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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Where Are The Whales?

It's a question we island residents patiently put up with from May through September, the best time of year to see whales in local waters. Second only to, "What time do the whales come by?" the question "Where are the whales?" is a common one from not just tourists, but also among researchers, boat captains, naturalists, and all members of the whale-watch community. Often, the answer to the question in the summer months is something like "On the west side of San Juan Island" or "Swimming past Victoria" or "Near the mouth of the Fraser River by Vancouver, BC". The eighty-plus members of the Southern Resident Community of killer whales can travel up to a hundred miles a day, and without any of the animals being tagged it's visual spotting that finds them on a day-to-day basis. Despite a fleet of dozens of whale-watching vessels looking for whales during about 12 hours of every summer day, every morning it's sort of a whole new ballgame as to where they will show up after a nighttime's worth of traveling. More often than not in the summer months, they're somewhere within the Salish Sea, just taking occasional forays out the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the open ocean.

This year, however, the question, "Where are the whales?" has taken on a different meaning among the whale watch community. It's not just a curious question among hopeful whale watchers trying to track the movements of J-, K-, and L-Pods. It's a sadder, more anxious question this year because, quite simply, the whales aren't here.

It's true we've seen all members of all three pods in inland waters this season, but among those of us that watch these whales year after year, the consensus is something different is going on this year. They came back later than usual. They've been spending less time here. For a couple of bizarre weeks, the only whales here were the three members of the L22 matriline, something that has never happened before. But a hunch or anecdotal evidence isn't enough to prove something different is going on. Where's the data?

April and May used to be considered good whale-watching months here in the Salish Sea. According to The Whale Museum's Orca Master data set, from 1978 to 2008, members of at least one of the three pods of Southern Residents were documented in inland waters in every single month of every single year. Often, this may have just been for one day, but some years J-Pod was around nearly every day in the spring. In 2009, for the first time on record, there were no sightings in the month of April. J-Pod returned on May 4th of that year. This year, again, there were no resident killer whales in the month of April and beyond until Js returned on May 15th. It was definitely a late return, but what's been going on since then?

Dr. Bob Otis, now a retired professor from Ripon College, has been collecting killer whale data at Lime Kiln Lighthouse for 23 years. Every year, from May 20th to August 10th, between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM, he and his team of interns records data on every group of killer whales that passes within half of a mile of the lighthouse in any direction. While his data of course doesn't fully document every time the whales are in inland waters, it's a valuable long-term data set collected in the heart of the summer range of the Southern Residents, and its consistent collection provides a reliable benchmark. Bob generously provided me with his data, from which I extracted the following information showing the number of "whale days" between May 20 and July 27th (today) for each of the last 23 years. (A "whale day" is defined as any day when killer whales passed by Lime Kiln between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM.) Click the chart to see a larger version.

The 17 whale days so far this year are by far the lowest since Bob started collecting data in 1990. In fact, it's less than half of the 20+ year average of 40 whale days (red line) in this time period and 12 days lower than any year on record.

So why haven't you been hearing about this? I've been asking myself the same question. The truth is, the whale-watching industry hasn't really suffered *too* much as a result of the lack of Southern Residents. The transient, marine mammal eating killer whales that are distant cousins of the fish-eating Southern Residents have been thriving, perhaps benefiting from a boon of the local harbor seal and Steller sea lion populations. I remember when I first started watching whales here, transients seemed like elusive creatures to me. It took years before I saw my first one. Now, I see them several times a year just from shore on San Juan Island, and the whale watch boats see them almost daily during certain times of year. Transients have been getting a lot of good press lately, including being on the cover of a recent edition of the Seattle Times after wowing viewers right off the docks of Liberty Bay deep in Puget Sound, not far from downtown Seattle. The article mentions the Southern Residents, but says nothing about their scarcity this summer.

The sporadic transient orcas are still not a sure bet, but in addition there have been more humpback whales than usual, an abundance of lunge-feeding minke whales, lots of harbor seals with brand new pups, and fledgling bald eagles to help keep the tour companies occupied. I've heard it been suggested that local press may be staying away from the issue of the "missing" resident whales out of fear of driving away the tourists who flock here to see them. But there's no doubt in my mind: this is an issue that needs to be talked about.

More importantly than why it hasn't received more press is the underlying question of why the whales aren't here in the first place. The answer is most likely an obvious one: there's no fish here for them to eat.

Killer whales were formally thought of as generalist feeders as the species as a whole has been documented feeding on over 50 prey species. We now know that the Orcinus orca species is really a species complex made up of various ecotytpes of killer whales, each population specializing on a smaller subset of prey species. The Southern Residents have long been known to be fish eaters with a preference for salmon. In particular, they like Chinook salmon. Recent prey studies, like those conducted by Brad Hanson of NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, have shown just how strong this dietary specialization is. From genetic evidence from prey samples taken in the San Juan Islands, Brad's research team has found that not only do the Southern Residents preferentially feed on Chinook (despite being most likely to encounter pink, sockeye, and chum salmon), but they specifically feed heavily on Fraser River Chinook in June through August. The Fraser River, the longest river in British Columbia, enters the Salish Sea not far from the city of Vancouver and is one of the largest salmon-producing rivers in the region. Brad and other researchers have also conducted genetic analysis of fecal samples from the whales to help determine diet - in these studies, which look at percent composition of different prey species in the samples as opposed to frequency of occurrence with which the prey item is taken, Fraser Chinook dominate the diet by an even stronger ratio.

