Op-Ed

Whatcom View: NOAA spotlights northwest killer whales

L94, an adult female Southern Resident killer whale, nurses her calf in this image taken by an unmanned aerial vehicle from above 90 feet under National Marine Fisheries Service research permit and FAA flight authorization. Lactation is energetically costly for these whales, and future photogrammetry images of the calf’s growth and the mother’s condition will reveal if the mother is getting enough food to support both herself and the calf. Note the distinctive saddle patch on the mother. This allows scientists to recognize individual whales in photographs.
L94, an adult female Southern Resident killer whale, nurses her calf in this image taken by an unmanned aerial vehicle from above 90 feet under National Marine Fisheries Service research permit and FAA flight authorization. Lactation is energetically costly for these whales, and future photogrammetry images of the calf’s growth and the mother’s condition will reveal if the mother is getting enough food to support both herself and the calf. Note the distinctive saddle patch on the mother. This allows scientists to recognize individual whales in photographs. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

This has been a good year for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales that live in our backyard — approximately 10 calves were born this year — the most in nearly 20 years. “Good” is a relative term, however, as the whales remain highly endangered, and far from meeting recovery goals.

At NOAA Fisheries, we’re determined to do what we can to make this promising year more than a blip that fades from the screen. Fascinating new aerial photos taken by a remotely operated hexacopter have given us new insights into the whales’ health and family lives, helping researchers and managers enhance recovery strategies. The Southern Residents are now one of eight “Species in the Spotlight,” which are nationally important species at high risk of extinction but with great promise for recovery. We need to all work together — and act now.

Ongoing diet studies help us understand whether certain salmon stocks are particularly important to the whales.

Our new five-year action plan outlines steps to support the whales and address the most critical threats to their survival. Key actions include:

Protecting whales from vessel impacts. Nearly five years ago we developed rules to help protect the whales from vessel traffic and noise. We have also worked with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to increase the enforcement presence in waters critical to the whales. Now it’s time to evaluate compliance with the rules, and how effectively they have reduced noise. We appreciate the support from the whale watching community, which shares our interest in protecting the whales. We will work with Canada to encourage similar protections across the border.

Research plan to identify and address key health issues. We will use information on contaminant levels and reproductive history of each whale to build a database of individual health records. Individual health profiles will help us track the condition of individual whales over time and recognize key risks, such as time of year when they are in most need of food or which contaminants may pose the biggest risk. Improving our knowledge of their health will help us better prioritize recovery actions related to prey and contaminants.

Rebuilding Southern Resident prey. The Southern Residents, like many of us, relish Northwest salmon as a key staple. The high-resolution aerial photos allow for detailed measurements that should tell us whether they are getting enough food. Ongoing studies of their diet will also help us understand whether certain salmon stocks are particularly important to the whales. We are concerned that the unusually warm ocean conditions of the past few years may be hard on salmon, so we want to know if we could focus salmon recovery strategies to support those stocks the whales most depend on.

There is more, and you can read about it on our Species in the Spotlight website: go.usa.gov/cPhjh.

Our work is decidedly part of a larger community of effort by so many partners and volunteers, taking steps both big and small, direct and indirect. We salute our partners, and call upon us all to recommit ourselves to this broader effort for the long-term. And remember that even small steps can and do add up. Check out the Seattle Aquarium’s list of actions to learn more: seattleaquarium.org/orcas. Please join us, and pass the word.

Will Stelle is regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast region. John Stein is director of NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

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