Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Whale Page # 4 form the San Juan Journal

Every August we do a special informational page in the local paper,
the San Juan Journal, all about the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales. This year, Director Ken Baclomb is the author. We thought we would share them with all of you who don't have access to the San Juan Journal!
This is the fourth and last installment:
L94 pushing a salmon on her head-2004

What shall we do for recovery of our local Orca?

This is a question that deserves some deep soul searching. There is no doubt that our beloved local Orcas – SRKW’s aka southern resident killer whales – are at risk of extinction in this century if things keep going the way they are. Since the first installment of these 2013 Whale Pages less than one month ago, one more local Orca whale has gone missing and will soon be presumed dead. The SRKW population count will then be down to 81, and we can only hope that there will be a birth or two this autumn/winter for replacement. However, the total number of whales in this beleaguered population is not as relevant as the number of breeding age whales and the success rate of their reproduction. It takes twelve to twenty or more years for a baby whale to grow up and become a member of the breeding population. Females mature in their teens, but males seem to require longer before contributing to the gene pool – twenty to forty year olds father a disproportionate number of babies. And, then the babies have to survive. There are only 24 females and 8 males currently in their prime breeding years, and offspring survival has not been very good in recent years due to a variety of causes. We used to calculate that female SRKW’s would have an average 5.35 viable calves in a 25.2 year reproductive lifespan, but the rate is much less than that now. Additionally, it is sobering to note that all but one of the males born in the 1980’s is now dead. Six surviving females born in that decade have produced only seven calves, and six of these are male. What went on then? And, what is still going on?

The 1980’s saw an overall abundance of Age 3-5 year old Chinook salmon in the inland waters of the Salish Sea (Georgia Strait, Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound) of 3.5 million fish early in the decade reduced to 1.5 million by the end of the decade. In the recent two decades this number has varied between one million and two million 3-5 year old Chinook salmon estimated (FRAM model, statistical estimate based upon fisheries and escapements) in the Salish Sea system. The SRKW population was recovering from captures during this same timeframe, and reached nearly 100 whales by 1995; and, then they rapidly “crashed” to 80 whales by 2001, with the decline driven by mortalities. Chinook abundance modeled for this latter time period of SRKW decline was 1 to 1.5 million 3-5 year-olds in the Salish Sea. The food requirement for 100 SRKW’s is at least 600,000 of these fish per year, so clearly there was opportunity for Human competition for this resource. And, there remains opportunity for enlightened Human management of activities affecting Chinook abundance, for fisheries, whale recovery and ecosystem requirements (nutrients for the forest, etc.).

It is obvious that we should support Chinook salmon recovery in the Salish Sea as much as possible if we would like to see the SRKW population recover and frequent the waters around our islands. These whales will swim a thousand miles to find their food, and we know that they will eat some other fish to survive, just barely. This summer should serve as a “wake-up” that our “resident” whales will simply take up residence elsewhere, or keep moving from here to elsewhere in search of a suitable food supply. We can watch “transient” killer whales, and minke whales, humpback whales, etc.; but, the “resident” Orca provide the indicator of the health of the local ecosystem that we all depend upon. Lets keep them around.

By reading to this point, you have begun to answer the question “What shall we do?”: Inform yourself by finding out what is going on in with issues that affect the health of our local ecosystem. Hint: coal mining and transport, CO2  emissions and climate change, persistent organic pollutants (POP’s), and marine development are among the issues. Then, do what you can at home and in your daily life to tread lightly on what you call your environment.

Ken Balcomb
Center for Whale Research

Some Tips on How to Make your home ‘Orca Safe’

Limit your water consumption:
           •Turn off the water while brushing your teeth
           • Limit showers to 5 minutes per day.

Reduce electrical consumption:
           • Set home thermostats for 68 degrees or less. Less electrical consumption means more water for salmon, the orcas’ favorite meal.
           • Turn down your hot water heater.
           • Unplug all rarely used items and switch off all unused lights.

Reach for unbleached:
            • Look for paper products whitened with oxygen instead of chlorine and/or products that contain the most post-consumer content.

