Preliminary results of a necropsy show a boat strike likely killed the humpback whale whose body was found drifting down the St. Lawrence River near Varennes, Que., early Tuesday, say veterinarians who are examining the carcass where it was hoisted from the water, in Sainte-Anne-de-Sorel.
The whale, vigorous when she was first spotted near the Jacques Cartier Bridge on May 30, drew hundreds of people to the Old Port to catch a glimpse of the rare sight. The whale was last spotted alive Sunday near Pointe-aux-Trembles, at the northeastern end of the island of Montreal and was then seen, lifeless, near Île-Beauregard, six nautical miles away.
Université de Montréal Prof. Stéphane Lair, a veterinary pathologist leading the team conducting the necropsy, said the whale had suffered trauma under its skin and in its muscles. The accumulation of blood in the whale also suggests that a collision fatally wounded the animal, said Lair.
Lair confirmed the young humpback was a female, between two and three years of age.
He said his team will analyze samples from the necropsy in the lab before confirming the cause of death in a month or two.
If indeed a boat did strike and kill the whale, Laird said, the vessel would have had to have been very large.
WATCH: Veterinarian on what he found in whale necropsy:
Preliminary findings show whale was hit by boat
1 day ago
The team led by Université de Montréal veterinary Prof. Stéphane Lair says early findings from the necropsy suggest the humpback whale was struck by a boat. Lair says a final diagnosis could take as long as two months. 0:30
“If they hit the whale during the night, there’s a good chance they might not have noticed it,” Lair said.
The whale had some skin damage from the time it had spent in fresh water, Lair said, but it otherwise looked to be in good health.
Humpback whales can survive a journey through fresh water for at least three weeks and return safely to the ocean, said Robert Michaud, the co-ordinator of the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network.
“We thought this animal could make it,” said Michaud, who is also the founder and scientific director of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals, based in Tadoussac, Que.
Lair said he can’t yet confirm if the whale had been eating but said it is possible the whale, at least in the early part of her journey from salt water upstream to Montreal, could have been chasing schools of fish.
Michaud and his network had hoped they could help the whale return safely to her natural habitat, keeping close tabs on her until they lost track of the whale Sunday morning, he said.
This story was originally published by Hakai Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.
In late April, residents of Nanoose Bay on southeastern Vancouver Island, British Columbia, gathered on the shoreline of a local park to observe a juvenile gray whale. For several days, they watched and waited, and were occasionally rewarded for their patience when mist erupted from the ocean surface like compressed air exploding from a giant barrel. The whale would take a deep breath, arch its barnacled back, and dive out of sight.
The sightings were brief, but memorable — not just because they happened to them, but because they didn’t happen to anyone else. On a normal day, the gray whale would have been shadowed by commercial whale watching boats. COVID-19 has changed all that.
The pandemic has constrained vessel traffic around the world, probably to the benefit of whales. Ship strikes can kill or injure, while underwater engine noise and a vessel’s physical presence can disrupt whales’ ability to feed, rest, socialize, navigate, and communicate. “Generally, less noise resulting from a reduction in all manner of vessel traffic right now is probably not a bad thing for the whales,” says John Ford, a whale researcher emeritus with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).
“Generally, less noise resulting from a reduction in all manner of vessel traffic right now is probably not a bad thing for the whales.”
Commercial whale watching is not immune to COVID-19. The whale watching fleet from British Columbia and Washington state totaled about 138 vessels in 2019, according to Soundwatch, a program of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, Washington, which monitors vessel compliance in the San Juan Islands. That represents more than 500,000 customers annually.
But the pandemic has left the fleet docked.
In April, the Canadian government announced that all passenger vessels with a capacity of more than 12 passengers are prohibited from engaging in nonessential activities, including whale watching, until at least June 30.
Since then, the industry has conducted talks with Transport Canada aimed at getting the fleet back on the water, with the potential for British Columbia, perhaps through the Ministry of Health, deciding when to green-light commercial whale watching. The industry is putting together a blueprint for how that might happen, including staff training, frequent sterilization of vessels, and the wearing of face masks.
Meanwhile, whales in the Salish Sea are enjoying a rare respite from tourists and repeated boat traffic. That includes endangered southern resident killer whales, whose numbers have dropped from 98 in 1995 to an estimated 72 individuals.
The Pacific Whale Watch Association, representing Canadian and American companies in the Salish Sea, says the downside to COVID-19 extends beyond their lost revenues.
Every day the fleet is idled due to the pandemic, scientists cannot benefit from a GPS-based app developed by the industry in 2019 that provides real-time information on when and where whales are sighted. “That cannot be replicated by science, even on a good day,” says association spokesman Kelley Balcomb-Bartok.
Brad Hanson, a researcher with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, is among more than 20 scientists who have received permission to access the app’s data for specific study periods. “It is much more efficient,” he says. “I don’t like to go out and spend a lot of time searching for whales.” Such data can also help to track a sick whale or identify larger trends in whale numbers and species in the Salish Sea.
