old calf, whose gender isn’t yet known, appears healthy and is dubbed J-51.

“It’s a good one,” Balcomb said.

The presumed mother is 36-year-old J-19.

Balcomb said two whales were seen swimming protectively alongside the baby.

The addition joins J-50, a baby spotted in late December. The two bring Puget Sound’s southern resident orca population to 79, which is still dangerously low.

A 19-year-old female from J-pod died in early December.

The southern resident orcas spend a lot of time in the Puget Sound and off the coast of British Columbia. They depend on salmon for food, while the ocean-roaming transient orcas hunt marine mammals such as seals.

Scientists say the southern resident orcas suffer from malnutrition and chemical contamination from polluted waters.

Endangered newborn baby orca is a girl, experts say

In this Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014 photo provided by the Center for Whale Research, a new baby orca whale swims near its mother near Vancouver Island in the Canadian Gulf Islands of British Columbia. (AP Photo/Center for Whale Research, Ken Balcomb)
In this Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014 photo provided by the Center for Whale Research, a new baby orca whale swims near its mother near Vancouver Island in the Canadian Gulf Islands of British Columbia. (AP Photo/Center for Whale Research, Ken Balcomb)


By Associated Press and KOMO News Staff


The Center for Whale Research in Washington state says the baby, part of the J pod of the southern resident orca population, has stayed healthy since it was first spotted Dec. 30 off the Canadian Gulf Islands of British Columbia.

The newborn whale is being called J-50. Researchers say they are now working with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans to gather more information about the baby’s mother.

Experts originally identified a whale in her early 40s known as J-16 seen swimming alongside the calf as its mother, but now say she might have actually been looking after the newborn for her daughter – a 16-year-old orca called J-36.

If J-16 is the mother, she will be the oldest southern resident orca to give birth in more than four decades of field studies.

Southern resident killer whales are considered an endangered species, with just 78 in the waters of British Columbia and Washington state, including the new arrival. But the arrival of the newborn orca is considered an encouraging sign following the death earlier this month of a pregnant killer whale from the same group.

Now, everyone is hoping J-50 survives. An estimated 35 percent to 45 percent of orcas die in their first year, said Howard Garrett of the Whidbey Island-based Orca Network.

Let’s Have Peace On Earth For Endangered Killer Whales



By Chris Genovall, Huffington Post, Canada

The holidays are a time for celebration as we come together with family and friends for seasonal gatherings or at places of worship. But this time of year should also serve as a time for reflection. We might do well to reflect on whether we will ever achieve “peace on earth” unless, and until, we are willing to extend goodwill and compassion to the non-human inhabitants (i.e. individuals, families, and communities) with whom we share this planet, especially those whose very existence hangs in the balance. Here in British Columbia, that means killer whales.

Two distinct populations of resident killer whales reside in B.C.’s waters. The Northern Residents are commonly found on B.C.’s north coast and the Southern Residents within the Salish Sea. 

The Northern and Southern Residents differ in population size, population trends, dialects, and importantly, their status under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). The Northern Residents have a larger, more stable population and are designated as “threatened,” whereas the Southern Residents have an extremely small, declining population, and are designated as “endangered.” Their population has been hovering around 80 since 47 whales were captured and taken for the aquarium trade prior to 1974.

Owing to diminished numbers of Chinook salmon (their primary food), vessel disturbance and underwater noise, pollution, and now facing the pending threat of oil spills, Southern Resident Killer Whales confront a very uncertain future.

Recent viability analysis of their fate by Canadian and U.S. scientists gives them a 50 per cent chance of survival over the next 100 years. Sadly, the population projections for the year 2030 have already been realized, as the number of Southern Residents is now below 80 whales.

The recent death of J32, an 18-year-old breeding female, is a stark reminder of the precipice the Southern Residents stand upon.

Because Southern Resident Killer Whales have been lawfully classified as endangered, the federal government is compelled to implement a recovery strategy that ensures their survival. Yet, the government continues to delay implementation of a credible and comprehensive plan. Their current action plan lacks action, ostensibly because gaps in ecological research are deemed a reasonable excuse for inaction. Twice already, the federal government has lost in court for their failure to act in accordance with science and the law to protect these animals.

After more than a decade of waiting, the Southern Residents are no better off now than when they were listed as endangered 15 years ago. Federal fisheries managers appear unwilling to address the availability of Chinook salmon, an essential food for whales, lest they rile interests in the sports and commercial fishing sectors.

