Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. X No. 2 - April 2001

Four Case Studies: Issues, Struggles, And Solutions

By William Rossiter, CSI President

What do four diverse species of cetaceans thousands of miles apart have in common? All are threatened by human impacts. The following articles outline issues and solutions regarding vulnerable populations of Hector's dolphins, orcas, right whales and gray whales. Each example is very different, even to the way humans are impacting them. These four cases involve highly visible cetaceans along developed coastlines. How many others are in trouble? Will we learn of their problems in time? Will we be motivated to find solutions?

Hector's Dolphins: The True Cost of Gill Nets

From Dr. Steve Dawson of New Zealand comes this first example, unfortunately just days too late for you to comment by the 17 April deadline: After considerable review and debate the New Zealand Minister of Fisheries has asked recently for public comment on four options for the management of the North Island Hector's dolphin, with a range of only 220 nm of coastline. CSI recalls that these beautiful and tiny dolphins were first proven to be in trouble from fisheries interactions in the mid 1980's, thanks to Drs. Liz Slooten and Steve Dawson. Largely due to their actions, the first designated sanctuary for the species was created at Banks Peninsula. Since then politics, economics and science have churned a debate over the need for more and more studies, while the dolphins' troubles continued.

Hector's dolphins are an endangered species. Unique to New Zealand, they number fewer than 4,000 individuals. The North Island population, probably fewer than 100 individuals, was listed as critically endangered on the 2000 World Conservation Union's international Red List of threatened species. The genetically unique North Island population is confirmed to be still declining, most likely from gillnet bycatch. In cold statistics the population cannot sustain more than one dolphin killed in a net every five years.

Meetings and proposals by fishers, conservation groups, scientists and government officials have agreed that the bycatch should be zero if the population is to recover, but the failure to formalize a conservation management plan has prevented meaningful solutions. The gillnet fisheries quotas within the range of the South Island Hector's dolphin population have actually increased in several areas.

The Minister's option supported, with supplements, by almost all conservation groups and many scientists would create a protected area without gillnetting for about 200 of the 220 nm of Hector's dolphin habitat off the West Coast of the North Island. It would provide the strongest protection of the four options in the Minister's paper. Commercial fishers using trawling and Danish seining would be required to carry observers, video cameras or other means of detecting dolphin captures. The other options are much more lenient to gillnetters. Other management tools proposed include pingers and a limit on bycatch, but these are considered much less effective than a protected area. In addition, many experts believe that the protected area should be extended further south, four nautical miles out to sea, include the harbors as well as the open coastline, and restrict trawling as well as gillnetting in the protected area. Will this population survive the haggling?

Puget Sound Orcas: We Just Can't Leave Them Alone

Howard Garrett of Orca Conservancy (http://www.orcaconservancy.org) provides us with an essay on the continuing problems humans have literally dumped on the famous J, K, and L pods of Puget Sound, Washington:

Over the past 55-plus million years the Order Cetacea has filled the seas with more than 75 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises. They have made extreme adaptations and drastically modified their anatomies as they radiated into every available niche in the marine ecosystem. Together they form a complex and harmonious diversity. The Orca has refined that strategy by apportioning available resources and habitats between communities of orcas and thus avoiding the dangers and damages of conflict.

The Orca, or killer whale, is a wondrous and impressive creature by any measure. Masters of their realm, incredibly fast and agile, there is not a predator in the sea that can touch Orcinus orca. And yet, there is no recorded case of a free-ranging orca ever harming a human. The typical range of the 84 members of J, K and L pods of the Southern Resident orca community includes the entire inland waterways of Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, and Canada's Georgia Strait, together known as the Salish Sea. The Southern Residents generally travel around 300 miles in the open Pacific Ocean, down the coast of Washington, and along Vancouver Island to the north. They are capable of traveling much further however. In April 2000, 44 members of K and L pods were photographed off Monterey, California. They typically swim from 75 to 100 miles every 24 hours.

For the past hundred years our modern industrial society has depleted the ecosystem and decimated the salmon runs they depend on. We've loaded every organism in their habitat with persistent, accumulating toxins that disrupt vital hormones. The Orcas of Puget Sound are suffering a double whammy of starvation and toxic contamination that weakens immune systems and distorts fragile development of neurological and reproductive systems in newborns.

The toxins lodge in the fatty tissues, so when the whales are hungry due to long gaps between salmon runs, their sustenance derives from blubber layers, causing toxins to flush into their bloodstreams where they randomly mimic hormonal action. Toxins built up over females' lifetimes attach themselves to high-fat mother's milk and are flushed directly into nursing babies. The community has declined by over 12% in the past six years.

