Thursday, May 8, 2014

Russian Killer Whales: Something More To Worry About

PHOTO: Evgeniya Lazareva, Far East Russia Orca Project
Orca expert and author Erich Hoyt who is on The Whale Trail’s Orca Tour 2014 gave me something more to worry about when he spoke Wednesday about killer whales of the North Pacific at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s annual meeting.

Now I’m worried about Russian killer whales and the growing capture industry for zoos and aquariums in China, Japan and Russia.

Hoyt, who shared stories doing 10 years of killer whale research during the 1970s in the Strait of Georgia, brings the story of North Pacific killer whales up to the present.

To document the population of resident and transient whales in light of the capture threats, Hoyt and researchers engaged Russian students from Moscow and Petersburg state universities and began a massive project modeled on ID protocols developed in the Salish Sea-- photo IDs, acoustic recordings, limited biopsies— to begin identifying pod grouping and matriarchal lines.

The surveys have identified 13 separate pods and a handful of transients from over 600 photographs and has  long way to go in analyzing the data. Among the whales are found white killer whales like “Iceberg,” a pure white bull. These white whales appear normal in all other aspects.

Immediately after one survey expedition, 25 orcas were captured. Hoyt showed a gut-wrenching extended video segment of a large-scale netting capture in 2003 in which a female orca drowns. Hoyt apologized for the unpleasantness; “like the echoes of Penn Cove,” he said.

The Russian students have become conservationists, Hoyt said. There are more captures being permitted and higher quotas around the Kamchatka Peninsula. “It’s now a full-blown capture industry,” he noted.

There are over 50 large aquariums in China, over 50 in Japan, and 20 in Russia. The market when captures began was $1 million for one killer whale. “I’m sure it’s more than that today,” said Hoyt.

The eastern waters of the lower Kamchatka Peninsula have been designated an Ecological or Biological Significant Area to provide a protected marine area for the Kamchatka orcas. Whether the area is sufficiently large enough to protect the killer whales is to be seen. But it is larger than the small area in the Strait of Georgia’s pristine Robson Bight that Hoyt and others fought for to protect for killer whales from logging and log rafting in the late 1970s.

“Consider it the revenge of Robson Bight,” said Hoyt.

Now I’ll worry about the fate of Russian killer whales. But I’ll know that, by establishing and enforcing large areas of protected habitat where no boats encroach, we can try to co-exist on this planet.

Erich Hoyt speaks in Port Angeles Thursday evening May 8 and returns to Seattle to speak on May 18 and to Vancouver BC on May 20. In the meanwhile, he and The Whale Trail are in Newport on May 10 and in San Francisco, Monterey and Santa Cruz, May 13, 14 and 15. Details at Orca Tour 2014 and Brown Paper Tickets.

--Mike Sato

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