Mark Malleson has a foot in both camps: he is a veteran captain for Prince of Whales in Victoria, and does contract work for DFO and the Center for Whale Research in Washington State, mainly taking identification photos of killer whales. He documented the first fin whale in the Juan de Fuca Strait in 2005. “The whale watching industry is pretty unique in this part of the world,” he says. “We cover so much area and … have so many eyes out there.”
“Absolutely, there is going to be less data. Whether or not the absence of those data would compromise our efforts or understanding … long-term, I’m not sure.”
Individual whale watching companies also support conservation organizations through a variety of initiatives, including donating one percent or more of ticket sales or a fixed donation such as $2 per ticket, and offering free seats or free charters of vessels for education, fundraising, or research purposes.
One major beneficiary is the Center for Whale Research, founded by Balcomb-Bartok’s father, Ken Balcomb. The center receives up to $30,000 per year from whale watching companies, evidence of the intertwining of whale commerce and whale conservation. On the Canadian side of the border, the Vancouver-based Pacific Salmon Foundation reports that whale watching companies contributed about CAN $105,000 to the organization in donations and gifts in kind in 2019.
All of which offsets — but does not eliminate — the industry’s impact on whales.
“We need to embrace what’s best for the southern residents while still having a viable economy,” asserts Balcomb-Bartok. “I can’t say we are benign. It is a factor. Let’s find the best balance.”
The absence of data from the whale watching fleet comes at a time when whale researchers also struggle to get onto the water due to the pandemic.
Thomas Doniol-Valcroze, head of DFO’s cetacean research program on the west coast, says research by government organizations such as his own and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has largely ground to a halt. Physical distancing can be problematic for boat crews, while going for fuel and handling study equipment carries the risk of contamination. Fieldwork by small organizations may still continue, he says, including using drones to document whales’ physical condition. Hydrophones are also collecting data on underwater sound levels resulting from reduced vessel traffic.
As for the whale watching industry’s contribution, he says: “Absolutely, there is going to be less data. Whether or not the absence of those data would compromise our efforts or understanding … long-term, I’m not sure.”
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Ultimately, all manner of vessels, whether they contribute to research or not, can be disruptive to whales, Doniol-Valcroze concludes.
“Everybody who is honest knows that when you’re out there — whether you are a researcher or whale watcher or anything else — you’re having an impact on these animals. It all comes down to whether it’s worth the impact or not.”
It makes you wonder what the whales would say. A question left to humans to debate.
Larry Pynn is a veteran environmental journalist who has received some 30 awards for his newspaper and magazine writing, including eight Jack Webster Awards. Email High Country Newsat email@example.com or submit a letter to the editor.
Australis Mar reported finding 15m large cetacean at one of its sites in Chile.
Chilean aquaculture Sernapesca reports that the salmon farmer Australis Mar informed it that discovered the carcass of a sei whale at one of its sites.
The sei whale, around 15m in length, is believed to have died after it became entangled in one of the nets at the salmon farm around seven hours from Puerto Aysén, at the southern tip of Chile.
On Monday, authorities after analysis determined that it was a sei whale. It had become almost entirely entangled with ropes of different length. Furthermore, a metal chain was found wrapped around the whale.
Sernapesca then instructed the owner of the salmon farm to dispose of the remains of the cetacean in a secured sector of the coast.
“Once collected, all the information will be made available to the agencies and institutions that require it, as well as to international conservation bodies such as the International Whaling Commission (Response Network to Gillnetting of large cetaceans) and other forums of which Chile is a part of,” wrote Sernapesca.
Sei Whales are one of the fastest of all cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), able to reach speeds of up to 50 mph for short sprints.
“There are about 80,000 sei Whales in the world today. That is about 1/3 of the population that existed in the world before the whaling boom of the late 1800s through early 1900s,” according to Oceanwide Expeditions.
Karin Forney still remembers when an unusual number of humpback whales started showing up in Monterey Bay a few winters ago. She could see them out her window — so close to the surf that kayakers could literally paddle up to them.
But with this delightful arrival came an alarming number of humpbacks getting entangled in fishing gear that cut into their flesh and often led to death. This sudden crisis confounded scientists, fishermen and animal rights groups.
“We went from virtually no humpback whale entanglements to one every other week — and then during peak, in the spring of 2016 … we were basically on call every single day,” said Forney, an applied marine ecologist at the NOAA Fisheries who scrambled to help the rescue efforts.
“The whales just kept coming.”
In a study published Monday, a team of scientists solved the mystery. They showed how one dramatic shift in the marine ecosystem, exacerbated by an ever-warming planet, could set off a domino effect across California.
An unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Ocean, dubbed “the blob,” had pushed anchovies and other humpback food closer to shore — right where most Dungeness crab fishermen tend to set their gear. The crab season, in turn, had been unusually delayed by the blob, so fishing did not peak until the whales started coming into town.
