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Decline of the NW Orcas (Ocean Realms) Winter 2000/2001
Britain backs scheme for 'managed slaughter' of whales - Marie Woolf - June 2001
Whales' deaths to be probed - June 2001
Number of Grey Whale Calves on the Decline - June 2001
Iceland rejoins International Whaling Commission - June 2001
Navy Sonar: Why it must be stopped by Dick Russell
Testimony for NMFS Hearing / Navy Sonar, April 2001

 

Decline Of the NW Orcas

Published in Ocean Realms Magasine, Winter 2000/2001 Issue

Editor's note: since this article was published, 6 more orcas from the southern residents have mysteriously disappeared. The population is plummeting and now sits at 78 whales.

Breaching skyward in an explosion of foam, J-1 sends a two-foot Chinook salmon tumbling, before it lands, stunned and motionless on the sea's surface. J-1, a 50-year old bull orca better known locally as 'Ruffles', quickly captures and consumes the fish, then deftly arches below the surface to begin the maneuver anew.

But for Ruffles, and the other members of his extended clan in the northwest, prey isn't always readily available. In fact, a regional salmon shortage is contributing to the alarming, fast-paced decline of J clan, commonly known as the 'southern resident' orca community.

Northwest researchers and environmentalists are concerned. This past summer, the southern resident orca community, comprised of J, K and L-pods, has dropped in number to only 82 remaining whales. This decline represents a decrease of 14% since January 1999, and a 17% overall decline since the middle 1990s. This drop is also in stark contrast to growth dynamics of other Pacific orca stocks in British Columbia and Prince William Sound, which appear to be increasing at a rate of 3% per year.

Lower Survival Rates

"We've recently compared survival rates on the southern resident population from 1974; comparatively these last few years, rates are at the lowest they've ever been," observes researcher Paul Wade, who with colleagues Ken Balcomb and David Bain, produced a draft population report at a National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML) workshop in Seattle this past April. Recent whale mortalities, including that of Ruffle's nephew J-18, a young, relatively healthy bull (and his mother J-10 a month later), have prompted biologists to gather and discuss that matter, and possibly seek to obtain an 'endangered species' listing for the southern resident population.

"The main factors which seem to be contributing to this decline are toxic chemical contamination, scarcity of prey, and the growing impact of marine vessel traffic present around orcas during their peak feeding and breeding periods," says researcher David Bain from the Whale Museum on Washington's San Juan Island. These three specific factors were also identified as prime concerns in the report published after the NMML workshop in April.

Toxic Contamination

Toxic contamination, particularly the accumulation of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) in fatty tissues, have given these orcas the distinction of being the most chemically contaminated marine mammals in the world. "These animals are literally considered 'toxic waste' when they wash up on shore," adds Robert McLaughlin, SeaWolf boardmember. "In fact, concentration levels in this orca population run almost twice as high as in the St. Lawrence beluga whales controversy," adds McLaughlin, "While PCBs have been outlawed in the US for some time, these orca have accumulated a 'legacy' of contamination that they continue to pass on, from mother to calf, generation to generation." PCB accumulations are known to weaken mammalian immune systems, and make injured of sick whales more susceptible to infections and other illnesses.

Combined with the added stress associated with prey scarcity, some whales, like J-18, seem destined to die in what would otherwise be their prime breeding years. While PCBs have been outlawed in the United States for more than two decades, the toxin persists in ocean sediments and continues to enter the food chain through prey species and, ultimately, into top level predators such as orcas.

Chemical contamination from other sources, such as industry and consumer-based toxins dumped into stormwater drains, rivers and streams leading to the ocean have also impacted survival and spawning habitat for salmon and other prey fish. "Certainly, the recent listing of Chinook salmon as an endangered species in the northwest is also a factor," says Ken Balcomb, a whale researcher who heads the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. "To make matters even more complex, Puget Sound's herring stock – the prey that the salmon themselves feed upon - may be the next candidate species to win a federal 'endangered' status listing," adds Balcomb.

