Endangered orcas now safer from planned seismic survey

Update: The project was given permission to complete the first leg of their expedition because it is based farther offshore and unlikely to impact the Southern Resident orcas this time of the year.  Researchers are still investigating the best way to proceed in the other areas.
How often does this happen – a major scientific expedition is temporarily halted without court battles or political maneuvering, in order to protect an endangered species?  The answer of course is;  not often.  Yet due to an oversight in the environmental impact statement filed by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty’s Earth Observatory, the research vessel remains at dock while a protocol is established to protect the endangered Southern Resident orcas from the dangerous sound levels produced by the ship’s sonar.
The Orca Network was instrumental in bringing to light that the project to conduct seismic surveys had neglected to thoroughly research the population dynamics of the orcas, and had been given permission to proceed without notification of the local agencies.  In a letter of concern, they wrote:

It is clear that the best available science on Southern Resident seasonality was not used by NMFS staff conducting the Section 7 consultation under ESA and reviewing Lamont-Doherty’s take application under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). According to Kellie Foster-Taylor, the NOAA biologist who conducted the Section 7 consultation, the Southern Residents were assumed to remain in inland waters during the project period and therefore were not considered further in the consultation or in the MMPA authorization process. That assumption is simply incorrect. In early summer Southern Residents will typically spend a few days in inland waters, then head out to the coast where salmon are more plentiful. We expect they will be present off the coast during the seismic survey timeframe. We’ve had reports of members of all three pods in the inland waters this weekend, but L pod headed out to the coast Sunday afternoon, and Southern Residents can travel 100 miles a day, which could easily put any of the pods within the survey area within 24 – 48 hours.

Concerned individuals called and emailed government officials over the weekend, effectively communicating to officials that people are increasingly intolerant of the free hand that has been given to government and industry to damage ocean life in their quest for information, wring wealth from below the seafloor, or to engage in excessive military practices.
While it may be surprising to learn, for their part the oceanographers on board were probably unaware of the problems and  may not know much at all about whales and dolphins, or about anything much bigger than krill for that matter.  They study ocean dynamics, and theirs is a rigorous major that leaves little room in the curriculum for elective study of the larger marine organisms.  They were doubtless unaware about the potential impact of the seismic survey on the fragile population of orcas that call this area home.
But this is a hugely expensive error, costing the project thousands of dollars a day.  While the ship sits in port it still has to run maintenance and accommodate the beached crew, and their salaries have to be paid.  Worse yet, it is likely that some of the scientists on board may have to scuttle time-sensitive projects if any were planned (in order to optimize cruise time, several science projects usually piggyback onto each other).
The upside of all this is that this mistake is unlikely to be repeated, and it is another demonstration that alternatives to the sonic pollution of the oceans need to be found.
And honestly, it is heartening  to have witnessed both the response of concerned individuals, and the quick response by government officials and the researchers in this situation, instead of the usual battles.  Much credit goes to Susan Berta, of Orca Network, for her dedication and tact in bringing the oversight to the attention of the appropriate officials in the nick of time and thereby preventing what could have been a devastating event for the endangered Southern Resident orcas. Kudos, Susan!

Endangered orcas’ habitat scheduled for seismic tests on June 11th, 2012

Update 6/12/12 11:45 a.m. The research vessel, R/V Marcus G Lagseth, is still docked in Astoria, Oregon.
Whether through bureaucratic bumbling by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) or through intentional slight of hand, permission was granted for three sonically invasive explorations of the ocean floor in the waters off the Washington coast – prime habitat for the endangered Southern Resident orcas – without the proper notification to local agencies.
Even though Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory sent in their application for “Incidental Harassment Authorization to take marine mammals” last January, the permit was granted at the end of April with a 30 day comment period – but no notice was sent, other than in the Federal Register.
Now, with just days to prevent this, scientists and advocates are scrambling to block the seismic exploration before the orcas (along with nearly two dozen other species of whales and dolphins) are exposed to sound levels believed to have caused the mass death of thousands of dolphins in Peru.

