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Years of research reveal more about iconic orcas


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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vtmichaelb June 27 2014 at 9:39 AM

Wait, they are "endangered"? and yet we continue to capture them and use them for our amusement? Ya, what could be possibly be wrong with that?

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3 replies
onionson June 27 2014 at 5:39 AM

What a magnificent animal. They have long been my favorite sea creature. Nice enough to play with humans and tough enough to take out a Great White.

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alfredschrader June 27 2014 at 7:15 AM

They are still killers and don't belong in a fishtank.

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1 reply
bba007 alfredschrader June 27 2014 at 11:19 AM

They are wrongly named. First they are dolphins and not whales, and second they do no more killing than other predatory species. Maybe humans should be renamed killer humans.

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2 replies
arayamm bba007 June 27 2014 at 6:56 PM


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honeyrose3332 bba007 June 27 2014 at 10:30 PM

I believe a reason, at least one, that they are called Killer Whales is because they are known to hunt and eat various whale species.

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abudotcom June 27 2014 at 8:05 AM

What a majestic animal… I've had the privilege of seen them in action and they are mesmerizing..

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bjredmond64 June 27 2014 at 10:50 AM

would be a thrill to see one. i'm sure photos dont begin to show them for their size and beauty. i do hate that they are captured for entertainment purposes. they should be left free.

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1 reply
bienhoa72alum bjredmond64 June 27 2014 at 11:27 AM

Yes, those that are free need to be left free. But the film "Blackwater" is a cleverly crafted piece of propaganda, created to place Sea World in the worst possible lite, and actually lying about many aspect shown in the film.
1) Sea world has not taken an Orca from the wild in over 35 years. The capture seen from various angles in "Blackfish" occurred 40 years ago under the strict regulations and guidelines in effect at that time. Most of the 56 Orcas now in marine parks were obtained through captive breeding., which means that none of those Orcas have even been in the wild.

Is a marine park the best place for them? Perhaps, or perhaps not. It is difficult to really say. I've seen the Orcas in Sea World in San Diego, both in the shows and behind the scenes and they are extremely well taken care of. When a calf is born, all of the shows stop for many weeks to allow the mother and calf to bond and be together in the largest area possible. It may not be great, but it is humane .

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1 reply
John bienhoa72alum June 27 2014 at 11:44 AM

If people could put rainbows in zoos, they'd do it. - Hobbes.

How much does Sea World pay for the control of your thoughts and words?

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mcager June 27 2014 at 4:16 PM

They studied the orcas for ten years and found they were being polluted. Now, is anything going to be done to reverse this trend.

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fullsrvlaw June 27 2014 at 4:42 PM

Now, pass legislation to free them from these so-called entertainment parks.

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wrascil June 27 2014 at 5:28 PM

.the last time I saw a pod of Orcas whales one was choking on a dug out canoe while the other were eating a few aboriginal tribes men. but I have also seen them 50 to 60 miles off the coast while fishing for albacore
(they were eating a seal ) yummy

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YourFtr June 27 2014 at 1:18 PM

If the Salmon population goes down;
then the Orcas will have to start attacking boats and the people in them to survive.....

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1 reply
Erica YourFtr June 27 2014 at 6:21 PM

I've seen that movie.

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bienhoa72alum June 27 2014 at 11:12 AM

Gee, maybe PETA and the other "free the ORCAs" organizations should move their focus to Puget sound. "...orcas face three key threats - lack of prey, pollution and disturbance from noise and vessel traffic...." Maybe Sea World isn't all that bad after all. They are in fresh filtered water (No pollution), They are well fed, and there are no " vessels" to disturb them.

All joking aside - yes the pods that now exist should be preserved at all cost. Those Orcas that are on display at Sea World parks should remain where they are, as ambassadors for their species. Without these displays most of us would still think of Orcas as vicious "Killers" and have little or no compassion for them in the wild. Many downplay this role but it remains an irritating fact that they cannot overturn. Not even with a carefully scripted and purposefully edited propaganda film like "Blackfish."

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1 reply
John bienhoa72alum June 27 2014 at 11:46 AM

I am just going to keep pointing out that you are an employee of Sea World and your opinion is severely biased.

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