The decline in available prey cause orcas to range further afield to forage, and may have an additional impact on time needed for crucial resting, socialization and mating activities. "The solution to this problem is fish restoration," Comments Balcomb, "Not just with salmon, but also herring, groundfish and all other declining fish in the orcas' ecosystem – unless we do something about that, the southern residents may be gone in as few as three generations (25 years)."

Stress From Eco-Tourism

Ironically, the growing eco-tourism industry itself is now considered a cause contributing to the decline. Ken Balcomb's colleague David Bain recently concluded a study that suggests the growing marine traffic around these whales might be adding to the impacts, and threatening their long-term survival. "While the southern residents don't appear to be leaving their foraging area altogether, we do have periodic disappearances – and we have observed that their daily activities have changed as a result of vessel intrusion," says Bain.

Changes in behavior could be caused by the impact of increased stress and energy output resulting from boat avoidance maneuvers, deep-lung inhalation of poly-aeromatic hydrocarbons (gasoline fumes) from surrounding boats, and the interruption of necessary socialization behaviors such as breeding, bonding and instructing younger whales to forage for prey. "Boating restrictions around these whales is an issue that we can control," adds Bain, "Perhaps it's time to implement some access or proximity limitations and encourage the public to switch toward shore-based whale watching."

Live Captures Contibuted to Decreased Birth Rates

One other significant factor suspected of contributing to the current decline involves the historical live capture operations of the 1970s, that removed many breeding age orcas from this population for exploitation by the marine parks entertainment industry. Today, all but one of these captured whales are dead, but the sole survivor – a perfectly healthy and contaminant-free breeding age female from L-pod named "Lolita' – could become a mother to any entire generation of healthy offspring. Unfortunately Lolita is a performing orca in a Florida theme park, and her owner has no intention of releasing her to the researchers who would rehabilitate and return her to her wild family in the northwest.

Yet this last option might be one way to stall the decline. Today, only seven sexually mature male orcas remain in the southern resident clans, two of these (including J1) are approaching the maximum life span estimated for males. And since orcas do not breed outside of their clans, there is validity to the observation that mortality will continue to exceed the current birth rate. Even if the southern resident orcas where to adapt and be capable of dealing with the immediate factors of prey shortage, pollution and vessel traffic, there are not enough new whales being born to reverse the overall decline.

Loss of Biodiversity

Ultimately, the issue at hand appears to be whether the southern residents are headed toward extirpation. While there are an unknown number of killer whales roaming the world's oceans, each population, or stock, is thought to be genetically distinct. "The southern residents harbor unique genetic, social and linguistic characteristics," concludes SeaWolf's McLaughlin, "If these orcas were to disappear completely, we won't simply be losing a cultural and ecological cornerstone of Pacific Northwest identity – we would also be losing irreplaceable biodiversity from our seas."

The loss of a pinnacle predator species in any ecosystem is a dramatic signal that the world's ocean are not well. While the Canadian government listed the southern resident orcas as a "threatened species" last spring, the United States is still awaiting the data necessary to consider a similar listing for the stock in 2001. Currently, the decline continues; what is evident is that new, proactive and immediate actions must be implemented to prevent the extirpation of the southern residents altogether.

In the Haro Strait, 'Ruffles' and his sub-pod continue to forage freely, leaving the inland sea periodically when the seasons change, or a migration of prey draws them to the outer coasts. For generations, his clan has endured climatic and ecological changes in their home waters, returning each spring to grace the Haro Strait with their breath-taking acrobatics and haunting underwater vocalizations.

There is still uncertainly of the fate that ultimately awaits the southern resident orca community; perhaps they will recover and replenish their ranks, or perhaps some turn of the tide will change the health of the northwest ecosystem so that their clans can flourish and begin a new cycle of ecological prosperity. Yet it may also come, one spring, that the inland seas will remain, simply, silent.

