Monthly Archives: March 2009

Habitat use

Gregg Schorr for Brad, dive behavior

  • Is dive depth related to prey preference?
  • Do dive rates vary between pods, day/night, years?
  • Is frequency of max dive depth constant over time?

Prey field mapping in Sept, 2004 (after sockeye, during fall Chinook run): big targets are near middle of water column (>100m); prey assemblages different in Haro Strait?

Wild Salmon Center identified rivers with multiple runs and little development that could be wild salmon “strongholds” or refuges during an age of global warming.

40 deployments 93-2000, 419 hours data, median duration of deployment 10.5hrs.  Velocity spikes are often associated with deepest portion of dive (and some shallow dives).

What are accelerations in shallow dives?  (Tried critter cam)

All individuals old/young and across pods have similar dive profiles and all swam slower at night, but males dive deeper than female adults (but only during day).  There is also an inexplicable change in depth of dives over the years.

Focal follows show they don’t go to the bottom (e.g. 150m dive in 300m water).  This summer we’ll use new tags with a hydrophone and body orientation sensors.  Also planned are satellite tagging efforts.

Rich Osborne, long-term patterns in SRKW residency

43,000 sightings in the OrcaMaster database 1980-2008 (biased towards summer initially, but in last 2 decades it’s become more balanced).  Puget Sound is Admiralty Inlet and Deception Pass south.

After L pod members spent ~a month in Dyes Inlet, they extended their stay in inland waters ever since.  They didn’t often do that before.  This suggests they can adapt to different prey (e.g. Chilco Creek Chum) when stressed (there was only chum to eat in Dye’s Inlet).

NW Straits and Puget Sound seem to be getting more attention in last decade compared with previous 2 decades.  We should be spending all PS salmon restoration  money for those wild rivers.

SRKW health

Pete for Steve Rafferty, epidemiological and pathologic findings

Only 10/81 confirmed SR deaths and 4/142 of NR were beach cast and available for post-mortem examination.  Infectious pneumonia is most common reported cause of mortality (60% of those necropsied).  We now have a standardized protocol for doing necropsies (available at  Since 2002, Steve and Joe Gaydos have been trying to determine if bacterial infection was the primary cause of death.

Pete Schroeder, microbial assessment of orca breath and marine microlayer

Used 4 petri dishes swept through blow of adult males.  Each dish has a different medium.  Sampled in 06-08, mostly in late summer/fall.

Partial results:

  • L74: Salmonella heidelberg (resistant to 2 antibiotics)
  • J1: Vibrio alginolyticus (resistant to 1 antibiotic)
  • L41: Pseudomonas fluorescens (resistant to 4 antibiotics)
  • >50 bacteria and fungi in local microlayer, similar to biodiversity in Hawaiian waters

Q: Has there been any attempt to correlate the bacteria in the microlayer you sample with local sources of contamination?  Sewer water is a likely source of antibiotics and endocrine disruptors.

Kathrine Ayres, physiological monitoring of SRKW

Looked at two compounds and two sources of change:

  • Glucocorticoids (GC, stress hormone) and thyroid (T3, nutrition)
  • Nutritional deficit (lowers GC, raises T3), stress from boat interactions (raises GC, doesn’t affect T3)

Prey levels (DFO test catch fishery, Chinook CPUE) and boat density time series increase in May, peak mid-summer, and tail off in the fall.  Samples taken with pool net or 2-liter bottle examined per gram of dry weight.


  • GC falling from May, lowest in July/August, rising towards winter (supports Prey+Boats hypothesis — whales experience times of nutritional stress and disturbance by boats.
  • T3 levels in 2008 significantly lower than in 2007 (bad salmon year in 2008)

John Durban, Size and body condition of SRKWs

Southern residents are food limited and culturally specialized to Chinook prey.  Used laser pointers for morphometrics (of commonly visible body parts).  Pitmann, 2007 used size of type C killer whales in Antarctica.  10 filights in September 2008 (elevation >750′ according to permit), 12,000 photos, differential GPS gave accuracy of 2-3m (altitude).  Measured length, girth, and head width, calibrated with boat photos.

