Finding Food In The Dark – How Whales And Dolphins Evolved The Use Of Biosonar

Imagine yourself swimming in the dark, your favorite food everywhere within easy reach, but since you can’t see it, catching it is hard – and moreover…you’re never sure if something is eying you for its dinner. Morning comes and you watch hungrily as your hoped for breakfast descends to the depths below, following the line of darkness.

Nautilus type squid (Creative Commons)

That is the scenario recently put together by evolutionary biologists at U.C. Berkeley (Things that go bump in the night: evolutionary interactions between cephalopods and cetaceans in the tertiary. Lindberg and Pyenson) to illustrate the most compelling theory on cetacean development of sonar. The scientists reason that a branch of ancestral cetaceans switched from grazing on plants to the abundant nautilus type of invertebrate very early in their evolution, and because the nautilus has a large shell that reflects sound easily, these early cetaceans began to use a very basic and rudimentary form of echolocation to catch them. With the help of a few loud clicks, the early whales were able to find their prey in the dark, and even to follow them down to darkness where the nautilus sought refuge in the early morning.

As the nautilus became less abundant in the oceans, the whales began to fine-tune their biosonar in order to hunt other species of squid. These squid are harder to find because they are basically bags of water with just a beak and a structural ‘pen’ to reflect the sonar, so the whales developed more sophisticated biosonar. Those ancestral whales began to specialize on what they hunted, and species divergence occurred rapidly to the species of toothed whales and dolphins that are present today.

You might be wondering how the first early whales figured out how to use echolocation, after all, they had not developed the special hearing system needed to process the sound yet. However, brains are very ‘plastic’, meaning they are able to adapt and make sense of information that comes in a variety of ways. This is shown by an amazing person in this video:

Or this group of visually impaired mountain bikers: (see Mountain Biking with the Blind)

Yet there was one more ingredient that needed to be in place for early cetaceans to make the quantum jump to the high-pitched sonar systems that they went on to develop – a change in the gene structure in the hearing apparatus also independently evolved in bats, as the researchers explain in Convergent sequence evolution between echolocating bats and dolphins:

* Cases of convergent evolution – where different lineages have evolved similar traits independently – are common and have proven central to our understanding of selection. Yet convincing examples of adaptive convergence at the sequence level are exceptionally rare [1]. The motor protein Prestin is expressed in mammalian outer hair cells (OHCs) and is thought to confer high frequency sensitivity and selectivity in the mammalian auditory system [2]. We previously reported that the Prestin gene has undergone sequence convergence among unrelated lineages of echolocating bat [3]. Here we report that this gene has also undergone convergent amino acid substitutions in echolocating dolphins, which group with echolocating bats in a phylogenetic tree of Prestin. Furthermore, we find evidence that these changes were driven by natural selection.

But what about the baleen whales? Do they echolocate too? The next post will look into how those largest of animals manage to find and dine on some of the smallest organisms in the ocean.

Do Dolphins And Whales ‘See’ With Sound?

While it is not feasible to believe that we can fully understand how another species perceives the world, researchers have devised tests which show that bottlenose dolphins (cousins to the orcas) have the ability to correlate the information from their sonar with what they see, as demonstrated by the following two video clips.

The first one shows that a dolphin can match an object that it can only detect with sonar, with one that it must use vision to perceive:

The second clip shows that dolphins can then remember an object, with an associated “word”:

So we know that at least some cetacean species can detect objects with their sonar and refer to them visually, but to determine whether or not this means that they truly ‘see’ a picture of the object with their sonar we need to find out if there is a biological format that would enable them to do this. The evidence is definitely there.

First, their brains are constructed such that their visual and hearing pathways are developed to make this possible. Their brains are different from ours, things are moved around and different regions are enhanced, but scientists have shown that there is a system in place that would make visualizing sound feasible (for those of you who want a challenging, but clearly written summary of this subject, I recommend Dolphin Biosonar Echolocation A Case Study by James T. Fulton).

Second, their bodies are equipped to take in sound information from several directions at once, which would help them to build a three dimensional picture of an object due to the time difference of the returning signal. Even their teeth are arranged asymmetrically – and although there is speculation that the teeth actually act as antennae of sorts, I think it could also be true that the tooth placement is a byproduct of how the jaw beneath transfers the sound information.

