Or, could Homer Simpson retrain as a marine mammologist?
FRIDAY HARBOR, Washington––Suspending all permits to satellite-tag orca whales, effective at the beginning of October 2016, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration acknowledged the death of the endangered young male orca L95, also called Nigel, with a profusion of crocodile tears and a pledge to host a workshop on satellite-tagging whales at the next annual meeting of the 88-nation International Whaling Commission.
Other marine mammals are still being tagged with NOAA blessings.
We’ll get to Homer Simpson
What does Homer Simpson have to do with it?
NOAA chief scientist Richard Merrick proclaimed himself “deeply dismayed” that a NOAA researcher’s satellite tags “may have had something to do with the death of this whale.”
Added NOAA orca satellite tracking program chief Brad Hanson, “Everybody is devastated by this—nobody more so than me.”
Ken Balcomb objected before L95 was shot
But Kenneth C. Balcomb, who founded the Center for Whale Research at Friday Harbor, Washington in 1976, issued a media release saying more-or-less “I told you so.”
Balcomb recalled that he discussed the risks inherent in satellite-tagging orcas with Hanson “several years ago and was told the satellite tagging program would proceed in spite of my concerns. I was instructed to simply document tag healing and report any issues to them, which I have done.”
Remains washed up five weeks after darting
The death of L95 came to light, Balcomb related, when on April 2, 2016, three days after his remains washed ashore, “we received photographs of a decomposing dead male killer whale found near Tahsis, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada. Two small puncture wound sites near the right trailing edge of the dorsal fin at the fin base led to our surmise that it had been satellite tagged and might be in our follow-up files for whales that had been tagged. It was not. The only whale that we knew of who had been tagged recently who was not in our files was L95, so we surmised that the dead whale was L95,” as NOAA and the Department of Fishers & Oceans Canada jointly confirmed on April 13, 2016.
L95, age 20, one of the few adult male orcas of breeding age among the 83- whale resident orca population of Puget Sound, now down to 82 whales, had been satellite-tagged on February 24, 2016 near La Push, Washington, between the mouth of the Columbia River and the mouth of the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, east of the Olympic Peninsula.
Other whales missing
“The tag functioned for three days in the same general area off the Washington coast and then contact was lost,” Balcomb summarized. “Inclement weather precluded follow-up on the whale’s condition.
“Two other satellite-tagged whales,” T14 and T99A, both members of the offshore transient orca population, “have gone missing or have died subsequent to tagging,” Balcomb recalled. “Maybe these are also coincidental losses. However, it is not coincidental that at least seven other satellite tagged whales are still carrying hardware embedded in their tissues from the attachment fixtures, and some of the wounds have festered with restructuring tissue around the attached hardware.
“In my opinion,” Balcomb emphasized, “the tag attachment methodology was overly barbaric and defective from the get-go, and the entire tagging program should be rethought and evaluated for efficacy.
“The NOAA/NMFS tagging program is injuring and disfiguring these endangered icons of the Pacific Northwest,” Balcomb finished, “and it is my subjective opinion that it is adversely altering their behavior toward benign vessel interactions to approach them for photo identification. Like any wildlife, they become gun-shy when they are impacted with bullets, harpoons, or biopsy hardware, some of which seriously injures them.”
L95 was hit on second attempt by a team led by Brad Hanson, working in unexpectedly rough weather. L95 died, NOAA scientists acknowledged on October 5, 2016, from a rare fungal infection at the wound site where the satellite tag was inserted.
Asked National Geographic writer Craig Welch, “Was the death a collision of unfortunate circumstances that are not likely to be repeated? Or does a common tool intrinsic to marine research around the globe—satellite tagging—pose more risks to large marine mammals than once thought?
“The type of tag Hanson’s team attached to L95,” Welch reported, “had been used more than 530 times on 19 species, including pilot whales, grays, fins, humpbacks, beaked whales, and 56 killer whales. The transmitter is no bigger than a nine-volt battery and is taped to a pair of small titanium darts that are fired from a CO2-powered air rifle. The darts are supposed to implant in the dorsal fin and slowly work their way out over weeks or months, providing a brief window of information on a whale’s whereabouts. The marksman-scientist who pulled the trigger was experienced.
“After the dart was retrieved from the water,” following the first missed shot, “scientists wrestling with the wind and the waves sterilized it with alcohol but neglected to further disinfect it with bleach before taking the second shot,” Welch wrote.
“A necropsy by British Columbia pathologist Stephen Raverty showed that fungi that may have originated in the surface film of the water, or perhaps on L95’s skin, appeared to have gotten into the animal’s blood vessels, eventually making it to the lungs,” Welch added. “Concentrations of the fungi were largest near the entry point of the dart, where pieces had broken off in the fin.”
Much is not known about the deadly fungus, NOAA acknowledged, including whether sterilizing the dart with bleach might have made any difference, and whether the fungus involved is either native or common to orca habitat.
“Another fungus normally associated with tropical trees is killing porpoises in British Columbia,” Welch noted. “Do the risks associated with tagging change as water temperatures change, potentially altering the environment?”
In other words, was L95 perhaps also a casualty of global warming?
“This fungus that affected L95 was not something we had recognized was out there that killer whales had succumbed to, at least in the wild,” said Hanson. “It certainly gives us a lot of pause. This is not a static environment relative to pathogens.”
A job for Homer?
But what about Homer Simpson? Could he consider a career as a marine mammologist?
Briefly holding more than 190 other jobs between stints at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant during the 600-odd episodes of the The Simpsons television series, Simpson demonstrated his aptitude at firing batteries at ballplayers from a bleacher seat at Isotope Stadium in season 17, episode 22, aired on May 21, 2006.