We were able to estimate boat lengths well.  We can see growth curves and hope to be able to resolve changes in growth rate.  We can use the head width to estimate body condition.  Dependent young tend to have fattest head, and their mothers are often the thinnest.

Contaminants in SRKWs

Sandra O’Neill, Contaminants in salmon

We’ve heard that S and N residents are both eating mostly Chinook.  Why are the southern residents more contaminated than the northern residents?

Contaminants in fish are determined by:

  • where they live
  • what they eat
  • how long they are exposed
  • how fat they are

Chinook and Coho have elevated [PBDE] because they stay close to shore, while other salmon have undetectable levels.  For PCBs are more widely dispersed and present in all salmon, but are highest in Chinook.  Puget Sound fish are always much more contaminated than northern fish.

Along the west coast, [PCB] peaks at Puget Sound and are about the same at Skeena (north extreme) and Sacramento (south exptreme).  Within Puget Sound, the resident Chinook (blackmouth) are ~3x as contaminated as non-resident Chinook.

Prey quality is also decreasing along W coast.  Size is decreasing and kcal/fish is variable.  PS fish are smaller and have lower lipid concentration.  This means Puget Sound non/resident Chinook will give you ~7/16X PCBs compared to Skeena Chinook!

Peggy Krahn, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) threats to SRKWs

Fisheries and Oceans Canada collected 3 biopsy samples in 2004; NWFSC collected 18 samples in 2006-7.

Most SRKWs have [PCB] exceeding threshold for health effects.  Juveniles have much higher concentrations of many POPs (PBDEs, HCGs, and HCB) than adults in their pods.   This happened mostly by transfer from their mothers during lactation.  The levels are above the estimated threshhold for health effects.

The prevalence of DDT use in CA raises the ratio of DDTs/PCBs above 1.  K and L pods have this California signature while J pod doesn’t, which is nicely explained by the observation that J pod haven’t been observed south of Newport, OR.

Teresa Mongillo, predicted contaminant levels in SRKWs

Developed an IB Model which assumes that the Amount of prey consumed = PCB, PBDE in prey + milk – gestation -lactation

Currently there is no change in the [PCB] while [PBDE] is increasing exponentially.  Projections were made for different scenarios (variable rates of increase).   The model predicts that PCBs will begin to decline after 20+ years; PBDE levels will exceed current PCB levels in 2-40 years.

PCBs increase with age in males, but decreases with offspring in females.  In contrast, PBDEs don’t seem to increase but they cluster into groups that are living vs dead… this suggests a potential dose-related effect on calf survival. PCBs decrease with birth order (the first-born gets the biggest load).


Rich Osborne: Are heavy metals in such low concentration that they are not of concern?  Peggy: Epidermis samples are reserved for stable isotopes and genetics, so there is a sample size limitation.  Sandra: Hg levels are slightly higher in Chinook and Coho.

Jeff Lorton:  Should we tell our passengers not to eat Chinook?  Should we catch/release Chinook across whole region?

Ken Balcomb: Has anyone initiated a study of POPs in local humans, e.g. sports and commercial fishers?  There is good analogous study from the Great Lakes.

Prey relationship talks

8:35 John Ford, resident KW foraging ecology

What may have caused the simultaneous declines in the N and S residents during the late 1990s?  Nutritional stress?

We compared expected and observed births and deaths, where expectations were based on period of unlimited growth (’73-’90).  There were two phases of increased mortality in adult/juvenile fe/males: late 90s for N and S, mid-80s for southern and A pods.

Sockeye outnumber Chinook by 1000x in areas where residents forage during the summer.  Yet Sockeye make up less than 1% of diet during sampling period (May-Oct).  Only adult males don’t bring prey (of all species) to the surface for sharing.  This indicates that our surface prey fragment sampling technique isn’t biased.  Additionally, sockeye swim shallow and Chinook deep, but we’ve only sampled 3 sockeye predation events.

Sub-adults show some preference for smaller fish like Pink and Chum that make up about about 20% of their diet.  Recent winter sampling show continued chinook preference: 2 samples in Jan from N residents; 2 from J pod near Nanaimo Chinook.  They didn’t see enhanced mortality in weaners (expected in mammals under nutritional stress), perhaps because of prey sharing. Mortality lags chinook abundance by 1 year.

