Killing seals to save orcas is dangerously short-sighted and won’t work

 
Not that long ago, fishermen killed Southern Resident killer whales because the whales were eating Chinook salmon…let that sink in while we explore whether killing marine mammals has ever worked in the long haul to save salmon populations.
In a few days the annual slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, will begin its six-month bloodbath. Among the reasons that fishermen hunt down and kill dolphins is the industry’s deeply held belief that marine mammals compete for fish.
Can that happen in the Salish Sea? As disturbing as it is to think about, the answer is yes – dolphins and porpoises have no substantial protections and their “takes” are managed by NOAA.

Japan’s example

After countless decades of the slaughter and subsequent reduced dolphin populations, Japan’s fisheries catch has spiraled down to an all-time low. Japan’s solution? They’ve added even more dolphin species to the kill list this year.
By the 1970s Japan had already driven the indigenous Japanese sea lion to extinction and to this day they continue to cull Steller sea lions annually.

Western Steller Sea Lions are listed as vulnerable in the Threatened Wildlife of Japan Red Data Book. Hattori and Yamamura (2014) reported that over 200 Steller Sea Lions were culled annually between 1960-1993 to reduce predation on commercial fish stocks.
Recent work indicates that the annual culling was then reduced to a limit of 116/year until 2010 at which time a new 5 year quota of 1,030 culled Sea Lions was imposed. This resulted in an increased annual average take (Matsuda et al. 2015).

 
Despite the culling, the Japanese fishing industry is on a steep decline – their catch of 12.8 million tons of fish in 1984 was down to 4.3 million tons in 2017, an all time low.

Killing seals to save a few fish

If the concept of killing off marine mammals to leave more salmon for fisheries has failed in Japan (where salmon catch declined by 27% last year), why would we assume that culling marine mammals would succeed in restoring Chinook salmon for the endangered Southern Resident orcas?
With proposals on the table to extend the killing to all pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) in Puget Sound and other areas of the Salish Sea, how long will it be until demands are made to cull dolphins and porpoises as well?
Does the idea of killing one kind of marine mammal to save another make any sense whatsoever when there is no evidence that it will succeed longterm?
It may seem unthinkable, but if we allow the government to permit the killing of one marine mammal species to save another by attempting to control fish predation, it is a slippery slope to go from seals and sea lions to dolphins.

Harbor seal  Photo Credit: Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge
Yet that is a solution being bandied about by special interest groups concerned with the Chinook salmon population – they want to take out sea lions and harbor seals as a quick solution to what is really a complex problem.
There may be some logic to culling if the seals and sea lions were directly eating the orcas, though even if that were the case and we decided to cull orca predators we would have to start with the most effective and damaging predator.
And that would be us.

Southern Resident orcas were once killed by fishery interests

There are living members of the Southern Resident orcas who were once shot at, harpooned, and subjected to the noise of seal bombs by fishers who resented the competition for salmon. The US Navy gunned down an entire population of fish-eating orcas in Iceland to “help” the fishing industry there.
As the Southern Resident orca population decreased in the Salish Sea due to culling (either by being killed or captured for display, similar to what goes on in Taiji), Chinook salmon still continued to dwindle. Killing the orcas didn’t bring back salmon. Nor will killing pinnipeds.

Dams

But fishing is not the only way that humans are driving the abundance and evolutionary biology of salmon – we have added evolutionary pressures by altering the environment as well.
Dams not only impede the salmon’s journey, but dramatically alter stream and river ecology. Salmon must navigate challenging hatching conditions, endure siltification of their natal streams and rivers, and withstand marginal water temperatures – then survive being flung through the dam turbines on their seaward journey.
They must escape predators that gather at the dams, and the young salmon must cope with the lake conditions present in the manmade reservoirs created by the dams (which gives a huge advantage to some of the predatory fish species and is not natural to the salmon). Finally, the young fish encounter estuaries that are often inadequate in both food and places to hide.
Research shows that the battering the young salmon take on their way to sea increases their mortality while at sea – this means that the debate over how accurate the statistics are on how many smolts initially survive the dams is a small part of the equation since they are more likely to die at sea.

