killer whales

Salish Sea Wild: The Scoop on Southern Resident Killer Whales

Salish Sea Wild: The Scoop on Southern Resident Killer Whales

In this episode, Team SeaDoc works with scientists trying to save the Salish Sea’s most iconic and endangered species: the Southern Resident killer whale. The goal is to collect critical health and diet data from each of the 73 surviving animals. So how does a wildlife veterinarian make a house call to do non-invasive medical tests on 10-ton killer whales in the open sea? It takes sharp eyes and a fine mesh net.

How boat noise affects Southern Resident Killer Whales - Joe Gaydos

SeaDoc Society Science Director Joe Gaydos speaks about SB 5577 (Orca whales/vessels) to the Washington Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee on Feb 12th, 2019. Watch Joe’s statement below:

Want to call your legislator and share your thoughts about Southern Resident Killer Whale recovery? Do it today!

The Economic Impact of Killer Whales in the Salish Sea

The Economic Impact of Killer Whales in the Salish Sea

The Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) is a flagship species, a cultural icon, and an economic driver for Washington State. However, depleted Chinook salmon stocks, vessel-related noise and disturbance, and increasingly polluted waters put the orca population at risk of extinction. Efforts are underway to aid and support orca recovery, but these efforts are time consuming and expensive. 

Ensuring the Future of Pacific Herring in the Salish Sea

Ensuring the Future of Pacific Herring in the Salish Sea

Herring are a small fish that play a big role up the food chain, and at the moment scientists don’t know nearly enough about their health status in the Salish Sea. That’s why SeaDoc funded a study that helped bring many top herring experts together for the first time–a crucial first step in ensuring their future.  

The team recently published a report, “Assessment and Management of Pacific Herring in the Salish Sea: Conserving and Recovering a Culturally Significant and Ecologically Critical Component of the Food Web,” which included the creation of a model that simulated how herring populations respond to key environmental stressors under various scenarios.

Artificial Intelligence and the Health of Killer Whales

For the past few years, SeaDoc has led an effort to compile individual health records for killer whales, with an eye toward better understanding threats across entire populations. Great strides have been made on that front, but the power of those records as a tool for research is about to go up a notch thanks to a grant from Microsoft as part of their AI for Earth program.

AI for Earth aims to amplify human ingenuity and advance sustainability with the goal of empowering organizations to thrive amid limited resources. SeaDoc will receive a seed grant that provides access to Microsoft Azure’s cloud-computing platform and assistance with artificial intelligence computing tools for data analysis.

"It is exciting to have Microsoft investing in recovery of southern resident killer whales but I'm even more fired up about what this is going to do for improving killer whale health," said SeaDoc Chief Scientist Joe Gaydos.

Multiple organizations including Center for Whale Research, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, NOAA Fisheries, SeaWorld, SR3 - Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research, and marine mammal stranding networks all over the West Coast have been entering killer whale health data into a shared database being built by Lisa Clowers at the National Marine Mammal Foundation. This allows us to look at individual animal health, but the database also permits evaluation of trends, comparisons between populations, and evaluation of factors that contribute to disease, which can be extremely valuable in understanding threats at the population level. Currently the process is slow and definitely not real-time. But this latest grant from Microsoft has the potential to change that for the good of conservation.

The grant from Microsoft will permit us to do real-time data entry and evaluation, which will enable us to more quickly and effectively respond to threats. This is particularly important with a species like killer whales, where the added computing power and Microsoft's help in analyzing multiple complex factors will help us understand what causes disease and hopefully help prevent it too. Individual animal immune status, the disease agent itself, and a huge suite of environmental factors influence diseases so we have to address all of those simultaneously to know where we can improve things for the whales.

"We believe that artificial intelligence has incredible potential to accelerate efforts to conserve our planet,” said Bonnie Lei, project manager of Microsoft’s AI for Earth program. “We started AI for Earth to get AI tools and training into the hands of people around the world tackling environmental challenges. The SeaDoc Society has long worked to protect the health of marine wildlife and ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest, and we are pleased to award them a grant to use AI tools to better track and protect endangered whale populations."

We’re excited about this opportunity to further our killer whale health work, and we thank Microsoft for making these powerful tools available to us.

Where do Pacific sand lance live and why does it matter?

Sand lance are a small forage fish known for burrowing into the sand at the bottom of the sea. They’re largely out of human sight, but it would be a mistake to ignore them because they play a crucial role on the bottom of the food web that runs all the way to the top.