What lies ahead is unknown, but one fact does remain clear – without the songs of Ruffles and others of his clan, who have roamed these coastal waters for so many centuries, the northwest will be a far emptier place.

### **Please Note SeaWolf Address Change!

Project SeaWolf
P.O. Box 929
Marysville, WA 98270

http://home.earthlink.net/~projseawolf

View Our Website Review of Northwest Eco-tourism Operators — "Make Sure You Only Select The Best!"

http://home.earthlink.net/~projseawolf/ecos.htm

Britain backs scheme for 'managed slaughter' of whales
---------------------------------
6/20/01 - 2:30 pm - By MARIE WOOLF

Britain is to change policy to back a scheme allowing commercial whaling to resume.
The Government, which led the move to introduce an international ban on killing whales, is to allow "managed" slaughter of populations of minke and humpback whales.
Its policy shift, to be announced at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) conference in London next month, could lead to hundreds of whales being harpooned for the Norwegian and Japanese markets.
The compromise scheme follows attempts by pro-whaling nations to bring to an end the international moratorium on commercial whaling.
Pro-whaling nations such as Iceland have joined Norway and Japan on the IWC in trying to out-vote the anti-whaling nations and scrap the ban, which came into force in 1986.
Environmental groups fear that the change in policy and the introduction of the so-called revised management scheme (RMS) for whaling will give a green light to the "cruel" trade.
Greenpeace warned last night that allowing managed whaling to proceed would be the first step to scrapping the international ban.
"Greenpeace is very clear about this. We are opposed to all commercial whaling," said a spokesman.
"If the RMS is agreed at the meeting it may well lead to the lifting of the moratorium. It will legalise and legitimise commercial whaling.
"A government spokesman said Britain was preparing to back the "practical" solution to try to ensure that the ban holds.
"We are formally opposed to whaling. If we support the RMS it is for practical reasons," said a spokesman for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
"It is exploring ways to keep everybody happy. We believe that the alternative may be if you don't bring one in it could become a bit of a free for all."
The RMS would include a structured system for counting, monitoring and killing whales where the population is healthy.

- INDEPENDENT

To view more stories please visit the NZ Herald Online at http://www.nzherald.co.nz

Whales' deaths to be probed
---------------------------------
Published Tuesday, June 19, 2001, VERO BEACH --

The heads of two beaked whales were on their way to the Woods Hole marine institution in Massachusetts Monday for high-tech MRI examination. Researchers want to know what caused the marine mammals to run aground north of Vero Beach on Sunday.

There was early speculation that Navy "shock testing" — underwater explosions -- conducted earlier this month in the Atlantic east of Jacksonville may have damaged the whales' sensitive navigation system.

But by Monday afternoon experts were downplaying that possibility, saying that the whales were badly emaciated and suffered other maladies.

"There is absolutely no indication right now that the death of these two whales had anything to do with any kind of Navy activity,'' said Chris Smith, spokesman for the Southeast Region of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency charged with, among other things, marine mammal protection.

There were three shock tests in just under a week, ending June 11, a Navy spokesman said.

MRI TESTING

The MRI testing will determine whether there might have been damage to the sonar portion of the whales's brain. ``Whales see with sound, hunt with sound and communicate with sound,'' said Greg Bossart, a researcher at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce. Anything that damages that mechanism could be fatal.

The larger whale, a 13-foot, 2,000-pound female, was dead by the time would-be rescuers got there, and the smaller, a 10-foot, 1,500-pound male, was in such poor condition he was put to death.

Both animals came ashore early Sunday morning north of Vero Beach.

In March 2000, about 15 beaked whales stranded in the Bahamas. Those that died and were examined showed bleeding in hearing areas of the skull, suggesting damage possibly caused by anti-submarine sonar testing.

NAVY EXPERIMENTS

The Navy is experimenting with a new kind of sonar that sends a very loud, low-frequency pulse into the ocean.