Abstract.—The numbers of Snake River salmon and steelhead Oncorhynchus spp. have substantially declined since the completion of the Columbia River hydrosystem. We used analytical approaches to identify management options for halting the decline of these stocks, such as removal of Snake River dams and improvements to the existing hydrosystem. The benefits these actions are predicted to have in terms of salmon recovery hinge on whether the mortality that takes place in the estuary and early in their ocean residence is related to earlier hydrosystem experience during downstream migration. Evidence from the literature demonstrates numerous mechanisms that would  explain this delayed mortality in relation to a fish’s experience passing through the hydrosystem. Spatial and temporal comparisons of stock performance provide indirect evidence of delayed mortality and evidence that delayed mortality is linked to hydrosystem experience. Recent mark— recapture data also provide evidence of differences in delayed mortality by route of passage through the hydrosystem. The different types of evidence discussed here suggest that the delayed mortality of Snake River fish is related to the hydrosystem.

 
On their return trip, the salmon must battle the same conditions, and again must make it past those dams, increasing the time they must spend in getting to their natal streams.
And then there are the bears…do we kill them too?

Photo Credit: Tahitia Hicks / AP

The Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force

Government tends to balk when the cost of acting is high – whether that cost is in dollars, jobs, energy, or security – because it is also our government’s job to protect us and to oversee the growth of our nation in the long term. Our government tends to favor a cost/benefit analysis, and this can be detrimental when swift action is called for with respect to environmental issues, such as in taking decisive action to restore our salmon fishery.
For years Washington State has performed controlled culling of the sea lions that congregate at certain dams but only after other methods were exhausted. Now Congress has bills in the works which will allow loose control over whether the killing is humane and reduces oversight as it increases the number of animals that can be culled.
Governor Jay Inslee’s establishment of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force is an inspiring and bold move to come to terms with conflicting beliefs, and it’s possibly our last opportunity to step back, look at the big picture, and think about future generations.
The process has underscored to me how open and willing those of us who live in this region are to pitch in and look for resolution when it comes to salmon and orcas, a subject where the potential for conflict is high. Our personal lifestyles and regional self-interests are deeply challenged as we weigh the needs of the whales against our own – yet what has become clear is that we are unified in a desire to “get ‘er done”.
We seem to be on the road to solutions, the quickest of which would be to increase salmon passage on the lower Snake River dams.
But let’s leave the seals and sea lions alone.

Reference links:
http://factsanddetails.com/japan/cat24/sub159/item937.htmlhttp:/
/www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201804270053.htmlhttp:/
/www.iucnredlist.org/details/8239/0

War of the Whales: A True Story

Update on the sick little wild orca, (J 50) – new treatment plans

Biologists believe that Scarlet (J 50) may have a round worm infection, similar to what another wild calf, Springer (A 73) had when she was found lost in the Puget Sound in 2002. The good news is that Springer was successfully treated and returned to her family of Northern Resident orcas, where she has thrived and has had two calves – hopefully Scarlet will have a similar outcome.

Scarlet (J50) with her sister, Echo (J42)
NOAA Fisheries. Permit number 21368 Credit: Katy Foster

#J50/Scarlet Update (8/17): Test results from the health samples collected from J50/Scarlet are starting to come in from several top laboratories around the country.
The first finding comes from a fecal sample collected last weekend from a group of three J Pod whales: J16/Slick, J42/Echo, and J50/Scarlet. It showed moderate levels of Contracaecum, a nematode parasite that has previously been found in killer whales and other marine mammals.
The worm is not usually a problem in healthy animals. However, in animals that are emaciated or are otherwise compromised, the parasite can penetrate the stomach lining, introducing bacterial infection to the bloodstream, or it can bore into internal organs.
While we cannot be sure the sample came from J50/Scarlet, the veterinary team has updated her treatment priorities to include a dewormer, in addition to an antibiotic. Both have proven successful and safe in other cetaceans.
The treatment should help J50/Scarlet by reducing bacterial and parasitic burdens on her system so she can start regaining the weight she has lost. The whales remain in open waters off the west side of Vancouver Island, beyond the reach of the response teams. 
Fisheries and Oceans Canada and other partners continue their watch for signs of J Pod’s return to the more protected waters of the Salish Sea. ” [Media release].