“The timing of everything is so sensitive from an ecosystem perspective,” said Jarrod Santora, lead author of the study and an ecosystem oceanographer with NOAA Fisheries and UC Santa Cruz. “We could have prevented this perfect storm from happening in 2016 — if we had this ecosystem science and a communication system in place.”
The ocean is already a complicated place to live, and it’s not getting easier. Marine heat waves have doubled in frequency since 1982, and recent reports declared that global ocean temperatures in 2019 were the warmest on record — a trend that has continued for the last decade.
The chemistry of the water itself is acidifying at alarming rates — the cost of relying on our oceans to absorb so much of the world’s heat and carbon emissions.
Following the blob, which took hold in 2014 and overwhelmed marine life for three years, scientists documented the largest toxic algae bloom in the West Coast. Malnourished sea lions washed ashore, another study confirmed, and more than half a million seabirds starved to death — strewn across the coast from California to the Gulf of Alaska.
Monday’s study, published in the journal Nature Communications, brought together different scientists and data sources to piece together a bigger ecosystem picture in California.
Humpback whales eat both krill and anchovies, depending on what’s available. Krill tend to thrive in deeper and colder waters — and well up with the typical currents along the California coast.
But during the blob years, there was very little krill for the whales to eat, and what few anchovies were available were being squeezed into areas closer to shore in what scientists call a habitat compression. Humpbacks followed these clusters of anchovies to shallower and shallower waters, especially in Monterey, Point Reyes and Half Moon Bay.
The entanglements with fishing gear soared starting in 2014 and 2015, but then in 2016, a domoic acid outbreak (also thanks to the blob) kept the crab fishery shut until the first week of April — instead of its usual start date in mid-November.
This amplified the co-occurrence, as Santora calls it, of the whales being forced to feed in smaller concentrations closer to shore — right where the prime crab fishing areas tend to be. By 2016, there were more than 50 recorded entanglements, he said, “and that is just astonishing.”
“Historically, we always said: ‘My, aren’t we lucky that the crab fishery operates mostly from November through February, maybe March, and the whales are here from only March to November,” said Forney, the NOAA researcher in Monterey Bay, who was also an author on the study.
But more and more fishermen, she said, are sticking with crab through June. Salmon fishing, which many used to switch to around February, has become less reliable in this changing world.
John Mellor, who fishes mostly for crab out of San Francisco, said he’s eager for more science and coordination to protect all the marine life that makes California special.
“I’ve been fishing for 40 years, and things changed so drastically starting about 2013, 2014 … it was profound,” he said. “Suddenly the water was 10 degrees hotter, the forage was disrupted and whale patterns were disrupted, and it caused this whole chain reaction.”
The industry — the most valuable fishery in California — has been taking this very seriously, he said. “People are using best practices, like not using a bunch of slack rope or extra buoys on the surface.”
Tension was high in light of a recent lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, which threatened to restrict crab fishing. A conservation plan is now being developed to address these marine interconnections.
The crab fishermen are treading cautiously and decided to start this season a little later, Mellor said, because there were still whales popping up in San Francisco. “If we entangled even one or two, it could’ve resulted in the season being closed all year.”
They lost the profitable Thanksgiving rush and the most productive time to fish for crabs — when they’re just coming out of their molt. But taking care of and minding the balance of the ocean, Mellor said, is in everyone’s best interest.
Mellor is part of what he calls a dedicated “hotshot crew” of scientists, fishermen, environmentalists and wildlife officials who got together when the entanglements first increased. Santora and Forney’s study provided the scientific baseline needed for this working group, which has been developing tools to better anticipate and avoid entanglement.
Many say this group, which was urgently convened in 2015 by the state’s Ocean Protection Council and wildlife and fisheries officials, is the future of ocean management: Setting aside differences, sharing field notes, compiling all the different data streams and figuring out how these multiple issues overlap. Reported entanglements have since dropped off but still remain higher than before the spike.
The scientists are now developing a website that will use all this data to forecast the areas where whales are most likely to be feeding off the West Coast. Crab fishermen could then decide where — and where not — to set their traps. Regulators could make calls on when to open or close a fishery.
Using these new tools and thinking about the ecosystem as a whole — rather than the traditional approach of focusing on one type of fish or species at a time — will help everyone adjust to more rapid and frequent changes in the marine environment.
They’ve created a framework, said Paige Berube of the Ocean Protection Council, to assess and manage risk in a way that can protect both ecological and economic imperatives.
“We can protect biodiversity, protect whales and sea turtles,” she said, “and also ensure that we continue to have thriving commercial fisheries that are iconic to our coastal identity as Californians.”
A federal judge in Washington, DC, on Monday ruled that the US’ National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) violated the Endangered Species Act, Magnuson Stevens Act, and other federal laws when it removed a roughly 20-year-old ban last year on gillnet fishing within a 3,000 square mile area south and east of the Massachusetts island Nantucket.