Debating the danger of loud sonar to cetaceans involves the complex nature of sound in the water as well as our dismal lack of understanding of the behavior of most wild cetaceans…but what everybody agrees upon is that even if the sound itself doesn’t kill the whales and dolphins, they may react by racing to the surface to escape the sound, destroying their body tissues and damaging their hearing when gas bubbles form.
Below is a graphic that illustrates how sonar is used to penetrate the ocean floor – whether looking for oil reserves as in the case of the Peruvian dolphins, or investigating the nature of an earthquake fault as in this proposed study, the process is similar.

How the seismic exploration works.

Columbia University divided their survey into three parts, requesting harassment permits for each part – so they are actually exposing three times the number of animals to the sound, when the three surveys are combined:
Proposed survey area for the seismic survey in the northeastern Pacific Ocean planned for 5–8 July 2012 with OBS instrument. Notice the proposed trackline along the edge of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (light blue area).



Why this type of sonar is deadly:
Hardy Jones and Dr. Carlos Yaipen Llanos found evidence of damage in samples from some of the 615 dead dolphins in Peru (part of the thousands that died following seismic tests for oil):
a. Bleeding in the middle ear.
b. Simple fracture and cracks in the middle ear (periotic) bones.
c. Hemorrhage and bubbles in mandibular fat (where dolphins perceive incoming sounds)
d. Massive invasion of air bubbles which displaced the normal tissue of vital organs such as lungs, liver, kidney, bladder and blood vessels.
e. Pulmonary emphysema: air bubbles, bleeding and massive destruction of lung tissue
Gas bubbles in the liver of a Peruvian dolphin killed by seismic testing (Hardy Jones).

The endangered Southern Resident orcas can’t take much more loss, please help stop the testing until a more thorough environmental impact statement is prepared (the current one lumps all ecotypes of orcas together) and until the process is openly scrutinized.
What you can do: call your congress members, call NOAA, and spread the word through social media.
Application for permit
Federal Register notice
Blue Voice (Hardy Jones)
Victoria (L - 112) with her mom.

Seismic testing for oil blamed for dolphin deaths

BlueVoice traveled to Peru in March, 2012 to document the rumor of large numbers of dolphins dead on beaches. We counted 615 in one day. Dr. Carlos Yaipen Llanos of ORCA Peru, funded by BlueVoice, has conducted necropsies on 30 of these dolphins.
He has found no evidence of disease, starvation, entanglement in nets or red tide. There were no marks or lesions on the exterior of the stranded dolphins. What he has found is evidence of acoustical trauma leading to rapid ascent and decompression syndrome. In other words loud noises, produced repeatedly over a long period of time, startled the dolphins who raced for the surface and incurred what humans call the bends.
Based on data gathered in Peru, BlueVoice has concluded that a plausible source of the violent sounds that led to the death of hundreds of dolphins is seismic testing by oil companies. Seismic testing is now proposed for the east coast of the United States from Florida to Delaware. We intend to bring the evidence surrounding the mass mortality of dolphins in Peru into the discussions of permitting seismic testing in US waters.

It is vitally important that we continue our work in Peru and that we inject this new evidence to stop the seismic testing off the U.S. coast.
Over the next eight years – according to the Obama administration’s estimates – seismic exploration would injure up to 138,500 marine mammals and disrupt marine mammal feeding, calving, breeding, and other vital activities more than 13.5 million times.
This could be catastrophic for the dolphins and whales we all love.

Make your opposition to seismic testing known to President Obama and your elected government officials. This link takes you to an easy to fill out form. This has more impact than a petition, and Blue Voice has provided you with the following message (or write your own)-
Sample message:
Recent events in Peru have shown that seismic testing for oil can kill or injure massive numbers of dolphins and other marine mammals. According to the Obama administration’s own estimates – seismic exploration off the east coast of the U.S. would injure up to 138,500 marine mammals. This is utterly unacceptable. Say “no” to seismic testing. Thank you.

World Oceans Day 2012 – follow the cyber blue whale on June 8th

Update:  This works beautifully!  The whale was in Australia this morning when I logged on-
The theme of World Oceans Day this year is ‘Youth: the Next Wave for Change’, and there are several events planned worldwide.  In addition, the organizers have partnered with The Blu to promote an ocean game, where participants buy beautifully animated species to create habitats – either ‘true blu’ (accurate) or ‘open blu’ (imaginary).

