A killer whale surfacing in the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia, Canada. (Photo: Ca2Hill via Getty Images)
In the last couple months killer whales (orcas) have been in the news a lot, in particular the endangered population of Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) who make the Salish Sea their home.
For non-locals reading this, the Salish Sea includes "the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Strait of Georgia, and Puget Sound, and all their connecting channels and adjoining waters, and the waters around and between the San Juan Islands in Washington State and the Gulf Islands in British Columbia."
The recent deaths of Granny (the former matriarch of J pod) and J-34 (an 18-year-old male) has shined a light on the fragile local population and has been used by some in the activists community as a cudgel in their battle against the Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain expansion project (TMX).
The argument has gone that increasing the number of tankers would increase the number of collisions with marine mammals, and this could result in the extirpation of the SRKW. It is important to note, however, that while J-34 was apparently killed by a collision, the collision was not in a tanker sea lane. Rather, J-34 was found near Sechelt, well north of any tanker routes.
Kayaker photographing an orca whale, Johnstone Strait, British Columbia, Canada (Photo: Joel Rogers via Getty Images)
According to the definitive research on the topic the SRKWs are at highest risk of collision in Johnstone Strait, which would be a problem if tankers were heading in that direction, but they are not. The research indicates that the tanker sea lanes do not pose a particular risk to the SRKW, especially given current marine rules in those lanes.
As for the increase in tanker traffic, the TMX tankers represent an increase of 720 more ship movements in a Strait that sees 23,000 ship movements a year. This at a port that is engaged in a build-out that will expand ship traffic significantly. Thus, if collisions are really a serious concern, then the activists should be protesting the Port of Vancouver's expansion plans, not the TMX.
The other topic of ongoing concern to the SRKW is the risk posed by oil spills. This risk was highlighted in a report for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation titled Report on Population Viability Analysis model investigations of threats to the Southern Resident Killer Whale population from Trans Mountain Expansion Project.
In my opinion the study is fatally flawed.
The report details a modelling exercise to examine the effect of the TMX on the SRKW. It also appears to serve as the basis for a lawsuit against the TMX.
The problem is that while the risks to the SRKW from spills are real, this study should not be the basis for discussions on the topic. Why? Well, because in my opinion the study is fatally flawed. The model used in the research seems sound and the statistical methodology was excellent, but the problem was the data used to generate the results. As we all remember from programming, regardless of the quality of a model if you use bad inputs, you get bad outputs. In this report they appear to have used bad inputs in their modelling.
As I detail at my personal blog, the study authors relied on numbers supplied from a blog post. The blog post uses values from Trans Mountain TERMPOL 3.15 General Risk Analysis and Intended Methods of Reducing Risk (caution large file) to generate a likelihood of an incident. The problem is that the authors appear to have used the wrong numbers from that blog post.
Large bulk carrier in the seaport of Vancouver. (Photo: Vkyryl via Getty Images)
In TERMPOL 3.15, the authors presented several scenarios: a current (Case 0), a Case 1 (expansion with no mitigation) and then Case 1a and Case 1b (expansion with specific mitigations to reduce risk). The stated intention of the TEMPOL 3.15 report was to provide a description of the necessary mitigation efforts associated with the increase in tanker traffic that would come with TMX. The conclusion of the report was that Trans Mountain make use of specific list of mitigations. Those mitigations (including tugs, reduced speeds, etc.) were subsequently made a requirement for the project.
Unfortunately the "no mitigations applied" number (Case 1) for spills was used for the modelling exercise. To compound the issue, as I describe, the authors then doubled the numbers presented in the blog post. To repeat, the authors took a spill frequency value that was recognized as being 4-5 times too high and then they doubled the frequency of spills for use in their model.
It is clear, in this case, that we need to look again at the underlying evidence.
What this means is that the analysis relies on a wildly inflated risk of incidents as an input. It thus presents a similarly inflated risk of extirpation of the SRKW population as an output.
I am not saying that the TMX must go forward. As I have written, I have serious reservations about the project. However, I believe we need a fair debate on the topic and fair debates must rely on demonstrably sound evidence. It is clear, in this case, that we need to look again at the underlying evidence being used in this discussion.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog referred to an orca that died as J-32. It was designated J-34.