Reuse and Recycle:
             • Put paper towels out of reach; use a sponge or reusable wash rag.
             • Reuse paper grocery sacks or use cloth bags.
             • Avoid extra packaging.

Buy local and/or organic:
              • Concentrate your shopping dollars on buying as much local and/or organic food as possible.    

Limit pesticide Use:
               • Fertilizers reduce fish habitat by encouraging the growth of plants that then deplete oxygen for fish such as salmon.
               • Pay attention to the chemicals used in cleaning solutions: phosphates used in many cleaning supplies encourage plant growth, which use up the oxygen fish need. Protecting salmon habitat is as important for the whales as it is for the salmon!

Swim the extra mile:
                 • Can you walk or ride a bike instead of drive? How about carpooling?

Check out www.whaleresearch.com, where you can order this year’s ‘Orca Survey: a Naturalists Family Tree Guide to the Orca Whales of the Southern Resident Community”. 

To learn more about killer whales in the Northwest and around the world and how you can help visit these websites (The following list of websites may provide additional information to the reader, but they should not necessarily be taken as endorsement by the author) 





















Saturday, September 7, 2013


Photogrammetry to monitor growth and nutritional status of endangered southern resident killer whales

Aerial photograph taken in September 2013 from a helicopter platform 864ft above southern resident killer whales. Research approach authorized by National Marine Fisheries Permit # 15569.
In 2008 a project supported by the NOAA Northwest Regional Office and conducted in partnership between the Center for Whale Research (CWR) and NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) demonstrated the utility of using aerial photogrammetry to estimate morphometrics of southern resident killer whales (SRKWs; Durban et al. 2009; Fearnbach et al. 2011). Using photographs obtained from a helicopter platform, lengths were estimated for 66 individually identifiable whales, representing more than three-quarters of the population. Estimated whale lengths ranged from 2.7 m for a neonate whale in its first year of life, to a maximum of 7.2 m for a 31 yr old adult male. Adult males reached an average (asymptotic) size estimate (±SE) of 6.9 ± 0.2 m, with growth slowing notably after the age of 18 yr; this was significantly larger than the asymptotic size of 6.0 ± 0.1 m for females, which was reached after the earlier age of 15 yr. On average, older adults (>30 yr) were 0.3 m longer than the younger whales of adult age; it was hypothesized that a long-term reduction in food availability may have reduced early growth rates and subsequent adult size in recent decades (Fearnbach et al. 2011).
A recent report of the independent science panel on the effects of salmon fisheries SRKWs highlighted uncertainty over the link between prey availability and population dynamics (Hilborn et al. 2012). Specifically, the panel cited key a data gap of whether the abundance of their preferred prey, Chinook salmon, is low enough to cause nutritional stress, and recommended the further use of photogrammetry to monitor the whales’ nutritional status.
Although initially used to estimate whale lengths, analyses of the 2008 images have also shown potential for detecting changes in whale shape that can be related to body condition (Durban et al. 2009; Durban et al. 2012). Following the panel’s recommendation, the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center is supporting a second photogrammetry field effort in September 2013, conducted in collaboration by CWR and the photogrammetry group at SWFSC, which aims to obtain longitudinal data from many of the same individual whales photographed previously. This will begin an examination of temporal changes in body condition of specific individuals to assess changes relative to reproductive status and age, and ultimately to assess body changes relative to Chinook salmon abundance.

