Southern Resident Orca “Scoter” Hit by Invasive Satellite Tag by NOAA – To What End?

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This is a unique population of friendly, urban whales. (Center for Whale Research photo).

Wounds left by a satellite tag on an orca in previous studies.

The NOAA announcement:
Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging
December 31, 2012 Update – As a continuation of a project began last year to help us understand where Southern resident killer whales go in the winter, and thus their winter habitat use, NWFSC researchers tagged an adult male, K25, in Puget Sound on December 29, 2012 with a satellite-linked tag. The information gathered from this tag will address the data gap in winter distribution identified in the Recovery Plan as well as provide information for improving Critical Habitat designation. This technique was recently identified as an important approach for addressing this issue by the independent science panel that assessed the impact of salmon fisheries on southern resident killer whales (

For the most recently available track of K25 and more information on the satellite tagging project, please visit We appreciate the work of all our partners to protect and conserve killer whales and their habitats, and look forward to continued efforts in 2013. Thank you and happy New Year!

While NOAA is very careful to explain that the Southern Resident orca population is not recovering at a rate likely to sustain positive growth, they have also concluded that reducing the commercial catch of the orca’s primary food, Chinook salmon, may or may not help the whales and hence NOAA is not recommending changes to commercial catch.  Basically, the problem is too complex for the researchers to sort out, but because the orcas are classed as an endangered species the researchers justify a more invasive tagging program – inquiring minds want to know where these orcas go in the winter.
What difference will this knowledge make to the whale population? The researchers claim that the data will assist them in defining a ‘critical habitat’ – although they don’t say how this will do anything to help the whales if fisheries are allowed to continue taking Chinook salmon at present levels in that habitat, or if the military operations that are harmful are allowed to continue in those regions.
The scientists explain in detail why less invasive studies have failed or are too expensive, and show that these tags have been used on other species, but does that justify risking the well-being of this endangered population? NOAA’s last fail whale attempt stayed on the orca “Mike” (J 26) all of three days and revealed nothing new about the whale’s distribution. And do they really know the impact of these tags? This monk seal (another endangered species) definitely seems impacted by the tag:

Elephant seal with satellite tag.

Ribbon seal with satellite tag.

If the tag stays on it will be interesting to see how Scoter (K 25) uses the environment, but I’m not sure how much the researchers will be able to extrapolate to the entire population, nor is it at all evident that the information is going to be put to use to protect the whales and not commercial interests.

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