The Center for Biological Diversity is petitioning the EPA to list the Southern Resident community as an endangered species, in an effort to galvanize broad public and governmental support for the wide range of lifestyle, policy and regulatory changes needed to protect and restore the community. We all need to envision a thriving ecosystem to provide needed sustenance for orcas.

For countless millennia Orcas have been traveling together in multi-generational pod groupings, cooperatively foraging and socializing, always thoroughly engaged in the complex social life of their families. They commonly touch pectoral fins while swimming. They appear to be led by elder matriarchs as they glide with masterful ease through these vast estuaries. The seven adult males, four sub-adult males, 38 adult females and 35 juveniles under 12 years old are all capable of swimming at speeds of 30 mph for up to an hour. On New Year's Day, 2001, all three pods converged for a "superpod" greeting event in lower Puget Sound, just off Seattle. A great deal of accumulated knowledge about their habitat and their cultural and family lives resides in the memories of orcas of advanced years, to guide the community and pass down through generations.

Lifetime continuity of family members allows complex social patterns to develop within each pod and community. Scientists are coming to the realization that we are dealing with mammals capable of developing complex cultures mediated by vocal language, much like humans.


Ewok and Wog, two members of Puget Sound's J pod, have both died,
presumably from diseases associated with pollution.

(Photo by William Rossiter)

Orca brains are enormous, about 5 times the size of human brains and roughly the same size as the largest brains to have evolved on Earth, found in sperm whales. Orcas seem to be masters of awareness and self-control. Like all cetaceans, they have brought their breathing under conscious control. Amazingly, they rest by relaxing one hemisphere of their brain while guiding their swimming and breathing with the other half. Their thermoregulation, or body temperature control, also seems to be responsive to conscious decision as they control blood flow to either retain internal heat or dissipate it to their surroundings. The onset of ovulation is unpredictable among female captive orcas, indicating that conception may also be subject to conscious choice. It is not known to what extent orcas may have further developed conscious control over their physical, mental and emotional lives.

Though orcas have no predators, they avoid overpopulating their habitats. They pose no threat to humans. Aggression of any kind is extremely rare among orcas. Their physical adaptations have evolved over tens of millions of years in harmony with their environment to a peak of metabolic robustness. But now the fate of Pacific Northwest orcas, and all other killer whales around the globe, depends on our restoring the health of their marine ecosystems. These intelligent and resourceful creatures will do well as long as their basic food supply is available and not filled with poisonous industrial waste. Orcas are at the top of the food chain so all the other sea creatures from krill to herring to sea lions must prosper, if the orcas are to survive. In Washington State and British Columbia, the quality of our marine waters and the abundance of salmon runs are crucial to the continued presence and survival of the Southern Resident orca community. Watershed habitat, including mountainsides of deep forests and clear streams, must be healthy enough to support large populations of spawning salmon, or the Southern Resident orcas will either dwindle until there are no survivors or, if possible, find another place to live. If we care for our natural environment in the years to come, our lives will continue to be enriched by knowing that we share this region with the magnificent and mysterious orca.

What will it take to bring the Southern Resident orca community back from the brink? Some have predicted that the Southern Residents will be extinct in just a few orca generations if present trends continue. But recently a variety of reports about orcas have appeared in national and worldwide media and in the literature of environmental organizations. The world is beginning to hear about the orcas' recent population decline, and the world is responding. Broad public support is arriving to help save the orcas.

It's none too soon. Major social changes are needed to actually improve orca habitat. It will take a substantially new consensus to alter our beliefs and lifestyles to do what's necessary. To restore watershed habitat, some dams will have to come down, logging may need to be more controlled, farmers and ranchers will have to allow streams to have shade and wetlands, and leave enough water in them for fish to swim and spawn in.

Busloads of volunteers will be needed to nurture streams back to life. Persistent toxins must be removed or stabilized at hundreds of dump sites on land and underwater. New sewage treatment plants may need to be built. Renewable energy will need to be prioritized to avoid blocking rivers for hydropower or polluting the air and water with fossil fuels. Fishing may need to be more limited. Oil spill prevention must become the highest possible priority. Vessel traffic needs to yield to accommodate wildlife in general and orcas in particular. Population growth has reached and exceeded natural limits. These are tough issues, and major political and social adaptations are called for to trim the impact of human populations on orca habitat. So it's comforting to see that a broad voice for orca habitat conservation is emerging. A big team is needed to move effectively on so many fronts.

