The Whale Trail’s Winter Gathering hears about what researchers are doing and what you can do to help endangered orcas

December 15, 2019 10:03 pm
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 |   West Seattle news | Whales | Wildlife

(Southern Residents during pre-Thanksgiving visit, photographed by Trileigh Tucker)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Four months after the most recent news of Southern Resident Killer Whale deaths, we’ve had no further losses – but no gains, either.

So the endangered resident orcas’ population remains at 73, attendees were reminded at The Whale Trail‘s Winter Gathering this past week.

TWT executive director Donna Sandstrom gathered supporters and experts at C & P Coffee Company (WSB sponsor) both to celebrate the season and to review the whales’ status and what action you can take to help. Here are the highlights:

BRAD HANSON: This expert from NOAA Fisheries talked about research that bears directly on the belief that vessel noise is interfering with the orcas’ ability to find food: “How acoustics inform understanding of foraging behavior and effects of vessels and noise on killer whales.” They’ve bee studying the whales’ sound use and behavior, trying to quantify the noise levels the whales experience and how nearby vessels influence those levels. They’re also looking at the SRKWs’ “subsurface behavior during different activities” as well as the “effect of vessels and noise” on behavior. For reference and context, they’re working to compare foraging behavior and noise exposure with what Northern Resident Killer Whales – a 200-animal population mostly in B.C. waters – do and experience. Finally, they’re looking at diet patterns.

Much of this research uses the Digital Acoustic Recording Tag, applied to and temporarily worn by whales during the research, most of which is happening “in the trans-boundary waters of the San Juan Islands.” West Seattleite Jeff Hogan (who leads the educational nonprofit Killer Whale Tales) has applied most of the tags, Hanson said; they use suction cups and are programmed for duration of wear before they release and (hopefully) are retrieved (they cost $10,000 each).

Tracking individual whales, even for a short duration, yields sometimes disturbing findings; Hanson showed an animation of one whale being swarmed by boats nonstop over a 7-hour period. So far they’ve deployed 28 tags over the past 10 years, Hanson said – 117 hours, 23 different whales, all ages. They “know when the whales are in the right mood” to be approached, he said. Is there a conflict between the need for the whales to have space, and this close-up research activity? Researchers are troubled by that sometimes, but this research is critical to helping decide how to save them, he said. He added that this is a “minimally invasive” type of tag and they “haven’t seen any marks left.”

New: They just finished an article summarizing the sounds associated with foraging and capture in the orcas that eat fish. There was a chart showing “they’re like bats – as they get closer to their prey, they send out a more rapid series of buzzes.” The audio even included “hearing the fish being crunched on.” The audio is dominated by the sounds of the whales themselves, though. He also showed a dive in 3-D.

Another round of research he mentioned has to do with whether noise affects male and female orcas differently. The acoustic search didn’t seem to differ betwen sexes, he said, “but when you look at foraging efficiency,” Southern Resident females were less efficient than their Northern Resident counterparts – could be a noise problem.

He answered some attendees’ questions:

How much can hatcheries help with the salmon shortage? Hanson said they’re looking at that. He’s also heartened that the “salmon people” are paying more attention now. “Managing for fish recovery is one thing – managing for whale recovery is” entirely different. Could be, he suggested, the Northern Residents and Southern Residents, both of whom are fish eaters, are competing for the same fish runs.

Nett question – climate change and the latest warm-water “blob,” how will that affect salmon?

Rather than focus on that right now, Hanson said there are immediate problems to focus on, and he suggested that the U.S. and Canada could focus on their shared interest of saving salmon runs, maybe even have a competition to figure out who can help their runs the most.”We’re in danger of losing a lot of our coho runs because of the urbanization in the Seattle metropolitan area.” But, he offered some hope too, saying “salmon are extremely resilient” and can “come back and do really well” if given the chance.

One mystery – “we don’t know a lot about what [J-Pod whales] eat in the dead of winter.” … “There’s still some gaps in our understanding of diet.” They hope to do some springtime studies off Neah Bay when the SRKWs spent time off the northwestern tip o Washington.

He also was asked about whales’ size changing in relation to the salmon shortage. Nothing conclusive. But he reminded attendees that starvation isn’t the only aspect of malnutrition – contaminants and disease are other suspected risks. G-Clan of the Northern Residents, who don’t have to deal with urban areas, has grown from 60 to 100 whales in the time frame their southern counterparts have been shrinking.