Aerial photograph taken in September 2013 from a helicopter platform 1051ft above southern resident killer whales. Research approach authorized by National Marine Fisheries Permit # 15569.
For more information, please contact John.Durban@noaa.gov
Durban, J., Fearnbach, H., Ellifrit, D., and Balcomb, K.C. 2009. Size and body condition of southern resident killer whales. Contract report to the Northwest Regional Office, National Marine Fisheries Service, Order number AB133F08SE4742, Requisition Number NFFP5000-8-43300.
Durban, J., Fearnbach, H., Balcomb, K.C., and Ellifrit, D. 2012. Size and Body Condition of Southern Residents. In Evaluating the Effects of Salmon Fisheries on Southern Resident Killer Whales: Workshop 3, September 18-20, 2012. NOAA Fisheries and DFO (Fisheries and Oceans Canada), Seattle, WA.
Fearnbach, H., Durban, J., Ellifrit, D., and Balcomb, K.C. 2011. Size and long-term growth trends of endangered fish-eating killer whales. Endangered Species Research 13: 173–180. doi: 10.3354/esr00330.
Hilborn, R., S.P. Cox, F.M.D. Gulland, D.G. Hankin, N.T. Hobbs, D.E. Schindler, and A.W. Trites. 2012. The Effects of Salmon Fisheries on Southern Resident Killer Whales: Final Report of the Independent Science Panel. Prepared with the assistance of D.R. Marmorek and A.W. Hall, ESSA Technologies Ltd., Vancouver, B.C. for National Marine Fisheries Service (Seattle. WA) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (Vancouver. BC). xv + 61 pp. + Appendices.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Whale Page # 3 from the San Juan Journal

Every August we do a special informational page in the local paper,
the San Juan Journal, all about the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales. This year, Director Ken Baclomb is the author. We thought we would share them with all of you who don't have access to the San Juan Journal!
This is the third installment:

Habitat Critical to Orca Survival
In previous editions of the Whale Pages, we made the distinction between our Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW’s in government jargon – Orcas in our local jargon) and Transient killer
whales (T’s in our local jargon). It is the SRKW/ Orca population of these whales that historicaly
frequented the Salish Sea from May through September each year, folowing the once abundant 
Chinook salmon “runs” to the spawning rivers in this region. It was in response to the Orca population 
decline beginning in 1996 that the SRKW population was listed as Endangered in 2005, and 
a critical habitat area (see below) was defined in US waters. 
Map by National Marine Fisheries Service
Following the listing of the Southern Resident killer whales as
endangered in 2005, the National Marine Fisheries Service designated
much of the inland waters of Washington State, now
termed the Salish Sea, as critical habitat.

Canada subsequently designated a large area of the Salish Sea north of the US/Canada border as critical habitat under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). It is important to note that these critical habitat designations were based upon legitimate concern for the survival of this beleaguered population of whales, but they are really just words and geographic coordinates – not food that whales need. Our “local” Orcas travel as necessary to and their preferred prey 

species – Chinook salmon – and we know that some of the Orca pods go as far south as Central California and as far north as Southeast Alaska in their winter search for this food. In fact, the entire eastern North Paci c continental shelf in this area is habitat for the Chinook salmon that were historically available year-round in feeder schools and river-bound migrants with overlapping schedules (spring, winter, fall, summer, and late-fall, with summer and fall runs predominating). e coastal biomass of this species was enormous, supporting a commercial troll fishery as recently as 1979 yielding a quarter of a milion 15- 45 pound Chinook salmon each year
from the Washington coast, and approximately one million similar sized Chinook from the British Columbia coast.  These fish were headed to the river watersheds of Puget Sound and Georgia Strait, and the big one – the Columbia River. This later major river system alone saw the return of five to nine million big adult Chinook salmon in the mid to late 1800’s (pre-dam construction), and returns dwindling to a much- heralded projection of 678,000 this year  The Fraser River “run” of Chinook salmon is in deep trouble with test series currently indicating a near collapse of the spawning population – a major food source for our Orcas in the Salish Sea. Perhaps the absence of our beloved Orca around San Juan Island this year is related to the absence of food – Fraser River Chinook salmon, in particular. It is doubtful that more words of SRKW critical habitat designation and geographic coordinates will sufficiently address this situation. What we need to do is encourage (if not demand) wild salmon population recovery in al watersheds of the Salish Sea, and enthusiastically applaud the Elwha dam removal for the return of spawning habitat to that river’s legendary Chinook.

