Are Southern Resident Killer Whales Starving?

By Bob Friel

On March 6, the SeaDoc Society together with the National Marine Mammal Foundation and NOAA Fisheries assembled top U.S. and Canadian marine mammal experts for an urgent consultation on the nutritional condition of our Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW), the fish-eating orcas that have historically "resided" in the Salish Sea.

After 2015’s encouraging “baby boom,” 2016 was a disastrous year for SRKW, which suffered seven deaths, reducing the total population of our three pods—J, K and L—to just 78 individuals.

Along with dangerously low numbers and wild swings in their reproductive success, another troubling sign is that instead of staying organized in their full pods, the killer whales have recently been observed fragmenting into smaller groups, most likely because they’re having a harder time finding prey, especially the large Chinook salmon that are their most important source of food.

Concerns about our Southern Residents have led NOAA to declare them one of eight “Spotlight” species (out of 1,652 on the Endangered Species list) considered most at risk of extinction unless immediate action is taken to stabilize and recover their populations.

With the pressing need to act butting up against science’s necessarily slow, painstaking process of collecting, analyzing, challenging and retesting data and hypotheses, SeaDoc and collaborators jumped in to help move killer whale conservation forward as quickly as possible.

We asked the gathered researchers to share their most recent data—work that may not be published in peer-reviewed papers for several years—to see if we could find the answers needed right now to expedite recovery actions.

To ensure the proceedings maintained the greatest scientific validity, SeaDoc also convened an independent panel of three world-renowned marine mammal experts: Craig Matkin, founder and Executive Director of Alaska’s North Gulf Oceanic Society; Michael Moore, Senior Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; and Frances Gulland, Senior Scientist at California’s The Marine Mammal Center.

This prestigious panel was charged with overseeing the workshop, reviewing all materials, and producing a review paper that is already circulating among U.S. and Canadian regulatory agencies.

A full day of presentations and sidebar meetings offered a fascinating look at cutting-edge research along with a sobering view of the state of our Southern Residents. After a second day of discussion and deliberation, the panel was able to conclude that multiple lines of evidence indicate poor body condition in SRKW, a state that is “associated with loss of fetuses, calves and adults.” They also determined that although the overall causes are complex and complicated by random tragedies like ship strikes, “food availability, contaminant burden, and noise and vessel stress would all appear to be acting in concert causing the decline of this population.”

The bad news is that things are not looking good for our Southern Residents. The good news is that the issues impacting them are all caused by human activities and thus are in our power to remedy. We can help our beloved, iconic killer whales recover—if we have the will to act.

The US and Canadian Federal Agencies tasked with managing Southern Residents are actively reviewing management options for their recovery. Thanks to private donations, SeaDoc and collaborators will continue to develop an electronic medical record keeping system for killer whales that will enable us to tease out complex relationships between threats like nutrition, contaminants, sound, and disease.

Forty-three scientists took time out of their busy schedules to make this killer whale workshop a success. The SeaDoc Society gratefully acknowledges them and their sponsoring organizations, including the Center for Whale Research, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, National Marine Mammal Foundation, NOAA Fisheries, North Gulf Oceanic Society, Sea World, Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research, The Marine Mammal Center, University of British Columbia, University of Washington, Vancouver Aquarium, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.



Banner photo: southern resident killer whale L41 surfaces. Courtesy of the SeaDoc Society.

Bringing Back Rockfish

By Bob Friel

NOAA’s Draft Plan recommends actions to recover our endangered local rockfish

Photo of yelloweye rockfish by Ed Gullekson

Photo of yelloweye rockfish by Ed Gullekson

Rockfish are remarkable animals. The genus includes 28 of the Salish Sea’s 253 fish species, and their slow-growing, late-maturing, long-living, stay-at-home lifestyle is ideally adapted to our deep, rugged underwater habitats. With cryptic coloration and poisonous spines helping to keep them safe from predators, adult rockfish also have a low natural mortality rate, allowing them plenty of time (some species live more than 100 years!) to grow into large, prodigious breeders.

Unfortunately, rockfish ran into a snag when humans came along. They’re easy to catch, taste delicious, and those same life strategies that make them so successful under natural conditions also make them very vulnerable to overfishing. The biggest, fattest, oldest fish that serve as the best babymakers are also the lunkers so highly prized by fishermen. Since the mid-60s, our overall rockfish population has crashed by 70%.

Wildlife managers recognized the problem decades ago and began attempts to halt the decline. SeaDoc has long been heavily involved with rockfish issues and we continue to work closely with recreational fishermen, charter guides, and scientists from our local tribes, universities, NGOs, and all levels of government on both sides of the border in order to provide the best science possible to inform management decisions.

After looking at the science, thirteen rockfish were listed as Species of Concern by Washington State, which enacted commercial and recreation fishing bans. In British Columbia, the government set aside Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs). At the U.S. federal level, the big guns were pulled out in 2010 when three species of Salish Sea rockfish—yelloweye, Boccaccio, and canary—were listed under the Endangered Species Act. DNA research has since shown that our canary rockfish are part of the same population as the coastal canaries so they’ll likely be removed from ESA protection, but our yelloweye (Sebastes ruberrimus) and Boccaccio (Sebastes paucispinis) Distinct Population Segments remain listed, respectively, as threatened and endangered.

Canary rockfish photo by NOAA.

Canary rockfish photo by NOAA.