Sperm whale jaw (Creative Commons)

Look carefully at the picture on the left and you can see how the teeth on the left and right sides of the jaw are offset from each other. Note also the dish shape of the skull – the brain actually sits behind this dished area; nestled in front was the ‘acoustic lens’ composed of fats and oils that the whale used to focus the sound beam. Sperm whales such as this one have a particularly fine grade of oil, and were ruthlessly exploited for this in the past.

Finally, returning to our vision analogy from the previous post, scientist have shown that the way we process what we see is also complicated, involving special cells, nerve pathways and dedicated regions of our brains – and by time the information reaches the brain it could have come from any type of sensory input. In the case of cetaceans, being able to “see” what they “hear” is the most efficient way to process the information.

Next: How might cetaceans have evolved this ability?

What Is ‘Biosonar’ And How Do Whales And Dolphins Use It?

Graphic by Howard Garrett (courtesy Orca Network)

Sonar (SOund Navigation And Ranging) is echolocation – the process of sending out a pulse or click of sound then listening for the echo made when the click hits an object and bounces back. ‘Biosonar’ is the word used for the echolocation process used by animals, most notably cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and bats.

We use a primitive form of echolocation when we tap our knuckles along a wall in search of solid wood framing – the sound that comes back to us from the places where there is wood is higher in pitch than the hollow spaces behind drywall. And when we thump on watermelons, the tonal qualities vary – presumably the more hollow the sound, the riper (changing water and sugar qualities of the melon probably change how dense the melon is inside). Although in rare cases humans have been known to develop this sense further (, what we can accomplish is still relatively crude.

Ultrasound in progress (Creative Commons photo).

Ultrasound procedures – which can give detailed images of babies in the womb or define the state of our organs – may be the closest comparison to dolphin sonar, but in a way that is comparing ‘apples and oranges’ because the intensities and strength of the systems are very different.

A comparison to light is probably easier for most of us to understand (although both processes rely upon sound, not light).

Imagine for a minute that you are in a totally dark room, with edible objects you want to find placed here and there, and maybe a few that want to find you that you would just as soon avoid. You have a powerful flashlight with two settings – one that will illuminate the room dimly but doesn’t give enough light to really tell what the objects are, and another one that gives a powerful but very narrow beam of light that gives detail but it doesn’t go very far. It doesn’t help that you are relying on a computer to interpret the light and figure out what is out there, and to give you feedback. Unless you’re really lucky you are more likely to wind up as dinner than with dinner, because you have given away your own position.

Now consider a dolphin in a dark tank in a similar scenario, their “flashlight” is not so powerful or intense as yours, but they are able to instantly change the type of “light” (remember, it is not light in reality, but sound), its direction and brightness while they artfully dodge the menacing objects and zone in on the delicious ones. Simultaneously.

A note here; our navy ships use the type of sound that illuminates more area and gives less detail, and to compensate for this they have to crank up the volume to detect objects that might be very good at blocking the return echo. This can cause problems for the whales and dolphins (we’ll get to that subject later in this series, once we explore more fully how sound really behaves in the ocean).

Scientists still don’t know exactly how dolphins and whales are able to produce the clicks (sound waves) needed to echolocate. What is known is that dolphins produce the clicks in the region of their nasal sacs, then focus the sound with the fats that compose the ‘melon’ in the front part of their heads. The return echo is received in the tissues around the jaw and throat, and are thought to be channeled through fat channels along the jawbone to the ear. Asymmetrical placement of the the teeth in opposite sides of the jaw indicate that the teeth may play a role as well. Pretty amazing.

Next: What does sound ‘look’ like?

Why Sound Is So Important In The Marine Environment

Without the ability to optimize the use of sound, many marine creatures would be unable to exist. In the ocean environment, sound takes over where sunlight leaves off.

Creative Commons Photo

Light travels at astonishing speeds over millions of miles in the vacuum of space and in theory, unimpeded it could travel forever. But when light hits the Earth’s oceans, it comes to a screeching halt – around 90% of it is gone by the depth of 30 feet, and the last feeble bits of light disappear entirely at 600 feet! Sound, on the other hand, moves faster and farther in water than it does in air, so it is no wonder that sound is fundamental to most, if not all, of those species able to master it. And cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are the undisputed masters of sound.

