Project SeaWolf: Feb. 11, 2000


SeaWolf Staff

Note: The southern resident orcas have not previously been witnessed in CA waters in such large numbers. While no conclusions are yet drawn, some speculate that this might be an indicator that the whales are exploring new regions for translocation. If this is indeed the case, what are the factors causing this, and what are the implications on the ecology and economy of the Pacific Northwest?

We encourage all readers of our newsgroup to circulate this posting widely.

On January 29, researchers from the Monterey Bay Whale Watch identified a group of unfamiliar orca whales foraging and feeding on fishstock in Monterey Bay, CA. Later photo ID work confirmed that at least 35 of these orcas where members of the southern resident K and L-pods normally found in WA and BC waters. Good photos were taken of L-57 (Faith), L-7 (Canuck), L-60 (Rascal), and possibly K-18 (Kiska) and K-40 (Raggedy -- fairly obvious because of her distinctive dorsal notches).

And oddly, there appears to be at least one unidentifiable orca accompanying the group, and some researchers are saying this whale is possibly an "offshore" orca -- a newer group of orcas that haven't been studied or commonly understood because of their fleeting appearances and pelagic tendencies. One certainty about this event is that orcas are evidencing once again that their behaviour is dynamic and unpredictable -- and while it is fairly common for K and L-pods to go "out to sea" west of the Strait of Juan de Fuca during the winter months (while J-pod tends to roam the inside waters of the Strait of Georgia and greater Puget Sound), little was known about where K and L-pods foraged while at sea.

Immediate reaction from some naturalists is that K and L-pods may be either exploring for new food sources (due to the depleted salmon runs in the North Pacific) or perhaps, reacting to accumulated PCBs and other toxins that has recently been reported to have been found in these whales. Recent reports suggest that weakened immune systems, decreased reproductive rates and tumors could possibly reduce this stock of genetically distinct whales below the threshold required for the long-term survival of this population. Pollution sources are mostly non-point and not readily identifiable. Moving away from such contamination is one way animals have, in the past, reacted to adverse environmental conditions.

The implications of this Monterey Bay sighting will not be fully understood until late May, when K and L-pods generally return to the Northwest. Perhaps these pelagic journeys and apparent interactions with 'off-shore' orcas is a routine phenomena -- one that might not have been documented well in earlier years but has always been a method of introducing new biodiversity into a heretofore believed "genetically distinct" population. While some local researchers are speculating that K and L-pods "might not return" to WA this season, it is more likely that they will, but we cannot rule out the probability that a vanguard from J-clan may now be exploring a greater range to make up for local contamination and depleting food sources. If that is indeed the case, this could have increasingly negative impacts on both the local foodwebs and, perhaps more profoundly, on the economic integrity of the local whale watching industry.

On a related note; the State of Washington has announced that there is, in fact, adequate cause for the Fish & Wildlife Department to initiate a review to determine whether the southern resident orcas should be up-listed to a State Endangered Species status. Some advocates are suggesting that, at the very least, State approach regulations should be adopted for all boaters, using a model established by the Whale Watching Operators Association Northwest (WWOANW) for their own membership -- a logical first step. It should be noted that at this point, a petition for federal uplisting has not yet been presented to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

More information will be presented on this issue as it develops.

Project SeaWolf, a federally-registered 501(c)(3) non-profit educational organisation committed to the protection of cetacean habitat in the Pacific Northwest, offers its assurances that we will not make use of addresses submitted for future mailings, nor any other purpose beyond that which is stated above.

Recipients of this email who would like to be added to our email list, please advise us through a return message. We encourage readers to visit our website for addional information on related issues. Our all-volunteer efforts are focussed on the threats facing the killer whale population, and it is apparent that the current problem must be addressed with the full force of available environmental protections in order to sustain the future viability of this important pinnacle species of the northwest marine ecosystems.

Project SeaWolf is at; P.O. Box 987 Marysville, WA 98270

End report, Feb 11, 2000

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