Orca tagging program on hold after dead whale found in B.C.
Saturday, April 16, 2016, 5:43 PM - The controversy surrounding a satellite tagging program continues after a 20-year old orca male washed up dead in Esperanza Inlet in Nootka Sound, B.C.
The killer whale, otherwise known as L95 or Nigel, is a part of the endangered southern resident population. His carcass was found on March 30 with fragments of a dart at the base of his dorsal fin. The dart is designed to detach once the tag is implanted.
As a result, the program has been temporarily suspended by U.S. researchers to conduct a reassessment of the tags and the deployment.
"That's really concerning for us, because those tags are designed to fully detach and leave nothing behind," NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein told CBC.
Some whale enthusiasts want to go so far as to completely ban the darting program.
A few weeks ago Nigel was tagged by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with the satellite-tracking dart off the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state.
The necropsy report filed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada showed no official cause of death.
"Gross dissection and X-Rays of the tag site indicated that the tag petals were left behind when the tag detached, but revealed no apparent localized or tracking inflammation," the report reads.
Although this tagging program provides valuable data about whales and their environment, it is not something used by Canadian researchers.
"We don't know yet if this dart-tagging had anything to do with L95's death, but it certainly didn't help," Michael Harris, executive director for the Pacific Whale Watching Association said in a statement Thursday.
Meanwhile, Kenneth Balcomb, senior scientist of the Center for Whale Research, says he had concerns about the tagging methodology from the get-go.
"In my opinion, 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," Balcomb said in a recent blog post.
On the other side of the table, NOAA biologists are defending the tagging and have plans to restart the program again once the investigation is complete. Experts argue the program provides valuable information on the animals' movements, particularly during the winter when their habitat is challenging to study using other methods such as acoustic tracking or drone photography.
While the darts do temporarily wound the animal, experts say they generally heal and there is no confirmed cases of orcas dying or suffering as a result of the tags.
"These tags they do cause some injury. It is a question of trade-offs," Lance Barrett-Lennard, head of the Vancouver Aquarium's cetacean research program told CBC. "Is the information worth it or not? The feeling here in B.C. was we should probably wait until there are more benign ways to track animals."
Eight orcas from the southern resident population have been tagged in the past five years. The darts are about 15 cm long with the satellite tag measuring about the size of a nine-volt battery, CBC reports. Typically, the tag stays on the whale for about a month.
Watch more: Rare albino whale surfaces off Baja coast