Cetaceans use sound to locate prey, to navigate, to keep track of each other, and to communicate. Some species generate sonar so sophisticated that they can find fish buried in the sand, and to an amazing degree, they can tell what objects are made of, even discriminating between types of metals. Some produce whistles, chirps, squeals, or complex songs.

Nasa Photo

Some of the larger baleen whales produce sounds loud enough to travel the distance of an entire ocean!

What enables them to accomplish this feat is a knowledge of how to use naturally occurring ‘sound channels’ which exist in the oceans. We will explain this phenomenon and examine the role of sound to the orcas at length, but for now it important to consider how all the noise that humans generate in the oceans might be interfering with the ability of whales and dolphins to find food and each other.

Cetaceans have lived in the oceans for millions of years, while the first noisy ship to cross an ocean steamed out of port less than 200 years ago. Given that some whales are known to have a lifespan that long, it means that the ocean world that they are adapted to and in some cases were born into, is undergoing a sonic transformation that they might find difficult to navigate. The barrage of noise that is produced by ships, mining, oil rigs, military sonar, and scientific explorations may further impede the survival of whales and dolphins already faced with dwindling food supplies and climate change.

Next: How whales and dolphins use sonar.

Come Talk To Researchers On Whale Subjects And Dam Removal Saturday January 23rd, 2010

Photo by Jonathon Scordino (Courtesy Orca Network)

The 2010 Ways of Whales Workshop features the most recent and interesting research on Southern Resident orcas, and will also include wonderful photos and stories about the whales, how they relate to each other, and how they are much like us in many ways.

This year’s presentations include:

Dr. Mike Ford of NOAA Fisheries on recent Southern Resident Orca DNA paternity research. Who are the fathers within the Southern Resident Orca Community? Come hear the latest scandalous news about our favorite stud, J1, and other interesting facts this research has unearthed.

Dr. Fred Sharpe of the Alsaka Whale Foundation will wow and entertain us with stories and photos of his insightful research on the feeding habits of humpbacks in SE Alaska, including cooperative bubble net feeding. If you’ve not had the opportunity to meet Fred or hear him speak, don’t miss it – and if you have heard him speak, we know you’ll want to hear him again!

Howard Garrett of Orca Network will present an update on the status of the Southern Resident orcas, and a quick “Orca 101” to set the stage for the day.

Elwha River Dam (Creative Commons Photo)

The day will end with an expert Dam Panel, including Michael Garrity Washington State Conservation Director for American Rivers, Robert Elofson, River Restoration Director for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Steve Mashuda, attorney in the Northwest office of Earthjustice, and Dean Butterworth, Outreach and Education Specialist for Olympic National Park, to discuss the important issues of salmon and habitat restoration, and keeping our Resident orcas fed.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

9 am – 4:30 pm

Coupeville Middle School Performing Arts Center

501 S. Main St, Coupeville

Whidbey Island, WA

Cost of the workshop is $25, to cover space rental, expenses etc.

Today (Jan 15th) Is The Last Day To Have Your Opinion Counted On The New Vessel Regulations

Last chance to weigh in on this issue! NOAA is doing its best to fulfill the job we gave them to do: save the endangered Southern Resident orcas. As part of their plan, they have decided to set aside an important area as a seasonal refuge, but are considering all of our opinions and comments (see below).

My own opinion: I think the orcas deserve a quiet place to go about their lives, and the amount of space NOAA is considering dedicating to a seasonal refuge for the whales is relatively small compared to the distances the orcas can travel daily (75 – 100 miles).

CWR 2009 Photo by Erin Heydenreich

The problem, of course, is that the proposed area, along the west side of San Juan Island, is also one of the best places to view them, and those whale watching companies that respect and know the whales bring excitement and awareness to thousands of people each year. The orcas seem to be indifferent to or even interested in us most of the time…but there may just be too many boats, too often, and too close.

What are your ideas to balance our needs against the orcas? Please let NOAA know!