The pulse is capable of picking up the presence of ships and submarines at much greater distances than current methods.

The problem is that, up close, the pulse is like standing next to a rocket being launched.

The sound is powerful enough to damage or destroy the sonar of dolphins or whales that are close to the source. An explosion could produce similar damage, so ``shock tests'' are conducted under heavy environmental scrutiny as well.

A Navy spokesman said the tests — in which underwater explosives were set off to check the seaworthiness of the Navy's newest guided missile destroyer, the U.S. Churchill — were delayed twice, once when a school of dolphins came within two miles and again when a lone sea turtle was spotted within 1.5 miles of the test area.

There were 20 researchers and veterinarians on the Churchill, Smith said, making sure the tests complied with environmental restrictions.

An examination of the blast area after each blast revealed no damage to sea animals, Smith said.

Miami Herald

NUMBER OF GREY WHALE CALVES ON THE DECLINE
---------------------------------
Lowest Number Seen In Eight Years Of Surveys
VICTORIA, 9:55 a.m. PDT June 13, 2001 —

No dead grey whales have washed up along British Columbia's shoreline so far this year but the number of new calves making the long journey north with their mothers continues to drop.

Low birth rates and higher than usual numbers of deaths and strandings in recent years have prompted researchers to closely watch the population of grey whales, which pass by Vancouver Island on their annual migration north from Baja, Mexico, to the Bering and Chukchi seas.

Last year, 15 boxcar-sized corpses of starving whales turned up in British Columbia, out of 300 along the Pacific coast.

Grey whales are a popular draw for whale-watching firms on Vancouver Island, as well as in the United States.

In spite of past deaths, the population remains healthy at about 26,000 animals, however, counters have spotted 87 new calves, the lowest number seen in eight years of surveys, said Wayne Perryman, biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Services in La Jolla, Calif.

The California count wrapped up last week.

The total number of new calves is estimated at between 255 to 265.

Not all the new ones are seen by spotters, who watch for the calves only during daylight and do not count on Sundays.

Last year, Perryman figured there were 279 calves and in 1999 when there were 428. Those numbers are far below 1997 when 1,520 new calves appeared.

"Reproduction has been down for three consecutive years for this population," he said.

Theories about what is affecting the population includes the possibility there is less food in their northern feeding grounds, leading to less-healthy animals.

Grey whales eat tiny crustaceans such as amphipods.

Perryman believes there's a link between the amount of ice in the feeding grounds and the calving rate.

The ice has been slow to recede in the last three years and in the years when that happens, fewer calves are born, he said.

He also agrees that other factors, such as less available prey, may affect the whales.

"Give us another five or six years, then hopefully we can figure this out," he said.

(The Victoria Times Colonist, Victoria, B.C.) *****

Iceland rejoins International Whaling Commission
---------------------------------
Sapa AP June 11 2001 at 03:37PM Reykjavik, Iceland

Iceland has rejoined the International Whaling Commission, nine years after quitting the organisation in protest, the Foreign Ministry said Monday.

Even as it came back into the fold of the IWC, the government reiterated its opposition to the group's 1986 global ban on commercial whaling.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the government feels it can best influence the whaling debate from within the IWC, which is hosting an international convention on whaling regulations in London next month.

"There are signs within the IWC that support is increasing for sustainable whaling in some form," it said.

The island nation of 250,000 people grudgingly stopped its hunts in 1989, three years after the IWC moratorium was enacted to protect the giant sea mammals.

However, in 1992, the same year Norway announced plans to resume its own commercial whale hunts, Iceland quit the whaling commission, claiming the organis! ation set up to manage whaling had become one devoted only to preventing all hunts.

That view was re-expressed by the Foreign Ministry. It called the IWC "a non-whaling commission rather than a whaling commission. Regrettably, this development has not been undone yet."

Iceland's parliament passed a resolution in 1999 to resume hunting, saying the country had the right to use all marine resources within its territorial waters.

