Dams Are Damning Southern Resident Killer Whales

J28 with “peanut-head” and J54 malnourished Photo by Ken Balcomb, October 2, 2016
J28 with “peanut-head” and J54 malnourished Photo by Ken Balcomb, October 2, 2016

The native peoples of the Pacific Northwest understood something important about the relationship between the region’s iconic killer whales and the region’s iconic salmon. The first could not survive without the second. “No fish, no Blackfish” they observed.

That observation is in danger of proving prophetic. As the Center For Whale Research’s Ken Balcomb warns, lack of prey food is threatening the demise of the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales. The SRKW population is under pressure for a number of reasons–shipping, noise, habitat loss and pollution, among them. But Balcomb is warning that the most clear and present danger is hunger resulting from declines in the Pacific Northwest’s great salmon runs, mainly due to the damming of rivers. Currently, Balcomb and others are calling for breaching four dams on the lower Snake River which have devastated the region’s once-prolific Chinook salmon runs. And for compelling evidence of what is happening he points to the recent deaths of a mother killer whale and her calf, both of whom were evidently malnourished.

For the data-inclined, here is a chart that looks at the correlation of SRKW mortality and Chinook abundance.

The tension between dams and killer whales is just one more reminder of how closely connected different ecosystems can be, and the endless consequences for the natural world of human development. Dams may provide “clean” hydropower, but they do so at the unacceptable cost of destroying and damaging entire river systems and the species that rely on them. Wind and solar have impacts, too, but they are more local and limited.

Removing dams is one of the most promising environmental trends. And when you take dams down and allow rivers to flow freely again, remarkable things happen. Whether the Snake River dams will be breached in time to save Washington state’s killer whales involves an excruciating race against time and hunger. Even the courts are pushing hard on this issue. But Ken Balcomb, who has been studying this population for 40 years and knows more about these killer whales and what they need than anyone on the planet, is pretty clear that if dam breaching is going to happen it better happen very, very soon.

GoPro Hero Series: Orca Rescue

Starring our pal Dr. Ingrid Visser. Some amazing and inspired footage once you get through the classroom stuff at the beginning (disclosure: I fast-forwarded; sorry, Ingrid!).

Here’s GoPro’s summary:

The sixth and final of the HERO4: The Adventure of Life in 4K series.

Dr. Ingrid Visser dedicates her life and her research to help the most intelligent predator on earth – Orca. She swims with wild orca and advocates for modern solutions to release orcas from captivity.

Shot on location in New Zealand, this short film documents Ingrid’s life mission to preserve wild orca through education & leading rescue missions to save orca from shallow waters & fishing line entanglements.

Includes never-before-seen footage of a GoPro mounted to the dorsal fin of a wild orca plus various archival footage and pictures from the Orca Research Trust.

Killer Whale Community

Evidence that killer whales take care of their own, from the Russian Orcas Facebook page:

There have been several reports from around the world about disabled killer whales surviving through the help of their family members. This summer we have encountered this female that obviously had some problems with her back. She was swimming slowly behind the group, and one male always stayed near her. Despite her disability, she did not look skinny, suggesting that she might get food from her family members.

New Zealand Orca Stranding Update

Yesterday, I happened to catch up briefly with New Zealand orca scientist Ingrid Visser, and she gave me an update on the nine New Zealand orcas who died after stranding last week

Visser raced to the scene after hearing about the stranding. She has spent decades studying and swimming with local New Zealand orcas, and she feared she was going to know these particular animals. If these killer whales had been from the group Visser studies, it would have meant that 4-5% of New Zealand’s local orca population had stranded and died at one time, a devastating blow.

However, when Visser arrived she didn’t recognize any of the orcas and doesn’t believe any appear in her photo-ID catalogue. In addition, many of the orcas had healed Cookie Cutter shark bites on their dorsals, and worn teeth, which is not typical for the New Zealand coastal orca population that Visser studies.

Visser and others worked pre-dawn to post-dusk collecting samples from the orcas, with the cooperation and support of the local Maori people. In addition to blubber and organ samples, Visser said the heads from all nine orcas were collected. The heads and tissue samples will be analyzed in an effort to better understand why the orcas stranded and died. Visser says that there were no obvious indications of what might have driven the orcas ashore. No obvious trauma, and no blood from the eyes, ears or anus, which can indicate acoustical trauma. None of the orcas was pregnant. 

