Years of research reveal more about iconic orcas

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Years of research reveal more about iconic orcas
A female resident orca whale breaches while swimming in Puget Sound near Bainbridge Island as seen from a federally permitted research vessel Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014. Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration followed about two dozen of the killer whales from J pod through the Sound Saturday after being alerted to their presence the night before from whale L-87, who carries a satellite-linked tag. L-87 was tagged by NOAA several weeks ago as part of ongoing research on the southern resident killer whales. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A southern resident J pod orca whale "spyhops" while swimming in Puget Sound just off a beach on the Kitsap Peninsula west of Seattle as seen from a federally permitted research vessel Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014. The southern resident J, K and L pod killer whales, which were listed as endangered in 2005, differ from visiting transients orcas in their vocal repertoire, diet, hunting methods and social systems, and are genetically distinct from the transients. The southern residents, numbering about 80 whales, face potential threats from lack of prey, toxins and the effects of vessels and noise. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
FILE -- In this file photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and shot Oct. 29, 2013, orca whales from the J and K pods swim past a small research boat on Puget Sound in view of downtown Seattle. A satellite tag attached to an endangered killer whale named Onyx is yielding some new discoveries about the orca's movements in recent days. (AP Photo/NOAA Fisheries Service, Candice Emmons, file)
In this photo taken Jan. 18, 2014, a satellite-linked transmitter is visible on the dorsal fin of L87, an orca from the southern resident group of killer whales, while swimming in Puget Sound west of Seattle. Federal researchers say the satellite-linked tag offered new details on the movements of the endangered orca whale before it stopped transmitting data earlier this week. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data shows the orca spent the past several weeks cruising throughout the Salish Sea and out to the Washington coast. (AP Photo)
An explosive cloud of mist and vapor hang in the air as an armada of orca whales surface to breath as they swim close to shore near Lim Kiln State Park on San Juan Island. A plan to restore Sacramento River salmon runs also could help revive killer whale populations 700 miles to the north in Puget Sound, as federal scientists struggle to protect endangered species in a little-understood ecosystem that stretches along the Pacific coast from California to Alaska. (Photo by Dean J. Koepfler/Tacoma News Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)
In this photo taken Jan. 18, 2014, a satellite-linked transmitter is just visible above splashing water on the dorsal fin of L87, an orca from the southern resident group of killer whales, while swimming in Puget Sound west of Seattle. Federal researchers say the satellite-linked tag offered new details on the movements of the endangered orca whale before it stopped transmitting data earlier this week. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data shows the orca spent the past several weeks cruising throughout the Salish Sea and out to the Washington coast. (AP Photo)
An endangered orca starts a tail slap on the water while swimming next to another whale in Puget Sound west of Seattle, as seen Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014 from a federal research vessel that has been tracking the whales. The orcas are members of the J pod, one of three groups of southern resident killer whales that frequent the inland waters of Washington state. They were listed as endangered in 2005 and are genetically and behaviorally distinct from other killer whales, eating salmon rather than marine mammals, making sounds that are considered a unique dialect and spend time in tight, social groups. The orcas number about 80, and face potential threats from lack of prey, toxins and the effects of vessels and noise. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
This Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011 photo provided by NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center shows a new baby orca born to 39-year-old Slick, also known as J-16, in the Puget Sound near Seattle. It's he fifth calf since 1991 and it brings the total number of killer whales in the Southern Resident population to 89. (AP Photo/NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Candice Emmons)
A sheet of water cascades off the back of a Orca that surfaced in Haro Strait near a whale whatching charter boat. A plan to restore Sacramento River salmon runs also could help revive killer whale populations 700 miles to the north in Puget Sound, as federal scientists struggle to protect endangered species in a little-understood ecosystem that stretches along the Pacific coast from California to Alaska. (Photo by Dean J. Koepfler/Tacoma News Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)
In this Feb. 11, 2012, photo provided by the Seaside Aquarium, a dead killer whale is removed after it washed ashore near Long Beach, Wash. The orca was between 3 and 6 years old. Photos and DNA testing may determine whether it was a member of the endangered Puget Sound orca population. (AP Photo/Seaside Aquarium, Tiffany Boothe)
In this photo taken Monday, Oct. 8, 2012, the dorsal fin of an orca whale is seen as the animal swims in Puget Sound in view of the setting sun as seen from Seattle's West Seattle neighborhood. An estimated dozen or more killer whales swimming south past West Seattle gave residents a spectacular sight Monday as the sun set. Howard Garrett of the Orca Network says the whales identified from photos represented all three Puget Sound pods — J, K and L. He says this is the farthest south the orcas have been seen this year, and it may indicate a shift that typically happens in the fall. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
At 59, Ruffles is the oldest known male orca in the world, one of an estimated 150 orcas known to inhabit the Puget Sound and the coast of Washington state. Granny is his 99-year-old mother. Environmentalists fear for the safety of the whales as the U.S. Navy prepares to expand its operations in its Northwest Training Range Complex, which stretches from the coastline of Washington state to northern California. (Photo by Courtesy of Howard Garrett/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)
**FILE** This photo provided by the Center for Whale Research shows an orca calf, J-41, swimming with its mother, J-19, in Puget Sound, Wash., in July 2005. (AP Photo/Center for Whale Research, FILE)
In this Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, photo, an Orca whale swims in view of a state ferry departing Bainbridge Island for Seattle as a bald eagle flies overhead in Seattle,Wash. According to the Orca Network, which tracks sightings nearly three-dozen orcas surrounded a state ferry on Tuesday as it approached Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
A southern resident J pod orca whale exhales a cloud of vapor through a blowhole while swimming in Puget Sound not far from Seattle, as seen from a federally permitted research vessel Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014. The southern resident J, K and L pod killer whales, which were listed as endangered in 2005, differ from visiting transients orcas in their vocal repertoire, diet, hunting methods and social systems, and are genetically distinct from the transients. The southern residents, numbering about 80 whales, face potential threats from lack of prey, toxins and the effects of vessels and noise. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
This Jan. 18, 2014 photo, an endangered female orca leaps from the water while breaching in Puget Sound west of Seattle. Scientists studying Puget Sound orcas for the past decade now know they are among the most contaminated marine mammals, with pollutants particularly high in young killer whales, according to a report released Wednesday, June 25, 2014. The report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration summarizes a decade of research findings that reveal the mysterious lives of a small population of endangered killer whales that frequents the inland waters of Washington state. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
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BY PHUONG LE

