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Americans approve tagging of endangered killer whales

Jan 25 2012

A program to attach tags to endangered southern resident killer whales has been given the go-ahead by the U.S. federal government.

The whales spend much of summer and fall in the Salish Sea, around the southern Vancouver Island and Washington coastline. But little is known about their winter activities and researchers want to track their movements by attaching tiny satellite transmitters to their dorsal fins.

"We know they show up in California and they've been seen as far north as the north end of the Queen Charlottes [Haida Gwaii]. But between that, where do they spend their time?" said Brad Hanson, wildlife biologist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who is leading the tagging program.

Information will help designate critical habitat for the whales, which have 89 members in three pods, Hanson said.

"A small number of tags can provide a tremendous amount of information in a very short length of time," he said. "It helps you redefine your thinking and questions."

However, some scientists believe tagging is too intrusive and could cause infections. When the tag comes off, barbs tear the flesh and can leave a golf-ball sized hole, said Ken Balcomb, senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbour, Washington.

"It will heal up, given good saltwater and a healthy environment, but we also know J18 got a super-infection after a puncture wound in his side. And he couldn't fight it off and died," Balcomb said. "The risk is not worth it. I don't see the benefit and there's certainly not a cohesive plan."

Tagging would be useful only if there was a funded program to test the food supply and water in areas the whales frequent, Balcomb said. While critical habitat should be designated under the U.S.

Endangered Species Act, the political will is missing, he said. "That affects the military, fishing and everything."

Hanson does not believe the tags, which usually remain attached for one to three months, will hurt the orcas, most of which have nicks and scars on their dorsal fins.

The tag is about the size of a nine-volt battery with two retention darts, he said. "Given the relative size, the closest thing would be like an earring piercing," he said.

Hanson said he has tagged 16 different species, including transient killer whales, without ill-effects.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has given approval for two whales from each pod to be tagged, for a total of six.

But Hanson does not expect to successfully tag that many killer whales in one year. Lack of daylight, lack of information about the whereabouts of the whales and bad weather all make it difficult to accurately shoot a pneumatic dart projector, he said. There are also strict rules about which whales can be tagged.

"We're only going to be tagging adult males over the age of 15 and post-reproductive females," Hanson said.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada is not planning a similar program, said spokeswoman Diane Lake.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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