Monthly Archives: November 2009

Salmon court fallacy: we must spill or spew

There are some great observations and quotes in the liveblog of Matthey Preusch during the Nov 23, 2009, Salmon Court. This first one suggests a slight of hand or an ignorance of the primary findings of the Bright Future report
— that we do not necessarily have to choose between spilling water for salmon in the summer months and spewing carbon dioxide from more fossil-fueled power plants.

Now the judge is questioning the government of [on] the substance of the supplemental plan, such as why the government won’t continue to spill extra water over power-producing dams even though court-ordered spill has been shown to help fish.

The spills “look like they worked,” said Redden. “Why change them?”

“Your honor, that comes with a cost,” answered Howell, attorney for the government. “And I’m not talking about financial cost. I’m talking about carbon. The more we spill, the more we are going to have to offset that with natural gas and coal.”

The bright future scenario includes replacement of the dam’s 1 GW mean annual power supply with salmon-and-orca-friendly clean energy, NOT new or re-powered of coal and gas power plants. This is perhaps the most damning indication that the government is not thinking clearly about the fundamental “change we need” (and the southern residents and salmon need) here in the Pacific Northwest.

Personally, I believe with compelling public education about what values are really at stake, we can exceed the assumptions about potential conservation. As usual, no one wants to talk about the projected growth of energy demand (1.7%/yr) and its connections to population/economic growth and consumer/conservation ethics.

Also very noteworthy was Lubchenko’s statement that she stands “100% behind the science” in the Biop. As a marine scientist, I am eager to see just what she is behind. Thankfully, we may ultimately get the chance if we are to believe the statement by Howell, lead attorney for the government, who:

offered in an exchange with Judge Redden earlier this morning to make public documents from the administration’s review of the science behind the Bush-era salmon plan.

That’s something the government’s critics have been asking for for some time.

“We will release those documents,” Howell said.

Bob Pitman talk on Antarctic orcas Nov. 18, 2009

Notes from a talk by Bob Pitman on Antarctic orcas, Nov. 18, 2009 – hosted by ACS Puget Sound

The classroom at the Phinney Neighborhood Center in Seattle was filled wall to wall with people eager to hear about the four (3 for sure, 1 probable) types of orcas he’s found that stalk and forage in and around the ice floes and pack ice (there’s a difference) in Antarctica. I don’t think anyone was disappointed. The entire hour-long presentation was non-stop with amazing stories and discoveries, vivid observations and some incredible images of divergent cultures of orcas at work and play.

It was like watching a lecture by a 19th century anthropologist just back from a scientific expedition deep in the Amazon jungle, enthralling the audience with incredible tales of outlandish natives and their curious customs. That’s how exotic these A, B, C and, possibly, D orca types are, and how startling are the discoveries over the past several years by Pitman, his colleague John Durban and their team in the bright, cold Antarctic summer.

Caveat: These notes are by no means comprehensive, and I invite anyone else who was there or has anything to add, to do so.

Beginning in 2000 Pitman has conducted field studies on Antarctic orcas, and has consistently proposed multiple species, or at least “ecotypes” occuring sympatrically (found in the same habitat). Some of his published works include:

LeDuc, Richard G., Kelly M. Robertson, and Robert L. Pitman (2008). Mitochondrial sequence divergence among Antarctic killer whale ecotypes is consistent with multiple species Biol. Lett. (2008) 4, 426–429.

Pitman, Robert L., Wayne L. Perryman, Don Leroi, and Erik Eilers (2007) A dwarf form of killer whale in Antarctica Journal of Mammalogy, 88(1):43–48

Pitman, Robert L. Good whale hunting: two tantalizing Russian reports take the author on a quest to the Antarctic, in search of two previously unrecognized kinds of killer whale Natural History, December 2003.

To set the stage for this travelogue to Antarctica, Pitman first described the different ecotypes (orcatypes?) documented in the Pacific NW to establish his frame of reference, because our familiar residents, transients and offshores were the first to be researched in the mid-1970s and remain the best known orcas in the world. He said mammal-eating transients are probably a different species than fish-eating residents and that we should look for a paper he will co-author to describe the transient species soon. He also tantalizingly mentioned that there may be up to five species of orcas worldwide.