Photo: J50/Scarlet swims near Point Roberts, Wash., on Aug. 10. (Photo by Katy Foster/NOAA Fisheries, under permit 18786.)
 

Killer whale calf medicated in the wild, a first!

For the first time ever, a wild orca has been administered medication via darting. Canadian and US biologists cooperated to locate and treat the three and a half year old calf, J50 (Scarlet) who is dangerously thin.

Dr. Martin Haulena of the Vancouver Aquarium and Jeff Foster of the Whale Sanctuary Project, prepare to administer an antibiotic to J50(Photo: Katy Foster)

Kudos to all for the international effort.
J50 is still keeping up with her pod (Photo: Katy Foster)

From NOAA Fisheries West Coast:
August 9: Response teams reached J Pod in Canadian waters and followed them into U.S. waters near San Juan Island.
While very skinny and small, J50 / Scarlet kept up well with her mother and siblings.
Vancouver Aquarium’s veterinarian and the team conducted a visual assessment, obtained a breath sample that will help assess any infection, and administered antibiotics through a dart. Next steps are to continue observations and consider trial feeding as a future route for delivering medications.

Watch the live stream of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force meeting (8/7/18)


Thanks to Haze Sommer for forwarding the links to today’s live stream of this event.
9 am https://www.tvw.org/watch/?eventID=2018081016
2:40 https://t.co/L936wm5HYz

Saving orcas with a salmon cannon – can it even be done? (video)

Human ingenuity brought us the ‘salmon cannon’, designed to propel salmon over dams – but is it efficient enough to bring Chinook populations back to the levels needed for the Southern Resident orcas?


Over-fishing and management mistakes have caused biological mayhem for salmon, and if we want robust wild fish in the future we need to restore the environmental blocks to their survival. These include habitat restoration, contaminant abatement, and dams.
Salmon cannons may be a genius – if hilarious – solution for moving salmon and a good tool to help the remaining wild salmon navigate the dams, but one of the most urgent things the wild Chinook salmon – and the Southern Resident orcas that rely upon them – need is unfettered access to the native spawning grounds.
For more information please go to Damsense.org.

 

Congress plans to kill male California sea lions and undermine NOAA Fisheries management

Killing the animals that co-evolved with salmon won’t help restore fish populations – we need to remove just a few of the 15 dams on one of the rivers that flow into the Columbia River.

Female California sea lions remain in southern California and points south, all year. Photo credit: NOAA

Male California sea lions migrate south in the breeding season, and some stop in the Columbia River to eat salmon on the way down to California.     Photo credit: Bridget Samuels via Flickr

A branded male sea lion. Photo credit: Pillip Colla

Following the breeding season, male California sea lions leave the Channel Islands and other rookeries and migrate north, eventually seeking out protected inland waterways in the winter. The females remain in the general region of the rookeries, and so aren’t among the sea lions that Congress aims to wipe out.
The crime? Eating salmon that congregate at dams – specifically those on the Columbia and Willamette river systems. Two bills – one that passed in the House of Representatives, and another working its way through the Senate – remove any semblance of management and open the door to wholesale slaughter of pinnepeds.
Presently the fisheries services must prove that a sea lion is actually eating salmon before he is euthanized. This involves branding the animal if he lacks identifying marks, then keeping track of him.
To get around that, the new bills define ‘identifying marks’ as being in the river past more than 112 miles from the ocean. In other words, he just has to be a sea lion. For the Senate bill, it just has to be a pinneped, meaning harbor seals. Neither bill specifically excludes the endangered Steller sea lions.
The bills increase the number of animals that can be killed, who can kill them, and where.
The senate bill expands the prey issue from salmon to any species of fish.
The sea lions will still catch salmon entering the rivers, though they may need to work a little harder. It is pointless to try and wipe them all out, even if it made any kind of logical sense. From TDN.com:

[Dr. Naomi Rose], a biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute said Tuesday that killing more sea lions will not reverse the decline of wild salmon runs.