Right Whales: A Celebration of Births

The Western North Atlantic right whale population has hovered near 300 for several years. To help Congress has appropriated almost $30,000 per whale in the last two years combined. Whale watch and private boats are not permitted to approach within 500 yards. A major disentanglement effort has been built around the species tendency to get caught in ropes and nets. Significant research is underway, even documenting the body movements of submerged right whales in three dimensions as they react to stimuli such as food density, ships and noise. Yet right whales continue to suffer an onslaught of human impacts that include ship strikes, fisheries entanglements, and chemical and noise pollution. Last year only one calf was known to have survived.

But something wonderful has happened! As of 1 April this season's calf count surged to 27, with only 2 documented mortalities. Dr. Stormy Mayo of the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) had predicted some of the increase, after his research established a link between food availability and calf production, and Cape Cod Bay experienced a substantial increase in food resources over the 1999 winter. Dr. Mayo is the first to stress that there may be other factors at work, but everyone is celebrating the first good news in years.

Given the extraordinary demands of pregnancy in this long-lived species, could a female right whale prevent or terminate pregnancy until she finds adequate food to store the energy required producing and supporting a calf though weaning?

Generally only pregnant female right whales migrate to the calving grounds off Florida and Georgia. Intense aerial surveys attempt to identify and track especially mothers and calves to provide accurate statistics as well as a necessary warning system to prevent collisions with ships; the mothers and calves make their way north through the shipping gauntlet of every major port on the east coast. Since January several survey flights prevented tragic collisions by notifying ships just in time. Other shipping strategies include a mandatory reporting system that adjusts to whale movements, and alternate shipping lanes when whales congregate too close to an active lane. Some experiments with acoustic warning devices have also been suggested.

Right whale

Right Whale
(Photo by William Rossiter)

While only ten calves had been born in the last three years combined, none were to mothers that summer in the Bay of Fundy or Gulf of Maine. All those calves were born to right whales that summer in an unknown area, perhaps with a more reliable food resource.

These findings support the significance of Cape Cod Bay as a primary food resource for right whales, and underscore concerns with the Boston Outfall, a high volume discharge of partially treated sewage a few miles north of the Bay. Will this effluent change the prey distribution and abundance that the whales depend on? To monitor the Outfall's potential impact on the Bay, the CCS's Outfall Monitoring Project is using dedicated cruises to document a spectrum of environmental factors, tracing the natural circulation of sewage-specific isotopes, as well as plankton densities. CSI is a proud sponsor of one monitoring station. For considerably more information see: http://www.coastalstudies.org, and the Right Whale News, now available through the Georgia Environmental Policy Institute: http://www.GEPInstitute.com. The latter gives many web sites that illustrate the full spectrum of extraordinary effort to save the right whale.

Gray Whales: The Celebration's Soured

If conditions in 1994 had been like 2000 the gray whale would not have been removed from the Endangered Species list. But in 1994 the gray whale looked like the poster whale for NMFS, the ideal success story of the Endangered Species Act, and a cause for celebration.

Today, even with the most optimistic estimate of the whale population at 26,600, conditions necessary for the population's survival may be changing rapidly for the worse. Will NMFS be reluctant to re-evaluate the whale's situation objectively, or will NMFS be politicized from above with the command that all decisions about this species must support Makah whaling? The issue is about more than whaling.

Why the alarm? Only four calves had been seen by American Cetacean Society spotters by 14 April, increasing speculation that the reproductive rate of Eastern North Pacific gray whales is at least alarmingly low. In 1999 273 whales stranded on the North American coast, five to thirteen times higher than the counts from 1995 to 1998. Over 250 strandings were reported as of May 2000. Reported strandings this year may be lower than last, but no one in their right mind can discount the multi-year implications that this whale population is under extreme pressure.

A mandated five-year NMFS study of the population was triggered when the species was removed from the List of Endangered Species in 1994. NMFS has extended the study for two more years because of low calf production and high stranding rates. A low profile scientific workshop last year had assembled scientists to discuss the latest information not yet available to NMFS. Their consensus was increased concern.

In late March NMFS announced also that, because of the large number of comments received on the Draft Makah Whaling Environmental Assessment (EA), a final EA and management plan would be weeks or months later than planned. A Makah Tribal spokesperson said that the Makah would delay whaling until the final assessment is released, even as the northbound migration has begun. CSI had signed on to the Draft EA comments submitted on behalf of Australians for Animals and others, including scientists.

