Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Whales at Risk

Judith Lavoie , Canwest News Service
Published: Tuesday, October 07, 2008

VICTORIA - Killer whales in the waters off southern Vancouver Island are losing blubber and developing strange behaviour patterns because of a shortage of salmon, say whale experts. Some endangered southern resident killer whales are developing "peanut heads" because they are not getting enough food, said Howard Garrett of Washington-based Orca Network.
"They are looking sick. There is usually a thick layer of blubber just behind the skull and that seems to be the first place to be drawn from when they need to draw down blubber," he said. "In some of them, there's a dip right behind the blow-hole and, when you see that, you know the whale has been hungry."

The Center for Whale Research is having difficulty finalizing numbers for the three resident pods this year because the whales are so spread out.  Researchers believe there might be some losses, but, tentatively, the number of southern residents is set at about 87.  As the whales search for elusive chinook salmon there are unusual liaisons, Garrett said.  "A small group from L Pod have been travelling with J Pod all summer long and twice J Pod has split into two completely separate groups, out of acoustic range from each other," he said. "It's an indication that they are searching high and low and in every nook and cranny for fish."

Environmental groups are holding a news conference Wednesday in Vancouver to protest the federal government's fisheries policies.  "The announcement marks a tipping point in a two-year battle between the federal government and concerned scientists and environmentalists about the need to protect the orcas from threats to their critical habitat," according to a news release from Ecojustice.  "There are ongoing scientific concerns about conservation of the species, particularly in light of the fact that killer whales are not looking good this year," said Lance Barrett-Lennard, co-chairman of the federal government's Resident Killer Whale Recovery Team.  The recovery team worked with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to produce a killer whale recovery strategy, which was finalized earlier this year.

The strategy's objectives are to ensure the whales have an adequate and accessible food supply, that chemical and biological pollutants and disturbance from human activities do not prevent recovery and that critical habitat is protected.

John Ford, marine mammal scientist at DFO's Pacific Biological Station, is an expert on the eating habits of resident killer whales. Ford wrote last year in a University of British Columbia paper, that "resident killer whales may be dependent on chinook salmon, and the abundance of this prey species may have a direct effect on their survival."

In the U.S., Garrett has firm ideas on what should be done to save the orcas.  "There is already a lot of effort to restore salmon on the U.S. side, and we need to tie orca recovery to salmon recovery every step of the way," he says.  That means tighter fishing restrictions, buffer zones around salmon streams and the removal of dams on the Elwha River and the Snake River in Washington state.

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