In a nutshell:

The government is considering enacting the following regulations in order to enhance the recovery of our locally endangered population of orcas (please see previous posts for details):

Most boats will be required to stay 200 yards away from of any killer whales in the inland waters of Washington.

A restricted zone along the west coast of San Juan Island extending a half a mile out will be established in which most boats will be prohibited from entering between May 1st and September 30th, starting in 2010.

Intercepting the path of any killer whale in inland waters of Washington will be prohibited.

It’s Not The Whale Watchers That Are The Problem For Orcas In The San Juans

Between now and the spring (when the orcas return in full force) we’re going to be discussing sound – what sound is really like in the marine environment, and how the orcas use it to communicate and to forage. Do they “talk” to each other? How do they find each other when they separate? How does sound work to help them find fish?

We’ll tackle those questions, and more – but with the deadline for making comments to NOAA on the proposed vessel regulations looming (see below), I thought it would be informative to introduce the subject with these videos which show the impact of noise on the whales, versus their normal behavior.

For more information on the proposed vessel regulations, please read an earlier post on the subject.

Send your thoughts to NOAA by January 15th 2010 here.

Orcas and Salmon – What We Have Learned

Over the past two months, we have been looking fairly closely into what can be done to enhance salmon populations to assure the continued survival of the locally endangered Southern Resident orcas, the familiar J,K, and L pods.

Photo credit: The Center for Whale Research

Most estimates put the number of Chinook salmon that will be required to sustain these whales at about one to two million fish each year. This is a large number, but doable if we act promptly, and restoring salmon for the orcas will also make sure that we save wild populations of those fish for ourselves, as well as for over one hundred other species that utilize them.
I personally want to thank all of you who have contributed to this discussion and educated me right along with everyone else on these complex salmon issues. Although I was unable to fit in all of the pertinent remarks, I have have summarized the gist of the comments and contributions below.
This 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”. The Obijwa Indians have a saying; “No tree has branches so foolish as to fight amongst themselves”, and I think we have begun to learn that lesson well.
I think we may also be learning that our politicians are likely underestimating both the will and the unity of this community, and I have a hunch we’ll be dealing with new faces in the Senate soon if they don’t wise up and at least communicate as to what they can and will do to salvage salmon populations, and consequently much of what makes our way of life here in the Pacific Northwest unique.
Listed below are the subjects we discussed along with notes on others, and I hope you will draw your own conclusions from the thoughtful input (please note that the comments are taken out of context and abbreviated below, but are available in full with the linked articles, listed adjacent to this column):
1) Dam removal:

Howard Garrett (author of the series on orcas and salmon): “Most scientists agree that removal of the four lower Snake River dams would result in a big rebound of wild salmon that spawn there, along with a full range of wildlife and Puget Sound’s resident J, K and L orca whale pods.”
“But a “Biological Opinion” (BiOp), written by the Bush administration, would allow dam operation until 2018 despite the dam’s devastating effects on endangered salmon. Along with salmon disaster, the BiOp will lead to likely extinction of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, which depend on some of these same salmon for their survival.”
“14 leading researchers wrote NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco pointing out shortcomings in the BiOp and seeking reconsideration. Their letter concluded, “The recovery of Southern Resident Killer Whales depends on abundant food, which will be difficult, if not impossible, to provide without restoring productivity from the Columbia Basin.”
“This BiOp is mostly about securing hydropower, and not salmon, in the Columbia/Snake watershed. It really is more concerned with electricity than anything else.”
Drais4: “According to NOAA, non-tribal in-river fishing on the Columbia takes less than 3% of Snake River spring/summer chinook, Snake River steelhead, Upper Columbia steelhead, Upper Columbia spring chinook, and Snake River sockeye,; the federal dams’ “harvest” of the downstream runs of the same species, by comparison, averages 49%, 51%, 53%, 33% (for some reason Snake River sockeye is N/A). The dams take another 6 to 20% of returning adults. Source: 2004 Federal Columbia River Power System Biological Opinion, Table 10.3. And as Mr. Sudar notes, while fishing quotas keep going down, the fish populations don’t rebound, suggesting that the harvest, while clearly one piece of the puzzle, is not the primary factor in their decline.”
Joel Kawahara: “…without Columbia River Chinook stocks, the State of Washington has almost no possibility of commercial harvest of chinook salmon. The economic losses from lost chinook runs on the Columbia and Snake rivers are difficult to calculate. However, a 1949 article from the Washington Department of Fisheries states about $9 Million worth of salmon would be lost with the completion of the Snake River dams. I just looked up the CPI change in value and come up with a factor of 9… meaning about $81 Million in fish, using a 3:1 expansion for economic impact and the lost economic impact of those fish is $240 million.”
Fishmonger: The four Snake River dams in question went in between 1960 and 1975. There was a noticeable drop in salmon production as each dam went in. They were primarily built for navigation, to make Lewiston, Idaho a port with access to the ocean. They provide irrigation to about a dozen farms and I believe about 10% of the power on the BPA grid. It has been estimated that the benefits can be replaced by modified pumping to the farms, improved railroads and highways for shipping, and conservation.
All of the dams cause mortalities to smolts as they migrate downriver, and to adults as they travel back upstream. There is only so much that can be done to improve that. For most dams, it’s a 10-20% loss going down, and 5-10% loss for adults going back up. The smolts need to travel in a specifc time frame or their physical adjustment from fresh to salt water will be unsuccessful. They point upstream as they go downriver, so it’s not like they are looking for the best way – they depend on high river flows to move them, and we don’t use the water for power at the same times that the smolts need it. That’s why it’s a battle with the dam operators to get them to spill water.
Snake River wild Chinook stocks aren’t continuing to crash, but improvements have been slow and inconsistent and there are probable limitations to how much recovery can be achieved with the dams there. There is also the continuing battle with BPA regarding spill to move smolts downriver, which has been a big factor in recent improvements.”

2) Further limit harvest:

Drais4: “The topic of harvest impacts on salmon fisheries is obviously nightmarishly complicated, even without the politics. But to keep it in perspective, think about this: NOAA’s 2004 Columbia River BiOp shows that dam-related mortality to Upper Columbia and Snake River salmon ranges from 33 percent to 86 percent (yes, 86 percent) of juveniles going downstream, and from 6% to 17% of adults returning. The numbers vary according to species and run.
Conversely, in-river non-tribal fishing ranges from .5% to 2% for all runs but Snake River fall chinook, which is 8.25%. (I don’t have numbers for in-river tribal fishing; don’t know if NOAA does). Ocean fishing (including tribal and non-tribal) is 1 percent or less except for Snake River fall chinook, which is 20% to 30%.
This is not to say that harvest limits are unimportant or shouldn’t be scrutinized. The fact is, they HAVE been scrutinized, and reduced repeatedly – while the dams keep killing huge numbers of fish. Fixing the dam problem would provide an enormously greater improvement to the chinook population than continued ratcheting down of harvest limits.
Fishmonger: “…The largest Chinook fishery in the state may occur in the Columbia in some years if you include sport, Indian and non-Indian commercial harvests, but that’s partly because the Columbia is a Chinook river. In addition, those are the last harvests, not the first, so Orcas have access to them before the in-river fishermen. All fisheries are based on run predictions and sharing ratios that take into account ESA limitations, stock mixing, ocean harvest (from both sport and commercial fisheries), treaty rights, etc. As I’ve stated before, harvest is the one thing that gets controlled, it is focused on stocks with harvestable numbers, and it’s not restricting stock recovery. If there is no harvest, there will not be any hatchery production, either, and we will lose advocates for salmon restoration, which would be just fine with BPA.

3) Better control of bycatch:

Fishmonger: “The only way to tell a wild fish from a hatchery fish is if the fleshy adipose fin just ahead of the tail is missing. This fin is removed at the hatchery on about 75%-90% of the salmon raised in hatcheries in the northwest, depending on the run. Tribal hatcheries don’t “clip” nearly as many fish as the state hatcheries do.
Fish can be released from all of the harvest methods, but their survival rate afterwards depends on how they are caught by the net or hook, the water temperature, how long they were trapped, how they are handled before release, and other factors. In addition, the mesh size of gillnets can be used to target specific species while avoiding others, as can time and area closures to avoid stocks of concern that may be in a specific area at a given time. I would say that purse seine and reefnet fish would have a high survival rate if they can be sorted and released before they suffocate or lose scales as their space is reduced in the net. Gillnet release success depends on how long the fish were in the net, how they were caught (it’s not always by the gills), how much scale loss and how cold the water is.
…As far as government support goes, there is no funding for new gear, though the government has contributed to gear studies, such as those that were used to determine mortality rates for tangle nets. The fishermen built the nets under the premise that if they improved their methods they would be allocated more fish. In reality, they made the changes but Fish and Wildlife has instead been reducing their harvest share over the past 8 years. There is no program in place that I know of that would fund boats and gear if a new method is required, but there is a study in place to see if some new proposed methods will work. It takes 5-10 years to successfully test the viability of new methods.
Protected fish that are caught be any non-Indian fisherman, whether sport or commercial, are released depending on the fishery location, the species, the time of year, and how many of the hatchery fish are marked so that they can be identified. It also depends on whether it’s a mixed stock fishery or one that is focused on a specific run bound for a known river system. More of the sport fisheries require release, but in some cases that is to extend the season rather than just protecting wild fish. Regardless, sampling is done to determine the ratio of wild/hatchery fish caught and that is used in determining when to close a fishery.
Commercial and sport fisheries have all made significant contributions toward salmon recovery because as I’ve mentioned before, they are the only user groups that the managers can effectively cut back to increase salmon survival – they have little effective control over municipal water use and quality, logging, mining, argiculture or similar issues that impact water and salmon. But both user groups can play a role in keeping the larger public aware of the special nature of the salmon resource in the Northwest, by being advocates for the resource and by making a portion of the resource available for the public to share and enjoy.”

4) Viability of hatchery fish:

Drais4: “The literature gets more compelling over the years. As NOAA puts it in two biological opinions, there is no evidence that a population consisting predominantly of hatchery fish can persist over the long term. Araki et al published a paper in June showing not only that captive-bred fish have much lower survival rates than wild fish – which is, I think, pretty widely accepted – but that the succeeding generations also have reduced reproductive success. That is, the if two hatchery fish produce surviving fish, and those fish breed, the likelihood of their producing viable fish is only 37 percent the likelihood of two “real” wild fish producing viable offspring. If a fish with a hatchery parent breeds with a “real” wild fish, the odds of success are only 87 per cent of a match of 2 “real” wild fish.
Araki’s conclusion: “Our results suggest a significant carry-over effect of captive breeding,
which has negative influence on the size of the wild population in the generation after supplementation.” So hatchery fish must be, it seems, a part of the short-term equation, but cannot be part of the long-term answer.

5) Climate change:
From the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group: “Global warming’s expected impact on PNW {Pacific NorthWest} climate includes many negatives for PNW salmon. Increased winter flooding and decreased summer and fall streamflows, and elevated warm season stream and estuary temperatures will clearly degrade in-stream and estuarine salmon habitat in the PNW. These changes will likely cause severe problems for the salmon stocks that are already stressed from already degraded freshwater and estuarine habitat.”

Drais4: “The genetic issue is especially important in light of climate change. Fish are, as we all know, quite sensitive to water temps. If water warms due to greenhouse gases, the best chance of survival might be for those fish who come from, and breed in, the highest-elevation spawning grounds (namely, Snake River/Central Idaho salmon). (Those fish also have evolved to swim 900 miles and 6000 vertical feet, suggesting they are tougher than your average Carkeek Park chum.) If we lose the high-elevation fish, though, and coastal waters rise and lower-elevation temps increase, we could find ourselves with very, very, very few salmon in the PNW.”

6) Habitat restoration:
In a US News and World Reports article (Tracking the Results of Salmon Habitat Restoration“) last April, It was shown that although we spend deeply on habitat restoration ( as much as 1 billion nationwide, annually) there is as yet no consistent way to monitor the success of the projects. It is heartening that these efforts are being made, and this is an area where each of us can contribute our time and energy to help.