They’re an important food source for sea birds like the marbled murrelet and fish like Chinook salmon. If the Pacific sand lance population struggles, a negative ripple effect could be seen all the way up to southern resident killer whales, which eat Chinook salmon.

To date, our knowledge of Pacific sand lance habitat is basic at best, making it very hard to monitor and protect these important fish. That’s why Dr. Cliff Robinson of the Pacific Wildlife Foundation and Dr. Douglas Bertram of Environment & Climate Change Canada pitched a proposal to dig in (read the next few paragraphs and you’ll discover this is a pun!) and enhance the current GIS-based seafloor model that best describes sand lance habitat in the Salish Sea. Defining their habitat and monitoring their population can set the stage for future conservation efforts.

SeaDoc is funding their study, which went into full-swing in 2017. The team recently shared some cool photos from their fieldwork.

“Sand lance are important because they take plankton and convert it into fat,” said SeaDoc Society Science Director Dr. Joe Gaydos. “Tons of birds, fish and mammals eat them. If you can identify and protect the habitat they need, it benefits sand lance and all of the animals that eat them.”

Sand lance are unique in that they bury themselves in medium-coarse sand with low silt content when they’re not feeding in the water column. Robinson and Bertram’s goal is to refine their model to be able to identify and map this important habitat in the Salish Sea. To look for the presence or absence of buried sand lance in potential habitat, the team is taking boats out and using a claw-like grab sampler to pull up sediment or using underwater drop cameras to look for fish entering or emerging from the sand.

We’ll keep you updated as they continue their study.

Patagonia Awards SeaDoc an Environmental Grant

Leon Sommes, Joe Gaydos, and Shawna Franklin

Leon Sommes, Joe Gaydos, and Shawna Franklin

Thanks to the recommendation of world famous kayakers Shawna Franklin and Leon Sommes (who own Body Boat Blade International), SeaDoc was awarded an environmental  grant from Patagonia.

SeaDoc Regional Director Markus Naugle reflected, "It was a huge honor for SeaDoc to be recognized as a group that is making a positive change in the world of marine conservation."

Specifically, SeaDoc will use this generous donation from Patagonia to help with our efforts to better understand the health of the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales and further develop our medical record system for these endangered animals.

Thank you Shawna and Leon and thank you Patagonia!

Taking Care of the Little Things

By Bob Friel

Everybody loves the Salish Sea’s killer whales, playful porpoise, and puppy-like seals. Birders flock here to see such feathered favorites as rhinoceros auklets, tufted puffins, and marbled murrelets. And no fish anywhere is as exalted as our Chinook, the king salmon, appreciated as sport fish, table fare, and cultural icon.

But where’s the love for the sand lance? Who here is a herring hugger?

Forage fish are the Rodney Dangerfields of the sea—they get no respect. Even that catchall name for the many different species of small schooling fish suggests they exist only to serve as self-propelled snacks. However, without these little fish that feed at the base of the food web, converting plankton into silvery packets of energy, there wouldn’t be any of those other more charismatic critters. No auklets, no puffins, and no king salmon. And without king salmon, of course, the Southern Resident Killer Whales disappear.

It’s impossible to exaggerate the importance of forage fish to the overall health of the Salish Sea. Unfortunately the research and, where needed, recovery work on these vital species hasn’t been commensurate with their value. So SeaDoc is investing in forage fish by funding two new projects, one on sand lance and the other on herring.

With everything from seabirds to sea lions hunting them, Pacific sand lance (Ammodytes personatus) have evolved an ingenious survival strategy. Whenever they’re not grazing on plankton in the water column, they tuck themselves into the sandy seabed to hide from predators and wait for their next feeding opportunity.

We know that Pacific sand lance nourish myriad crucial Salish Sea species, and a recent Northwest Straits Initiative / SeaDoc study showed smaller sand lance are widely distributed in our near shore waters year round, with population peaks in the summer. But we still don’t know the answers to some basic questions about these fascinating little fish, such as: Where exactly do they like to hide? How many of them are there? And, are their populations stable?