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Life for killer whales in the ocean is infinitely different, and many would say far better, than a life of captivity in a concrete tank. In the wild, most orcas stay near or with their families for life, travel up to 100 miles a day, and display complex communal rituals that provide stability, cooperation and regular opportunities for the unbridled expression of sheer joy. Orcas are smart—among the most intelligent species in the world—making them particularly unsuitable to captivity, as I explain in my book Death at SeaWorld. Few people realize that killer whales are members of the family Delphinidae, making them the planet’s largest dolphins, giant cousins to the far more common bottlenose (think TV’s Flipper) and other species of seagoing dolphins. Orcas not only have the largest brain of any dolphin, but at 12 pounds it is also four times larger than the human brain, and second only to the sperm whale in heft and volume. Killer whales have been prowling the oceans for millions of years, and their large and complex brains continued to evolve over time. The ocean’s top predator and the most widely distributed animal on Earth after humans, they are found in all oceans, even in the tropics. Total population is estimated at 50,000-100,000, perhaps half of them around Antarctica. In today’s vernacular, the names “orca” and “killer whale” are interchangeable, though many animal-activists prefer the former, while scientists and the display industry tend to use the latter. Before orcas were held captive they were regarded as bloodthirsty monsters (debunking this was one of the greatest contributions of captivity). And although four people have died and many others were injured in killer whale tanks, there is no record in history of any serious attacks by wild orcas on humans. The following facts were adapted from Death at SeaWorld (St. Martin’s Press, 2012)
Two types of orcas share the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest. Residents, comprised of Northern Residents, which range from mid-Vancouver Island north toward the Alaskan panhandle, and Southern Residents, which range from mid-Vancouver Island south to Puget Sound, in the summer and fall. Residents live in tightly knit families dominated by females. Each pod has its own signature collection of clicks, whistles, creaks and groans. Transients are distinguished primarily by what they eat: other marine mammals, including dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions and even larger whales. They travel in small groups and their range is greater than residents. Transients do not mix with residents, having split from their cousins, genetically speaking, tens of thousands of years ago. For Naomi Rose, (now senior scientist at Humane Society International) who studied these animals for years, transients were “kind of like the local trash family; people that nobody in town really gets along with,” she joked with friends. “If it comes down to a street fight, the transients are going to lose.” A few years later, Canadian scientist Graeme Ellis would witness something close to what she imagined. He came across a Southern Resident group, J-Pod, tearing southward toward the mouth of a bay. He spotted three other orcas swimming away quickly about 100 yards ahead and recognized them as members of the T-20 transient group. They made a run for it, trying to skirt away, but J-pod would have nothing of it. Graeme saw whitewater churning, fins and flukes flailing, the nipping of skin. The screeches reverberated through the boat’s hull. When the transients got away, Graeme followed, only to discover bloody teeth marks on their skin. “Whatever the reason,” he said, “the T-20s definitely got their butts kicked.”
Processing sound is essential for killer whales to eat, navigate and socialize. Orcas have no sense of smell, and though their eyesight is excellent, it’s not much help at night or in deep waters. That’s where echolocation, emitting a series of clicks and listening for their echo, comes in. The clicks, which sound like a finger running over a comb, last from one to five milliseconds. When each click pings off an object, part of the sound is sent back toward the animal, where it is received through fatty tissue in the lower jaw. There it transmits to the middle ear. Each click is exquisitely synchronized so that outgoing sounds do not interfere with incoming ones. Direction is determined by comparing the relative strength of the echo on each side. The visual and auditory regions of orca brains are set closely together and are extraordinarily integrated, producing a visual image based solely on the echoes. Orcas can even determine the species of fish they are tracking, not only by the prey’s size, but also the dimensions of its air bladder. All dolphins can differentiate between objects with less than 10 percent difference in size. They can do this in a noisy environment, even while vocalizing. And they can echolocate on near and distant targets simultaneously, something that boggles the imagination of human sonar experts.
“The outstanding feature” of resident orca society is that neither sex wanders from the natal family and its home range, Naomi Rose wrote in her PhD dissertation. But as young females begin having calves, they spend more time away from their mothers, eventually establishing their own matrilines within their particular pod, from which they never fully disperse. Male residents, however, are another story. They spend most of their time by their mothers’ side, from infancy through old age. They may swim off for a few hour or days to mate with females from other matrilines, but they always come back. Male resident orcas are the planet’s ultimate mommy’s boys. They are, unusually, the philopatric sex: they never emigrate away from their home territory. The lifelong bonds between resident mothers and sons run deep. Adult males spend a minimum of 40 percent of their time within one body length of their mother: at least nine and half hours every day. A male is so dependent on mom that, if he loses her, he may try to transfer that bond onto another close relative, usually a sister, grandmother, aunt, or even a younger niece. Older sons who survived their mother’s death often travel, forage and even rest up to a half-mile away from their sisters, implying that adult males without mothers “are most peripheral to and the least integrated into the matrilineal group,” Naomi wrote.
In many mammals, having grown males hang around the females and offspring is hugely disruptive: the mother does not tolerate it and pressures males to leave. Staying at home increases competition for food and other resources. That’s where the “repayment model” comes in: The philopatric sex must offer something valuable in return. Babysitting, it turns out, was evolution’s way of charging adult orca males room and board. “The philopatric sex pays back some of the cost of having it there by caring for its parent’s subsequent offspring,” Naomi wrote in her dissertation. Having older sons babysit allows a mother to be more reproductively successful. “It lets her concentrate on her newest born, and not worry about the five-year-old calf that’s potentially going to run off and do something stupid, because the older brother’s looking out for them,” Naomi told a colleague. “It even allows her to get some ‘me’ time, which no doubt recharges her batteries and improves her health, making her a better mom.” Another benefit: When matrilineal groups travel, they typically swim in “echelon formation,” where the youngest calf sticks next to the mother. The coveted spot allows for slip-streaming alongside the mother, and helps save energy. But it’s also a drag on the mother. If she has grown sons to share in burden, she can conserve precious energy.
If mothers benefit from having sons babysit, then what’s in it for the males? Naomi thought she might have an answer. “For resident males, there’s an advantage to staying with mom. And that’s the fact that females are very gregarious,” she explained. “When multiple pods get together, the females gravitate toward each other and have their own sewing circles, or whatever.” That intensive socializing gave their sons “instant entrée to all those unrelated girls.” The son might hook up with the daughters of his mother’s friends, or even with his mothers’ friends themselves. Naomi had seen adolescent males who were sexually mature but not yet socially mature hanging with post-reproductive grandmas. “I think it’s literally a ‘Mrs. Robinson’ situation,” Naomi said. “That female may be past menopause but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t like to have sex. And this young guy, who’s got lots of get-up-and-go but no reproductive female that’s going to give him the time of day, she’ll hang out with him.”
Scientists have made what they believe to be the first sighting of an adult white orca, or killer whale.
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