For more information see also:

Notification of upcoming research

Starting this week, September 3rd:

The Center for Whale Research, in collaboration with the photogrammetry group from the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, will be conducting a month-long field effort to assess the body condition, size and growth of individual southern resident killer whales, in order to assess their nutritional status. Funded by the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center, this is a continuation of work first conducted in 2008, using a helicopter platform to obtain vertical images of whales from above in order to measure key morphometrics. Seven one-hour flights will be conducted during the month of September, to begin as early as September 3rd pending the whales' availability; the helicopter will typically operate at altitudes >1000ft, with permitted descents no lower than 750ft, and will coordinate with Center for Whale Research boats on the water to maximize coverage of different individuals. For more information contact John.Durban@noaa.gov.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Whale Page # 2 from the San Juan Journal

Every August we do a special informational page in the local paper,
the San Juan Journal, all about the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales. This year, Director Ken Baclomb is the author. We thought we would share them with all of you who don't have access to the San Juan Journal!
This is the second installment:

What do Orca Whales Like to Eat?

In the previous article in the Whale Pages, we presented the fact that the whales we call Killer or Orca represent a complex of many distinct populations that may prove to qualify as species; and, here we present the fact that these distinct populations specialize or “like to eat” particular prey species. All of the populations of so-called Killer whales are predatory animals currently assigned to one species (Orcinus orca, Linnaeus, 1758), and they must eat to survive; but, the preferred prey species for each population varies according to what is locally abundant and available in the marine ecosystem within swimming range. The classic studies regarding what “Killer” whales like to eat came from examination of stomach contents of these whales that were stranded in various locations around the world, or taken by whalers. The food items were fish, squid, seals, porpoises, other whales, etc. that led to the early conclusion that Orcinus orca was euryphagous, that is they fed upon a wide variety of prey and could switch diet if a particular variety became scarce. More comprehensive recent studies, including those done by the Center for Whale Research, indicate that each branch of the Orca family tree tends to strongly lean toward a prey species that is locally available and sufficiently abundant year-round for a very long time (many whale lifetimes). This tendency is termed stenophagy – a narrow variety of prey species; and, over the evolutionary time scales available from thousands of whale lifetimes it has resulted in very distinct differences in the anatomy and morphology of the various whale populations.

Transient killer whale with a harbor seal in it's mouth-
Photo by Dave Ellifrit
            “Transient” Orcinus orca whales may indeed be properly called “killers” (at least by the seals, sea lions and porpoises they consume), and they have very robust jaw structure with relatively big teeth (the better to bite you with, my dear). Their lifestyle is rather nomadic, as they travel with the seasonal migrations and/or the seasonal birthing and weaning cycles of their prey species. These mammal predator whales typically venture into the waters around the San Juan Islands in autumn and winter months when harbor seals are weaned (and unsuspecting), and when sea lions overwinter in the Salish Sea. Typically the “transients” travel in relatively small groups of 3-15 relatives and associates, and they are usually stealthy (non-vocal, so the prey species cannot hear them). This year (2013) we have witnessed an unprecedented influx of “transients” around the San Juan Islands, some coming from as far as California and Alaska. There are about 250 “transient” killer whales in the Center for Whale Research catalogue for this area.

Southern Resident, L84, with a salmon in his mouth-
Photo by Dave Ellifrit
           Orcinus orca whales may be properly called “Orca”, a term that is more fitting with the image of a peaceful non-stress-inducing population of mellow fish-eating predators with less robust jaw architecture and smaller teeth than “transient” killer whales. The “resident” lifestyle is adapted to the migrations and seasonal abundance of salmon in the eastern North Pacific Ocean. The salmon most available year-round within the “resident” swimming range are Chinook, or Kings, which happen to be the largest and most nutritious species of salmon in the world (formerly weighing up to 125 pounds each!). Chinook lifestyle, in turn, is predatory upon smaller fishes that are in greatest abundance on the continental shelf of the Pacific Ocean near the edge of upwelling currents. Chinook salmon have been taken in Human fisheries by the millions each year for the past century, and most wild populations of these fish are now “Endangered” with many already extinct. The “resident” Orca whales typically venture into the waters around the San Juan Islands in pod and multi-pod associations (Superpods) from May to September when the mature Chinook salmon are bound primarily for the Fraser River for spawning, though a few migrate to other river systems in the Salish Sea. Thus, we have an Endangered whale species obligate feeding upon an Endangered salmon species – a revolting development unforeseen by dam builders, habitat usurpers, and fishermen. As of 2013, there are currently 82 southern “resident” Orca whales in this population, down from nearly 100 twenty years ago, and down from more than 200 that we have catalogued. We have demonstrated that the “resident” Orca survival is significantly linked to Chinook abundance, and the government managers on both sides of the US/Canada border should take more notice of this inconvenient truth before it is too late. This year (2013) during the summer when whale-watching is historically best, we have witnessed an unprecedented absence of “residents” around the San Juan Islands, and a continuing downtrend in their population number concurrent with a near collapse of Fraser River Chinook.