In Mitochondrial sequence divergence among Antarctic killer whale ecotypes is consistent with multiple species, Pitman writes:
“Type A has the typical black and white coloration; it inhabits ice-free waters and appears to prey mainly on cetaceans, particularly Antarctic minke whales. Type B is grey, black and white, with a larger eyepatch and a distinct dorsal cape; it forages in pack ice and feeds on pinnipeds. Type C is similar to type B in appearance but with a narrow, oblique eyepatch; it is most frequently encountered in dense pack ice where it specializes on fishes.”

That dorsal cape on Types B and C would be the envy of any hot rod pin-striper, sweeping along the upper torso starting in front of the blowhole and arcing into the saddle patch (see Uko Gorter’s detailed illustrations in the same paper). Besides this striking coloration in Types B and C, the body size differences are substantial: Type C males average only 18.3 feet, with the largest male at 20 feet. Type A males average nearly 24 feet, and the largest was 29.5 feet, 50% larger than Type C. Type B is smaller than Type A but larger than Type C.

But it’s the degree of dietary specialization by each type that is most astounding. Type C, for instance, feeds almost exclusively on toothfish, which can exceed 440 pounds, and reach a length up to 7.5 feet, though most are less than half that size. Unfortunately legal and illegal fisheries target toothfish, reducing their numbers each year, and according to The Antarctica Project, “It is common practice in the illegal fishery to dynamite Sperm and Killer whales when they are discovered in the area where the fishing takes place.”

The incredible forethought and teamwork shown by Type B as they take down Weddell seals was the subject of most of the presentation. They feast almost exclusively on Weddell seals, while completely ignoring leopard seals and crabeater seals, both very abundant in the same waters.
Pitman recounted some amazing stories of careful planning and execution as Type B orcas captured, drowned and devoured the seals. Numerous photos and descriptions showed Type B orcas seeking Weddell seals by spyhopping repeatedly en masse around the ice, then rushing at the floes abreast to toss a wave over the flat ice, either washing the seal off the ice or breaking up the ice until not enough is left to keep the seal safe from the orcas’ toothy grasp. The middle of the wave often peaked in a frothy breaker aimed directly at the seal. On several occasions crabeater seals were washed off ice floes, then left alone when the mistaken identity was realized. In at least one instance, the whales neatly skinned a seal with incisions along the neck and midsection, then the skin was pulled off the carcass by at least two orcas. Pitman also documented Type B orcas taking an elephant seal and a minke, but never a leopard seal or crabeater seal.

The audience was then treated to lengthy discussion and photos of yet another type, even more bizarre than the others, which Pitman calls “Type D,” which have large bodies, tiny, slanted eyepatches and bulbous heads, and are the least documented. Pitman was tentative about naming them as another type, but he has amassed a collection of photos and field reports about them in just the past few years. Satellite tags have recorded Type D traveling 150 nautical miles per day for ten days. It’s usually said that orcas can travel up to 100 miles a day, but apparently that will now have to be revised upward. In the Q&A, Pitman clarified that no fighting was seen among any of the orca types; and that they always share food.

Last season and this season’s fieldwork is conducted partly in cooperation with a BBC crew filming a special to be called: “Frozen Planet” which will effectively announce these incredible orca types to the wider public. I know I’ll be watching for it.

I went away curious about the taxonomic thicket that might ensue when transient orcas are proposed as a separate species. I wonder how far that might go, since theoretically every genetically distinct orca community could then be considered a separate species. Is it possible that the paradigm and taxonomy from biology are insufficient to describe the “ecotypes” that are found around the world? If Rendell and Whitehead are right in Culture in Whales and Dolphins, orcas have independently evolved cultural capabilities without parallel except in humans. Would designating mammal-eaters and fish-eaters as separate species be analogous to describing isolated human societies as separate species? In some cases interbreeding may have become impossible, but for most combinations of sympatric communities it’s possible, but virtually never done.

In discussions of orcas, and possibly sperm whales, humpbacks, pilot whales, and others, might cetology find it useful to borrow some of the concepts and terminology from anthropology and sociology? I wonder if the various orca types and communities could be described as “cultures” rather than “ecotypes” for instance? Just wonderin.’