“we’ll do more studies later,” Visser concludes. “At this stage there is nothing that we can tell immediately, and nothing that we could tell might have triggered the stranding.”


Who Is White Sphere? The Barely Disguised Conglomerate Behind Russia’s Wild Orca Captures

So there are no killer whales in Sochi for the Olympics, just athletes and spectators.

But the run-up to the opening of the Winter Games featured an unexpected, and persistent, media story-line: wild-caught Russian killer whales would be joining the athletes at the Black Sea resort. Based mostly on rumors, mysterious and contradictory tweets, and unconfirmed reports, the basic narrative was that a Russian company called White Sphere had, over the past two years, captured 8 orcas from the Sea Of Okhotsk and two of them were headed to Sochi to wow the Olympic crowds and generate Olympic-size profits for the Sochi Dolphinarium.

Screen Shot 2014-02-10 at 10.21.19 PM

The story mobilized animal rights activists, and reporters bombarded White Sphere and the Sochi Dolphinarium with questions about their killer whale doings. After trying to ignore media queries, the story got enough traction that White Sphere, a builder of aquariums (including aquariums for marine mammal display) issued an adamant denial on its Facebook page (it’s also here), saying “White Sphere officially declares that we have nothing to do with catching the killer whales or any other marine animals.” (Aquatoriya, the company which operates the Sochi Dolphinarium also took to Facebook to issue a heated and similarly self-righteous denial; also posted here). The impassioned and indignant White Sphere statement (you have to read the whole thing in Google Translate to get the full Boris Badenov flavor), acknowledged that White Sphere builds aquariums to display marine mammals, but added (I’ve had parts of the statement translated, for better accuracy; sorry Google Translate):

“If the amateur conservationists and sensation-hungry press thought twice and performed more rigorous investigation, they would have found neither documents supporting connections between “White Sphere” and captures of animals, nor holding facilities belonging to it. It’s unlikely that the company’s name would be mentioned by organizations allocating quotas for captures of marine animals. With no less surprise they would have found that inspections would discover no orcas in the Sochi dolphinarium (including those “captured by “White Sphere”).”

The statement, in similar high dudgeon, goes on to decry the slander and the damage done to White Sphere and its employees and partners. It bemoans the fact that the world media got White Sphere and its business so wrong. It encourages journalists to do proper reporting and investigation of the facts.

So I did. And here is what I found, with help on the ground in Moscow.

The idea that White Sphere has been connected to the capture of wild killer whales in Russia starts with the work of Erich Hoyt–co-founder of the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP) and a senior research fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation, who tracks the Russian orca hunt very closely. Hoyt is careful, reliable, and has good sources and connections in Russia. And in an interview last November, he detailed the web of companies involved in the capture of the 8 killer whales taken from Russian waters  (including a female called “Narnia”) over the past two years:

“For these 7 orcas this year [2013] and the one last year [2012], it’s one company doing the orca captures and they have also done beluga captures for some years. They have been identified publicly as “White Sphere”. This is a group of companies, in fact, with White Sphere building dolphinariums in Russia, White Whale capturing animals in the wild, and Aquatoriya operating dolphinariums. The [Sochi Dolphinarium] is a subsidiary of Aquatoriya, identified as the captor and owner of Narnia.”

Via https://www.facebook.com/russianorca

So you have three Russian companies: White Sphere, White Whale, and Aquatoriya (Aquatoriya’s homepage lists the Sochi Dolphinarium among its facilities, and is named by the Sochi Dolphinarium as one of its partners, which, to complete the circle, also lists White Sphere on its homepage under a section titled “Our Friends). One company builds aquariums, one captures animals for aquariums, and one owns and manages aquariums. That’s a pretty complementary group, and Russian killer whale advocates have taken to calling all of them “White Sphere,” which perhaps helps explain how the world’s attention got focused on White Sphere, the aquarium construction company. But is it true that they have nothing to do with one another, that White Sphere (the construction company) is not connected to the capture and display side of the business? Um, not really.

Continue reading “Who Is White Sphere? The Barely Disguised Conglomerate Behind Russia’s Wild Orca Captures”

More About Russian Orca Captures With Erich Hoyt

Late last week I published an article at Outside Online about recent Russian wild orca captures. In the past year, 8 wild orcas have been captured, potentially presaging a new orca gold rush as marine park development continues in Asia. The article was based on information from author and Whale And Dolphin Conservation Research Fellow Erich Hoyt. Hoyt is co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP), which has been studying wild orcas off the Kamchatka peninsula for more than a decade, and has been an important source of news on both wild beluga captures AND (now) wild orca captures.