BenStatic: “Salmon recovery is a difficult, multi-faceted problem, dams are one major component, fish farms (parasites and disease) are another, overfishing is another, river habitat and straightened rivers are another, warming rivers are another, siltification is another. There are some who are unwilling to work on any one issue, unless we do something on the others. We need to look at this as a piecemeal recovery effort, where any effort is movement in the right direction.”

Your Chance To Comment On The Proposal To Establish A Seasonal Refuge For Orcas Ends January 15th

Last summer NOAA opened the proposed vessel regulations to public scrutiny, (which we covered in a series of posts). Because the window for comment was short, NOAA extended the comment period to January 15th. We urge you to voice your opinion!

Here is the basic information, with links to more details:

NOAA: “We recognize that by extending the public comment period, we won’t have enough time to issue a final rule before the 2010 summer boating season. We continue to believe that it’s important to address the adverse effects of vessel traffic on killer whales in the near future. In light of the requests we’ve received for an extension of the comment period, however, we believe additional public outreach will enhance both NOAA Fisheries’ understanding of public concerns and the public’s understanding of the basis for our proposal. This will also allow time for cooperative efforts to refine the proposal. We’ll work toward adoption of a final rule before the 2011 summer boating season.

“We’ll consider all comments and information received during the comment period in preparing a final rule.

“The proposed rule, draft environmental assessment, and other supporting documents are available on the Northwest Region Website, along with instructions for submitting comments.”

NOAA’s Fisheries Service is proposing new rules on vessel traffic aimed at further protecting Southern Resident killer whales in Washington’s Puget Sound. These large marine mammals, the subject of intense curiosity from kayakers to tourists crowding the decks of commercial whale-watching vessels, were added to the Endangered Species list in late 2005.

The proposed rules would prohibit vessels from approaching any killer whale closer than 200 yards and forbid vessels from intercepting or parking in the path of a whale. In addition, the proposed regulations would set up a half-mile-wide no-go zone along the west side of San Juan Island from May 1 through the end of September where generally no vessels would be allowed.

“The idea here is to give these remarkable animals even more real, meaningful protection,” said Barry Thom, acting head of the agency’s Northwest regional office. “Without it, we would undercut the hard work we are all doing to recover the species by improving the sound’s water quality and recovering salmon, the killer whale’s primary food.”

The fisheries agency said there would be exemptions to the rules for some vessels, including those actively fishing commercially, cargo vessels travelling in established shipping lanes, and government and research vessels. The no-go zone would also have limited exceptions for land owners accessing private property adjacent to it.

While Southern Resident whales are also threatened by degraded water quality in the sound and lack of prey, primarily salmon, biologists have known for years that vessel traffic may be tied to their low numbers.

The whales, which depend on their highly sophisticated sonar to navigate and find food, can be affected by underwater noise from boats and disturbed by vessels that approach too close or block their paths. The population peaked at 97 animals in the 1990s and then declined to 79 in 2001. It currently stands at 85 whales (88 as of January 3rd 2010) . The agency’s recovery plan, released in early 2008, calls for actions to reduce disturbance from vessels.

NOAA understands and predicts changes in the Earth’s environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and conserves and manages our coastal and marine resources. Visit

On the Web:
Proposed regulation and comments:“.

A New Orca Calf, First Seen Near Vashon Island!

The first known calf of the year, J47 swimming with J35 (photo by Jeff Hogan, courtesy Orca Network)

The first calf to be spotted and identified was seen yesterday (January 3rd, 2010) swimming with juvenile female J35, who will turn 13 this year. Although it is possible that J35 is the mother of the new calf, she would have been between 10 and 11 when the calf was conceived, on the young end of the spectrum of when orcas enter puberty.

Since we know that the entire family will pitch in to help with the calves (please see orca mothers), it may be possible that one of the other females in J35’s family group is the actual mom.

Below is the new calf’s family tree, and if you look carefully you will see that each member is identified by a number, date first seen/born, and color coded as to sex (red is female, blue is male, yellow is unknown). There are two other older females that could also be the calf’s mother, J22 or J32. (The other females had calves too recently for this new one to be theirs.)

J47’s family tree (Center for Whale Research)

It will be a while before the researchers sort it all out, but what we do know is that Seattle’s little Star (J46) now has a new cousin, and Jpod is starting the new year on a great note!