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Sunday, September 20, 2015

September 7th: New Calf L122! And drone research

On September 7th, all three pods came back in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and spread out over many miles in Haro Strait. I headed out in Serenity with a friend to see who we could find, and the whales were so spread we saw just 4-5 animals in the hour we were out there. Luckily for us, we stumbled upon the newest addition to the population: newborn L122, the first calf of L91 Muncher:

L91 Muncher and her newborn calf L122

This is exciting news, being the fifth calf born into the population in the last 9 months. There's been a lot of media attention around the "baby boom" the Southern Residents have been experiencing this year, and while it's exciting it's important to keep the bigger picture in perspective. We at the Orca Behavior Institute decided to send out a press release after the Center for Whale Research announced the birth of the calf, putting the good news of the new babies in the context of the larger struggle the Southern Residents are facing. Here's what it said:


New Orca Calf Underscores Importance of Salmon Recovery
Five births coincide with Southern Residents being identified as one of the eight species at greatest risk of extinction
Friday Harbor, Washington – September 7, 2015

As K- and L-Pods made their way into Haro Strait on Labor Day, researchers and whale-watchers spotted a new addition to the community: L122, identified by the Center for Whale Research as the first-born calf of 20 year-old L91, also known as Muncher. This new baby is the fifth one born to the endangered Southern Residents in the last nine months, following a period of over two years without a successful birth. While the whale community is understandably excited about the births, their arrival also means there are more mouths to feed. In May of 2015 NOAA featured the Southern Resident Killer Whales as one of eight “Species in the Spotlight”, a report to Congress that identifies listed species at the greatest risk for extinction in the near future. The reality is these little ones will only survive and thrive if the biggest issue facing the Southern Residents is addressed, and soon. Without an increase in abundance of their primary prey, Chinook salmon, it is unlikely this population of whales is going to recover.

The Southern Residents were listed under the Endangered Species Act ten years ago, however their population has continued to decline. The Salish Sea is known as the core summer habitat for the Southern Residents, but in fact they regularly range from British Columbia to California and rely on all the major salmon rivers in the region, particularly the Fraser and Columbia-Snake River Basins. Many of these salmon stocks are also listed as threatened or endangered, and millions of dollars of recovery efforts have yielded little in the way of results. “There's a lot of cutting edge research being done by NOAA scientists and others to determine exactly what these whales are eating when and how it's affecting their nutritional status,” said Monika Wieland, executive director of the Orca Behavior Institute in Friday Harbor. “With the Southern Residents being featured in the Species in the Spotlight, it's clear that these studies need to inform immediate management actions to help these whales. If there isn't enough data to take action, then there needs to be more funding to help this important research expand.” 

One of the biggest actions that could be taken to recover Pacific Northwest salmon is to breach the four Lower Snake River dams. These dams are widely recognized as no longer serving their intended purpose and as being costly both in terms of taxpayer dollars and their negative impacts on wild salmon. President Obama has been briefed on the issue, and has the power to issue an executive order to breach the dams, which would directly and immediately benefit people, salmon, and orcas. The newly formed Orca Salmon Alliance (OSA), a group of ten regional, national, and international environmental organizations, brings together many different voices advocating for more salmon on behalf of the Southern Residents. OSA will be hosting “Intertwined Fates: The Orca-Salmon Connection in the Pacific Northwest” at the Seattle Aquarium in October 7th, 2015, with keynote speaker Dr. Carl Safina.

“We are ecstatic to have a new calf in the population, but it's important to look at the bigger picture,” said Orca Behavior Institute lead researcher Michael Weiss. “This new calf, if it survives, makes 5 calves this year. We know from the Center for Whale Research census data that the average for the last 35 years has been just over 3 calves per year, but this year follows over two years in which we had no new surviving calves. The whales are barely breeding at replacement rate, when what we really need is population recovery. For this population, and L122, to grow and flourish, the main limitation, a lack of food, must be addressed.”

It was exciting for us to see our first press release get some attention from the regional media. Our article was featured as a guest column in the San Juan Journal, and also referenced by articles in the Kitsap Sun, the front page of the Victoria Times-Colonist, and even by Care2

Not only did we get to meet the newest calf, but we got to see some cool research in action. NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center has a photogrammetry team led by John Durban and they're using a hexacopter drone to take aerial photos of orcas as a way to assess the health and growth rates of the Southern Residents. It's pretty amazing research; I got to hear John Durban give a talk about it at The Whale Museum a few weeks ago. Basically with a known altitude and focal length on the camera they can calculate the scale in the image and take measurements of how long and wide the whales are. They've even determined ways to detect pregnancy from the air. It's amazing science, not to mention astounding photography. You can read more about it and see some of the images here.

John Durban controlling the hexacopter from the research vessel Skana

They were taking images of the mom and calf (see one of their shots on Facebook here), but we also saw them take a "calibration" measurement on the Center for Whale Research boat. Each trip they take aerial measurements of an object of known size to see how accurate their measurements are for that day. Turns out they're pretty darn accurate - within about 1%, or 5 centimeters of the actual length of the boat.

The drone (can you see it?) over the Center for Whale Research boat

In Canada with the Northern Residents they've also been commissioned by DFO to look for any behavioral impacts of the drones. They operate at over 100 feet to take photogrammetry photos, but flew at some lower altitudes for study flights and found no evidence of any behavioral modification of the Northern Residents in response to the drone. That's not to say everyone should be able to fly drones low over the whales, but it's good evidence that when done properly this is a very non-invasive research technique.

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