Tag Archives: whale death

Satellite Tagging Of Southern Resident Orcas, Part Two: Is It Worth The Risk? Your Opinion Matters!

Southern Resident orcas often come close to shore.

(Please note: this was written in 2010)
The orcas which ply the inland waterways of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea are not random wild animals – we know them by name, we know their families and their histories. We know some of their quirks and personalities, we’ve watched some of them from the time of their birth to the time that they have had calves of their own.
For decades we have offered them protection from intentional harm, and there are individual whales in this population who have never experienced being shot, harassed, or netted. They are amazingly tolerant of our activities and interest in them, and never harm us.
So the question is, can we now justify applying painful tags to their dorsal fins in order to acquire data? Is it not a breach of the trust we offer them? Your opinion is important, and you have until December 23rd, 2010 to let the permitting agency know how you feel about this issue.
There are several things that need to be considered in order to understand the potential effects of tagging these orcas. In the previous part of this post, we looked at the mechanics of the tags and potential physical effects (the satellite tags are mounted with two inch barbs, which open like toggle bolts inside the tissue of the whale). In this part we’ll consider what the researchers hope to gain, and how they will go about it.
Here are the research goals as stated by the principle investigator of the research team:

In accordance with USGP #2, “Procedures involving animals should be designed and performed with due consideration of their relevance to human or animal health, the advancement of knowledge, or the good of society.”
1 Research Goals:
a. What are the scientific issues addressed by the research?
The purpose of this research is to improve information to meet Agency mandates on stock structure, movement patterns, and habitat use of cetacean species on various spatial and temporal scales in the eastern North Pacific Ocean.
Specifically, how will this research improve human or animal health or advance knowledge?
These type of data are required to meet specific Agency objectives under the ESA and MMPA.
b. What are the specific goals of the animal studies described in this protocol?
To maximize data gained while minimizing impacts to individuals and stocks.
c. Explain why animal studies are preferred to non-invasive alternatives in achieving these research goals.
There are no non-invasive procedures available that can provide the same spatial and temporal resolution, or adequate sample size for this type of movement data.

If those goals seem broad and general to you, you are right – the application to tag the Southern Resident orcas is just a small part of a larger tagging effort, involving 16 to 23 species of dolphins and whales, the goal of which is to “meet Agency mandates on stock structure, movement patterns, and habitat use”. Essentially, over the next several years the Fisheries Service wants to learn more about how the cetaceans utilize the ocean resources, with management goals in mind.
Of course the scientists themselves will be asking many more questions and will have specific research goals of their own, but the problem is that none of that is spelled out in the application. The only limits mandated by the application as it pertains to the Southern Resident orcas are: 6 dart (satellite) tags per year, adult males and females only. For the more benign suction cup tags, any whale can be tagged except calves less than six months old and their mothers.
The researchers have publicly stated that they will only dart tag adult males and post-reproductive females – but there is nothing to bind them to that agreement. And even if they do only select those categories, are the old animals really the best choice to withstand the possible side effects of invasive tagging (tissue damage and infection)? Also the post-reproductive females play an important role in the care of calves – the last thing they need is a painful tag that can get pulled or bumped by the young animals.

New calf L 117

Last week’s announcement that the newest calf may have been born to 46 year old Tanya (L – 5) brings up the question of how it is determined when a female is considered to be post-reproductive, and the idea of tagging an older whale that could be pregnant doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.
So which orcas would the researchers target?
As of this writing (2010): In J-pod the only options among the females (over 40, although clearly that is too young to be guaranteed post-reproductive) would be Granny, nearly 100 years old, or 77 year old Spiden who wheezes when she breathes. In K-pod it would be just Raggedy, named for her dorsal fin which is already a mess, (40 year old Sequim who had a calf last year). L-pod has seven in the category, from 82 year old Ocean Sun (believed to be the captive Lolita’s mother) down to 45 year old Ophelia – all of whom participate in family care.
In terms of the adult males (over 15 years old), J-pod has four: the venerable 60 year old Ruffles (named for his striking wavy fin), Mike and the playful Blackberry, both 19 and Riptide, just 15. K-pod has just three: Cappuccino, Scoter, and Lobo. L-pod has eight, Mega, the oldest, is only 33 years old and the next oldest is 21.
Logically the researchers would have to rule out J and K pods or else target just a few individuals repeatedly.
The final fact to consider is that the process of tagging involves harassing the whole population repeatedly. The individual whales need to be identified, located, and successfully darted (even a large whale can be hard to tag, they are moving targets with rubbery (although thin) skin), it can take many tries. Certain orcas will be picked out and pursued – which the whales will figure out right away.

I think that it is just premature to tag this fragile population of orcas at this point, particularly since research has been funded to improve the tagging process over the next three years:

Improving Attachments of Remotely-deployed Dorsal Fin-mounted Tags: Tissue Structure, Hydrodynamics, In Situ Performance, and Tagged-animal Follow-up
Lead PI: Dr. Russell Andrews, Alaska SeaLife Center
The researchers have recently developed small satellite-linked telemetry tags that are anchored to the dorsal fin with small attachment darts. They propose to improve upon their existing tagging methodology to achieve longer, less variable attachment durations by carefully examining the factors that affect attachment success. The researchers will design an improved barnacle-style shape for remote-deployment by assessing the hydrodynamic properties of the current tag shape and determine new candidates that may reduce the drag force.
Number of Years: 3
Requested Funds: $735,000
* Belle Quant Engineering
* Cartesian Flow Solutions, Inc.
* Cascadia Research Collective
* NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center

For more information and to express your opinion to the permitting office, please contact either: Permits, Conservation and Education Division, Office of Protected Resources, NMFS, 1315 East-West Highway, Room 13705, Silver Spring, MD 20910; phone (301) 713-2289; fax (301) 713-0376; or
Northwest Region, NMFS, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, BIN C15700, Bldg.1, Seattle, WA 98115-0700; phone (206) 526-6150; fax (206) 526-6426.
Written comments on this application should be submitted to the
Chief, Permits, Conservation and Education Division, at the address
listed above. Comments may also be submitted by facsimile to (301) 713-
0376, or by e-mail to NMFS.Pr1Comments@noaa.gov.
Please include File No. 781-1824 in the subject line of the e-mail comment.