How to: share salmon or orca news

I’ve been enjoying using as a forum for sharing breaking news about southern residents, salmon, and related environment issues.  In the hopes of inspiring others to join me, this post is the first in a series that describe how I interact with the Orcasphere.  I’m even going to try screen-casting some demos!

At the very least, the Orcasphere is a place I can return to (or send my student to) when I’m trying to recall the details of that interesting talk or article through a sleep-deprived fog. The WordPress search window is always ready to help job my memory, as are my tags and categories…

At the very most, the Orcasphere could be a place where a team of like-minded conservationists aggregate news and information.  It’s really silly to all run the same searches, read the same papers, and go to the same talks and then each report separately about them on our respective web sites.  Through a collaborative site I’m sure we could still serve our audiences, but would all be more efficient, learn more, miss less, and have some time to discuss with each other the interesting bits that we gather.

Tools are emerging rapidly to streamline both aggregation of information and the dissemination of the results.  In future posts, I’ll compare blog facilitators I’m testing (Flock, scribefire, clipmarks, press it/this, posterous) and some nifty ways to embed posts within your web site (either the combined Orcasphere RSS feed, or just the RSS feed associated with a single Orcasphere category).

But for now, here is a quick screen-cast (my first!) that walks you through creating a new post.

Orcas not in the NW Power Plan

Council members at Seattle public hearing (Fall 2009)

Council members at Seattle public hearing (Fall 2009)

Today’s the last day for killer whale advocates to ensure that the southern residents get some consideration in the power plan that guides the Pacific Northwest on a 20-year horizon and won’t be reviewed for 5 years.  Currently, the complete plan PDF itself does not even include the words “orca” or  “killer whale.”  Clearly the established connections between west coast salmon abundance and SRKW survival are not on the Council’s radar!

The public hearings (photo link) are over, but you can still contact Council members and other decision-makers to ensure a strong final 6th Northwest Power and Conservation Plan.  The Northwest Power and Conservation Council will continue to accept written comments on the draft Sixth Plan until midnight tonight, November 6, 2009.  Start your weekend off right by submitting your comments online at

A search of the Council’s web site — — for “orca” and “killer whale” turns up a grand total of 17 hits.  Only ~10 of them are relevant and none clearly articulate the science linking killer whales and Chinook salmon populations from big river systems like the Columbia and the Fraser.

Feel free to model your comments after the inspirational ones (revealed by searching for SRKW terms  Both are appended:

“Bonneville should meet its fish and wildlife obligations.” (BPA-6)

What the hell sort of guidance is that?  How about endorsing a cogent analysis of the costs and benefits associated with the lower Snake River dams?

“The Council will work with fish and wildlife managers and regional power planners to; 1) develop a curtailment plan for fish and wildlife operations in the event of a power emergency, 2) prepare a contingency power operation in the event of a fish and wildlife emergency, and 3) develop a plan for continued improvement in our ability to forecast and operate the system to reduce the likelihood of emergencies.” (F&W-2)

The listing of our regional icons — salmon and orcas — as endangered is an emergency!  We don’t need a contingency plan, we need to take action to recover these populations.  And “recover” does NOT mean one-more-fish-than-last-year; it means get them back to their ecological baselines: 100-200 SRKWs and Columbia/Snake salmon populations of XX million — adequate for feeding killer whales and human fishers alike. — We need to put saving the salmon/steehead from extinction as a top priority. I would pay more for power if we removed dams to support this desire; even during these tough economic times. This fish is an icon of the Pacific Northwest, but it is so much more, and it is irresponsible to continue to use huge dams and let the fish suffer the consequences. Look at the Columbia river Chinook: almost gone and orca’s are down in numbers and the spring chinook was their biggest food source. Tribal, Commercial, and Recreational groups all seem to agree that we have to make tough choices, sacrifices, for the sucess of the species. We need to make up for the dumb things we’ve done in the name of cheap power. I grew up in the late 60’s/70’s, fishing with my Dad for fun and for putting food on the table, and i also fished commercially in the 80’s, for profit. Nowadays i’m a volunteer WSU Snohomish County BeachWatcher, and i’ve volunteered almost 500 hours since we began here in my area in 2006. Projects i work on help preserve and protect the fragile ecosystem that is Puget Sound, or the Salish Sea, and i hope i can give back to what i’ve taken from. Shall we all do that? Thank you for your time.  Sincerely, Joan Douglas