US District Court judge James Boasberg has renewed the ban in order to protect North Atlantic right whales, the Boston Globe reports. He said, in his 32-page ruling, that his decision was “not a close call” and quoted Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”.
“Demonstrating that ‘there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men’ … humans have brought the North Atlantic right whale to the brink of extinction,” he wrote.
Boasberg’s ruling does not apply to the scallop industry, which will be allowed to continue using its dredging equipment in the area, as it has not been found to harm the marine mammals.
The ruling echoed concerns laid out in a recent whistleblower complaint that suggested NMFS misrepresented the views of its own scientists to justify the action, the newspaper noted.
The agency had argued that it wasn’t required to conduct a deeper review and consult with all of its branches, though Boasberg disagreed.
NMFS’ “duty was clear,” he wrote in his opinion. Once scientists in the agency make “the determination that its action ‘may affect’ a listed species, it is without discretion to avoid consultation with the expert agency as to the effects of the action on the listed species. The court cannot excuse this breach.”
Everyone in the San Juan Islands who watches the whales remembers the summer of 2016. No one wants to relive it.
That was the summer the Southern Residents lost seven members, including one of the J Pod’s elderly matriarchs, who scientists say are the acknowledged leaders of the pods and repositories of the stored knowledge essential to the whales’ survival. But it was the death of J28 and her calf that stirred people to action.
It was late summer when observers began noticing J28, a 23-year-old female known as Polaris. She had given birth to a male calf that spring, but as the summer wore on, it became clear something was wrong. One day in August was especially telling.
The scene unfolded in the waters directly off Lime Kiln Lighthouse, in Washington state’s San Juan Islands: Polaris’s 6-year-old daughter, J46, nicknamed Star, was swimming about actively in the roiling currents with her mother and her baby brother, who had been designated J54, but had not yet been named.
They were not, as is often the case at this lighthouse, merely frolicking in the nearby seas. They were pursuing the salmon that comprise most of these endangered killer whales’ diets, and there was a deadly serious intent to it.
A week or so before, researchers at the nearby Center for Whale Research had sounded an alarm of sorts about Polaris, who was in her reproductive prime, and by extension the dire lack of salmon for the Southern Resident killer whale population. Ken Balcomb, the center’s founder, had reported that another J Pod matriarch, J14 (Samish), was missing and presumed dead, and that several whales appeared to be struggling.
“Things are shaping up to be pretty bad,” said Balcomb. “J28 is looking super-gaunt, and I would say she is within days of her death.”
The “peanut head” condition that Balcomb had reported—a severe sunkenness in the flesh directly behind the orca’s skull, an indication of extreme malnutrition and often a harbinger of imminent death—was clearly visible in Polaris the day we observed her, about a week after the warning. However, the listlessness CWR had reported also was ameliorated somewhat: The orca mother appeared at times to be frolicking physically with her calf, and seemed to be fairly active, though at times she also was simply “logging,” laying still on the surface and drifting with the current.
The most striking aspect of the scene was Star’s activity. She swam constantly around her two companions, diving deep at length and doing percussive behaviors like tail-lobbing and pectoral-slapping, often pointing in her mother’s direction. At times, the three of them would go down into the deep currents and disappear for minutes at a time, evidently foraging. It appeared to my amateur eye that she was herding the salmon she could find toward her mother, helping her get the food she so desperately needed.
The scene also had a deep emotional resonance for me: Six summers before, when Star had just been a still-callow baby of eight months, I had encountered her with Polaris a little south of the lighthouse, along a cliff wall in my kayak. I had tucked into a cove, well out of their way, and began taking photos.
That too had been a deeply touching scene: The mother and little amber-toned calf had played in the still morning waters, nuzzling and wrestling about, reveling in the kind of contact that human parents and their bonded offspring know well, the joy of touching. Polaris also seemed to be feeding the calf, getting its first nascent tastes of fish as the mother dove and brought at least one healthy Chinook to the surface to show and share, as these orcas have been observed doing for years.
Six years later, the now-grown calf was doing her part, returning that love and care to her mother by helping her find and catch the salmon she clearly has not been getting. The familial bonds of killer whales are now a scientifically established fact, but they are profound things to observe, spine-chilling reminders of the deep connection that exists between humans and orcas, whom the Northwest Native Americans referred to as “the people under the sea.”
The afternoon feeding at the lighthouse was a bit of good news, at least—it appeared that Polaris was more active and feeding well. Orcas have occasionally recovered from “peanut head,” though rarely (in captivity, it has been a virtual death sentence). Still the worry remained, and was compounded by the reality that if Polaris died, it meant nearly certain death for her still-unweaned calf, too.
In some regards, the loss of J14 Samish—a 44-year-old female whose still-mysterious death can’t be attributed to malnutrition or a lack of salmon, since the last sightings of her just days before her disappearance showed her in robust apparent health—may prove even more devastating for the Puget Sound’s endangered orcas. Recent research has revealed that post-menopausal females play an essential role in orcas’ long-term survival, because they actively lead the pods in their foraging and represent long-term memory of prey-seeking routes. Without their immense brains leading the way, orcas have a harder finding the large of amounts of fish they need to eat daily to survive and thrive.