The Chinook abundance index is a bit below average currently, so we expect high mortalities next year.  A research priority is to identify important Chinook stocks for whales (Brian Gisborn, Brad Hanson).  How many are hatchery fish?

9:01 Jennifer (for Brad), species and stock ID for southern residents

Goals were to supplement Ford’s prey samples (beyond J pod), to collect fecal/regurgitation samples (to avoid potential bias in surface fragment sampling), and to define foraging surface behavior.  We now have ~150 fecal samples and 250 foraging samples that have been analyzed genetically.

Feces were screened for rockfish, sole, starry flounder, pacific halibut,  Irish lords, herring, sculpin, sable fish, greenling, lingcod, cabezon, and squid.  Thus far, we have detected (rarely) rockfish, sole, Pacific halibut, and lingcod.

Prey sampling results — Steelhead may be imporant in May.  Chinook dominate from May-September.

Fecal sampling results — Chinook dominate in May-September, but Chum is also important in September.

Breakdown of Chinook stocks is based on GAPS database which gives genetic profile for each river from 20k sampled fish.  They appear to be eating Chinook in rough proportion to what is available (most dense by number? biomass?).

Future work is focused on bioenergetics (how many fish do they consume and do they impact the stocks?) and availability (Is background noise impeding foraging efficiency?).  We need samples in Sept-Dec and May!

Eric Ward, risk analysis

Developed a fecundity model which was age specific (the rate of maturity is much faster than rate reproductive senesence).  Extrinsic factors were prey, contaminants, anthropogenic events (oil spills).  Can’t assess oil spill risks and disease risks (due to lack of data), nor do extant data help us characterize the variability of fecundity between sub-populations (e.g. pods) and indivduals.

Used Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) indices (terminal run) from to characterize prey.  Also look at Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC) relative index.  Ballard locks was used to get a U.S. sockeye time series to compare with the big (25 million) Fraser sockeye runs.  Used ENSO and PDO time series to characterize climatic variability.

Is the SR production different from NR?  It looks similar (~90+% of NR production rate).  High probability of prey (Chinook) correlates highly w/fecundity.  Late run Fraser and Oregon coastal stocks are driving the correlation of the prey variable.

Vessel interactions/noise talks

14:55 Val Veirs giving Marla’s talk on “Vocal Compensation in SRKWs”

  • Background noise levels had mean of 110.1 DB +/- 4.1; range 98-123dB
  • Call source level: mean of 55.3dB +/-7.4 dB
  • Lombard effect in SRKWs is present; ~1dB increase in S1 call source level for every 1dB increase in ambient noise level
  • ambient noise increases with rising number of vessels <1km away
  • There may be a threshold effect, where call source level doesn’t increase until ambient noise reaches ~105dB

15:20 Giles

  • Began studying orcas at age 18, 21 years ago; 2005 Soundwatch intern; worked in land surveying for 11 years; now working on PhD at UC Davis
  • Goals: map vessels and environmental data (bathy) during focal follow observing group cohesion and activity state
  • Equipment: GPS acts as data logger; 1.5-4 power Hakko scope; rangefiner +/-1m at 200om; eye-safe lasers
  • Emulating Rob Williams study of northern residents
  • What portion of observed boats are staying outside of the 1/4nm no-go voluntary zone?  ~50% of private boats, >90% of whale watch vessels.

15:40 Giles talking for Dawn Noren

  • From 2003-2006, we used two Palm Pilots to collect behavioral data during focal follows.  GPS locations and vessel counts <1km also taken.
  • Prelim results for relationship between vessel numbers and diving parameters and swim speeds: some behavioral parameters (like dive duration or surface duration) show breakpoints, vessel counts at which the relationship changes
  • In some cases, the breakpoint changes or the relationships disappear between years.  Why?
  • Relationships between surface active behaviors (SABs) and point of closest approach (POCA) of vessels (2005-6 data): tail slaps represented 2/3 of all SABs.

