Pink salmon might be a threat to the killer whale population, scientists say – National

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Over the years, scientists have identified dams, pollution and vessel noise as causes of the troubling decline of the Pacific Northwest’s resident killer whales. Now, they may have found a new and more surprising culprit: pink salmon.

Four salmon researchers were perusing data on the website of the Center for Whale Research, which studies the orcas, several months ago when they noticed a startling trend: that for the past two decades, significantly more of the whales have died in even-numbered years than in odd years.

WATCH BELOW: Scientists warn two southern resident orcas could soon die






In a newly published paper, they speculate that the pattern is related to pink salmon, which return to the Salish Sea between Washington state and Canada in enormous numbers every other year — though they’re not sure how. They suspect that the huge runs of pink salmon, which have boomed under conservation efforts and changes in ocean conditions in the past two decades, might interfere with the whales’ ability to hunt their preferred prey, Chinook salmon.


READ MORE:
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Given the dire plight of the orcas, which officials say are on the brink of extinction, the researchers decided to publicize their discovery without waiting to investigate its causes.

“The main point was getting out to the public word about this biennial pattern so people can start thinking about this important, completely unexpected factor in the decline of these whales,” said one of the authors, Greg Ruggerone. “It’s important to better understand what’s occurring here because that could help facilitate recovery actions.”

Ruggerone, president of Seattle-based Natural Resources Consultants and former chairman of the Columbia River Independent Scientific Advisory Board, and the other authors — Alan Springer of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, Leon Shaul of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and independent researcher Gus van Vliet of Auke Bay, Alaska — have previously studied how pink salmon compete for prey with other species.

WATCH BELOW: Partial whale-watching ban imposed off Washington state






As news stories chronicled the struggles of the orcas last year — one whale carried her dead calf on her head for 17 days in an apparent effort to revive it — the four biologists looked at data on the Center for Whale Research’s site. Thanks to their previous research, it took them only a few minutes to recognize a trend that had escaped the attention of other scientists.

“We know that some are good years for the whales and some are bad years, but we hadn’t put it together that it was a biennial trend,” said Ken Balcomb, the center’s founding director, one of the foremost experts on the so-called Southern Resident killer whales.

Further analyzing the data, the researchers found that from 1998 to 2017, as the population of whales decreased from 92 to 76, more than 3.5 times as many newborn and older whales died during even years — 61, versus 17 in odd years. During that period, there were 32 successful births during odd years, but only 16 during even years.


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That biennial pattern did not exist during a prior 22-year period from 1976 to 1997, when the whale population was recovering from efforts to capture orcas for aquarium display, the researchers said.

But in 1998, salmon harvests were curtailed amid efforts to boost runs decimated by overfishing, pollution and habitat loss. A strong change in ocean conditions occurred around the same time, benefiting pink salmon especially by increasing the abundance of zooplankton, which make up much of the pink salmon’s diet.

WATCH BELOW: Scientists sound the alarm about B.C. Chinook salmon population






The combined effect of the ocean changes and fishing restrictions has greatly benefited the pinks, which are by far most numerous salmon species in the North Pacific. When they return to the Salish Sea, there are about 50 for each of the bigger, fattier Chinook. Nearly all pinks return to their natal streams in odd years, completing their two-year life cycle, unlike other salmon, which stay in the ocean longer.

In this Jan. 18, 2014, file photo, an endangered female orca leaps from the water while breaching in Puget Sound west of Seattle, Wash.

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Meanwhile, Chinook populations have continued to struggle — the dearth of Chinook is considered the most severe threat to the orcas — and many scientists say they will continue to do so unless four dams on the Lower Snake River are breached. The researchers speculate that the blossoming numbers of pinks in the Salish Sea during odd-numbered years have interfered with the echolocation the orcas use to hunt increasingly sparse Chinook. The orcas almost never eat pink salmon.

Because the whales are such large mammals, the theory goes, the stress caused by the pinks in odd years would not affect their mortality rates and reproductive rates until the following year — and that’s why more die in even years.

WATCH BELOW: Group calls for an end to all Chinook salmon fishing to save orcas






Another possibility is that presence of pinks means less food for the Chinook — and thus less food for the orcas, Ruggerone said.

The researchers also put forth a contrary hypothesis: that the presence of pinks somehow enhances the orcas’ hunting, improving their survival in odd-numbered years — though they say they have no reason to believe that’s the case.

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New calf spotted with endangered southern resident killer whale pod

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After months of bad news, there finally may be a glimmer of hope for B.C.’s endangered southern resident killer whales.

On Friday, researchers confirmed that recent helicopter video filmed by the Seattle TV station King 5 News shows a new baby orca swimming with members of L pod.

