Center for Whale Research

Friday Harbor, WA, United States

Center for Whale Research

Friday Harbor, WA, United States
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News Article | April 20, 2016
Site: www.rdmag.com

Federal biologists have temporarily stopped tagging endangered killer whales in Washington state's Puget Sound after a dead orca was found with pieces of a dart tag lodged in its dorsal fin. Researchers use a dart projector to fire the small satellite-linked transmitters into the animals to track where they go in the winter and how they find food. An initial exam of the 20-year-old whale found floating off Vancouver Island last month did not find a clear cause of death, but some advocates fear tagging injures the animals and say there are less invasive ways to monitor the small population of whales. The transmitter is the size of a 9-volt battery and attaches to the orca's fin with two titanium darts about 6 centimeters long. It's designed to detach over time and leave nothing behind in the whale. A necropsy of the dead orca found fragments remained in its dorsal fin when the tag fell off but "revealed no apparent localized or tracking inflammation," Canada's Department of Fisheries and Ocean said last week. Though there were no signs of infection, veterinarians were investigating whether the tagging area may have provided a pathway for one, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. A final report is expected in several weeks. NOAA researchers were assessing what went wrong with the transmitter and how to prevent it from happening again, said Brad Hanson, an agency wildlife biologist who leads the orca tagging program. The researchers' federal permit requires dart tagging to stop if the devices break, and tagging can't resume until NOAA authorizes it. Problems have forced a redesign of the device two previous times. "Go back to the drawing board. Apply it less invasively," said Kenneth Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research, who called the devices "overly barbaric." ''It's injuring the animals, and they're leaving pieces of hardware stuck in them that festers and causes tissue damage." Hanson defended the program but said he understood the concerns. "It's provided us with a tremendous amount of information in a relatively short amount of time," he said. "I personally am concerned for the whales, but we're also charged with providing the best available science for our colleagues to make management decisions." Southern resident killer whales are listed as endangered in the U.S. and Canada. NOAA is considering whether to expand habitat protections for the orcas to include offshore areas from Washington to Northern California. The male orca known as L95 was tagged in late February off Washington's coast. The whale appeared to be in good health, and researchers said they did not observe any breaking when firing the transmitter. The device provided data for four days before the signal was lost. Several weeks later, the animal was found dead. Researchers worked with tag manufacturers to redesign the device in 2013 after it separated and left a piece of dart in another endangered orca. There also were previous problems when the tag was used on four transient killer whales. "We have detected issues, and we tried to make the changes," Hanson said. NOAA noted that the tag has been used 533 times on whales and other marine mammals, and parts of the dart remained in the animals in only 1 percent of the cases. Of eight Puget Sound orcas that have been tagged, two have had problems, Hanson said. The others have had minor issues, such as scarring similar to what they would encounter naturally. Several advocates say they understand the value of the data being collected but that the federal government has enough information to protect the animals. "Right now, the federal agency has robust science about where the killer whales travel, and there are already good tagging studies to identify habitat that needs protection," said Miyoko Sakashita with the Center for Biological Diversity.


News Article | April 20, 2016
Site: phys.org

Researchers use a dart projector to fire the small satellite-linked transmitters into the animals to track where they go in the winter and how they find food. An initial exam of the 20-year-old whale found floating off Vancouver Island last month did not find a clear cause of death, but some advocates fear tagging injures the animals and say there are less invasive ways to monitor the small population of whales. The transmitter is the size of a 9-volt battery and attaches to the orca's fin with two titanium darts about 6 centimeters long. It's designed to detach over time and leave nothing behind in the whale. A necropsy of the dead orca found fragments remained in its dorsal fin when the tag fell off but "revealed no apparent localized or tracking inflammation," Canada's Department of Fisheries and Ocean said last week. Though there were no signs of infection, veterinarians were investigating whether the tagging area may have provided a pathway for one, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. A final report is expected in several weeks. NOAA researchers were assessing what went wrong with the transmitter and how to prevent it from happening again, said Brad Hanson, an agency wildlife biologist who leads the orca tagging program. The researchers' federal permit requires dart tagging to stop if the devices break, and tagging can't resume until NOAA authorizes it. Problems have forced a redesign of the device two previous times. "Go back to the drawing board. Apply it less invasively," said Kenneth Balcomb, senior scientist with the Center for Whale Research, who called the devices "overly barbaric." ''It's injuring the animals, and they're leaving pieces of hardware stuck in them that festers and causes tissue damage." Hanson defended the program but said he understood the concerns. "It's provided us with a tremendous amount of information in a relatively short amount of time," he said. "I personally am concerned for the whales, but we're also charged with providing the best available science for our colleagues to make management decisions." Southern resident killer whales are listed as endangered in the U.S. and Canada. NOAA is considering whether to expand habitat protections for the orcas to include offshore areas from Washington to Northern California. The male orca known as L95 was tagged in late February off Washington's coast. The whale appeared to be in good health, and researchers said they did not observe any breaking when firing the transmitter. The device provided data for four days before the signal was lost. Several weeks later, the animal was found dead. Researchers worked with tag manufacturers to redesign the device in 2013 after it separated and left a piece of dart in another endangered orca. There also were previous problems when the tag was used on four transient killer whales. "We have detected issues, and we tried to make the changes," Hanson said. NOAA noted that the tag has been used 533 times on whales and other marine mammals, and parts of the dart remained in the animals in only 1 percent of the cases. Of eight Puget Sound orcas that have been tagged, two have had problems, Hanson said. The others have had minor issues, such as scarring similar to what they would encounter naturally. Several advocates say they understand the value of the data being collected but that the federal government has enough information to protect the animals. "Right now, the federal agency has robust science about where the killer whales travel, and there are already good tagging studies to identify habitat that needs protection," said Miyoko Sakashita with the Center for Biological Diversity. Explore further: New baby orca spotted in Washington waters