Outreach and monitoring of SRKWs

13:50 Kari Koski, Soundwatch program

  • Soundwatch tries to reach boaters before they get on the water
  • We reinforce that education through education and monitoring patrols
  • Citizen science is done from the same boat (1/2 hour survey for vessel trends)
  • 40 volunteers put in a lot of hours, operating 10 hour days, from May 1 through September
  • The No Go zone began in 1996 at Lime Kiln, and was expanded in 1998 to include 1/4nm stand-off along west side
  • Results: majority of boats are whale watchers, boat density peaks in july/aug and holidays, and along the west side
  • High variance: daily boat count max (up to 81) is sometimes 2-3x long-term average boat count.
  • Who’s parking in front? 60% private, 30% Canadian operators, 13% U.S. operators
  • Who’s going >7knots? >75% private boats, ~15% Canadian

14:10 Nic Dedeluk, Straitwatch program of Cetus Research and Conservation Society

  • Replaced M3 in 2007 we brought program down to Victoria from Johnstone Strait
  • Land-based program will be full time in 2009, while boat will be on the water only intermittently
  • Straitwatch monitoring consists of vessel counts (<1km from focal group of whales, with range measured with range-finder in past and radar in 2009), incident scans, serious incident monitoring

Ken Balcomb: SRKW demographic update

First there was Mike Bigg.  Early census effort started in 1976 and was motivated by concern about the captures for aquariums which took out about 50 animals.  1976-1984 habitat use was very similar to current critical habitat!  Most encounters May-October, with J pod present year-round.

Ken and Mike worried about how to ID babies.  They discovered that eye patches were unique.  J44 has a nice Moby Dick patch and has been seen with J 17 (possible mother).   J45 was first seen by Jeanne.

The population was about 70 when they started and got up to close to 100 before declining in the 1990s.  Ken took news of the decline to the Hawaii meeting with the “God Squad.”

In 2006, the matrilines had about 24 reproductive-aged females.  Looking forward 5-10 years, there is potential for about 19 babies, but about 40% will die as neonates.  So there is potential for growth, but you have to feed them and there is the question of rising concentrations of PCBs and PBDEs, etc.

L60 died at Long Beach, WA in April, 2002, at age 30.  Her ovaries (corpus albicans) indicated she had been pregnant about 7 times, though she had only two surviving offspring.  Was she too starved to support those babies, or were contaminants the culprit?

Both L and K pod have been sighted as far south as Monterrey during the winter.  J pod has been seen as far south as Newport, Oregon.  John Ford detected J pod at N end of Queen Charlottes and Spong has reported southern residents returning through Johnstone Strait.

Ford et al, 2005 showed that decline in both N and S residents was correlated with W Coast Chinook stocks.  Every day from May to October, there were 70 seiners working the west side of San Juan Island.  595,000 Chinook were caught each year back then and that’s about what we need to feed the southern residents.

We need to recover Chinook stocks in the Pacific Northwest if we want to keep southern residents!

Killer whale regulation enforcement panel

Alan Wolf, NOAA; Larry Palke, Fisheries and Oceans, Canada; Stefan Beckman, Fisheries and Oceans, Canada; Russ Mullins, WDFW

There is not currently any permitting process, but one is under consideration in Canada…

Russ: on our 30+ patrols per summer, most infractions are by private recreational boaters. In 2008, there were two commercial infractions and ~50 warnings. We’ll be emphasizing education of recreational vessels in 2009 and taking more aggressive approach over next couple years.  In WA, there is a whale watching leaflet and info in boater ed documents (i.e. Marine Area 7 sport fishing regulations) now, plus some questions on the exam relate to orca watching.

Larry: In Canada in 2008, only one crab boat was cited; we warned ~50 recreational boaters and emphasized is on education.  This summer we’ll be focusing more on recreational vessels.  We attend boat shows and hand out be whale wise guidelines.  As of Sept 15, 2009, there will be a new requirement for boaters to have a card that documents some boater education.

Alan:5 undercover agents were sent out in 2008 on commercial vessels; no complaints arose (except regarding recreational boaters)

Stefan: Relationship is good between enforcement and operators; violations of regulations are declining.