ESA listing requires NOAA Fisheries to come up with a plan to keep the affected species from going extinct. Drawing on studies (by SeaDoc and many others), they’ve come up with a Draft Rockfish Recovery Plan. The plan includes about 45 recommended actions, including doing a lot more research to better understand the rockfishes’ critical life stages (see our monthly update where divers are finding YOYs) as well as the threats they’re facing such as death by accidental bycatch and derelict fishing gear, water quality problems like persistent organic pollutants and low oxygen levels, and habitat issues including kelp restoration.

While all the stakeholders agree they want to see the return of healthy rockfish populations, if there’s one aspect of the plan sure to be a hot-button issue, it’s the call to start the separate public process for creating RCAs, MPAs (Marine Protected Areas), or some other form of marine reserves in the San Juan Islands and eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca where NOAA has identified a high risk of rockfish bycatch.

Marine reserves have been shown to help fish populations, especially with long-lived, resident species like rockfish, but some recreational fishermen believe the regulations already in effect do enough to protect the yelloweye and Boccaccio.

What do you think? NOAA wants to hear from you, and you can comment on their plan here until November 14. Along with taking comments, NOAA will be holding public meetings on the rockfish plan (more information and meeting schedule here). To arm yourself with all the info before you comment or attend a meeting, settle back, put your fins up and dive into the complete 157-page plan and its 83 pages of implementation appendices. It’s interesting reading, and chock full of facts about rockfish and their Salish Sea habitat.

Release the Canaries?

By Bob Friel and Joe Gaydos

A school of Canary Rockfish. Photo by NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

A school of Canary Rockfish. Photo by NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed to delist the Puget Sound / Georgia Basin Canary Rockfish (Sebastes pinniger) from the list of threatened species under the US Endangered Species Act. The delisting isn’t based on an increase in the Rockfish population, but on the results of recent genetic findings that show our local canaries are genetically the same as those living on the Washington coast and that they’re not, as previously thought, a Distinct Population Segment (DPS). Incidentally, Canary Rockfish on the Pacific Coast were considered overfished in 2000 and thanks to a rebuilding plan, were determined to be "rebuilt" in 2015.

Similar testing showed that Yelloweye Rockfish (S. ruberrimus) within the Salish Sea are different from those on the coast and thus form a DPS. Not enough Boccacio (S. paucispinis) could be sampled to determine if it is a DPS. Since both Yelloweye and Boccaccio Rockfish remain protected under the ESA, delisting canaries will have no effect on the stringent fishing regulations put in place to try and recover all our local Rockfish species.

After reviewing the supplementary scientific information provided by NOAA, SeaDoc submitted a formal comment in support of this decision (acknowledging that the science supports the decisions being made). Comments are due Sept. 6, 2016.  Click here to read the details of the science behind this proposed rule change and/or to submit a formal comment.

Salmon study wins Salish Sea Science prize, gets featured in Islands' Sounder

The SeaDoc Society presented its Salish Sea Science prize this week to a group of scientists from NOAA who studied the effects of copper runoff on salmon's ability to smell. The story was featured in The Islands' Sounder:

Scientists who showed how copper damages salmon's sense of smell and helped create legislation to remove copper from car brake pads are honored with the prestigious Salish Sea Science prize.


A team of U.S. scientists will be awarded the SeaDoc Society's prestigious Salish Sea Science prize this week for groundbreaking research they performed demonstrating the impacts of copper to salmon.

Read the full story in The Islands' Sounder.

Scientists who showed how copper damages salmon’s sense of smell receive prestigious award

It’s always beautiful when scientific discovery leads directly to concrete changes in environmental policy.

Such was the case with a team of scientists who will be honored by the SeaDoc Society on Friday for having demonstrated how copper damages salmon’s sense of smell. Their work led to legislation that removed copper from car brake pads in Washington State.

The team, led by NOAA scientists Drs. Jenifer McIntyre, David Baldwin, and Nathaniel Scholz, helped pave the way for the legislation, which will benefit salmon recovery by reducing the loadings of toxic metals to the Salish Sea by hundreds of thousands of pounds each year.

The award will be presented at the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference, which starts April 13 in Vancouver, B.C. Close to 1,000 scientists and conservationists from both sides of the U.S.-Canada border are expected to convene for three days to discuss recovery of the Salish Sea.

Copper is a major constituent of conventional brake pads and is released with other metals in a fine dusting each time a car slows. This metal is then washed into streams, rivers and the Salish Sea by rainfall. Copper has long been known to disrupt the sense of smell in fish, but the consequences of transient, low-level copper exposures for salmon were unknown when the NOAA team began studying this problem in the early 2000s.

The prize-winning scientists and their colleagues first showed that copper blocks salmon's ability to smell well during the short length of a typical stormwater runoff event.

The team then demonstrated that copper-caused damage to the olfactory (smell) system actually made juvenile salmon more vulnerable to predators. Salmon attacked by predators release a smell from torn skin, which acts as an alarm signal for other salmon to evade attack. Salmon exposed to copper at levels expected during a storm event failed to respond to this alarm cue, causing higher rates of mortality in predator-prey encounters.

The scientists addressed several other natural resource management concerns, including the applicability of the new findings across salmon species and how different water conditions influence how much copper is available to injure the salmon's olfactory system.

The SeaDoc Society's Salish Sea Science Prize comes with a $2,000 cash prize. It is bestowed biennially to recognize a scientist or group of scientists whose work has resulted in the demonstrated improved health of fish and wildlife populations in the Salish Sea. It is given in recognition of, and to honor the spirit of the late Stephanie Wagner, who loved the region and its wildlife.

The SeaDoc Society is about people and science healing the sea. It funds and conducts marine science and uses science to improve management and conservation in the Salish Sea. It is a program of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center, a center of excellence at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.