Are any of the SRKWs pregnant?

Hanson sad he couldn’t recall what he had heard most recently. But overall, they seem to be losing about 70 percent of the pregnancies – they’ve only had two successful calvings in the past five years. Moms pushing around dead calves – like Tahlequah made worldwide news for doing – are probably happening more than they know, and “we’re just not seeing it.” Fall is calving season, he adds.

(September photo by Danny McMillin)

LOCAL RESEARCHERS: Mark Sears and Maya Sears talked about the SRKWs’ recent visits. This was the first year since the ’90s that they’ve ventured this far south in September, Mark said, noting their visit Sept. 17-18-19-20-22. It’s important because “they came in, spent time here, established part of their former range” – J-Pod has “a slew of young animals” so “to have them figure out that Puget Sound is not a bad place to go in September” is good. They were back in October, 12-13-14-15. “They’re coming in here for food” and were likely finding it. They then were here for the chum run Nov. 8-12-13-14 and 22-24-25-26-27-28. Most days they appeared to be foraging, he said On Nov. 25th, they noticed L-87 was missing – a short-lived cause for alarm, as he turned up further north with K-Pod. L-87 lost his mom young and has connected to other pods, Mark explained. “It’s kind of interesting that an L whale would run with pods other than his own.” The J’s haven’t been back since Thanksgiving, he said. The fecal samples showed they’re eating immature chinook, and it looks like they’re eating steelhead in the winter, too. He thinks the orcas will be back “any day now.” (Transient orcas did show up the next day!)

Maya Sears talked about “family dynamics” – J-56 (born in May) and mom J-31 – most of the young females in J-Pod are helping raise J-56, she said. The second-youngest, J-53, whose mom J-17 died, is only a few years old, but she too is being raised by the group and seems to be doing well. Maya also noticed several of the juveniles hanging around the grown males when the females were away – so the “big brothers” are pitching in too.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Sandstrom recapped what The Whale Trail, at its heart focused on land-based whale-watching and education, has been up to. There are now 100+ sites from Pismo Beach, California, to Prince Rupert, BC. (See the map here.) They’re working to extend it as far south as Baja California. It’s all about not just connecting people to the whales, but “connecting people to each other.” This past year, they added posters at marine parks, including one for the San Juans that wlll explain transient orcas as well as residents. They had an Orca Day at Cape Disappointment State Park in southwestern Washington. They talked about grays, too. Then there was the Orca Half (Marathon) in West Seattle in September, benefiting TWT. Every runner has an orca on their bib and that makes it a big draw, Sandstrom said. “If you’re going to call it an orca run, it has to be connected to the whales.” J-Pod showed up at 2 pm that day. Also, there was author Erich Hoyt‘s tour, with three stops (here’s our coverage of his West Seattle appearance). J-Pod and K-Pod “got here an hour after Erich did,” earlier in the season than usual. Also “it was a good year for advocacy for the whales,” with Sandstrom serving on the governor’s Orca Task Force, which issued its final report in November. They’re hopeful it won’t just “sit on a shelf,” but “We have a blueprint … we need someone to build it.” She said she had proposed an Orca Recovery Councll to oversee the work.

But the bad news was, three more whales, including J17 and two males were lost this year. There were also an alarming number of days in which the Southern Residents weren’t seen in their core habitat … “this is shocking and should scare us all .. we’ve made the Salish Sea a place they can’t come home to.” They’re not just “choosing” to go elsewhere, she contends – it’s problems like noise. “For all the goodwill around the world, we haven’t moved the needle for these whales at all.” A goal: Add one whale a year for the next 20 years. NOAA Fisheries has a comment period open now about”vessel impact regulations” and TWT thinks they’re inadequate. They want sea-based whale watching curtailed around the SRKWs. But they did get a licensing process in place for whale-watching. Sandstrom also wants to see a 650-yard distance encouraged for all vessels. (Julie Watson, who’s managing the new licensing process, was at the event, and said they need ideas to “make a state of the art licensing system.”)

WHAT YOU CAN DO: “OrcaSafe” your home and garden. Watch whales from shore. Also sign up for TWT’s mailing list because an “action alert” will be out soon. And watch for The Whale Trail’s next event.

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