Orca Baby Boom Hits Puget Sound

In this photo taken March 30, 2015, and provided by the Pacific Whale Watch Association, a newborn orca whale swims alongside an adult whale, believed to be the mother, in the Salish Sea waters off Galiano Island, British Columbia. Jeanne Hyde/Maya's Legacy Whale Watching/AP Photo

In this photo taken March 30, 2015, and provided by the Pacific Whale Watch Association, a newborn orca whale swims alongside an adult whale, believed to be the mother, in the Salish Sea waters off Galiano Island, British Columbia. Jeanne Hyde/Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching/AP Photo

 

By PHUONG LE, Associated Press

The endangered population of killer whales that spend time in Washington state waters is experiencing a baby boom with a fourth baby orca documented this winter.

The newborn was spotted Monday by whale-watching crews and a naturalist in the waters of British Columbia, according to the Pacific Whale Watch Association, which represents 29 whale-watching operators in Washington and British Columbia.

The orca was swimming with other members of the J-pod, one of three families of orcas that are protected in Washington and Canada.

Ken Balcomb, a senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research on Friday Harbor, confirmed the birth to The Associated Press on Tuesday. The center keeps the official census of endangered southern resident killer whales for the federal government.

The birth brings the population to 81, still dangerously low. Listed as endangered in 2005, the whales are struggling because of pollution, lack of food and other reasons.

“This one looked quite plump and healthy,” said Balcomb, who reviewed photographs of the newborn. “We’re getting there. We wish all these babies well. They look good.”

PHOTO: In this Feb. 25, 2015 photo provided by the NOAA, a new baby orca swims alongside an adult whale, believed to be its mother, about 15 miles off the coast of Westport, Wash.

Candice Emmons/NOAA/AP Photo
PHOTO: In this Feb. 25, 2015 photo provided by the NOAA, a new baby orca swims alongside an adult whale, believed to be its mother, about 15 miles off the coast of Westport, Wash.

While he and others hailed the birth of four baby orcas since December, they cautioned that the survival rate for babies is about 50 percent.

“Given where we were four months ago, it’s certainly the trend we’re hoping for,” Brad Hanson, wildlife biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, said Tuesday.

“It’s still far too early to think we’re out of the woods yet,” said Hanson, who studies the orcas.

Michael Harris, executive director with the Pacific Whale Watch Association, said, “Who doesn’t love baby orcas, right?” But he, too, urged measured optimism.

“We’re going to keep a careful watch on these babies and our fingers crossed,” he added.

The newest orca was spotted Monday swimming with a calf that was born in December and a female whale. Another calf was born to the J-pod in early February, while a calf in the L-pod was observed in late February.

Balcomb said he thinks the baby’s mother could be J-16, the female whale it was swimming with Monday. But it may be some time before the relationships are sorted out, he added.

Let’s Have Peace On Earth For Endangered Killer Whales

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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.

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.

RS10146_Orca_critical_habitat_additions
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.

Group: Protect Orcas In West Coast Waters

Credit AP Photo/NOAA Fisheries Service, Candice EmmonsFILE - 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.

Credit 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.

Jan 16 2014

By The Associated Press

A conservation group is asking federal officials to protect endangered killer whales in the marine waters off the West Coast.

The Center for Biological Diversity on Thursday petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to designate critical habitat for orcas along the coast of Washington, Oregon and California.

The southern resident killer whales are frequently seen in Puget Sound during the summer, but little was known about their winter movements until recently.

Federal biologists have tracked the orcas as they traveled extensively along the coast, from Cape Flattery, Wash. to Point Reyes, Calif.

The group says those offshore areas should now be added as critical habitat. Such a designation would require federal officials to limit activities that harm the whales.

A message left with the federal agency was not immediately returned.

Orcas attack gray whale calve in Monterey Bay

Killer Whales

Killer whales hunt gray whale calves as they migrate across a canyon in Monterey Bay.

May 6, 2013

By PETER FIMRITE — San Francisco Chronicle

 

SAN FRANCISCO — Scores of killer whales are patrolling Monterey Bay, ambushing gray whales and picking off their young as the leviathans attempt to cross a deep water canyon that bisects their annual migration route.

It is a desperate situation for the migrating mother whales, which are trying to lead their calves through a gauntlet of hungry orcas to reach their feeding grounds in Alaska. Whale watchers and scientists, who are crowding onto boats to witness the action, have described it as the “Serengeti of the Sea.”