Now, we’re funding a new project that will use underwater video and a bottom-biting oceanographic tool called a Van Veen Sampler to ascertain the exact types of sea floor where the sand lance prefer to bury (too silty and they can’t breathe; too gravelly and they can injure themselves while tunneling). Co-investigators Drs. Cliff Robinson (Pacific Wildlife Foundation / University of Victoria) and Doug Bertram (Environment and Climate Change Canada) and their team will precisely map those habitats, build an improved model for predicting seafloor use by sand lance, and re-sample study sites monthly to look at population health and seasonal variability.

Compared to our knowledge base on sand lance, we know quite a bit about Salish Sea herring. As the foundational forage fish—the energy source that spins a huge part of our food web—healthy herring populations are considered so critical that the Puget Sound Partnership lists them as one of our “vital signs.” Simply checking the dwindling numbers of many herring stocks on the Washington State side of the Salish Sea, tells you that the ecosystem is in trouble.

The herring stock that spawns at Cherry Point, site of the state’s largest oil refinery, was once the most prolific in all of Puget Sound. Since 1973, the Cherry Point population has crashed by more than 93 percent. While this stock and others on the U.S. side are faltering, in British Columbia's Strait of Georgia they’re currently booming. With your support, our research is designed to find out reasons why some stocks are hurting and how to recover them as soon as possible.

Helping herring will never be as sexy as salmon conservation, but it’s every bit as important to the health of our ecosystem. So SeaDoc is jumpstarting the recovery process for Puget Sound herring by funding a joint US / Canadian team co-led by Drs. Tessa Francis (Puget Sound Institute, UW Tacoma) and Dayv Lowry (WA Department of Fish and Wildlife) that will act as the nexus for relevant data and expertise. This project will determine the specific threats harming the southern herring populations, assess all of the stocks, and evaluate the state of the science, policies, and ongoing recovery efforts in order to ultimately produce a comprehensive Salish Sea herring conservation and management plan.

Thanks to your support, both new projects continue the SeaDoc Society’s mission to provide the science that’s helping to heal our Salish Sea.

This holiday season, show some love to the lowly forage fish. Go ahead: hug a herring.



Banner photo: Rhinocerus auklet with sand lance. Courtesy of Phil Green, from The Nature Conservancy.

Large Whale Disentanglement Training

By Bob Friel

A whale rescue team aboard SeaDoc’s research boat Molly B takes part in an entanglement training scenario. Photo by Bob Friel. 

A whale rescue team aboard SeaDoc’s research boat Molly B takes part in an entanglement training scenario. Photo by Bob Friel. 

For the Salish Sea, 2016 has been the Summer of the Humpback. Normally we see a small handful of humpback whales hang around all season, with others passing through in spring and fall, but this year more than 70 of the huge, pickle-faced cetaceans spent the entire summer feeding and frolicking in local waters.

While the number of big whales is a boon for whale watchers because our endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales have been forced to roam far and wide in search of fewer and fewer salmon, it’s also drawn attention to how we, as a region, are woefully unprepared to handle some of the issues that accompany burgeoning populations of large whales.

California has seen a similar increase in humpbacks showing up inshore, which is where the whales come into contact with fishing gear. Entangled as they swim through lobster lines or when curious calves get caught up playing with crab floats, the whales are liable to get wrapped in super strong synthetic lines that hinder their swimming, anchor them to the bottom, or even slice their tails off.

On the East Coast, half the humpback population shows scars from run-ins with manmade obstacles. And since the Salish Sea’s summertime whale influx coincides with the laying of gillnets and many miles of line connected to crab and shrimp pots, it’s likely only a matter of time before we wind up with a snared humpback or, even worse, a tangled resident orca.

In order to begin assembling a team prepared to respond to large whales in trouble, SeaDoc and Whale Museum staff joined local Marine Mammal Stranding Network volunteers and officials from NOAA for a full day of training on how to document and evaluate these dangerous situations. The group then ran on-water scenarios using a Washington Fish & Wildlife boat as stand-in for a 40-ton entangled humpback. Trainees practiced throwing special grappling hooks to snare trailing lines and attached telemetry buoys to track the "whale" by satellite and VHF.

This was just the first step in getting ready for problems we hope we never see but must be prepared for. For now, sighting and documenting issues is the priority, and it’s something everyone can be involved in. So while you’re enjoying watching our local whales, keep an eye out for any that appear entangled or seem in distress. If you spot something, keep your required distance (100 yards for humpbacks; 200 yards for resident orcas) but get photos or video, and call the hotline at: 877-SOS-WHALE.