But if throwing batteries was all it took, Philadelphia Phillies fans might have the market for marine mammologists cornered, having notoriously pelted players with batteries from Dick Allen in 1969 to J.D. Drew in 1999.
Battery-flingers busted in ballparks
Criminal prosecutions put an apparent end to battery-flinging in ballparks. Yet in 1999, the same year in which Drew became perhaps the last ballplayer to have to dodge a battery, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration first authorized shooting radio transmitters the size of nine-volt batteries into endangered North Atlantic right whales.
But not if the target is endangered whales
Explained the research paper that resulted, VHF-Radio Tracking of a North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) Female and Calf in the Calving Ground, published in January 2002, “A VHF transmitter was attached to a North Atlantic right whale cow on January 20, 1999, approximately 30 nautical miles east of Fernandina Beach, Florida. The whale and her calf were tracked continuously for 44 hours, when tracking was abandoned due to bad weather. The pair were relocated on January 25, 1999 and tracked continuously for an additional 96 hours.”
What was learned, and why? Said the paper, “Information on the duration of the whales’ time at the surface and behavior is relevant to right whales’ vulnerability to collisions with ships and sightability by aerial surveys designed to reduce the potential for ship/whale collisions.”
But this sort of information has been readily available for several centuries, beginning with whaling captains’ logs explaining why right whales were considered the easiest whales to hunt.
“The tag used for this project,” the NOAA paper abstract explained, “consisted of a Telonics1 uMK7 transmitter housed in a surgical quality stainless steel cylinder, the anterior end of which was conical and held stainless steel cutting edges to allow for penetration through the skin and into the blubber. Immediately aft of the blades were stainless steel wire barbs to prevent the tag from dislodging.”
The detailed description continued for another 154 words, but omitted mention of whether any of the participating scientists had tested the device for potential to cause pain by experimentally shooting it into the blubber of his/her own gluteus maximus––as Homer Simpson would likely have done, if only by accident.
Not only orcas but all marine mammals would appear to be in urgent need of protection from satellite tagging, especially when done to collect information of marginal value which could be obtained by non-invasive methods.
Great Whale Conservancy
“The Great Whale Conservancy is currently engaged in an effort to make the regulations surrounding the access to permits that allow one to implant tag any whale far stricter. We are in touch with major media outlets as well,” posted marine mammologist Michael Fishbach and Gershon Cohen after the death of L95 became known.
“Whales are over-tagged and we are directly trying to change that,” said Fishbach and Cohen, who work from western North Carolina and southeastern Alaska. “It is not a simple or easy task but it is our job to give a voice to the whales and we are doing our best to protect them.”
The Great Whale Conservancy is among the many animal and habitat protection charities operating under the umbrella of the Earth Island Institute, based in Berkeley, California.
The issues pertaining to inhumane application of satellite tags to marine mammals reprise those associated with the increasingly ubiquitous use of radio collars to track land animals.
Both satellite tags and radio collars enable researchers to collect information about animals that would otherwise be difficult to gather, albeit not inaccessible for land-based researchers who are willing and able to do a great deal of following tracks on foot.
At the same time, satellite tags and radio collars are easily misused, for instance by poachers using telemetry to find animals.
USDA Wildlife Services and other government agencies now routinely use radio collars affixed to wolves in the name of conservation to exterminate packs suspected of hunting livestock.
Andy the polar bear
Even when radio tracking signals are not misused to kill animals deliberately, the devices emitting them can harm animals. An alleged case involving a polar bear nicknamed Andy on social media came to light in October 2015 through a Twitter image and message posted by naturalist and guide Susan Adie.
Adie photographed the polar bear in Kaktovik, eastern Alaska, along the southern Beaufort Sea coast.
“The photo shows a collar around its neck with what appears to be blood,” summarized Global News science and weather reporter Nicole Mortillaro. “Many believe that the collar is digging into the bear’s neck, causing it to suffer.”
Researcher denied bear was harmed
University of Alberta polar bear researcher Andrew Derocher acknowledged that the radio collar was probably his. But Derocher insisted to Mortillaro that there was no firm evidence that Andy was suffering.
“He points out,” Mortillaro wrote, “that while the collar looks too tight and there is what is perceived to be blood around it, that doesn’t mean that it’s the polar bear’s blood, or that it’s too tight. At this time of year, he said, the bears feed off whale carcasses, which involves a lot of blood; as well, it’s difficult for them to clean that area of their body. And while the collar looks like it’s digging into its neck, the fur of a polar bear can measure from four to five centimeters long, giving the appearance of something digging into it.
“Derocher has been singled out on social media for not doing enough to remove the collar,” Mortillary continued. “But this is a unique situation: the collar,” put on the bear in 2014, “has malfunctioned. These collars can be released remotely. However, this collar has failed to release and is no longer tracking.”
Russian polar bear biologist Nikita Ovsyanikov, doing research on Wrangel Island in northern Siberia since 1977, was much less understanding.
“Satellite tracking by collaring bears was critically important for science at early stages of population research,” Ovsyanikov e-mailed to CBC News reporter Martin Zeilig, “when it was not known how bears are distributed, what are their spatial patterns and what is population structure of the species.”
However, Ovsyanikov added, “For the last number of years, the collars have not brought any essential new knowledge. For most populations,” Ovsyanikov said, radio collaring “does not answer basic questions on population size, does not explain drivers of observed trends and, in some cases, fails to reveal trends or leaves trends questionable.”
“Non-invasive methods may be more difficult for scientists,” Ovsyanikov concluded, “but [they’re] usually less expensive, not unethical, and they are not interfering with normal animal life, thus are methodologically more correct.”