The video, shot Thursday near Vachon Island in Washington state, shows the calf swimming next to the killer whale known as L77, who had previously been pregnant.

Ken Balcomb, founding director of the U.S.-based Center for Whale Research, confirmed that that this is the first sighting of the new calf. The young whale’s gender is unknown.

Watch helicopter video of the young calf swimming beside its mother

Helicopter footage from Washington State shows a new southern resident killer whale swimming beside L77 0:59

The southern residents have not had a successful pregnancy in three years.

The sighting follows ominous news about the West Coast’s southern resident killer whale population in recent weeks.

The population is at a 35-year low after three deaths in 2018, and earlier this month, scientists said they expect two more whales to die of starvation by summer.

The plight of the struggling population attracted attention from around the world this summer, when grieving mother J35 spent 17 days carrying her dead baby on her head as she travelled more than 1,600 kilometres.

Weeks later, another member of J pod, J50, was declared dead after a cross-border rescue effort to inject the calf with antibiotics and fight an apparent infection.

Scientists say the killer whales have been struggling to find enough food because of a decline in the Chinook salmon population.

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First right whale calf spotted in more than a year

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For the first time in more than a year, a North Atlantic right whale calf has been spotted.

The finding is significant, as there are only an estimated 411 members of the endangered species left, and until now there have been no sightings of calves in 2018.

Observers spotted the calf on Friday near the entrance of the St. Johns River by the border of Florida and Georgia.

« We’re excited, » said Tony LaCasse, the spokesperson for the New England Aquarium in Boston. « It’s an optimistic sign. It’s something we can be hopeful for. »

In 2017, only five calves were observed, and LaCasse said at least two, possibly three, of those animals have died. Even the birth of five whales that year was considered a notable drop compared with previous years, when the number of new calves spotted annually was in the high teens or low 20s.

Calving season usually starts in December and lasts until March, with the bulk of the births happening in January and February.

North Atlantic right whales use the warm waters off Florida and Georgia as a nursery for their young so the calves don’t have to burn unnecessary energy trying to stay warm in cold waters. Traditionally, the whales then move up the East Coast to their « summer nursery » in the Bay of Fundy, LaCasse said.

Change in migration pattern

But due to a lack of sufficient quantities of plankton in the Bay of Fundy, in recent years the whales have moved to other areas, including the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

LaCasse said that unexpected migration led to the « calamity » of many whales becoming entangled in fishing gear and killed by vessel strikes.

Canada implemented new measures to try to protect the right whale after 12 were reported dead in Canadian waters in 2017, along with another five in U.S. waters.

LaCasse said the birth of the calf is an encouraging sign, especially given the « drought » of baby whales in the last year, but « we’re a long way from declaring victory on it, » he said.

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Fisheries minister meets with stakeholders to discuss right whale protections

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The federal fisheries minister met with fishermen, industry representatives and marine scientists Tuesday to discuss the impact of restrictions put in place to protect North Atlantic right whales and whether they may be needed for the coming fishing seasons.

Jonathan Wilkinson sat down with dozens of stakeholders at a hotel in Dartmouth, N.S., to discuss measures introduced earlier this year that were aimed at shielding the marine mammals against fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes — their greatest threats.

Wilkinson told the group that as a result of the initiatives in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, not one whale died this summer from being hit by a ship or getting snarled in fishing line.

But, he said he understood that the extensive fishery closures came with an economic cost to those who make their living from the gulf’s rich fishing grounds.

« Some, including many in this room, told us that the 2018 measures went too far and we recognize very much that some of these measures have had a real and very difficult impact on livelihoods of many of your members, » he said.

Wilkinson told the group that as a result of the initiatives in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, not one whale died this summer from being hit by a ship or getting snarled in fishing line. (Robert Short/CBC)

The measures were introduced after 17 right whales were found dead last year — 12 of them in Canadian waters — prompting concerns that the population might be on the fast track toward extinction.

Fishing areas were closed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, speed limits were reduced for vessels and Fisheries increased surveillance of the area to look out for the whales.

Wilkinson said he wanted to hear from the stakeholders about how to « strike the vital balance » between ensuring the critically endangered animals are protected, while maintaining lucrative fisheries.

Members attending the half-day meeting included crab and lobster fishermen, fisheries unions, First Nations fishermen, provincial fisheries departments and researchers from Dalhousie University and the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

A right whale side-feeds just below the surface of Cape Cod Bay off shore from Wellfleet, Mass. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA permit #19315/AP)

Some fishermen in the region said the so-called dynamic and static closures were heavy-handed and unnecessary at times when the whales didn’t appear to be in their fishing zones.