If you are interested in following Erich’s work, his blog can be found here. The Russian Orca Facebook page can be found here. And if you want to read the first great book about killer whales, I highly recommend Erich’s Orca: The Whale Called Killer (newly released as an e-book).

Erich told me more about the history of Russia’s killer whales and what has been happening with regard to wild captures than I could get into the Outside article (which is doing its best to break Outside Online’s social media sharing record, with more than 4000 Facebook shares so far). So, with his permission, I am publishing the full Q&A I did with him here:

TZ: How long have you been studying the Russia orca populations, and what do we know about them in terms of numbers and types?

Erich Hoyt: I started studying killer whales off northern Vancouver Island in 1973 and spent 10 summers with Northwest Coast orcas, as told in my book Orca: The Whale Called Killer. We were always curious about what might be going on the other side of the Pacific, off Russia. We had also heard that a Japanese aquarium wanted to capture Russian orcas and we hoped we could influence that and maybe stop it. In 1999, I started the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP) with a Russian scientist Alexander Burdin and a Japanese researcher Hal Sato. The goal was to engage Russian students and to build an all Russian team that could do the long-term studies needed. From the start, the goals were both science and conservation — we were sponsored by Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), and the Humane Society International, and soon joined by Animal Welfare Institute and others. We have found two main ecotypes of killer whales: fish-eating (resident-type) and mammal-eating (transient-type) orcas, equivalent in size of pods, physical features and habits to those orcas living off the Northwest Coast of North America. Russian orcas have similar dialect systems, too. Most of our work has been with the fish-eating residents. Using photo-ID we have identified more than 500 killer whales off Kamchatka and about 800 around the Commander Islands.

TZ: What do you think prompted the onset of wild captures in the Sea Of Okhotsk?

Erich Hoyt: Russian captors have been trying to capture orcas for at least 15 years. They finally managed to surround multiple pods off southeast Kamchatka in 2003 including many orcas that we knew well from our studies, only a few days after we had left the field. They may well have waited for us to leave. One young female died in the nets, and another female was hoisted on board and died 13 days after being shipped across Russia to a Black Sea aquarium. Our whole FEROP team was really upset. After that, the captors made a number of failed attempts, but our team managed to get zero quotas for Eastern Kamchatka for the first time, effectively making any captures much more difficult on the Eastern Kamchatka side. Quotas of from 6 to 10 orcas were still issued every year for the Sea of Okhotsk, West of Kamchatka, but logistics there made captures more difficult. A few years ago, however, the Utrish Dolphinarium, the same one that made the previous orca captures off eastern Kamchatka, managed to catch one orca in the Sea of Okhotsk but she later escaped. Then, last year, another group of Russian captors caught a young female orca and brought her into captivity near Vladivostok. She is the one who is being called Narnia and she is still awaiting her captivity assignment. That capture gave the captors confidence that they could do this and — we suppose fueled by international demand that they are no doubt aware of due to beluga sales — they captured 7 orcas in 2 different capture operations in the Sea of Okhotsk from August to October this year.

TZ: What do we know about the outfits engaged in the wild captures? Are they also involved in the wild beluga captures?

Erich Hoyt: Yes, for these 7 orcas this year and the one last year, it’s one company doing the orca captures and they have also done beluga captures for some years. They have been identified publicly as “White Sphere”. This is a group of companies, in fact, with White Sphere building dolphinariums in Russia, White Whale capturing animals in the wild, and Aquatoriya operating dolphinariums. The Sochinskiy Delfinariy is a subsidiary of Aquatoriya, identified as the captor and owner of Narnia.

TZ: What methods are they using to make these wild captures? Why are the orcas trucked so far instead of being held on site?

Erich Hoyt: The whales are surrounded by a net in a shallow place close to shore, usually whole pods or even several pods, but we don’t know the precise details in this case. After being contained, the whales to be captured are picked out one at a time and dragged by the tail to the shore and transported from the enclosure — the same as they catch belugas. Young females are highly sought after but some males are of course required too. They move the whales quickly because there is no place to keep them onsite and they are no doubt afraid of sea conditions, so they must transport the orcas to the nearest port. We know from our research that the logistics for doing anything in Russia are difficult and expensive.

TZ: I’ve seen reports of orcas being killed over the years during Russian capture attempts. What do we know about orca deaths during the recent captures or previous captures?

