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Who's who in killer whale field research in and around the San Juan Islands: a summary of local

Although there are an ever-increasing number of organizations advocating for the endangered Southern Resident killer whales these days, the number of groups conducting field research remains very small. Last month we talked about the reasons why we do not often have interns or volunteers at CWR and the unfortunate fact that, for many people seeking research experience with killer whales, field research opportunities are very rare. Here in the San Juan’s there are just a handful of groups conducting permitted research on the whales. This month we offer a “who’s who” of local killer whale researchers working under permit.

Getting a research permit is no easy feat, especially when it comes to being on the water with endangered and threatened species. A federal permit means that the research program, its protocols and methodologies have been approved and that that researchers have the necessary credentials and experience. More importantly, when it comes to killer whale research in our area, a permit establishes that the presence of the research team on the water has been determined to be critical to Southern Resident killer whale recovery and/or an essential component of local transient killer whale field research. A research permit can be a prerequisite to publishing findings in peer-reviewed journals. Having a research permit is required to work within 200 yards of killer whales.

Research teams operating under permit can be recognized by a yellow flag that must be displayed on the research boat (as seen on Orca in the photo above), whether in US or Canadian waters. It is customary for both the research boats and the principal researchers to be identified in the permit in order to help ensure integrity, accountability, and strict adherence to the protocols and conditions outlined in the permit.

When it comes to killer whales, most research involves photography in one form or another. In the US, photos taken under permit belong to the research permit; any other use requires permission from either the permit holder or Permit Office in Washington, DC. This is one of the reasons why research photos taken under permit are not often shared via social media. Photos are used to highlight and support the research. When they are posted, research photos will typically be marked with the associated permit number. For educational purposes, we are allowed to post encounter photos on our Center for Whale Research website and social media, but only after the photos have been carefully reviewed and all the whales identified for integration into our massive database.

The few killer whale field research programs operating under federal permit in and around the San Juan Islands are briefly highlighted below.

Center for Whale Research

For the San Juan Islands, the Center for Whale Research (CWR) is one of two resident research programs authorized by permits in the US and Canada to be conducting on-the-water field research of Southern Resident killer whales and transient killer whales. In addition to the CWR staff members who reside on San Juan Island, Mark Malleson, based in Victoria, supports both the Center for Whale Research and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), operating under DFO permit in Canadian waters.

Southern Resident Killer Whales:

For more than 40 years, the CWR has maintained a long-term sighting data base documenting the presence of killer whales in this region. The CWR is responsible for tracking the endangered Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) population, documenting births and deaths, behaviors, and the associated photo ID and census work. The CWR also participates in monitoring the health of individual whales. We also collect and maintain a database of public sightings of all types of whales in the area.

This data is then used to inform NOAA about changes in the population or the health of individuals. This information is then used in the recovery strategy for the SRKWs. We also publish an annual ID guide for personal use (any other use of the population data, including independent research, media releases, presentations, or publications, requires written permission from the CWR).

Transient Killer Whales:

Transient or Bigg’s killer whales are listed as threatened in Canada. At the time of the transient population assessment in Canada, these whales spent little time in our area — something that is rapidly changing.

The CWR field research and photo ID work also includes transient killer whales. It is important to note that the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is the legacy research program responsible for tracking the West Coast transient population and the movements of these whales throughout the region. The CWR role is intended to complement and support the DFO research programs.

With permission from DFO, the CWR has produced a transient ID guide that includes many of the whales seen in local waters. The DFO publishes a more comprehensive ID guide. Both are available for personal use (other uses of the population information and identification photos in these guides require approval from the publishers of the ID guides).

Humpback Whales:

In collaboration with Cascadia Research Collective, Mark Malleson in cooperation with CWR is assisting with documenting and identifying humpback whales in the area.

In 2014, the Center for Whale Research published an ID guide for many of the humpbacks seen in the area. Preparation of a new humpback guide is underway.

UW Conservation Canine Program

The second resident field research program operating under permit is the UW Conservation Canine team. Under the direction of Sam Wasser, this program is using specially-trained dogs to collect fecal samples in an innovative research program intended to minimize boater footprint on the whales (for example, by trailing the whales by as much as 300-400 yards away). Fecal samples can be used to measure stress and pregnancy hormones in individual whales, and also to determine what the whales are eating. If the sample is of sufficient quality, genetic material in the sample can be used to match the sample to an individual whale. This program is focused on Southern Resident killer whales, but is authorized under permit to include transient killer whales.

Deborah Giles, Research Director at the Center for Whale Research, has been an integral part of this program, serving as the vessel captain since 2009 said “this important study is helping researchers and managers tasked with recovering the Southern Resident killer whales understand the health of these whales and what it will take to recover them.” Further, “while vessel traffic and toxics and lack of food are all bad for the whales, but when whales are well-nourished, other problems don’t affect them as much. If the whales are well-fed, you don’t see a strong signature for stress hormones related to vessels.”

Results from this study were just published in a new journal article yesterday. The study links nutritional stress hormones to the failure rate of pregnancies in the Southern Residents. You can read the full article on the Plos One website:

For more information on the Conservation Canine research as it pertains to Southern Resident killer whales:

NOAA/NWFSC and SWFSC/Vancouver Aquarium

There are two other permitted field research programs that visit the San Juan Islands several times a year. One project involves NOAA/NWFSC (Brad Hanson and his team). NOAA is responsible for managing the Southern Resident killer whale recovery program in the US. Together with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC), they conduct field research throughout the region, focusing on Puget Sound, the inland waters around San Juan Island, and the outer coast from Washington to California. This research has resulted in important findings about the diet of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales, and the toxins that have accumulated in their blubber – two of the factors that threaten this population.

For more information on the NOAA Southern Resident recovery plan and related topics:

The other field program operating under permit involves the southern west coast version of NMFS: Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC). The SWFSC is working with the Vancouver Aquarium to conduct photogrammetry studies using a hexacopter (aka drone) to assess body condition of resident and transient killer whales as well as humpback whales. For killer whales, the aerial photographs are proving invaluable in documenting pregnancies and assessing health of individual whales.

For some information on this project:

For more information on guidelines for flying drones near marine mammals:

For information on flying drones in general:

Other Research Permits

Soundwatch, the Whale Museum’s boater education program, operates under permit in local waters.

For more information on the Soundwatch boater education program:

From time to time, special permits are authorized for other field research activities.

It is important to note that although the above-mentioned organizations are working on independent permits, there is cooperation between groups. Our research parameters and methods may vary, but we are united under a common goal: to preserve and restore the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population.

killer whale population.

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