Oceanographer Sylvia Earle, Time Magazine’s Hero of the Planet, writes that “TheBlu is an extraordinary way to enjoy the Oceans and learn about all the individual species that interdependently form our life support system. I am delighted to be part of theBlu and offering my guidance.”
There were glitches when I downloaded The Blu (Norton Anti-virus doesn’t recognize the software, so it was necessary to remove the program from quarantine to install it.) At this point all that appears on the screen is blue water, but according to the company tomorrow morning the virtual whale will appear.
But the real ocean is just as dazzling as the animated, as this video shows – the often overlooked planktonic forms of marine species are fascinating:

Seattle area World Oceans Day events:
Seattle Aquarium
Everett Reflections School of Dance
Olympia SeaCinema Film Festival
Camano Island Festival, Camas Beach

Former SeaWorld trainer to share insights

Former SeaWorld trainer, Samantha Berg

Former SeaWorld trainer Samantha Berg plans to discuss orcas from a trainer’s perspective in what promises to be an interesting and entertaining broadcast of the Sam Simon show this Friday.
She intends to discuss the living conditions of the whales, the true nature of the job, and the dichotomy between the trainer’s professed love for the orcas versus how inhumanely the  whales are kept.
Of course it is live radio, so anything can happen – and if you miss the live show you can hear a repeat at 6:10 pm, or check sites such as Voice of the Orcas which may have recordings that you can hear at a later date.
You can listen to her interview  here, 3:10 pm Pacific time on Friday, 6/8/12, or again at 6:10 pm.

“Crazy underwater baitball feeding frenzy” – the fun of forage fish

Forage fish – small to medium-sized species that include anchovies, herring, menhaden, and sardines – are essential to the ocean web:
They can be beautiful-

(Richard A. King Photography)

They provide nourishment to larger fish …

Wikimedia photo

…which we love to catch and eat-

Forage fish are needed to grow these big fish.

But who knew they could provide such wacky fun for onlookers of nature’s drama?

Unfortunately this class of fish is in danger of being over-fished, and your help is needed.


Fisheries managers need to pay more careful attention to the special vulnerabilities of forage fish and the cascading effects of forage fishing on predators, according to the April 2012 report Little Fish, Big Impact. The report is from the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, a group of 13 preeminent scientists formed to provide practical advice on sustainable management.
Brief summary: Forage fish are small to medium-sized species that include anchovies, herring, menhaden, and sardines. Direct catch of forage fish makes up more than one-third of the world’s  marine fish catch and has contributed to the collapse of some forage fish populations. In the most comprehensive global analysis of forage fish management to date, the Task Force found that conventional management can be risky for forage fish because it does not adequately account for their wide population swings and high catchability. It also fails to capture the critical role of forage fish as food for marine mammals, seabirds, and commercially important fish such as tuna, salmon, and cod.
The report recommends cutting catch rates in half in many ecosystems and doubling the minimum biomass of forage fish that must be left in the water, compared to conventional  management targets. Even more stringent measures are advised when important biological information is missing. (Little Fish, Big Impact).

Ask NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco to encourage fishery managers to protect the little fish that feed the bigger fish, seabirds, and marine mammals that nourish and enrich all of us.

SeaWorld versus the orca Springer; the one that got away

Springer, a young orca who was captured, released, and reunited successfully. (Photo Courtesy Leah Robinson, Orcalab Aug 16 2011)

Ten years ago Canadian and American citizens, governments, and environmental groups coordinated the rescue of an orphaned orca, Springer, and returned her to her natal pod where she continues to thrive
To mark the anniversary, celebrations are planned in Canada and the U.S.  Join in and learn more about Springer’s remarkable story, and how rescue and release of whales and dolphins can work again in the future:

Springer (also known as A73), a two-year old orphan of Canada’s Northern Resident killer whale population, appeared 10 years ago in Puget Sound near Vashon Island after becoming separated from her family. Three hundred miles from home, the little orca captured international attention and galvanized community support for a relocation effort.
Concerned about her weakening health and increasing human interactions, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), and Vancouver Aquarium mounted the first-ever orca relocation project.
“The decision to rescue Springer was not an easy one to make,” said Will Stelle, director of NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest regional office in Seattle. “There were risks and unknowns every step of the way. In the end, we were successful because we worked as a team. Community involvement and support were a key part of the project.”
Today, Springer is healthy and fully integrated with her extended family, and has returned each year to their summering grounds in Johnstone Strait.
Events include an evening celebration open to the public (registration required) at the Vancouver Aquarium on Tuesday, June 12 at 7PM; an afternoon public program at Seattle’s Alki Beach Bathhouse on Saturday, June 23 at 11 AM; and a 10th anniversary reunion at Telegraph Cove, B.C., from July 12 to 15.