Erich Hoyt: We have confirmed reports of the 2 young females who died in 2003, as I described above. About a year ago, the Russian Federal Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO) estimated that 5 orcas had died due to captures in the past, but only the 2 from 2003 are officially confirmed. We don’t know if any orcas died during the captures this year.

TZ: You mentioned in an update that Russian scientists and the state ecological commission have recommended to the Russian Federal Fisheries Agency that no permits be allowed in 2014. Are you hopeful the Federal Fisheries Agency will accept that recommendation, and when would you expect a decision?

Erich Hoyt: Scientists from our team and other scientists in Russia who understand killer whale biology have made this recommendation even before the captures occurred this year. The recommendation was based on the fact that orca quotas are being given on the basis of a single management species, when we know that there are at least two distinct ecotypes, the fish-eating residents and the mammal-eating transients, who are separate and need to be evaluated and managed separately. Getting the state ecological commission to endorse this idea was key. Now we hope the Federal Fisheries Agency will accept it. We will know later this year if quotas for capturing killer whales will be issued for 2014.

TZ: There are lots of rumors about where the orcas might go. What, if anything, is known about where the orcas might end up? Do you know anything about the prices they are being offered at?

Erich Hoyt: The rumors are China and Moscow where new facilities are coming on stream. To send the whales to China requires CITES permits and we have now found out that at least 2 CITES permits have been issued. We have no idea of the prices being offered now, but as long as 10-15 years ago, we know that a young female orca in prime condition could be worth $1 million USD. A lot depends on how many people per year pay to get into Sea World in the US, as well as paying to get into the growing number of such facilities in China, Japan and Russia. By last count, more than 120 facilities in these countries exhibit whales and/or dolphins. If there is no demand from the owners of these facilities and from the paying public, the selling price will go down and eventually there may be little or no supply offered for sale. Then the orca trafficking can stop.

Erich Hoyt is Research Fellow with WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project, and author of 20 books including Orca: The Whale Called Killer.

Killer Whale Menopause: It’s All About The Kids

This is pretty fascinating. A paper in Science on killer whale menopause reveals some interesting parallels with menopause in humans, and adds to our understanding of the incredibly tight mother-offspring bonds in killer whale society.

Here’s a summary from the Center For Whale Research:

Dr. Emma Foster has provided a brief summery of her paper that recently came out in Science:
“Adaptive Prolonged Postreproductive Life Span in Killer Whales”

1.      The key finding: We have discovered that female killer whales have the longest menopause of any non-human species so they can care for their adult sons. Our research shows that, for a male over 30, the death of his mother means an almost 14-fold-increase in the likelihood of his death within the following year.

2.      The relevance/link to humans: Biologically-speaking, the menopause is a bizarre concept! Very few species have a prolonged period of their lifespan when they no longer reproduce. Like humans, female killer whales buck this trend and stop reproducing in their 30s-40s, but can survive into their 90s. The benefit of a menopause to both human and killer whale mothers is in spreading their genes. The different ways this has evolved reflects the different structure of human and killer whale societies. While it is believed that the menopause evolved in humans partly to allow women to focus on providing support for their grandchildren, our research shows that female killer whales act as lifelong carers for their own offspring, particularly their adult sons.
3.      Why this is important: The menopause remains one of nature’s great mysteries. This research, which involved studying 36 years-worth of data, is the first ever study of its kind and is an exciting breakthrough in our understanding of the evolution of the menopause.
I wonder if there is a species with a more important mother-son bond? It certainly exceeds the same human connection.
The more we learn about killer whales, the more complex and sophisticated their relationships and culture appears.

Orcas vs. Sperm Whales (Take 3): Underwater Video

Shawn Heinrichs has posted a great video about the encounter, and his excursion beneath the surface. Ballsy, and worth it.

About the video:

15 miles off the coast of Sri Lanka, a pod of Orcas trap a family of Sperm Whales. The action intensifies as the Orcas slam into the Sperm Whales, working as a unit to try and separate an individual and take down their prey.

Our story takes place on an epic expedition to Sri Lanka where our team spent 9 days at sea in search of Blue Whales. Accompanying me was my expedition partner Paul Hilton, my brother Brett, and close friends Douglas Seifert, Phil Sokol and Michael Umbscheiden. Together we battled rough seas, burning sun, cramped boat conditions and long days searching endless seas. Though not so successful with Blue Whales, what we did achieve was beyond anything any of us could have imagined, as we documented a world first underwater! This is our story!

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