“The main problem is that this is not going to solve the problem,” Naomi Rose, the institute’s marine mammal biologist, said in an interview. “This is an example of lawmakers scapegoating these natural predators to satisfy the anger that constituent groups feel toward salmon decline.”
Rose said wild salmon numbers have fallen mostly due to a loss of habitat and the construction of dams on the Columbia River.

Killing more sea lions could even make the problem worse, she said, because sea lions consume other species of fish that eat young salmon.
The decline of salmon, one of the region’s iconic species, has been attributed to a host of factors: overfishing, habitat destruction, construction of the hydroelectric dams and predation by Caspian terns and cormorants.
Sea lions historically have shared the salmon’s ecosystem, but their numbers have rebounded while the fish runs are still far below their historic, pre-dam levels.
So the mammals’ impact on salmon runs is more pronounced, especially because manmade structures like fish ladders have made it easier for the sea lions to catch them. TDN.com

 
The Senate bill:   https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/1702/text
The House bill:   https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/2083
Information on California sea lion migration:  Migration Patterns of Adult Male
California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus)
Removing the four lower dams on the Snake River:  DamSense.org

Entangled orca calf saved by whale watchers (video)


On Wednesday (August 1st) three whale watching boats off the coast of Portugal happened upon a killer whale calf that they thought was spyhopping repeatedly. As they drew closer however they discovered that the calf was entangled in a fishing net and was barely able to raise its head to breathe.
In a Facebook post, SeaXplorer Sagres reported that the mother was nearby but could only watch as her calf struggled against the grasp of the netting that ensnared the young whale. The people on the boats were determined to help, but the first attempts to cut the calf free were fruitless, raising the emotions even higher.
When emotions run high there is a tendency to act without forethought – but these seasoned crews took the time to assess the entanglement, then developed a successful plan.
One of the boats threw their anchor out, then circled the calf several times until the anchor line wrapped around the net’s line.  The crew and some of the passengers then pulled up the anchor and attached net until finally there was just the rope around the calf’s tail fluke.
When the line was cut the freed calf rejoined it’s mother and everyone rejoiced – and people everywhere share in celebrating the actions by these quick acting, yet thoughtful, whale watching crews.
Kudos.

On this video you can see how everything went. The cutting of the rope and the young orca happily swimming next to her mum!
A very happy outcome by teamwork of all dolphin watching companies:
SeaXplorer Sagres Mar Ilimitado Sealife – Dolphin watching Algarve

This Photo shot by @mafaldammmmoore from @sealife.dolphinwatching.lagos shows the moment when the orca calf was freed.

Another young killer whale on the brink of death may be saved by NOAA’s quick action

NOAA biologists on a previous encounter with the Southern Resident orcas.

From NOAA Fisheries West Coast:

Biologists assess condition of Southern Resident killer whale J50    August 3, 2018
Biologists, veterinarians, and other whale experts took stock on Thursday of what they know about the condition of J50, also known as Scarlet, the juvenile female Southern Resident killer whale that has been seen in poor condition. They also discussed what other information they need to inform next steps.

Sightings indicate that the whale is emaciated and is sometimes lethargic in the water, but still has periods of activity, including feeding. Analysis of a small sample of her breath did not definitively indicate an infection or illness, although it does not rule one out either. The scientists who have observed the whale agreed that she is in poor condition and may not survive.
Endangered Southern Resident killer whales are critically endangered, now numbering only 75 animals, the fewest in more than three decades. NOAA Fisheries has been working with partners to implement an action plan addressing the three main threats to the whales: availability of prey, vessel traffic and noise, and contaminants.
Experts agreed during a conference call on August 2nd to focus efforts over the next few days on obtaining better photographs of the whale and conducting a veterinary health assessment to better track her condition and evaluate a white patch behind her blowhole that may be a symptom of infection. They will also try to obtain fecal samples and possibly a breath sample if there is an opportunity, which could help identify the cause of her condition. That would better inform a decision on whether biologists could or should take any further action to help or treat the whale.
The experts on the call convened by NOAA Fisheries will confer again as new information is collected over the next few days. We will continue to provide updates as they are available.

 

Scarlet (J50) loved to breach when she was healthy and once breached 60 times in a row. She is small for her age, and now appears emaciated.  Photo courtesy of Clint Rivers Showtime Photography.