“It’s pretty scary and sad to watch, but this is nature,” said Nancy Black , a marine biologist and co-owner of Monterey Bay Whale Watch . “It’s a big battle, with the mother trying to protect her calf, and there is a lot of commotion and splashing in the water.”

Scientists say the violent drama, involving fleeing whales and pursuing packs of orcas, is an annual extravaganza of death off the coast of Monterey that is growing in intensity as the number of whales and orcas increase.

The mother gray whales and their calves leave their breeding grounds in Baja, Mexico, in April and travel north along the Northern California coast this time each year. As many as 35 whales and calves a day are swimming by right now, hugging the shore trying to elude predators, Black said.

The problem for the mothers and calves is that they must navigate around a deepwater depression, called the Monterey Submarine Canyon, at Point Pinos.

Transient killer whales, which at 22- to 26-feet-long are the ocean’s apex predators, congregate along the edges of the canyon, which starts a quarter mile from shore and is 6,000 feet deep in the middle. They wait for the big beasts — which are about 45-feet long — to attempt the crossing, kind of like crocodiles waiting for migrating wildebeests to swim across the Nile.

The more stealthy grays take the long way around, sticking close to shore and swimming through the kelp beds, but some of the more bold or hurried whales cut across the canyon, using sonar to follow the contour lines at the bottom.

“It is one of the few places on the gray whale migration where they have to leave the protection of the shore,” said Black, who has been studying killer whales since 1992 and is considered the Bay Area’s foremost expert. “The killer whales come in the area and patrol the canyon, searching for calves.”Most of the attacks occur along the edge of the drop off, where packs of between four and seven mostly female orcas use the cover of deep water to approach from underneath, said Black and other researchers. It is not an easy kill. The calves are 18- to 20-feet long, weighing many tons.

Working as a team, the “wolves of the sea,” as they are known to some Native American tribes, surround and harass the mother, separating her from her child. While she is occupied, other orcas batter and attempt to drown the calf.

“It’s pretty brutal,” Black said. “The mother will stay there trying to protect her calf and sometimes roll upside down to allow the calf to get up on top of her, but the only way they can save themselves is by moving toward shore. It takes two to three hours, sometimes up to six hours, to kill a gray whale calf.

“It is, say marine biologists, a spectacular example of the natural interplay between two of the largest, most dynamic, creatures in the sea and a sign that the ocean ecosystem is slowly improving on the Pacific coast.

The killer whale, Orcinus orca , is the largest, most intelligent of the world’s ocean predators. They can live up to 100 years — the oldest known orca is believed to be a 96-year-old female — but are highly susceptible to toxins, which accumulate in their tissues.

The animals, which are actually members of the dolphin family, were originally called matadors de ballenas, or “whale killers,” by the Spanish who witnessed them hunting the large cetaceans. The words got reversed when translated into English.

The distinctive black-and-white mammals have an incredibly complex, and remarkably stable, matrilineal social structure in which the sons spend their lives with their mothers, except for occasional dalliances with females outside the family group. Different groups feed on different things and are believed to have different languages and even cultures that are passed down through the generations.

The endangered southern resident orcas of Puget Sound, in Washington, feed on salmon. Offshore orcas eat schooling fish and sharks and the transients that frequent Monterey Bay prey exclusively on marine mammals.

Mammal eating orcas have been known to prey on birds and even terrestrial mammals, such as deer and moose swimming between islands along the northwest coast, but there has never been a documented killing of a human in the wild.

The Monterey orcas have been spotted attacking sea lions, elephant seals, harbor seals, dolphins and porpoises, but gray whale calves are especially coveted. Black said she has seen as many as 25 killer whales feeding on a blubbery carcass, which can take between 12 and 48 hours to consume.

The drama unfolding now along the Monterey coast was unknown to researchers until about 1992, when the once vast gray whale populations began to recover after being driven nearly to extinction by whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The population rebounded from about 4,000 in the 1930s to 26,600 in 1999 , according to estimates by the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle . The recovery is nevertheless still shaky, according to experts. The number of grays dropped to 17,000 in the early 2000s as a result of the El Niño weather pattern and other factors that affected their food supply. There are now between 19,000 and 21,000 gray whales in the Pacific, according to researchers.

Forty of the approximately 140 killer whales that marine biologists have identified through their markings since 1992 have been spotted this year circling Monterey Bay, which marine biologists consider one of the best places in the world to study the creatures. They have, over time, noticeably learned from their mistakes and honed their hunting skills, Black said.

“The gray whale population has gotten bigger over the last 20 years and the killer whales have gotten better at hunting the gray whale calves,” she said. “It is a pretty amazing event and it all happens within 5 miles of shore.”