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© Regina Asmutis-Silvia, minutes before snow squall

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Ask an Expert – Dr. Giles, part 2

Part 2 of our Q&A with Dr. Giles, research director of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, Washington, focuses on the research conducted by the CWR and what they’ve seen in 40 years of studying the Southern Residents.

WDC: The Center for Whale Research is located in Washington State and is a leading expert on the Southern Resident orcas. Their research has paved the way for photo-identification in population and behavioral studies. The fact that we can track precise population counts is due entirely to such dedicated efforts.  Could you describe the research done at CWR, and maybe talk about a typical field season?

DG: Thanks to a dedicated, and mostly volunteer, sighting system made up of whale watch tour operators, researchers, and killer whale enthusiasts, we are able to monitor the location of whales in the area on a day-to-day basis, almost year round. When the whales are frequenting this area in the spring through fall season (May to October), we know their location 99% of the time. Taking into account several factors, such as the distance of the whales from our location on the west side of San Juan Island, the whales’ travel direction, their behaviors and, of course, weather, we will depart on one of our research vessels for an on-the-water encounter.

An encounter refers to any time we come in contact with killer whales, either from one of our research boats or from land, when at least one individual of the group is identified and photographed. We often have varying numbers of staff and volunteers on board, but typically 2-4 people are out on an encounter at one time. Once we come into contact with whales (i.e. within distance to identify individuals by sight) we have begun our encounter. During an encounter, the main goal is to photograph every individual present from the left and right side. The secondary goal is to capture catalogue quality ID photographs of as many individuals as possible. The tertiary goal is to collect prey samples or scat for analysis. Additionally, we record several parameters such as GPS locations, behavior, travel direction and speed, social groupings, feeding events and environmental conditions.

Depending on the duration of the encounter, several hundred photographs or data points are recorded. These are all downloaded, identified and sorted in a massive photographic database. The information recorded in each encounter provides important social, demographic and geographic information that is shared periodically with government agencies for conservation and management purposes. We spend a considerable amount of time sorting through our photos, entering data, writing reports, creating ID Guides and sharing our information with the public through our website, blog and Facebook page, and at educational events. Our unprecedented long-term collection of data and photographs comprises the Orca Survey project. Our goal is to keep this project going for the entire lifespan of a generation of SRKWs. With the oldest whale estimated to be 100 years old (J2/Granny, the matriarch of J-pod), we have a way to go.

WDC: CWR’s annual census was (at least in part) started because of live-takes for marine parks. What kind of effect did that have on the population?

DG: In 1970, because of growing concern from fisheries managers and the general public surrounding the live removal of killer whales for marine parks, research on killer whales in British Columbia and Washington State intensified. In 1976, the first official census of the Southern Resident community documented three unique pods (J, K and L pods), consisting of a total of 70 whales. This census came after 47 whales were taken from the wild between 1962 and 1973. Of those 47, 35 were transported alive to marine parks and 12 were killed in the process. The last whale removed from the Salish Sea was captured in Menzies Bay, B. C., in 1977, and just one Southern Resident killer whale now remains alive in captivity and on display: a female member of L pod, captured over 40 years ago, on August 8th, 1970, in Penn Cove, Washington.


Overall, research suggests that annual changes in survival rates since the mid-1990s are the result of exposure to toxins, reduced prey quantity and quality, disturbance from vessels and associated noise, or more likely, a combination of these and other factors. Several additional risks have been identified as potential threats to the population including oil spills, disease, and perhaps inbreeding.

WDC: What changes or trends have you observed in the past 40 years in their population?

DG: One of the major changes we have documented over the past 40 years is that the three pods (J, K and L) are splintering now more than they did in the past.  For example, when the Southern Residents were first documented, members of J pod were, more often than not, seen all together as a cohesive group.  Over the course of the last few years it is often the case that J pod is split into two groups and sometimes split even farther into matrilines or family groups.  We believe this is a result of the diminishing prey availability. 

We have also seen changes in behavior state – research from the late 1980’s documented SRKWs engaged in resting behavior during 25% of all observations, and a later study from 1999 reported resting behavior during 13% of observations.  More recent research on SRKW behavioral budgets found the whales resting 7% of the time during observations made between 2005-2006, and also between 2007-2008; another study documented resting during 8% of the time for observations from 2006 alone.. These findings support the suggestion that these whales are becoming more diurnal over time. Whether this change in behavioral budget is the result of having to forage more for fewer fish, a response to increased noise during daylight hours, or a combination of these and possibly additional factors is the subject of a paper being prepared for publication by Center for Whale Research staff.