Brent L.J.N.,University of Exeter | Franks D.W.,University of York | Foster E.A.,University of Exeter | Balcomb K.C.,Center for Whale Research | And 2 more authors.
Current Biology | Year: 2015

Classic life-history theory predicts that menopause should not occur because there should be no selection for survival after the cessation of reproduction [1]. Yet, human females routinely live 30 years after they have stopped reproducing [2]. Only two other species - killer whales (Orcinus orca) and short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) [3, 4] - have comparable postreproductive lifespans. In theory, menopause can evolve via inclusive fitness benefits [5, 6], but the mechanisms by which postreproductive females help their kin remain enigmatic. One hypothesis is that postreproductive females act as repositories of ecological knowledge and thereby buffer kin against environmental hardships [7, 8]. We provide the first test of this hypothesis using a unique long-term dataset on wild resident killer whales. We show three key results. First, postreproductively aged females lead groups during collective movement in salmon foraging grounds. Second, leadership by postreproductively aged females is especially prominent in difficult years when salmon abundance is low. This finding is critical because salmon abundance drives both mortality and reproductive success in resident killer whales [9, 10]. Third, females are more likely to lead their sons than they are to lead their daughters, supporting predictions of recent models [5] of the evolution of menopause based on kinship dynamics. Our results show that postreproductive females may boost the fitness of kin through the transfer of ecological knowledge. The value gained from the wisdom of elders can help explain why female resident killer whales and humans continue to live long after they have stopped reproducing. © 2015 The Authors.


News Article | December 19, 2016
Site: www.techtimes.com

A group of rarely seen type of killer whale was captured on video off the coast of California killing and eating a shark. Photographer Slater Moore witnessed and filmed a video of four offshore killer whales feasting on a shark around Monterey Bay on Dec. 13. The group consists of four offshore orcas, two females and two calves, was part of a larger group numbering about 25. The orcas' unlucky prey was a sevengill shark, which was about 5 feet long albeit this species can grow double that size. The captured scene is a special one not just because these killer whales are seldom caught on video attacking and eating sharks, which themselves have ferocious reputation as predators of the ocean. Offshore killer whales are also rarely seen, which is why scientists know little about them. Because they are elusive, the sub-species was only discovered in 1988. Offshore killer whales only appear in Monterey Bay every year or so. Scientists do not exactly know where these marine animals spend their time in between periods when they emerge. "This third population of orcas found in the northeast Pacific was discovered in 1988. As their name suggests, they travel far from shore and are rarely seen," described the Center for Whale Research of the offshore orca. "Other than a handful of sightings within the inland waters of Washington State and British Columbia, they have mostly been encountered off the west coast of Vancouver Island and near the Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands)." Scientists are also aware that these marine animals feast on sharks as well as fish and squid because dead offshore killer whales that wash ashore are often found with pieces of shark in their stomach. Analysis of the teeth and blubber of killer orcas also indicate what is in their diet. "Scientists have long since suspected that offshore killer whales were preying on sharks. Biopsies of offshore blubber analyzed for fatty acids, stable isotopes and persistent organic pollutants (POP's) supported a diet of 'a long-lived fish relatively high in the food chain', and sharks seem like suitable candidates," the Wild Whale website wrote about the killer whales. The video of the four killer whales feasting on a shark confirmed these subspecies of orcas are indeed predators of sharks. No sufficient data is currently available to determine if offshore orcas are in danger but experts think that their population is declining. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.


