Tracking Device on Orca Whale “Mike” Useless, Fails After Three Days

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On February 20th, researchers from NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) shot a tracking device into the dorsal fin of the young male orca “Mike” (J-26). Mike likely flinched and dove when the razor barbs opened in the flesh of his fin, but with no other option seemed to go about life as usual with his mom and two younger sisters – at least for the three days that the device continued to function. (Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging)

Dart tracking device embeds in the dorsal fin.

These devices are euphemistically called ‘tags’ because they are the modern genesis of the familiar ear tags used on livestock, but are really sophisticated data gathering GPS units. Designed to remain in place for 1 – 3 months, the idea is that the tracking device will provide information on the endangered Southern Resident orca’s winter distribution.
The justification for the invasive ‘tagging’ program is that scientists can’t define critical habitat for the whales until they know where the orcas go when they are not in the Salish Sea. Somehow the researchers seem to think that harassing the fragile population of orcas and throwing large amounts of money and time at this question will yield information that will help save the Resident orcas – but the scientists already know what the problem is:  the orcas’ primary food prey, Chinook salmon, have become an unreliable food source.  Some years the orcas seem to find enough to eat, but other years the cyclic nature of salmon populations leaves the orcas hungry. (See The Center Conservation Biology).  The biologists at NOAA have known this for years.
No one knows where Mike and his family are at the moment – which they wouldn’t have known anyway.  Except Mike is now swimming with a useless device impaled in his fin, or has lost the device and now has twin wounds penetrating his tissue.
Where “Mike” (J-26) went over the three days that the device functioned.

It is understandable that the scientists want to define the winter range of the Southern Resident orcas, it is a question that has perplexed researchers for decades, and the researchers are every bit as concerned about the welfare of the orcas as is any activist. But there is a fine line between necessary science, satisfying curiosity, and meeting some ridiculous rule about defining habitat before proceeding to do what needs to be done to protect the whales.  Even in the confines of the Salish Sea, around Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands the government is unable to enforce the regulations already in place, and it is absurd to think they will be able to do so out on the open ocean.
No, the problem is that no one wants to do the only thing that will truly help the orcas because the fix is both highly contentious and expensive; restore Chinook salmon populations.
Studying the problem to death or falling into the trap of ‘being the one’ to discover something are tactics that allow NOAA to keep its head in the sand while both the salmon and the orcas disappear, and certainly the scientists find this as upsetting as anyone else. The government needs to find the money to fix the salmon problem, or citizens need to take it upon ourselves to restore salmon habitat and choose something else on our dinner plates besides the shrinking (in size as well as in number) Chinook salmon. And let the orcas swim in peace.
“Mike” (J-26) usually swims with his mom and two younger sisters. (Photo by Dave Ellifrit)

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