Also in late March a "Petition for the Listing of the Gray Whale Eschrichtius robustus Under the Endangered Species Act" was submitted on behalf of Australians for Animals and The Fund for Animals, with the support of The Great Whales Foundation, Cetacean Society International, Sea Sanctuary, Inc., and the Humane Society of Canada.

CSI includes an abridged version of the Petition's Executive Summary here to outline the reasons for concern and need for caution. The full Petition is available on request. The Summary states: "that the petition requests that the NOAA/NMFS list the eastern North Pacific population of gray whales Eschrichtius robustus as an endangered or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The listing is warranted based on adverse and continuing threats to the gray whale and its habitat. The primary threats fall into three of the five listing criteria contained in the Endangered Species Act."

Under Criteria A: The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range, and Criteria E: Other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence:

Gray whales are threatened by the direct, indirect, and cumulative adverse impacts caused by oil and gas exploration and extractions activities, noise impacts and aboriginal kills. Gray whales and their habitat are under increasing threats from global warming, El-Niño events, bottom trawling, and contaminants. These factors have caused a drastic change in the Bering and Chukchi Sea ecosystem. The abundance and composition of benthic amphipods, the primary food supply of the gray whale, have been reduced significantly. The extent and severity of the impacts indisputably support a listing of this population.

Documented gray whale mortalities caused by ship strikes, entanglements with fishing gear, disease, predation, and strandings are minimum estimates. Undocumented mortalities are neither estimated nor considered in gray whale management.

An increase in sea surface temperature attributable to global warming and El-Niño events have caused a reduction in primary production resulting in a decline in benthic amphipods. Collapses of 30 and 50 percent have been documented in the Chirikov Basin in 1986-87, 1990-94, and 1998-99, with the total decline likely exceeding 50 percent in some areas. Despite the importance of benthic amphipods to gray whales and other marine mammals, amphipod stocks have not been subject to monitoring since 1988.

Gray Whale

Gray Whale
(Photo by William Rossiter)

Amphipod population recovery takes tens to hundreds of years, assuming the habitat is still suitable to facilitate recovery. Climatic factors limiting the recovery include rising sea temperatures, a nine percent per decade reduction in sea ice, and changes to ocean currents, sediment suspension, and storm frequency and intensity. Direct human factors include excessive bottom trawling, Increased oil and gas exploration and extraction activities, and toxic contaminants from industrial and agricultural sources. The decline in benthic amphipods had direct and immediate impacts on the survival and viability of the gray whale population, as evidenced by a significant increase in mortality, evidence of starvation, substantial increase in stranding, and a severe reduction in production since 1999.

Criteria D: The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms.

The removal of the gray whale from the list of threatened and endangered species under the Endangered Species Act in 1994 was premature and motivated more by politics than by science. Inadequate laws and the deliberate misinterpretation of certain laws by the U.S. government have left the gray whale and its habitat without adequate protection.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) is not effective here as it permits the incidental take of gray whales associated with industrial activities, does not prevent the resumption of whaling by the Makah, and provides absolutely no protection to gray whale habitat. The Potential Biological Removal level calculated for the gray whale as required by the MMPA is not sustainable, is not based on currently valid population growth dynamics, and will cause the extirpation of the population.

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling and the International Whaling Commission failed, due to the U.S. government's misinterpretation of international policies, to prevent Makah whaling.

The National Environmental Policy Act has failed to protect the gray whale and its habitat. The Washington State Endangered Species Act has been ignored by the U.S. government.

The government has failed to design a comprehensive monitoring plan as required by the ESA de-listing, and also failed to fully fund or implement the plan that was developed. As a result, stock monitoring strategies are inadequate to determine population size, population estimates are uncertain and unreliable, the viability and abundance of benthic amphipods in the Bering and Chukchi Seas and the spatial and temporal variability in ecosystem processes are unknown, and Russian data (if any exists) on amphipod abundance are unavailable. As a consequence, the government's 1999 determination that the population was stable and secure based on the results of the plan was unfounded.

The evidence provided in the petition to support the listing request is comprehensive and indisputable. The documented decline in benthic amphipods is sufficient reason alone to list the gray whale under the Endangered Species Act. Combined with the multitude of other threats to the gray whale and its habitats, the lack of any adequate regulatory mechanisms to protect the population or its habitat, and a failed monitoring program, there can be no question that this population should again be afforded the protection provided by a listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Will NMFS be able to address the gray whale situation objectively, essentially a fresh start mandated by recent findings? Or will the Makah issue and the poster whale image of this species prevent meaningful assessments and solutions? To CSI this is not about the Makah. It is about the gray whale.

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