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Orca advocates, researchers oppose dart tagging of Southern Residents; support expanded use of hydrophones and observation

Top photo: T99A, a transient orca, 35 days after tagging with a dart. Middle photo: A close-up view of T99A
Top photo: T99A, a transient orca, 35 days after tagging with a dart. Middle photo: A close-up view of T99A's exit wounds at the barn site. Bottom photo: A dart tag proposed for use on the Southern Resident orcas.
— image credit: Top and middle photos: Ken Balcomb / Center for Whale Research. Bottom photo: National Marine Fisheries Service

Based on a colleague's input, Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research once got a federal permit to attach satellite tags on orcas with darts to help determine the whales' range of travel.

"He had done satellite tagging in Alaska and had convinced me that the process is benign, that the wound heals up well," Balcomb said.

But after he received the permit, Balcomb followed orcas that had been darted by the National Marine Fisheries Service and "decided it's not appropriate."

Photos taken by Balcomb of the transient orca T30 show swelling at the barb sites after the tag fell out, even 1.5 years later. In another photo, of T99A's dorsal fin, tissue extrudes from a barb site. Photos of other darted orcas show barbs sticking out up to one inch.

Balcomb, a leading orca researcher who maintains a census of the Southern Resident orcas for NMFS, is now lending his voice in opposition to a proposed expansion of darting of the local orcas.

Balcomb and others have asked NMFS to abandon darting and instead adopt non-invasive measures to track the orcas’ movements outside the Salish Sea. NMFS wants to determine the endangered orcas' range so it can determine their critical habitat. That determination is important because environmental restrictions could be imposed in those areas as part of the orcas' recovery plan.

NMFS is accepting public comment on its proposed amended research permit, which would increase the number of suction cup tags from 10 to 20 annually and would allow the satellite tagging of six orcas with dart tags annually. NMFS wants to attach satellite tags onto the orcas to determine their range outside the Salish Sea. The Southern Resident orcas are considered endangered by the U.S. and Canada.

Balcomb said the use of darts is inhumane and unsafe.

"I have just returned from Hawaii and discussions with principals in another satellite tagging project funded to further develop tags and attachment, and I was appalled to learn that there is virtually no planned follow-up on monitoring the injury/healing process, nor is any feasible with the majority of the tagged species involved," Balcomb wrote NMFS. "The Hawaii investigators are using the same attachment hardware proposed and used by the applicant for killer whales."

He added, "If we are looking for justification to extend Critical Habitat designation to continental shelf waters, we already have sufficient evidence; but, the reasons for not extending such designation are political, military and economic, not data limited."

In a Dec. 15 letter, Whale Museum President Val Veirs and Executive Director Jenny Atkinson said the 87 Southern Resident orcas are already the subjects of a NMFS permit allowing "25 biopsy darts, 5 breath samples, 300 incidental harassment takes and 215 surveys."

Veirs and Atkinson said The Whale Museum supports the use of "passive techniques, specifically acoustics and observations, to non-invasively track the whales."

"There need to be specific conservation objectives identified that compellingly justify utilizing short-term invasive techniques where long-term acoustic and observational monitoring could provide more information with no impacts," they write.

Veirs and Atkinson take National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, of which NMFS is part, to task for allowing naval warfare training in near-shore areas of Washington, Oregon and California that the orcas are known to frequent.

"Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent by NOAA on coastal surveys and ship surveys and these found (Southern Resident orcas) at the mouths of salmon rivers in Washington, Oregon and California," they write. "More thousands of dollars were spent using passive acoustic surveys at the heads (of) Juan de Fuca, Nitnat and Quinault undersea canyons which also detected orca vocalizations. However, these direct observations of orcas in the shallow waters of the west coast apparently played no role in NOAA’s granting a permit to the Navy for their desired activities. Therefore we cannot see a compelling need to use an invasive technique to show similar data trends when the existing data observations were not used, or were not adequate, to take conservation measures that would have prevented potential impact to whales in areas and times of the year when they have been demonstrated to use the area."

Veirs and Atkinson recommend the following:

— Visual observation: Through visual observation, NOAA has documented K and L pods at near-shore locations along the west coast of the United States.

— Teaming with other researchers: Other agencies, contractors and universities are planning or preparing deployment of oceanographic buoys in northwest coastal waters; those efforts could be charged with collecting information about orcas that are detected in the area.

Acoustic recorders were deployed in four locations -- Cape Flattery inshore, Cape Flattery offshore, Westport and Columbia River -- a total of 1,788 days between January and July 2005 to 2008, according to The Whale Museum. Those devices detected 176 orcas, 47 of them Southern Residents; 33 Southern Residents were detected in 2009.

— Integrate information collected by Canada: According to The Whale Museum, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans has had hydrophones on the north and west side of Vancouver Island in previous winters, and now has a permanent and real-time hydrophone streaming from the head of the Barkley undersea canyon just west of Bamfield. That information should be integrated with information developed in the U.S.

— An extended comment period and public hearings in King County and San Juan County: “We know from many conversations in our community on San Juan Island that people do not understand the rationale and the cumulative impacts of the proposed research on these endangered icons of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea,” Veirs and Atkinson write. “With public hearings on San Juan Island and in Seattle, the public may better understand what has been learned from previous tagging studies, what considerations go into selecting whales for tagging … and how the findings from the proposed research would contribute to the conservation and recovery of this population.”

Mark Anderson of Orca Relief said a University of Washington study commissioned by his organization found a correlation between darting and orca mortality.

He opposes attaching satellite tags with darts.

"It's an important tool, a useful tool, but when you have a population in jeopardy that is covered by the Endangered Species Act, you are further endangering it.

"Darting is so destructive. We have to learn how to (attach satellite tags) in a way that doesn't cause additional deaths."

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