If our grandchildren are to grow up with resident killer whales in the Salish Sea, then crucial decisions need to be made now. For example, an analysis by federal scientists shows that curtailing Chinook fisheries in the ocean can improve the survival rates of these whales. Correspondingly, letting more Chinook salmon spawn could rebuild Chinook runs and provide these whales with the food supply they need.

Federal and provincial governments seem intent on turning critical habitat for killer whales into a shipping corridor for Alberta oil, U.S. coal, and B..C LNG. Moreover, harmful pollutants continue to flow from regional industrial, residential, and agricultural sources into their waters and food. If the National Energy Board knew these whales are unlikely to survive increased tanker traffic – when combined with existing food, pollution, and noise issues – would they be legally compelled to reject Kinder Morgan’s tar sands pipeline and oil tanker expansion proposal?

The federal government’s long-awaited Resident Killer Whale Action Plan finally appeared in 2014. Many had anticipated the plan would include measures to mitigate the hazards confronting the Southern Residents. Alas, the plan failed to include substantive action to reverse what is becoming a grave situation.

But this quandary is not simply a numeric one. Highly intelligent, social, and sensitive, with sophisticated communication skills and very strong familial ties, these whales have an intrinsic right to live their lives.

While the debate regarding the fate of the Southern Residents primarily and understandably takes place in the realm of science, management, and policy, it also brings up issues around ethics, morality, and even spirituality. In fact, I would argue that the matter of what we will choose, or will not choose, to do on behalf of this endangered population of killer whales is, for British Columbians and Canadians, one of the quintessential spiritual decisions of our time.

Having been raised a Catholic, I often times recall the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi. Keith Warner and David DeCosse of Santa Clara University have written that, “St. Francis of Assisi is an example of someone who understood himself to live in a world charged with divine life, in a sacramental world. He was named Patron Saint of Ecologists because he celebrated the beauty and diversity of creation through his prayer and preaching. [In] his ‘Canticle of the Creatures’ Francis sang of all creation as brother and sister. This song is an expression of his moral imagination, because it reflects how he understood himself to live a life of essential kinship with all creation… He viewed the entire created world as members of the divine family… He stands out in Western Christianity as one who lived out a bio-centric vision of the moral life.”

Which brings us once again to the question, if we cannot find the charity in our hearts to allow the Southern Residents to truly recover and regain their rightful place in the coastal ecosystem we both share, then what will that ultimately say about us as a species?

A version of this article previously ran in the Victoria Times Colonist.

Endangered Puget Sound Orca Died While Pregnant, Scientists Learn

Ashley Ahearn, KUOW

Scientists determined this weekend that the dead orca that washed up on Vancouver Island last Thursday was pregnant when she died.

The young female was a member of the endangered southern resident killer whale families of Puget Sound.

Experts who conducted the necropsy on the whale said her fetus was between 5 and 6 feet long – about a half the length of the mother. The fetus was already decomposing, suggesting to scientists that the mother was attempting to expel her stillborn calf when she died.

Ken Balcomb is the head of the Center for Whale Research and helped conduct the necropsy.

He said the loss of a female of reproductive age is a blow – especially since the babies aren’t surviving.

“Over the last two and a half years we have not had any calves survive and of course 100 percent mortality in offspring is not good for future,” Balcomb said.

Balcomb and others believe that lack of food and high levels of pollution in the orcas bodies are to blame for the low survival rates of the young.

He said whales are now swimming one thousand miles or more in search of salmon to eat — a species that is also endangered.

“So when they don’t have a lot of food they have to metabolize their body fat, their blubber, and that’s when it starts affecting their reproductive and immune systems,” Balcomb said.

He said the dead orca, known as J32 or Rhapsody, was “not in great condition. The fat content seemed to be quite low and her blubber layer was not that thick.”

There are just 77 southern resident killer whales left.

The bodies of the orca and her fetus have been taken to Vancouver for further testing.

Baby Orca Missing In Puget Sound And Presumed Dead

A calf born this year to a resident Puget Sound orca has not been seen recently and scientists think it may have died. | rollover image for more
A calf born this year to a resident Puget Sound orca has not been seen recently and scientists think it may have died. | rollover image for more


By Ashley Ahearn, KUOW

Orca enthusiasts rejoiced when a newborn calf was spotted 7 weeks ago.

But as of Tuesday morning, the endangered killer whale calf has not been seen.

L120 was the first calf born in the past 2 years. The calf’s mother was spotted three times since Friday. Her baby was nowhere to be seen.

Orca experts believe the calf is dead, though no carcass has been found and it’s unclear how it died.