But Iceland has yet to restart the hunts, mostly due to fears that it could adversely affect the country's fish exports. Several supermarket chains in Europe and North America refused to sell Icelandic fish when it was a whaling nation.

Norway is the only country that hunts whales for profit. It is not bound by the ban because commission rules allow its members to reject its rulings.

- Sapa-AP

NAVY SONAR: WHY IT MUST BE STOPPED
by Dick Russell

In March, the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed a rule allowing the U.S. Navy to deploy a controversial new sonar system, known as "Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low Frequency Active Sonar" (or LFA, for short).

What is it? LFA has been in development by the Navy for years. It uses vessels to tow sonar arrays that shoot low frequency sound waves through the water and reads the returning echoes to find submarines. The Navy contends that the system fills a need for improved detection and tracking of new-generation subs at a longer range and that SURTASS LFA should be deployed in the interests of national security. With proper safeguards in place, the Navy claims the system will have a negligible impact on marine life.

    • This is one of the loudest man-made sound sources ever deployed, operating at levels millions of times more intense than is considered safe for human divers and literally billions of times more intense than the level known to disturb large whales. It's a system so powerful that a single sound source can flood hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean at a time with intense sound.
    • Whales and other marine mammals are especially vulnerable to such noise pollution, because they rely on hearing as much as we rely on our sight. Already, it's been confirmed that sixteen whales and a dolphin that beached themselves in the Bahamas in the spring of 2000 had hemorrhaging around the brain and ear bones caused by mid-range Navy sonar in the vicinity.
    • Adding sonar to the other industrial sources of noise in the ocean – from supertankers to giant air guns used in oil exploration – is madness. Entire species and the very integrity of our oceans is at stake!

TESTIMONY FOR NMFS HEARING/NAVY SONAR, 4/26/01:

My name is Dick Russell, and I am a journalist who has specialized in writing about ocean-related issues for nearly twenty years. In the course of researching my latest book, "Eye of the Whale," which will be published in August by Simon & Schuster, I interviewed a number of scientific experts on acoustics and marine mammals and, in particular, the impact of Navy sonar upon whales. I came away deeply concerned about what I learned.

Even the least cautious of the marine scientists I spoke with was of the opinion that much more needs to be known before LFA is allowed to be implemented, if at all. Dr. Peter Tyack, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, was one of the marine biologists contracted by the Navy to conduct its experiments to see how near-shore whales would react to high decibel levels of LFA sound. Dr. Tyack told me he is most concerned about deep-ocean, deep-diving toothed whales, such as the sperm and beaked whales, in area where sound refracts downward and the animals could face jeopardy when foraging in the depths where the LFA energy concentrated.

The sound tests he conducted in the presence of gray whales, which always stay near the coastline as they migrate, determined conclusively that LFA sonar disturbed these whales and should be kept away from such inshore areas. The Navy's supposed compromise was to limit operation of its system to at least twelve miles from shore. But as another researcher into whale acoustics – Dr. Lindy Weilgart of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia - said to me, "if inshore whales are clearly shown to avoid LFAs, then the problem may not be using LFA just in that particular environment but everywhere. Perhaps the offshore migrating whales – those that reacted less – were already more damaged or marginal individuals. Anything that has the potential to change, even slightly, a whole population of migrating whales should be viewed with great caution. If something serious befalls these migrating animals, it means that the whole population is doomed."

Can we put at risk the whales, dolphins and other marine life which could be impacted across 80 percent of the world's oceans, flooding thousands of square miles of ocean at a time with intense sound for the sake of a submarine detection system whose very capability is already in doubt? This is not only a waste of taxpayer's money – it could have far greater consequences of creating a wasteland of our seas!

I strongly urge the National Marine Fisheries Service to follow through on its mandate under the Marine Mammal Protection Act – and outlaw any further deployment of LFA sonar.

Sincerely Yours,

Dick Russell


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