  • Canada, Federal penalty is $100k (repeat offenses get up to $500k and 2yrs in jail); looking at “careless operation of a vessel” angle in 2009
  • NOAA, Civil (max $25k and criminal statues (max $100k, seizure of vessel))


  • location is important
  • description of operator/vessel
  • photo and video documentation

U.S.+Canada recovery process, U.S. whale watching industry

10:00 Lynne Barre, NWFSC

  • Critical habitat can be modified.  A future step is designating habitat outside of the inland waters of WA.
  • Recovery plan implementation was started in 2003, well before the endangered listing in 2005.
  • Proposed regulations are under review… no date given for when rule-making will occur.
  • Consultations regarding potential impacts result in letters of concurrence or biological opinions; records are kept in public on their website…
  • Prevention of oil spills is a high priority (WDFW is adding the Oct 2007 workshop‘s hazing plan as appendix to the Northwest response plan)

10:30 Paul Cottrell, DFO (taking over for Marilyn Joyce as of last October, was originally a marine mammal biologist)

  • Canadian recovery strategy encompasses both northern and southern residents; transients (300-400 in population, rising with growing pinniped population) are listed as threatened and a recovery strategy is forthcoming; offshores are currently listed as species of concern, but are under review for upgrading to threatened.
  • Southern residents were originally listed under COSEWIC (coh-see-wick); Recovery strategy was published on the SARA Registry in March , 2008
  • Considering general regulations in addition to 100m approach limits; SARA has specific prohibitions
  • Marine Mammal Response Network (headed by Lisa Stavings) is doing a series of workshops and has monitoring handouts for volunteers
  • There is a potential mechanism for licensing (schedule 6), however it is not an option in the regulations that are being amended.  If industry continues to grow, a licensing schedule could be implemented through a public review process.

Suzanne Russell, NMFS/NWFSC, “People of the U.S. Whale Watching Industry”

  • Goal is to collect baseline data on the socio-cultural nature of the industry
  • Started with a voluntary survey in June-November, 2006 (112 returns, 64% response rate); supplemented with interviews and field observations
  • Analyzed overall, and broken down by sector (motorized vessel, kayak, land); further broken down by motorized vessel type (Tiers based on USCG regs — >65′ inspected, <65′ inspected multiple vessels, <65′ inspected single vessel, etc), as well as geographically (mainland vs island), and in some cases non/owner.
  • Results (details coming in a forthcoming report)
  1. Demographics: majority in industry are >45y and have some college education; biggest boats are all based on mainland; owners have typically been in industry the longest are predominanty in kayak, island groups, while land-based portion of industry is relatively new.
  2. Big boats operate out of mainland and operate more tours overall; more multiple daily trips are made out of Islands.
  3. Boats have become bigger and faster over the years; companies have expanded to other wildlife (beyond orcas).
  4. Effects on the local community: many responses emphasized educational effect (e.g. taking school groups out)

NOAA finds SRKWs offshore on day 4!

Just got an exciting email from Dr. Marla Holt, bioacoustician on the NOAA cruise that aims to understand how the southern residents utilize the outer coast of Washington. They departed last Monday and are scheduled to return April 9th, making for a significantly longer cruise than in past years.

Since big ocean-going research boats like the McArthur II cost on the order of $20k/day, it’s GREAT news that they have not only encountered L pod, but also obtained some information about what the orcas are eating. It will be fascinating to learn which fish they are consuming on the outer coast at this time of year…

NOAA R/V McArthur II

Marla writes:

Things are going really well.  We found L pod on the 4th day at sea!!! The NOAA ship McArthur II detected all of L pod just north of Grays Harbor, WA in the middle of the night last night (~0330 March 26). We lost them acoustically but then found them visually and acoustically in the mid morning and were able to deploy the small boat (RHIB).  The whales were spread out and traveling south most of the day.  Brad and the rest of the crew got photo IDs and some prey samples, stayed with them day until 1830.  Last visual sighting was at dusk when they grouped back up and became quiet. Hopefully we will stick with them through the night to get more samples tomorrow (3/27).

Congrats to Brad, Marla, and the rest of salty surveillance team!