Southern Resident orca

WDC: New calves are not necessarily a sure sign of recovery but it’s certainly encouraging to see new babies in the population. Why are we seeing this ‘baby boom’ in the past year, and do you think we could expect a similar trend next year?

DG: The new calves are certainly something to celebrate but they should not be used as a sign that the SRKW population is on a clear path to recovery.  Indeed, of the remaining eight calves born between December 30th 2014 and January 18th 2016 only one animal is known to be a female – J50, the first of the “baby boom” calves.  Of the other seven calves, four are known to be male and two more are suspected to be male.  The sex of one calf, L123, is a complete mystery at this point.  From a population perspective this sex ratio does not bode well for the growth of the SRKW community because there is only one female – as the key to population recovery, females are especially important for their reproductive potential.  Given that female killer whales don’t tend to given birth until after the age of ten and are only able to give birth roughly every three years, it is not hard to see how slowly the population will grow with only one female in the current cohort of calves.  

WDC: Why do you think the baby boom was restricted/primarily restricted to only J pod, and what does this mean for the population as a whole?

DG: The majority of the calves born during the recent “baby boom” have been born into J pod, most likely because J pod’s winter territory contains the most abundant prey resources and because a large proportion of the J pod adult population is made up of breeding age females. 

WDC: It’s a big, complicated problem, but what are things that people can do to help?

DG: One reason the SRKWs are in danger of extinction is the lack of political will to do the right thing for their recovery.  Individuals can help the Southern Residents by engaging in the political process.  Through emails, letters, and calls, let state and Congressional representatives, as well as the President of the United States, know that NOW is the time to breach the four lower Snake River dams to recover Chinook salmon, the orcas’ primary prey. 

In May 2015, NOAA Fisheries released their Species in the Spotlight report stating that the threats facing the orcas are well understood, the needed management actions are known, and that they will have a high probability of success.   Individuals can help by writing letters and making calls to government representatives and requesting them to require NOAA to take the management actions needed for the Southern Residents to recover.

Whenever possible, advocate politically for Southern Resident orca and Chinook salmon recovery and get involved with habitat restoration efforts such as tree plantings, stream clean-up, and restoration of salmon spawning and rearing habitats.

Make some simple lifestyle changes to benefit the environment.  Conserve water by turning off faucets when not in direct use, conserve power by turning off lights, don’t use toxic products, use plastics as seldom as possible, and use as little fossil fuel as possible.  Refrain from buying farmed salmon of any kind; consider not eating Chinook salmon.

And, sign our petition asking NMFS to act NOW to protect more of the Southern Residents’ home!

References/more information:
Garrett, C. and Ross, P.S. 2010. Recovering resident killer whales: A guide to contaminant sources, mitigation, and regulations of British Columbia.  Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Institute of Ocean Sciences.
Giles, D.A. and Cendak, R. 2010. An assessment of vessel effects on the cohesion state of Southern Resident killer whale groups, and measuring vessel compliance with boating guidelines.  NOAA/NMFS contract report.
Heimlich-Boran, J.R. 1988. Behavioral ecology of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the Pacific Northwest. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 66 (3): 565-578.
Lundin, J.I., Dills, R.L., Ylitalo, G.M., Hanson, M.B., Emmons, C.K., Schorr, G.S., Ahmad, J., Hempelmann, J.A., Parsons, K.M., and Wasser, S.K. 2016. Persistent organic pollutant determination in killer whale scat samples: optimization of a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry method and application to field samples. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 70 (1): 9-19.
Morin, P.A., Archer, F.I., Foote, A.D., Vilstrup, J., Allen, E.E., Wade, P., Durban, J., et al. 2010. Complete mitochondrial genome phylogeographic analysis of killer whales (Orcinus orca) indicates multiple species. Genome Research, 20 (7): 908-916.
Noren, D. P., Johnson, A. H. Rehder D., and Larson, A. 2009. Close approaches by vessels elicit surface active behaviors by southern resident killer whales. Endangered Species Research, 8 (3): 179-192.
Roman, J., Estes, J.A., Morissette, L., Smith, C., Costa, D., McCarthy, J., Nation, J.B., Nicol, S., Pershing, A., and Smetacek, V. 2014. Whales as marine ecosystem engineers. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 12 (7): 377-385.
Smith, C. R. 2006. Bigger is better: the role of whales as detritus in marine ecosystems. Whales, Whaling and Ocean Ecosystems, 286-301.
Williams, R., and Ashe, E. 2007. Killer whale evasive tactics vary with boat number. Journal of Zoology, 272 (4): 390-397.