That year also saw the loss of a big, striking male once so large he was nicknamed “Doublestuff,” who died after being struck by some unknown vessel. There was also a mother who died after her developed fetus died and became necrotic. Another big male died after government scientists darted him, and the wound became infected.
The bad news regarding the two well-known orca females cast a pall over a multimillion-dollar whale-watching industry in the San Juans that had just endured the worst season (for seeing resident orcas, at least) in its history, and seemed to cast a cloud on the island’s whole community. As September drew to a close, it seemed everyone wanted to know how J28 was doing, as though the fate of the Southern Resident killer whale population seemed to hinge on the news. And in some respects it may have.
The orcas’ human advocates were not giving up, but the picture was becoming grim. “Right now, we don’t even have a sustaining population of Southern Residents,” said Deborah Giles. “We’ve gone backwards. There were 88 animals when they were listed in 2005. Now we are down to 82, and maybe fewer very soon.” As she said this, she looked out over the waters where we had all observed Polaris and her offspring a few days before, and a cloud crossed her face.
A month later, on Oct. 28, CWR scientists made it official at a press conference in Seattle: J-28 had disappeared and was now presumed dead. Her baby, J-54, they said, looked even more malnourished and was being supported in the water by his sister, J-46. They gave him only a few more days, if not hours, to live, and at the time of the announcement was also presumed dead.
“It’s a sad day,” said Ken Balcomb. “I’ve been to several funerals and that’s what this feels like.”
Something snapped. The agony of watching a mother orca slowly starve to death, followed by the spectacle of her unweaned baby’s path towards the same death, was like a final straw that kicked the region’s whale advocates into action.
Coordinating among several advocacy groups and the CWR, they organized a press conference at the Seattle waterfront focusing on the deaths of J28 and J54 as a tragic warning sign for the state of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population. Even the normally reclusive Balcomb was persuaded to participate, and he delivered the message in stark terms.
“We know what we need to do—feed them!” Balcomb told the assembled reporters, and urged government officials to take immediate steps to begin removing the four Lower Snake River dams.
“Restore Chinook habitat, anywhere, anyhow,” he said. “If we don’t, we will lose our whales.”
The surge of publicity created immediate political pressure on the state’s politicians, though it eased off over the following year or so, but local lobbying efforts in Olympia, led by the Pacific Whale Watch Association and other advocacy groups, stepped up their intensity during 2017, culminating in Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 2018 announcement that he was forming an Orca Recovery Task Force to tackle the problem.
In the meantime, the bad news for the Southern Residents reached a kind of apex when, shortly after New Year’s Day 2017, Balcomb and the CWR announced a momentous death in the population: J2, aka Granny, the J Pod’s grand matriarch who was estimated to be more than 100 years old.
There was only one further death in the population in 2017: J52 Sonic, a 2-year-old male who disappeared in September. But 2017 also saw a significant change in the Residents’ behavior: Their presence in the Salish Sea waters became extremely scarce.
It may have been one of the effects of Granny’s death; matriarchs are known to be the leaders of the pods, calling the shots on where they go and when, and the change in J Pod leadership clearly affected its foraging patterns. However, the far more likely culprit in the change was the disappearance of Fraser River salmon.
The Chinook produced by the Fraser—which flows out of British Columbia just south of Vancouver—have long been the primary reason the Southern Residents have come to the Salish Sea in the summertime: Scientists estimate that 80 percent of their summer diet comprises fish from the Canadian river. And in the summer of 2017, the numbers of Chinook returning to the system, measured at the Albion Point salmon station, simply flatlined.
Canadian officials remain puzzled at how the returns simply fell off the table that year, but the trend has remained similar through 2018 and much of 2019, as well. The return of the J Pod to the San Juans this past week coincided with a marginal rise in salmon return numbers on the Fraser.
So for most of the summers of 2018 and 2019, the Southern Residents have simply been absent from the Salish Sea.
“It still feels very surreal that we’ve just had our first June on record with no Southern Resident killer whales in inland waters,” wrote Monika Wieland, executive director of the Orca Behavior Institute and the author of Endangered Orcas: The Story of the Southern Residents, at her blog. “June used to be a highlight of the year because of the abundance of sightings of all three pods on the west side of San Juan Island. Yet here we are, 58 days without any of them in the Salish Sea. The silence created by their absence is deafening.”
The absence of the Residents, however, has not been the complete disaster one would expect both for land-based whale watchers and for the whale-watching operations based in the San Juans and Vancouver/Victoria area. That’s because the second population of orcas to use these waters—the mammal-eating population known as transients, or Bigg’s killer whales—have suddenly begun showing up in unusually large numbers.
