As long expected, the Canadian government confirmed Thursday blunt force trauma killed southern resident orca J34 in December 2016, as was initially reported, raising new questions about what took so long to release the findings.
The just-released report was last updated on May 23, 2017, and finds a ship strike is the “possible” cause of the 18-year-old male orca’s death.
“There really is nothing new here, except they confirmed it. Why did they wait so long?” said Shari Tarantino, of the nonprofit Orca Conservancy. “It shouldn’t have taken two and a half years to get a necropsy report. It’s a lack of transparency.”
The final report affirmed the initial finding of the cause of death, said Dan Bate, spokesperson for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada.
J34 was dead for three to five days when he was recovered near Sechelt, B.C., north of Vancouver, on Dec. 20, 2016. The orca’s body was towed to shore and collected for a necropsy, which determined the whale had injuries consistent with a ship strike, Bate stated.
The release of the report comes at a politically sensitive time, as the Canadian government also has approved expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which would increase sevenfold the traffic of oil tankers through the southern resident’s critical habitat to the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, B.C. The Port of Vancouver also wants to build a new shipping terminal at Roberts Bank, in the Fraser River Delta, where orcas feed.
Both proposals have ignited opposition by conservation groups, and by tribes and First Nations on both sides of the border. The Lummi Nation also Thursday filed a letter with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada, initiating a formal dispute process and requesting consultation under international law prohibiting transboundary environmental harm. The tribe is concerned about harm to the southern resident orcas, which it regards as family members.
Ship strikes are an overlooked risk to killer whales, incorrectly assumed by many to be nimble enough to avoid any vessel.
In a paper published in 2010, lead author Rob Williams of the nonprofit Oceans Initiative listed 23 instances in which fin whales, humpbacks, and northern and southern resident orcas were hit by ships in British Columbia waters and in Puget Sound. Many of the strikes were fatal. Meanwhile, shipping noise and traffic has only increased in the Salish Sea.
Scientists already know the noise and presence of boats and ships interfere with orca feeding. As salmon decline, noise and disturbance by boats makes it harder for the whales to feed, adding to their struggle to survive. When whales go hungry, they also burn their fat, releasing toxics to their bloodstream.
In addition to the potential for day-to-day stress, vessels also can kill whales outright.
“A lot of people don’t think killer whales can get hit by a boat but this is real, and it is something we need to pay attention to,” said Joe Gaydos, science director for the SeaDoc Society, a marine science and education nonprofit. “This is a risk factor people have not been talking about.
“We have been talking about oil spills and noise, but not actual ship strikes. There are very few things that can cause this blunt force trauma. We have a lot of ship strikes to whales that just get T-boned when they are feeding in shipping channels.”