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.

Candace Calloway Whiting