The two populations—which geneticists have determined haven’t exchanged DNA in more than 300,000 years—are not friendly; when they have been observed in proximity to each other, the Residents have generally chased away the smaller pods of Bigg’s whales. So scientists have hypothesized that the Bigg’s whales may be taking advantage of the absence of the Residents to access the abundant numbers in the Salish Sea of their main prey: namely, seals and sea lions.
Additionally, humpback whales—which were absent from the Salish Sea after being hunted out near the turn of the 20th century—have begun returning as well, feeding on the large schools of herring and the semi-abundant krill that can be found here.
Certainly, passengers on the region’s whale-watching tours have had plenty to witness. On one tour I took this spring, we followed a pod of Bigg’s whales as they hunted a Dall’s porpoise at high speed, and then turned the waters around them blood-red when they finally caught and killed it. Even more common have been sightings of Bigg’s whales launching hapless harbor seals 50 feet into the air with their powerful flukes at the climax of a hunt.
“The transients are fascinating animals, and it’s been great to have them here,” says Jeff Friedman, owner of Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching and president of the PWWA. “They are amazing to watch, especially when they’re hunting.”
However, the tour operators aren’t content with the new reality. “The fact is that our number one priority is the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whale population,” Friedman says. “They are the reason we are here. Even with the transients around, the picture isn’t right without the Residents.”
Friedman, like the scientists and advocates, has been heavily engaged in the Orca Recovery Task Force process. Even though his focus has necessarily been directed to warding off the would-be moratorium on whale watching, he says his primary mission remains getting enough fish in the water to return the Resident population to health.
However, many of the solutions under consideration by the task force—habitat restoration, vessel effects, toxins in the water, and dam removal among them—are all long-term solutions that do relatively little to help the orcas now. Even if the Lower Snake dams were all to be taken down within the year (not at all likely), it would be as long as another decade (though perhaps sooner, depending on which salmon scientists you talk to) before the Snake/Salmon river systems would produce numbers of fish appreciable enough to help the killer whales.
The pressing issue facing scientists is how to get enough fish in the water to feed the orcas right now.
J35 Tahlequah, the mother whose mourning for her dead calf gripped the world last summer, thus sparking the wave of anger over the loss of the whales that finally drove the state’s politicians into action, was among the J Pod whales who returned to the San Juans last week. She looked plump and healthy, frequently playing with little J56, and tail-slapping and socializing.
“We have seen her foraging successfully a couple of times. She looked really healthy to me,” says Deborah Giles. “It made everyone happy.”
Both the condition and the behavior of J Pod made clear that they have, for now at least, figured out how to sustain themselves without enduring the paucity of salmon that has been their reality in the Salish Sea recently. “It’s so heartening to see these whales, and to see them together, see them playing, lifting each other up out of the water, breaches and tail slaps—it’s really amazing,” says Giles. “And it’s really, really good to see them looking as well as they do.
“But in the back of my head, I am thinking—where is K pod? Where is L pod? Are there more babies? Obviously K27 lost the baby she was pregnant with last September. She didn’t come back with a baby. K pod hasn’t had a new baby since 2011.”
While J Pod appears to have regained its health, there were nonetheless three deaths among the Southern Residents this year, including J17, a 42-year-old matriarch known as Princess Angeline. She was Tahleuqah’s mother, making J35 the matriarch of her clan at age 21.
So while Giles spends her time this month on the water collecting scat samples, she has been directing her political focus on getting more fish in the water sooner. For her, that means fisheries management.
The Northwest’s salmon harvest is carefully regulated by a treaty overseen by the Pacific Salmon Commission, an international body that includes both American and Canadian stakeholders such as commercial and sport fishermen, as well as Native American tribes. That body produces a treaty every 10 years—vigorously negotiated—in which the salmon harvest produced in Pacific waters is divvied up among those various interests.
The Southern Resident killer whales, however, do not have a place at that table. So their needs are left to whatever might be left over from the divided harvest.
“What we’ve all been screaming about is giving the whales a place as a major stakeholder in fisheries management,” says Giles. “We’re asking for an allocation of fish for the whales.”
The solution, as she sees it, is for much tighter regulation, if not an outright moratorium, on fishing for Chinook in the orcas’ home waters, which run the entire length of the Pacific Coast. “If not full on fisheries closures, we at least need to have targeted regulations for where and how we fish,” Giles says. “It’s past time we’re doing that. And a lot of that has to do with tribal rights, which is where it becomes very political.”
Recently undertaken studies aimed at identifying key orca-foraging “hotspots” in the San Juans could help provide the data needed to make such a plan a reality, Giles says. However, “the thing I am scared that if we don’t get a handle on these fisheries, there won’t be any salmon even in those hotspots.
The PSC itself has been resistant to these overtures, though its most recent news releases have indicated at least a sensitivity to the political pressure that has arisen around orca recovery.
“At the Pacific Salmon Commission, at that highest level, in the rhetoric around the most recent treaty, the dialogue was that ‘the needs of the Southern Residents would be taken into consideration,’ but if you look at the treaty itself, the words ‘whale,’ ‘killer whale,’ ‘orca whale’—none of that show up in the treaty itself,” Giles observes.