If you talk to a local salmon fisherman, they'll probably tell you the fishing has been great so far this year. The salmon are abundant right now, it's true - but they're pink salmon, the smallest of the local salmonid species. The residents probably preferentially feed on Chinook because they get the most bang for their buck: Chinook are the largest, fattiest salmon species. In the fall the whales switch to chum, the next largest species, but from genetic analysis of fecal samples, it doesn't look like the whales eat sockeye or pink salmon at all.

So how are those all-important Fraser River Chinook salmon runs doing this year? It's not a pretty picture. Here's the data from the Albion test fishery near Fort Langley on the lower Fraser, which is able to monitor fish stocks returning to different regions of the river. This first chart shows the catch data (CPUE = catch per unit effort) through July 22 compared to the yearly average from 1981-2012:

The picture is even more striking when you look at the cumulative catch per unit effort from this year compared to the average over the same time period (taking note that unlike most years data was not taken this year from April 1-20 - but that seems to be a small contributor to the cumulative total):

So, with the salmon clearly not here, it's perhaps not such a surprise the whales are not here either. The question still stands, however: where are they?

There have been a few reports over the last few months of the Southern Residents off Tofino on the central west coast of Vancouver Island. Since the whales haven't looked particularly emaciated (to me) when they have been here, we can only assume (hope?) that they're finding an abundance of Chinook wherever they are hanging out, somewhere out in the open ocean. It sucks that we aren't able to see them more, but really what's most important is that they're finding enough to eat. As an admittedly potentially unrelated side note, we have yet to see any new calves born to any whale in any pod in 2013.

A fair question, too, is why the residents don't switch to eating pink salmon or other species when the Chinook are not abundant. The answer is a complicated one, but my best guess is that these highly social animals are extremely culturally rigid. Despite the stresses this population has been under from events like the live capture era (which resulted in maybe a third of the population being removed) they don't stretch their social associations to include transients, or offshores, or even Northern Residents. It seems no matter what happens, they will only associate with their own kind. There is also some kind of treaty, if you can call it that, in place that divides up the food sources, giving the two co-existing populations different shares of the food web: marine mammals for transients and fish for residents. They don't seem likely to break this treaty, even when it's a matter of survival, and it seems the rules are even more severe than we first thought, as not only will they not eat mammals but they won't even settle for less than Chinook salmon. One can only hope we don't find out what happens when we, as humans, push the Southern Residents to their cultural limits. They shouldn't have to choose (they may not be able to choose) between tradition and survival.

In the meantime, all I can do is witness what I see before me: that the whales are not here like they usually are this time of year. Witness, and pass on my observations to you, which hopefully you will then share with others. It's easy to gloss over this storyline because it's true, it's not a happy one. But that doesn't make it any less important to talk about.


Susan Berta, Orca Network said...

What is really scary, is if you look at Chinook abundance graphs over the years, they are very similar to the Southern Resident orca population graphs - when the Chinook salmon graphs dip low for Chinook, the So. Resident population graphs make the same dip, with a bit of a delay. It is looking like the Chinook graphs are again dipping dangerously low, and with the few orca deaths this year and no births, the population is dipping down again as it did from 1996 - 2001, but we are starting with less whales before this dip, so at 82 whales, things are looking pretty perilous. If things with Chinook salmon remain this bad, and we see another situation as we did back then, when we lost 20% of the population, we could end up with less than 60 whales, which is a lower number than they've ever been (they were at 71 whales after the orca captures removed 1/3 - 1/2 of the population).

Thanks again for writing up and demonstrating so clearly what many of us have been thinking about these past months. Over the past 5 years or so we have been seeing small changes year to year - the whales returning later each summer, J pod staying away more, and all 3 pods leaving more often and for longer periods each year during the summer - but this year there seems to be a marked change in their presence in the Salish Sea. We too hope they are somewhere in the ocean where they are finding something to eat, and hope we can all work together to improve the abundance of Chinook salmon EVERYWHERE in the NW!

jacki phoenix said...

Thank you, Monika, for posting this important message. I believe our resident orcas are telling a story...their story, and ultimately, our (human) story.

Unknown said...

Thank you for bringing this into the open for everyone to acknowledge, Monika. At some point this has to be used to educate and reinforce how tenuous our environment is and force the nation to start facing hard truths about the ecosystem and our impacts on it. It is absolutely about the chinook- but the chinook are also an indicator themselves of a bigger picture gone bad.