But Wilkinson said the mitigation efforts also helped in negotiating the fisheries portion of the updated North American free trade pact, also known as the USMCA.

« Our continuing ability to meet the requirements of the Marine Mammal [Protection Act] in the United States and thus to be able to continue to export freely to the U.S. will certainly be based on us achieving similar levels of success going forward, » he said.

Jocelyn Lubczuk, a spokesperson for the minister, said after the regional consultations and a scientific review process, Fisheries will brief the groups about the recommendations. The department « will then begin finalizing the measures that will help protect right whales in 2019, » she said in an email.

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Inupiat town mourns hunters killed as they towed whale home

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An Inupiat community in far northern Alaska is mourning the deaths of two whale hunters who died when their boat capsized while they were towing a bowhead whale home to help feed residents.

Despite their grief, locals still had to butcher the animal when it reached Utqiagvik.

Pausauraq Jana Harcharek, a relative of one of the hunters, couldn’t bring herself to watch.

« It was too devastating, » she said Tuesday.

They were people who just gave from their hearts — always.– Pausauraq Jana Harcharek, relative of one of the hunters

Harcharek said her cousin Ron Ron Kanayurak, a whaling crew member, died last Sunday in the accident. The other hunter was whaling Capt. Roxy Oyagak Jr., she said, adding that she had gone to school with him. 

Both men lived in Utqiagvik, a community 1,167 kilometres north of Anchorage.

Harcharek said the deaths have been heartbreaking to people in the community and beyond.

« They were people who just gave from their hearts — always, » she said.

Utqiagvik is among 11 Alaska Native communities authorized to hunt bowheads for subsistence.

In this Oct. 7, 2014 file photo, a man hauls whale blubber as a bowhead whale is butchered near Utqiagvik, Alaska. Two hunters died while towing a whale home last week. Despite their grief, locals still butchered the whale when it reached the community. (The Associated Press)

Boat flipped in rough water, local media reports

The Arctic Sounder newspaper reported the hunters were in a boat on a towline and flipped in rough water. Men in about a dozen other boats rushed to help but they couldn’t get Kanayurak and Oyagak out of the water in time, the newspaper said.

North Slope Borough Mayor Harry K. Brower Jr. has asked the media to respect the wishes of the whaling community and the whaling captains of Utqiagvik in not releasing more information.

Officials in North Slope Borough have refused to release information about the accident, including the victims’ names. Representatives of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

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Smashing view: Curious humpback whale cracks boat’s window

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Too close for comfort?

A humpback whale accidentally banged its head against a boat belonging to an ecology organization, cracking a window made of safety glass. 

The incident, which was captured on video, took place on Thursday in waters off Comox, B.C.

« Having a bus-sized, 20-ton whale bang into your boat was a bit unsettling, but fortunately the whale and I were not cut because it was safety glass, » said Lifeforce director Peter Hamilton.

« The whale actually came back to perhaps look at what had happened. »

Hamilton said two whales were displaying behaviour called « head viewing, » but one of them came out of the water too far.

« Perhaps this particular humpback may not be that boat-wise or as graceful as others. After the window was shattered, one’s pectoral flipper banged the boat and one floated too close, slightly lifting the boat, » he said.

Read more from CBC British Columbia

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2nd dead minke whale found in Bay of Fundy in less than a month

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A necropsy is being performed Sunday on a minke whale that washed up on the shores of Grand Manan Island, N.B., making it the second minke whale found dead in the Fundy Isles in less than one month.

The first whale died after it got wrapped up in a herring weir off of Campobello Island.

Tonya Wimmer, the executive director of the Marine Animal Response Society, said they first heard about the whale on Thursday.

She said there hasn’t been any obvious signs of trauma.

« There’s nothing obvious from the initial external examination, but we do need to do sort of complete look at the animal from the outside in, » said Wimmer.

Too early to draw conclusions

Wimmer said it’s too early to draw any conclusions or trends from the death of the minke whales.

« What we’re trying to do is get enough information over time to be able to answer a question like [if it’s normal,] » said Wimmer.

« It takes a lot of effort just to figure out what that normal is. »

A minke whale was found dead earlier this month off Campobello Island. (Island Quest Whale Watching)

Wimmer said it’s not fair to compare the deaths of the minke whales to the deaths of the North Atlantic right whales as the number of right whale deaths was more extreme and the overall population was lower.

No deaths of the endangered whales have been recorded in Canadian waters this year, a striking difference from last year, when 12 carcasses were found.

While North Atlantic right whales are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the common minke whale is listed as « least concern. »

Wimmer said the group hopes the necropsy will be completed today and that the results should be available in the coming months.