“So basically it’s just lip service. Those words ‘allocation’ and ‘Southern Resident’—they don’t want those to pass into reality. No way.”
However, an adjunct body of the Pacific Salmon Treaty, the Pacific Management Fishery Council, has proven more amenable to whale advocates’ overtures. It is holding public hearings of an ad hoc group in key cities around the Pacific Northwest, examining the impacts of mixed open fishing on Southern Resident killer whales.
“It is a start, and the more people that get involved in those hearings, and make comments leading up to the meetings” the better, Giles says, noting that the deadline for such comments is Tuesday.
Overall, Giles is mostly heartened by how the public has responded to the killer whales’ plight, and how the effort has drawn help from a variety of quarters. “There are a lot of people working in a lot of different arenas to help these whales in different capacities—like the Toxic-Free Future people, who are doing a lot of important work to remove toxins from our system, and to try to push legislation that reduces the use of chemicals as much as possible. I think that’s good, I think we need to keep pushing each other in our own areas of expertise. “
“And we need to be engaging with our political appointees, the people that we elect, and pushing them into continuing to address the issues and continuing to cut to solutions,” she adds.
At times, particularly back in 2016, Giles would confess that she feared she was doomed simply to document the demise of a once-great population of killer whales. These days, she is more hopeful—not to mention determined.
“We may well be witnesses to the complete loss of the Southern Residents,” she says. “But we know what can be done. It may get depressing at times, but none of us will ever stop fighting for them.”
The decision to euthanize a young humpback whale that washed ashore alive in Waldport this week was one agencies rarely have to make, but scientists say it was the right call.
The beached, 20-foot juvenile was reported early Wednesday morning north of the Alsea River and euthanized by injection on Thursday after rescue attempts failed.
Volunteers with the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network coordinated round-the-clock efforts to care for the whale. But after multiple high tides and several unsuccessful attempts to swim past the surf, the whale remained stranded.
A decision had to be made.
“They’re hard choices,” said Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University. “I feel this one was appropriate.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ultimately made the call to euthanize the whale, but in consultation with people on the ground and other experts. They took a number of factors into consideration, including the animal’s age.
It is early in the season for a humpback that young to be fully weaned from its mother’s milk, Mate noted.
The mother may have died or been injured. Or, Mate theorized, food may have been so scarce the mother decided to wean it early. Either way, once the young whale was on the beach, the chance of reuniting it with its mother was unlikely.
“However it got separated from its mother, its chances of survival were remote even without this stranding event,” Mate said. “It was just way too young and small to make it on its own.”
On the beach, it was only suffering, he said.
Deep water supports large whales’ enormous weight. Stranded on land without that support, gravity begins to tear them apart, said Kristin Wilkinson, the Washington state and Oregon stranding coordinator for NOAA’s West Coast Regional Office.
Organs and circulatory systems can begin to collapse. Prolonged exposure can lead to blistered skin and hyperthermia.
Attempts to tow a whale back into water can injure or dislocate the tail or even paralyze the animal. Dredging around a whale to create a channel to deeper water can cause other environmental disruptions.
In 1979, Mate was on the scene after 41 sperm whales stranded on the beach in Florence. At the time, they were not allowed to euthanize the animals.
“If we could have, I would have,” Mate said. “There was no question. They stranded at the highest tide. They were never going to get back in the water and their death was a long and anguished one.”
It took upward of three days for most of the whales to die.
Mate and other researchers were poised to collect samples 20 minutes after each whale died to try to determine why the animals stranded in the first place.
But when they sent these freshly collected samples off for analysis, they were told, “These are tissue samples from an animal that’s been dead for three days.”
For the whales, everything had started to break down well before they finally died.
Since 2015, at least four large whales stranded alive onshore in the Pacific Northwest were able to free themselves, but all of them beached again and died, according to information compiled by NOAA in 2018. Last year, a large gray whale beached near Olympic National Park was able to refloat after several attempts.
Nationwide, an average of eight large whales have stranded alive in recent years. Most die within 24 hours of being stranded, even if they return to deeper water. Only about two a year are ever euthanized.
Each case is different. “It really just depends on the location, the animal’s overall condition, what resources are available, what trained staff are available. … It’s not a formula,” Wilkinson said.
Reports of marine mammal strandings in general are slightly lower in Oregon than in California or Washington state. Between 2007 and 2016, Oregon had a reported 3,776 strandings of dead and alive animals, most of them sea lions and seals. Whales accounted for only 1% of the stranded animals.
“Most of the time when we get a whale washed up, it’s either dead or almost dead,” said Chris Havel, associate director for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. “Getting a young animal that was relatively healthy … that’s an unusual experience for us.”
“It’s a hard thing to witness,” he said.