News Article | November 30, 2016
Site: motherboard.vice.com

The killer whales that ply coastal waters near BC and Washington State are iconic to the area. Yet the newly approved Kinder Morgan pipeline threatens to drive this already-endangered population to extinction, conservationists warned on Wednesday, as Kinder Morgan Canada president Ian Anderson praised Justin Trudeau's government for its "courage and determination" in making the controversial project a reality. The $6.8 billion Trans Mountain expansion, which will carry oil products from Alberta to the BC coast, was one of two pipeline projects that got officially green-lighted in Canada on Tuesday: the other, Enbridge's Line 3 replacement, will replace existing pipeline from Alberta to Manitoba. (A third proposed pipeline, Enbridge's Northern Gateway, which has been mired in controversy and legal disputes, was rejected.) There are only about 80 Southern Resident Killer Whales left, according to the nonprofit Center for Whale Research (CWR) in Washington State, which performs a yearly census on behalf of the US government. These animals are under tremendous pressure due to dwindling food supplies, pollution, and marine traffic. Environmentalists and biologists say the pipeline could drive them to the brink. Even if there isn't an oil spill, the increase in marine traffic and accompanying noise that's expected to come as a result of the pipeline will make it harder for the whales to hunt for food, which they do using echolocation. Southern Residents, which feed exclusively on salmon, are already struggling with dwindling food supplies, because of overfishing and other factors. Read More: A Diesel Spill Is Putting the World's Largest Temperate Rainforest at Risk To understand the predicament of these animals, it's important to know that there are different populations of killer whales worldwide, including off the BC coast. Genetic research has shown that populations are "incredibly distinct," Deborah Giles, research director and project manager at the CWR, told me over the phone. Killer whales are not only genetically distinct; they're culturally distinct from other populations, too. For example, the Southern Residents eat only salmon. Mammal-eating killer whales, which represent another group, will come into the same waters, "but they don't interbreed or intermingle" with Southern Residents, she said. These animals are important figures to indigenous cultures on the Pacific coast. And they're symbolic of the lower mainland. "When one of these whales dies, it's front-page news in Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle," as Maclean's reported. They also bring in plenty of tourism dollars. "In 2014, 400,000 people went out on whale watching boats," just for the hopes of seeing one of these 80-odd whales, Giles said. "That's at least $100 per head." Both Kinder Morgan and the Canadian government are aware of potential risks to the Southern Residents, and say they will be mitigated as much as possible—the federal government has said that killer whale recovery is part of its recently announced $1.5 billion marine protection plan—but environmentalists worry that this will be too little, too late, and that a pipeline will take recovery off the table. Motherboard reached out to Environment and Climate Change Canada, which directed the request to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The department did not respond by deadline. The approval "seems so short-sighted, when the potential for loss is so massive," Giles told me. Losing an entire population of killer whales would be disastrous, she continued. "Not only will animals and plants be impacted. It's as if we humans don't realize we're actually in it, too." Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.


News Article | October 30, 2016
Site: www.rdmag.com

Researchers who track the endangered population of orcas that frequent Washington state waters said Friday 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 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 Waddell, a retired engineer with the group DamSense who spoke at the news conference. In May, in a long-running lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon in Portland rejected the federal government's latest plan for offsetting the damage that dams in the Columbia River Basin pose to salmon. The judge ordered the government to come up with a new plan by March 2018. He said he would not dictate what options the government must consider in the new plan, but he noted that a proper analysis under federal law "may well require consideration of the reasonable alternative of breaching, bypassing, or removing one or more of the four Lower Snake River Dams."


News Article | December 23, 2016
Site: phys.org

Center for Whale Research scientist Ken Balcomb said Thursday that he and others have confirmed the whale was an 18-year-old male called J-34. They based the identification on photographs and its unique markings. The orca was seen floating near the shore Tuesday near Sechelt, about 40 miles northwest of Vancouver. The whale was towed to a beach, and Canadian officials performed a necropsy Wednesday. The center is awaiting those results for a cause of death. Balcomb said in a statement that at least four members of the J pod, one of three families of southern resident killer whales, have died this year.