SEATTLE (AP) -- Scientists studying Puget Sound orcas for the past decade now know they are among the most contaminated marine mammals, with pollutants particularly high in young killer whales, according to a report released Wednesday.

The report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration summarizes a decade of research findings that reveal the mysterious lives of a small population of endangered killer whales that frequents the inland waters of Washington state.

It shows that the orcas prefer to eat Chinook salmon and also consume fish such as halibut; hunt less, travel more and call louder when more vessels are in the area; head to the outer coast during the winter, foraging as far south as Central California and eating salmon from the Columbia and Sacramento rivers; and have high levels of banned pollutants such as PCBs.

Yet, despite recovery efforts including new rules that prevent vessels from coming within 200 yards of any orca and designated critical habitat, scientists say the orcas continue to struggle to recover and more long-term work needs to be done to ensure survival.

The unique population, known as southern resident killer whales, numbered more than 140 animals decades ago, but declined to a low of 71 in the 1970s when dozens of the mammals were captured live to be displayed at marine parks and aquariums across the country. In 2013, there were about 82.

The striking black and white whales have come to symbolize the Pacific Northwest and play an important cultural and spiritual role for many Northwest tribes.

Until recently, scientists didn't know exactly where orcas went in the winter months. Using acoustic monitoring and satellite tags, they've been able to track the orcas movements as they moved up and down the coast.

Scientists have also found that Chinook salmon from the Fraser River in British Columbia make up the bulk of their summer diet. Genetic tools have been used to understand what the orcas eat, how they mate and their relationship to each other.

"We are in a much better situation with the information we have now," Lynne Barre, NOAA Fisheries Seattle branch chief, said during a telephone call with reporters.

Mysteries remain, though, including why this population hasn't grown; why certain whales die; and how high contamination levels impact a whale's health and reproduction.

Orcas were listed as endangered in 2005, after local and regional efforts began in the 2000s to conserve them.

Scientists came up with a recovery plan in 2008 after finding that orcas face three key threats - lack of prey, pollution and disturbance from noise and vessel traffic.

"We've made some significant progress in understanding each of the three primary factors of decline," said Mike Ford, director of the Conservation Biology Program at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

From 2003 to 2012, NOAA spent about $15.7 million on research and conservation projects, the agency said.

Killer whales can be found in many oceans, but the distinct Puget Sound population can be found most summer months and fall in Washington state waters. They primarily eat fish, rather than other marine mammals. They travel in three families, or the J, K and L pods. Whales from the same pod tend to spend most of their time together.

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