The young humpback in Waldport had tried to swim past a sandbar into deep water during high tides on Wednesday and Thursday, but every time it oriented itself toward the ocean, it would get pushed back, according to Brittany Blades, the curator of mammals at Oregon Coast Aquarium, who stayed overnight to monitor the whale.
“As the night went on, the whale stranded further on shore due to the strong waves and extremely high tide,” Blades said in a statement.
The group gathered around the whale considered trying to move the whale closer to the water, but decided the plan wasn’t feasible. Given the amount of time the whale had already spent stranded on land, Blades said it was likely the internal organs had already “suffered irreparable damage that is not externally apparent.”
A Washington state veterinarian administered a series of injections to humanely euthanize the whale. The method NOAA follows involves first sedating the animal so it is fully asleep with needles that cause about as much pain as a vaccine shot.
Then, a veterinarian delivers potassium chloride to stop the heart.
Sometimes the whale reacts in these final moments, briefly raising its flippers or tail, a movement referred to as “the last swim.”
“This may be difficult to witness, but if euthanasia is being administered, qualified veterinarians have determined it is the most humane option for the whale,” Wilkinson notes in a fact sheet she compiled about large live whale strandings.
Scientists and researchers will perform a necropsy on the Waldport whale and collect samples. The whale will be buried on the beach near the site of the final stranding.
“There were no requests for this information at the time the report was finalized. There had been significant media coverage at the time, reporting the cause of death was blunt force trauma, consistent with a ship or boat strike. The final report came to the same conclusion, ” said DFO’s Dan Bate.
Shari Tarantino of Orca Conservancy, a Washington state non-profit, said there is a lack of transparency around the DFO’s reporting on J34.
According to Tarantino, her group and Washington state orca researcher Scott Veirs had been asking DFO for the final J34 necropsy report for months. Tarantino received a copy of the report late last week, but only after petitioning the office of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson directly.
“It should not have taken two and a half years to release a report,” said Tarantino.
“There’s nothing new in this report. It’s basically what we had already been told. But it’s hard not to wonder if it was withheld because Kinder Morgan or because of Roberts Bank Terminal 2 (the proposed container terminal in Delta, B.C.) was waiting on comments.”
Fisheries and Oceans Canada media advisor Lara Sloan said the delays in sending the report were due to administrative problems and miscommunication within DFO.
‘They get stuff wrapped around them, it’s like one of us in a straitjacket’
CBC News ·
Flower called for help and reached the Marine Animal Response Society, which in turn contacted the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
“They were going to see if they could scramble a boat or some people to come out and help this thing out,” he said.
But Flower was worried there was only a few hours of daylight left and he didn’t think help would arrive before dusk.
He said the waters were calm so he brought the boat alongside the whale, which he estimates was about nine metres long.
Flower and his first mate, Kevin Dares, scoured the boat for something to hook onto the buoy. They ended up fastening a line to the boat’s bow and tossed a mooring hook into the water to try to snag the clump attached to the whale. On the 10th try, it worked.
“The whale was swimming ahead at a couple of knots. It was calm, but you’re always get moving around a little bit the boat and just try to get the throw perfect, you know. And then Kevin nailed it. It was fish on,” Flower said.
“We kind of pulled its head around, it turned towards us on the surface, and then I gave a little more throttle back. And then we started pulling it, dragging it a little bit and the line just came out of its mouth, and a whole big clump of stuff came out to a lot of cheers from our passengers in the boat. It was a happy ending.”
The rescue was all over in about 20 minutes. The passengers helped pull the fishing gear onto the boat.
Flower said the humpback swam off much happier once it was freed.
“It just kind of made a little splash kick with his tail and just headed due south,” he said.
The death of two whales caused by entanglement in octopus traps in recent weeks has caused an uproar among marine conservationists and local residents. A petition doing the rounds, to suspend exploratory fishing for octopus ,has gathered thousands of signatures.
On Friday, Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy announced the decision to temporarily suspend exploratory fishing for octopus with immediate effect.
Creecy’s decision comes after talks with operators in the False Bay Area.
“Our decision is taken following widespread public concern regarding recent whale entanglements in the False Bay area which has resulted in the untimely and cruel death of these magnificent creatures.”
The statement Creecy released explains how the traps came into existence.
“In 2014, the Department established an octopus exploratory fishery that is operating in Saldanha, False Bay and Mossel Bay. This programme aims to gain scientific knowledge regarding octopus harvesting, with a view to enhancing job creation and economic development in coastal areas. Meaningful data has been collected between 2014 and 2018, and will continue until 2021 in order to ensure a solid statistical time series of catch and effort data.
“Once enough data has been collected, it will be analysed and subjected to proper scientific scrutiny and review, after which a recommendation will be made regarding the viability of establishing a new commercial fishery. Such a recommendation will also consider mitigating measures in the operations of octopus fishery,” read the statement.
Throughout the process, the Department has been leading with permit holders to ensure whales do not get caught in the nets.
After today’s meeting, operators will start the process of removing the gear from False Bay, focusing on the areas where the whales were harmed first.