News Article | December 17, 2015
Site: phys.org

The new baby is the eighth born since last December to the small, endangered population of killer whales that spend time in the inland waters of Washington state, according to the Center for Whale Research, which keeps a census of the orcas for the federal government "It's wonderful," said Ken Balcomb, senior scientist with the center at Friday Harbor. "We're hoping this is the future." Decades ago, there were more than 140 of the unique animals known as southern resident killer whales. That number declined to a low of 71 in the 1970s when dozens of the mammals were captured to be displayed at marine parks and aquariums across the country. Despite a decade of research, protection and recovery efforts, the animals continue to struggle primarily due to a lack of food, pollution and disturbances by marine vessels. The population is now at 84. There were 77 animals last December. The newest orca, estimated to be a few weeks old, was spotted earlier this month near San Juan Island by a member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. Researchers couldn't initially determine conclusively from photographs whether the whale was new. Photos taken Wednesday, however, helped confirm that the eyepatch and other markings on the baby were distinct. Each Puget Sound orca is identified by unique black and white markings or variations in their fin shapes. The baby is the fifth born to the J-pod, one of three groups of Puget Sound orcas. It was spotted swimming with its mother, grandmother and other family members in Haro Strait. Balcomb said the baby boom could be due to the fairly good salmon year on the Columbia River. "I think that sort of allowed these mothers to bring their babies to full term," he said. Researchers won't know for some time if the baby is male or female. Explore further: New baby orca spotted in Washington waters © 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


News Article | January 3, 2017
Site: www.techtimes.com

The Center for Whale Research has revealed that the oldest known orca is considered dead. Researchers do not know the actual age of the orca dubbed "J2 Granny" but she is estimated to be between 80 and 105 years old. When whale researchers spotted Granny in the summer of 2016, they considered the orca to be in high spirit but she was missing from the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) group J pod by the end of the year. Researchers think that the whale that swam in the seas near Washington State possibly passed away as she has not been seen with the J group for the last three months. The center's executive director Kenneth Balcomb said that they have seen J2 thousands of times over the past 40 years. The orca was also observed in recent years leading the J pod virtually everytime she was spotted but it has been a while since she was seen. The Center for Whale Research said that Granny was last spotted in October and the center now considers her deceased. "I last saw her on October 12, 2016 as she swam north in Haro Strait far ahead of the others. Perhaps other dedicated whale-watchers have seen her since then, but by year's end she is officially missing from the SRKW population, and with regret we now consider her deceased," wrote Balcomb. Granny was considered among the world's longest-living orcas until she was considered dead. She is one of the few "resident" whales that researchers do not precisely know the age because she was born long before studies started. "We knew this day would come, and each year that she returned with the rest of J pod brought us closer to this inevitable moment," the Center for Whale Research said. "With heavy hearts we have to say goodbye to yet another southern resident, perhaps the most loved and known to all and the oldest orca to date." Three populations of killer whales are known to be in the northeast Pacific. Members of Granny's group has seen their population decline and the orcas are considered as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The lifespan of orcas range between 60 and 80 years old but South Residents live extraordinarily long. The female K7 or Lumni, which passed away in 2008 was 98 years old at the time of her death, according to the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA). L2, or Ocean Sun, also Southern Resident is believed to be 85 years old. As of Dec. 31, the SRKW population is estimated to number 78 and the J pod has 24 individuals plus a wandering orca called L87. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that declines in orca population may be associated with threats that include toxic pollution and noise caused by boat traffic. The killer whales also depend on healthy populations of salmon, particularly Chinook, which are also declining. © 2017 Tech Times, All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.


News Article | January 13, 2017
Site: scienceblogs.com

Orcas are one of only three species of mammals that go through menopause, including humans of course. A new study published in Current Biology may have discovered why this happens in killer whales. Examination of 43 years worth of data collected by the Center for Whale Research and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, revealed a remarkable finding about the costs of reproduction in orcas. Older mothers tend to spend more time taking care of the family, so to speak, by making sure her offspring know where or when to find food. While this cooperative foraging behavior helps improve survival of the mother’s family, further offspring from the mother are 1.7 times more likely to die than her daughter’s offspring. This reproductive competition (or conflict) is thought to be a reason why the whales (and perhaps humans) evolved to go through menopause. DP Croft, RA Johnston, S Ellis, S Nattrass, DW Franks, LJN Brent, S Mazzi, KC Balcomb, JKB Ford, MA Cant. Reproductive Conflict and the Evolution of Menopause in Killer. Current Biology. 27: 1-7, 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.12.015

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