But Springer’s story could have turned out  differently. Several aquariums – including SeaWorld – lobbied to have her brought into captivity, but fortunately an environmental group located legal documents  containing a 1976 agreement between SeaWorld and Washington State (a result of the Penn Cove fiasco), proving that SeaWorld is barred from participating in any capture of any orca in Washington waters.
Statistically speaking had Springer ended up at SeaWorld she may have been dead by now (according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), “At least 137 orcas have been brought into captivity from the wild since 1961. 124 are now dead, surviving an average only four years in captivity.”).
Or, like other captive whales she would have been bred far too young.
A similarly aged SeaWorld orca, Kohana (born in 2002) was impregnated at seven, and summarily rejected her calf, Adan.  She is again pregnant by her uncle, Keto, and is due to have her second calf this fall. In this video you can see her calf Adan swimming alone after he was born.

Adan has never been accepted by the other orcas, and is often placed in a tank with Morgan, the young female orca rescued in Holland and now sharing the pools at Loro Parque, Spain with other SeaWorld orcas – in spite of international efforts to return her to wild family.   Both Adan and Morgan are outcasts, unable to form bonds with the older whales.
Unlike Springer, the captive industry prevailed in Morgan’s case, and her life seems bleak when compared to the normalcy of life in the wild enjoyed by Springer. Although rumors are rife that Morgan has health issues, there has been no hard data presented to support this, nor is there proof of when such damage occurred.
Meanwhile in the wild, Springer was fostered by various older females and now spends her time with a small group, where she is often seen ‘helping’ with younger calves.
Please mark your calendar and try to attend one of these celebrations to learn more about this successful rescue and release, and to commend the people, groups, businesses, and government officials who came together to give Springer this chance to live wild and free.
For more information:  The Whale Trail

Four endangered Southern Resident orcas are still missing

At the moment, the total population of Southern Resident orcas is thought to be 85, down by three percent – a significant loss for a population that is struggling to survive. Researchers are awaiting more encounters before making the final determination (follow the Center for Whale Research Facebook page for updates).

We will wait for a couple more good encounters with L pod before writing them off to make sure they were not just missed.  If these two remain missing, the Southern Resident population will have lost four whales this year so far since L112 washed up dead on the Washington Coast in February 2012, including J30 who has not been seen since last December.  With the loss of four whales and the addition of L119, the Southern Resident population currently stands at 85.

These whales band together and take care of each other, so even the loss of the oldest whales is a blow to the whole population, and the loss of a young male just entering the reproductive years is devastating.
Missing are 17 year old J30, Riptide (pictured below with his great-grandmother, the venerable J2, Granny)-

J30 with great-grandmother j2 and younger sister J37 (Photo by Astrid van Ginneken, Center for Whale Research)

78 year old L12 (Alexis), photographed below with 21 year old L85 (Mystery).  Mystery lost his mother when he was just three years old and was then adopted by his aunt, but she died when he was 14, and Alexis seemed to have accompanied him until the present-
78 year old L12 (Alexis) with 21 year old L85 (Mystery). Photo by Erin Heydenreicht, Center for Whale Research.

47 year old L5, Tanya, who has no surviving offspring.  She often traveled with 22 year old L84, Nyssa, who lost his mother when he was nine. L5 helped with other young whales – she is photographed below helping with a new calf belonging to L54, Ino –

L5 swimming with a new calf (L117) with the baby's mother (L54, Ino) following. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research.

And finally the young L112, Victoria, who washed up on a beach in February, her death caused by still undetermined percussive force. Her mother and brother both survived the winter.
Victoria with her mother, L86. Photo by Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research.