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Officials to conduct necropsy on Minke whale found dead in New Brunswick waters – New Brunswick

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Officials and veterinarians are set to investigate the death of a Minke whale after its remains washed up on the shore of Grand Manan Island, N.B.

It’s the second Minke whale to be found dead off the coast of New Brunswick in the past month; the first was found off the coast of Campobello Island earlier in September.

READ MORE: Fisheries department announces new fishery closures, openings in bid to protect Right Whales

According to the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS), a necropsy will be performed on the adult female whale on Sunday.

The organization said in a Facebook post that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada originally reported the whale’s remains and assisted in transporting the corpse to a safe location for the procedure.

A spokesperson for MARS was not immediately available for comment, but Tonya Wimmer, executive director of MARS, told the CBC that it was too early to draw any conclusions or recognize any trends based on the deaths of the Minke whales, noting that the two cases are not comparable to the deaths of endangered North Atlantic right whales.

At least 18 right whales died off the coasts of Canada and the United States in 2017. It’s estimated there are roughly 450 right whales left in the world, and with only 100 of them being breeding females, that number is declining.

WATCH: Dead whale falls onto pavement as crew attempts to place it in dumpster






No deaths of endangered right whales have been reported in Canadian waters in 2018, although at least two have been found dead off the coast of the United States.

Minke whales have a stable population and are considered to be of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Killer whale populations under threat of collapse, says study

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Killer whale populations around the world may collapse in as little as 30 to 50 years.

That’s according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science, which says some killer whales have extremely high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) — an organic pollutant that was banned in Canada in 1977.

Researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark, took biopsies of orcas or killer whales in northern Norway, Iceland, and eastern Greenland and compared datasets from around the world to determine how PCBs are affecting killer whale populations.

Of the 19 populations studied, researchers found more than 50 per cent had levels high enough to impair population growth. Eight are in severe danger of collapse in only a few decades.

Whales living in areas with a high contamination of PCBs, like near Brazil, the U.K., and the Strait of Gibraltar, were most affected.

In the Arctic, most areas were insulated from the effect. Orca populations near Iceland, Norway, and Alaska are thriving.

Lead author Jean-Pierre Desforges says PCBs accumulate more easily in predators, which is why killer whales in Greenland show high levels of contamination compared to those near Iceland. (Submitted by Jean-Pierre Desforges)

But lead author Jean-Pierre Desforges said that isn’t the whole story.

« The killer whales that we know frequent the waters off of eastern Greenland … they were quite highly exposed, » he said. 

He explained PCBs accumulate more easily in predators. So killer whales that eat other predators — like seals, sharks, and tuna — have much higher rates of PCBs than the whales that tend to consume small fish.

According to Desforges, that’s why the whales near Iceland are still going strong while the seal-fed whales in nearby Greenland show high levels of contamination.

Are humans in danger?

Desforges also said the findings show there may be ramifications for humans that regularly eat marine predators, like seals or killer whales.

Previous studies have revealed high levels of PCBs and other organic pollutants in northern communities.

While Desforges said communities that feed on marine mammals have a higher risk of PCB exposure, linking that exposure to health effects is more complicated.

« In humans, we have a lot of different risk factors, whether you’re smoking, or drinking, or exercising, » he said. « There’s a lot of things that affect our health. »

Orca populations near Iceland, Norway and Alaska are thriving. (Audun Rikardsen)

Desforges said whales are particularly susceptible to PCB accumulation because their metabolisms can’t eliminate the contaminants. Humans are « much better at degrading these compounds once they enter our bodies, » he said. 

Nevertheless, Desforges said PCBs can still cause long-term problems in humans. According to the U.S. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, PCBs can have many toxic effects and can be carcinogenic in humans.

‘Not all bad news’

While this seems pretty dire for both whales and humans, it’s not all bad news.

A recent study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment found that overall, the levels of organic pollutants have decreased in most Arctic wildlife.

These results follow a concerted effort by 152 countries to stop the use of PCBs through the Stockholm Convention, which came into place in 2001.

Overall, the levels of organic pollutants have decreased in most Arctic wildlife but are still high in marine predators with long lifespans like killer whales. (Audun Rikardsen)

Desforges said that while the Stockholm Convention has already been a success, it doesn’t help marine predators with long lifespans. A female killer whale, for example, can live up to 60-70 years.

« The levels [of PCBs] have started to go down since the ’80s, but they’ve kind of stabilized now and we know that in long-lived species, they’re still extremely high, » he said.

« It’s kind of trapping the contaminant into this biological loop, and that’s a major issue for long-lived species. » 

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