Orcas in Puget Sound are known to have high levels of toxic agents in their bodies. The pollution can be transferred from mothers to their offspring during gestation and while nursing.

Lack of food is another potential cause of death. Southern Resident killer whales rely on chinook salmon, which are also endangered.

There are now just 78 resident orcas left. That’s about how many there were back in 2005 when the animals were first put on the endangered species list.

Key To Saving Endangered Orcas: Chinook Salmon, Says Local Expert

FILE -- In this file photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and shot Oct. 29, 2013, orca whales from the J and K pods swim past a small research boat on Puget Sound in view of downtown Seattle.AP Photo/NOAA Fisheries Service, Candice Emmons
FILE — In this file photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and shot Oct. 29, 2013, orca whales from the J and K pods swim past a small research boat on Puget Sound in view of downtown Seattle.
AP Photo/NOAA Fisheries Service, Candice Emmons


By Bellamy Pailthorp, KPLU

Following the release of a federal report on the state of endangered orcas, one local researcher says there’s one factor that matters more to the whales’ wellness than toxins and vessel traffic: fish.

Ken Balcomb, whom many regard as the godfather of whale conservation, is the director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor. For almost 40 years now, the center has been keeping track of every individual whale in the three pods that make up the southern resident population of the iconic orcas that live in Puget Sound.

Balcomb says among the risk factors outlined in the report summarizing a decade of research, the orcas’ food is what matters most. They are very picky eaters, and scientists now know that about 80 percent of their diet consists of chinook salmon, another endangered species. So, if we want to recover orcas, says Balcomb, we need to focus on recovering that specific species of salmon.

“They need food. And that’s where the emphasis should be, is on enhancement of the chinook salmon stocks in the Salish Sea and the whole eastern Pacific,” he said. “We’re just not going to have a predator population without a sufficient food population.”

The research also shows the orcas hunt less and call louder when vessels are in the area, and they head to the outer coast during the winter, foraging as far south as central California. Toxins are also a factor in whale mortality, says Balcomb; high levels are found in their blubber.

But he says transient orcas are surviving in growing numbers despite these conditions, because their diet includes seals and porpoises, and they have plenty to eat. The toxins only become a critical factor when the whales are going hungry and living off their fat, triggering the toxins’ release, according to Balcomb.

Group Calls For Expanding Killer Whale Habitat Protection

Cassandra Profita, OPB

An environmental group is calling for a major expansion in habitat protection for Puget Sound’s killer whales.

Research shows the endangered orcas that live in Puget Sound in the summer are venturing up and down the West Coast in the winter to forage for food. Scientists tracking these southern resident orcas have followed the whales as far north as Alaska and as far south as Monterey, Calif.

Given these findings, the Center for Biological Diversity says the whales need a lot more habitat protection than they have now. The group filed a petition Thursday with the National Marine Fisheries Service to expand protected habitat for the whales from Puget Sound to a large swath of ocean area off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

“They need to protect all of their habitat — not just where the whales hang out in the summer,” says Sarah Uhlemann of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Existing vs. proposed critical habitat.

Protected habitat for species listed under the Endangered Species Act, known as “critical habitat,” comes with restrictions on actions taken by the federal government that might threaten the species’ survival.

Uhlemann says those restrictions would apply to federal decisions on salmon fishing, port expansions and other coastal developments. That would mean any time the federal government decides to do anything -– say the Navy decides to practice some sonar or an agency is deciding whether to permit a port expansion — the government would have to fully consider environmental impacts.

“Not only on the whale but also on its habitat –- and if the impacts are too large they have to stop and mitigate, or lessen what those impacts are,” Uhlemann said.

Lynne Barre is a marine biologist and manager in Seattle with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She said the federal government was already considering an expansion in habitat protections for southern resident orcas as its tagging research program has revealed more about where the whales are feeding.

“Our knowledge of their habitat in the ocean is increasing,” Barre said. “Gathering additional information about their coastal habitat was one of the priorities we identified when we listed the orcas for protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2005.”

The orcas face threats from a lack of available food because they primarily survive on salmon, Barre said. They also accumulate high levels of contaminants such as flame retardants, legacy pesticides and industrial pollutants that can impact their immune systems. Orcas are acoustic animals that use sound to communicate with each other and find prey, she said, so underwater noises from vessels and other activities pose another threat to the whales.

The existing critical habitat protections in Puget Sound require evaluations of the impacts to whales from pollution discharges, ship passage and construction activities such as pile-driving, Barre said. Federal regulators will have 90 days to decide whether to review the Center for Biological Diversity’s petition to expand the area where those kinds of protections apply.