Ken Balcomb

Center for Whale Research

Monday, August 19, 2013

Whale Pages from the San Juan Journal

Every August we do a special informational page in the local paper, the San Juan Journal, all about the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.  This year, Director Ken Baclomb is the author. We thought we would share them with all of you who don't have access to the San Juan Journal!

Keeping an eye on local Orca whales 

            Whales of any species can be individually recognized by their natural shapes and color patterns using a technique called “photo-identification” that was pioneered in the 1960’s and 70’s by biologists at San Juan Island’s Center for Whale Research. The local “killer whales”, now affectionately known as Orca, are among the most distinctively appearing whales in the world, and many individuals can be easily recognized by naturalists and admirers of wildlife. To assist with this recognition, a photo-identification catalogue of every individual orca whale common to the Pacific Northwest has been maintained by biologists at the Center since 1976, and it is updated every year.
Above, L54 and her three offspring are shown as a family tree. 
The matriarch, L54, is at the top, with her descendants below, eldest to 
youngest from left to right. L117, who’s sex is unknown, is the youngest of 
L54’s calves, born in 2010. New born calves often have a grey and mottled 
looking saddle patch. Because calves stay close to their mothers for the first 
year or so of their life, they are often identified by their association with
their mother rather than their saddle patch. To identify older individual whales, 
look closely at the details of the saddle patch of each animal in the subgroup. 
Every orca whale has a distinct and unique saddle patch, 
much like a human fingerprint,  unlike any other whale in the world.


As a result of this cataloguing some very remarkable facts have been uncovered about the local Orca whales and about their species worldwide. For example, their natural lifespan is long (comparable to human lifespan to eighty or more years) and they travel in family groups (known as “pods”) swimming 75 miles per day on average. Three of these family groups, designated J,K, and L pods, are frequently seen travelling back and forth around the San Juan Islands from May to October; and, they have been termed “resident”. Other family groups and individuals are typically less frequently seen around the San Juan Islands; and, they have been termed “transient”. From long-term observation and genetic studies it has been learned that the “residents” and “transients” do not mix and interbreed – they are very, very distant relatives, somewhat analogous to Humans and Neanterthals but both living at the same time, and in the same general area.
            In fact, when we extend these individual and genetic studies we find that there are probably ten or more distantly related large branches of the Orca family tree worldwide that do not naturally mix or interbreed, and they have been on this planet much longer than we Humans have. Scientists are just now trying to determine whether this arrangement constitutes a complex of many species, and why. Nonetheless, we have a very precious “resident” population here in the San Juans, and they have been recently affirmed as Endangered under the US Endangered Species Act and Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
            The questions are out there, from deep pondering about the roles that species play in the web of life on Earth, to what time will the whales be seen at Lime Kiln whale-watch park. We do not yet have all of the answers, but if we keep our eye on the welfare of our precious local Orca whales we may just have a chance to find out how “our” world works, and maybe we will be smart enough to keep it working.
Eyepatches are important too!
Orca eyepatches are also an important marking
used for identification. Eyepatches, the white
patch above the eye, are unique to individuals just like
saddle patches. Sometimes we can’t get a good look at
the saddle patch, say when a whale spyhops, but we
can use the eyepatch instead to identify the individual.
This eyepatch photo is of the newest calf in L pod L119.

            In future editions of these Whale Pages, we will provide additional information about our famous Orca whales.

Ken Balcomb
Center for Whale Research

Don't forget!  Membership Helps!  
To become a member of the Center for Whale Research and learn more about our local killer whale populations go to our website: www.whaleresearch.com

Candace Calloway Whiting