(Southern Resident orca, photographed in 2015 by Gary Jones @ Alki Point)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
The plight of the dwindling Southern Resident Killer Whale population is in a brighter spotlight than ever, as action to save them is debated.
Local advocate Donna Sandstrom, executive director of The Whale Trail, will provide an update at tonight’s Southwest District Council meeting (6:30 pm at the Senior Center of West Seattle, 4217 SW Oregon).
Last night, her organization started a new season of Orca Talks – opening with an update from Sandstrom, who is also a member of the orca task force set up by Governor Inslee, and moving on to a featured guest’s presentation about a more-abundant, and mysterious, cetacean – the harbor porpoise.
ORCA UPDATE: Sandstrom opened with a primer on her organization, which raises awareness and encourages shore-based whale watching. A big part of that includes interpretive signs all along the West Coast – including four here in West Seattle and two on every Washington state ferry – with a new one going up soon in Pismo Beach, California. Whales “go to our souls and our hearts in a way few other animals do,” she noted.
Since the last Orca Talk, Governor Inslee has established the task force. (See the full membership list by clicking “see member list” on this page.) “The situation is really dire – we’ve got 75 orcas now,” down 13 in just six years – “they’re declining 2 percent a year and should be increasing 2 percent a year.” On the task force “our names, our hearts, our souls are in this effort,” Sandstrom said. She explained the three working groups around which the task force is organized. Vessel noise is a significant stresser for the whales, and one study showed they lose 5 1/2 hours a day of fishing because of it. “Turning down the volume is the quickest thing we can do” to try to save them. The lowest the population ever has been has been 71 – “we know they can come back” from there, but if they go below that number, it might be too late. The task force will be out with a draft report in early November. They haven’t agreed on everything, she said: “This isn’t easy, this is hard … I look at this as a portfolio of solutions.” None easy – “if there was a simple way to fix this, it would have happened.”
Regarding the proposal to take down the Snake River dams, a presentation is coming up that’ll provide the task force with information on that, but in Sandstrom’s view, “an inordinate amount of attention has been placed on this” and dam-breaching alone won’t solve the problem.
She also provided an update on two orcas who have been in the news – first, J35, the mom who carried her dead calf for many days. Sandstrom hopes people will “do something useful with the despair and the angst this has stirred in all of us.” As for J50, the ailing orca that’s the subject of treatment/feeding attempts, Sandstrom says she is wary of further efforts. Not that she doesn’t believe in intervention – she recounted the story of Springer, the orphan orca, and how two nations joined forces to get her back home, an operation with which she was involved. (Springer has since had two calves – “her own matriline, the A73s!”) She is worried that too much intervention could lead to J50 being diagnosed with a disease and kept in captivity. “Taking a whale from its family should not be in anyone’s playbook.”
She concluded by reminding people that we can all take simple everyday actions to help the orcas (and ourselves).
In later Q&A, she said she doesn’t favor killing sea lions to try to stop them from eating salmon. We humans set up the artificial conditions that the sea lions are exploiting, so killing them for taking advantage of it “is wrong,” Sandstrom declared. She also voiced some skepticism about the dam breaching being only for orcas’ benefit. “When we tug at the thread of an ecosystem, we often get it wrong,” she warned.
(Photos by Dr. Cindy Elliser)
HARBOR PORPOISES: Dr. Cindy Elliser has lived in this area for four years and founded Pacific Mammal Research (PacMam) to study marine mammals in the Salish Sea. They photograph marine mammals and “produce scientific papers.” They do a lot of educational work, too.
Harbor porpoises are one of two types of porpoises seen in local waters (the other is Dall’s, the black-and-white porpoise that is often mistaken for a “baby orca”). She explained that porpoises, dolphins, and whales are the three types of cetaceans. Porpoises have a “blunt face.” Porpoises also are fairly shy, unlike dolphins, whose behavior is more “flashy.”
They’re fairly small – about 5′, 150 pounds, live about 20 years, become sexually mature in 3 to 4 years and give birth every 1 or 2 years. They were abundant in the ’50s-’60s, then all but gone by the ’90s – but they’ve made a comeback and are now estimated at 11,000+ in the Salish Sea. “One of the few good stories,” but we need to understand them, so that’s why she does research. They can be “sentinel” (indicator) species. They still don’t know much about many things – their population structure, behavior, etc. “If they’re all around, why do we know so little?” For one, because they’re so fleetingly visible. Yet they’re really important, so studying them can teach us some vital information.
What do we know? For one, they can starve in just three days, so they have to know where the food is. Their reproductive season varies by location.
How are they studied? Aerial surveys, strandings, passive acoustics – put a device in the water, “set it and forget it” – provided you know the right spot where to catch animals vocalizing. Then, there are traditional boat-based surveys. And then there’s individual identification via natural markings. It has not been done much with harbor porpoises, she learned. This became the main reason she founded her organization. She says there are harbor porpoises year-round in Burrow’s Pass near Anacortes, and she discovered that yes, photo ID is possible – “these animals are distinct,” with primary and secondary marks such as pigmentation, scars/lesions, peduncles, fin trailing edges, as well as confirmation marks including fin shape (there are 5 basic types) and size ad base width and overall coloration. (One porpoise they’ve identified has coloration like a Great White Shark, so they’ve dubbed it Jaws, she explained.) So far they’ve identified more than 80.
Challenges in getting IDs? Proximity, how much of their bodies are out of the water, erratic surfacings. “They like to come up, breathe once, and then come up 40 yards away in the opposite direction.” Lighting can be an obstacle too. When they photograph, they note lots of info too – moon phase, tide, currents- in hopes of finding trends.
One trend they’re noticing – localized populations. She spoke about Alaskan research that harvested DNA from seawater – cells the animals had sloughed off – and hopes to replicate it here.
She also talked about harbor-porpoise mating habits, calves’ swimming styles, and other observations in the “not as boring as you might think” classification.
Yes, they have a NOAA permit for boat-based work. (And they finally have their own boat, a Boston Whaler donated to them.) They’re hoping to set up a regional database for harbor porpoises so they invite people to send them photos/sightings – email@example.com.
They’re also hoping to set up a passive acoustic monitoring network, which involves costly equipment, so they are taking donations for that.
And they’re studying harbor seals too.
All their educational opportunities are offered for free.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE WHALE TRAIL: After tonight’s SWDC appearance by Sandstrom (mentioned above), upcoming events include September 23rd, when The Whale Trail is the beneficiary of the Orca Half (Marathon) in West Seattle; October 2nd is the next Orca Talk; that’ll be followed by one on November 8th, a presentation about prey-sharing among orcas. Watch thewhaletrail.org and our calendar too.