Sadly, half the tourists and even residents I talk to do not even know sound is in huge trouble- from water quality to toxins and habitat. Hopefully the whales absence will become a motivating factor to educate and get the results we need (improvements) delivered.

Shady said...

Something I noticed last couple of days, lots of dead crabs on the beach in Silverdale, is this common?

Anonymous said...

Great article Monika. My father and I operate Deer Harbor Charters, a whale watching company from Orcas Island We have been discussing the lack of the southern residents for weeks now. At first with the J's being almost non-exsistant we where wondering if everything was ok with Granny,
J-pods matriarch. When the j's returned, Granny accounted for, with K and L pods we assumed they where here for the season but that has not been the case. Our fisherman friends have all been reporting a record number of fish this year around the islands. Thanks for taking the time to write this article. It looks like you spent a lot of time researching and analyzing this years whale season and I for one am glade someone is talking about it.

Nate Averna
Deer Harbor Charters

Vera said...

Wow, what a thorough article and so well written. With your current crazy schedule, where did you find the time? You really impress me.

Shari Tarantino, Orca Conservancy said...

Great blog Monika. And, Sandy Buckley, I have to agree with you that while the salmon is an issue, there is huge concern regarding water quality, toxins and habitat.

While we all can discuss salmon until we exhaust ourselves on the topic, and rightfully so - what are we doing outside of that to protect this endangered species?

How many of you are aware of a PILOT tidal turbine project that is in the final stages of being approved within Admiralty Inlet, the second core feeding area and within the residents critical habitat? While we have been very clear in expressing our support of alternative energy.... this PILOT project involves two very large, VERY LOUD (acoustic pollution) turbines about FOUR stories tall, churning directly in an oft-used travel corridor for Southern Resident orcas, with no mechanism whatsoever to brake in time to protect them -- or for that matter, the eleven or so other federally protected species that will be affected by this project.

What I find even more alarming, and concerning is how a few orca groups have put their contractual relationships with the feds ahead of doing right by the whales. That is acceptable? Really?

All that being said, my intent is to provide you with information on this tidal project, why we share a stance of opposition with four other organizations, and let you decide:

Please feel free to read everything, and then if you agree - sign the petition. Additionally, if you would like to discuss this in greater detail, or would like to get involved, I will be happy to do so offline - please contact me at:

Thank you,


Mark Lewis said...

Excellent post Monica, well researched with great supporting data. One of your all-time best. It is shocking how few people understand the crisis that the Salish Sea is experiencing: roughly 90% declines over the past quarter century for seabirds, herring, and salmon. Very few of my kayak tour guests have any idea that salmon and orca whales are on the endangered species list. And none know about the lesser known species that have made the list ranging from murrelets, smelt, to rockfishes. It doesn't help that government organizations greenwash the situation with bogus reports on the area's purported "improvements" (see the latest joint EPA/Environment Canada release on Salish Sea water quality) while they concurrently dismantle the world's leading agencies on toxicology research. You are right that people don't like hearing the bad news, but if we continue to carry on as usual and turn a blind eye to the fact that our current lifestyles are incompatible with a healthy ecosystem, then we are doomed to watch the Salish Sea turn into the next disaster in the mold of Chesapeake Bay and the Baltic Sea. Maybe next you can shed some light (and data) on the seabird crash. The proverbial "canaries in the coal mine" are dead and dying - the miners are next.

Crenke said...

If they are having to travel farther to find food... that will stress them more... no reason to reproduce if the food is scarce, and the body id stressed. What if the 3 pods are also seperated all over finding chinking? If they only mate outside their pods... and they are dispersed more and more.... that means they are less likely to all come together for super pods and potential mating?
This is something that definitely needs to be talked about in all the communities.

Jill said...

Thanks so much for this excellent excellent post! We kayaked early Friday morning from Smallpox Bay to south of Lime Kiln in hopes of seeing orcas. Of course didn't. However, we did see a baby (calf) and mom orca close to the Twawassen to Nanaimo ferry, about mid-run, on Thursday morning, July 18. Perhaps Springer? It was the closest orca sighting I've ever had, and have seen orcas numerous times on ferries to BC, from Lime Kiln, and lots last fall when they came south to Seattle area.

Anyway, I have reposted this on my Pacific Northwest Seasons FaceBook page and shared with friends via email. BTW a wetlands biologist friend of mine (Jennifer) is moving to Friday Harbor in August with her two kids since her husband is the new San Juan County Administrator. I hope you to manage to meet each other!

Erich Hoyt said...

Superb blog, Monika and also nice to have additional comments from Susan. As you may have heard, in Kamchatka, Russia, we are struggling with similar situation of fewer salmon (in our case, pinks) and the lowest number of orca sightings since we started in 1999. Just when we were starting to think what a nice, healthy population we had! Long term research is the only way we can hope to begin to understand how and what orcas are doing. Bravo on all your work out there! — Erich Hoyt