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Home » Archives » December 2008 » Reader Disputes Reason’s For Orca Decline

[Previous entry: "Well Done Orcas Fire Department!"] [Next entry: "LETTERS ON SJI TRANSFER STATION"]

12/30/2008: "Reader Disputes Reason’s For Orca Decline"

Mark Anderson's recent report "The Southern Resident Orca Population Crashes In 2008: Starvation" included many, many mistakes and fabrications that readers of the Island Guardian may want to see corrected.

The most glaring error is he's ignoring the need to restore salmon habitat, which is widely understood to be the most important action needed to save the orcas. The op-ed distracts from that essential message and dilutes the motivation and public pressure needed to do the hard job of restoring salmon habitat so orcas will once again have year-round food supplies.

• His first and second points, that whale watch boats are to blame, was stated by him, and possibly by Dave Bain, at the PSP meeting, but it was not the consensus. Lack of salmon was the primary problem discussed at the meeting.

• PCBs are not pesticides. They are flame retardants, and the damage they do to marine mammals was not dreamed up by anybody. He's completely confused by the difference between PCBs and pesticides. See: "High PCB concentrations in free-ranging Pacific killer whales, Orcinus orca: Effects of age, sex and dietary preference" Ross, Peter S., et al. (2000).

• Anderson seems unaware that PBDEs, another class of flame retardants, are rising rapidly in the ecosystem and are also extremely harmful to marine mammals. See:
"PBDEs, PBBs, and PCNs in Three Communities of Free-Ranging Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) from the Northeastern Pacific Ocean" Rayne, et al. (2004).

• No scientist says either PCBs or pesticides are the primary cause of whale deaths. Anderson rebuts an argument that is not being made. They are separate, serious problems that compound nutritional deficiencies, but are not as important as the lack of food.

• There is a direct correlation between low chinook count and whale deaths. See:
"Linking prey to population dynamics: did food limitation cause recent declines of 'resident' killer whales (Orcinis orca) in British Columbia?" Ford, John K.B., et al (2005).

• The Center for Whale Research, presumably the "original permitted researcher," never ran a whale watch business. Earthwatch volunteers conducted and helped fund photo-identification research, by which we know everything we know about the demographics of the Southern Resident orcas, information needed to even know the population was in decline and required for their designation as endangered under the ESA.

• Orca Network, presumably the "website that reports all whale whereabouts" has never sent out or posted real-time sightings. He twice condemns a practice that is not practiced.

• As per the guidelines, professional boats approach slowly, parallel the whales at over 100 yards away and shut down engines whenever possible. All boat traffic, including private boats and shipping traffic, causes noise that could impact the whales. In the case of the whale watch boats, the effects are mitigated by adherence to the guidelines, as per county regulations and monitored by SoundWatch. Boat passengers are generally provided the environmental background to understand that lack of chinook salmon is starving the orcas and so salmon habitat must be restored, reinforcing the political pressure to accomplish that daunting task.

• Ken Balcomb founded The Whale Museum in 1979, and asked Mark to coordinate volunteers during the initial refurbishing of the Odd Fellows Hall and installation of the museum.

• The Whale Museum was indeed research-based, to be based on the research of the Center for Whale Research, then known as Orca Survey. That relationship was severed in 1980.

Howard Garrett
Greenbank WA 98253

(Mark Anderson’s response to Garrett’s comments follows)

First, since his is a fairly emotional letter, I think it important that Howie Garrett make two public disclosures which relate to conflict of interest: first, that he is part-brother to Ken Balcomb, who started the first successful large-scale whale watching business on San Juan; and, second, that Howie’s website makes money, via online advertising and other means, by providing whale locations to whale watchers of all kinds.

I will also make full disclosure: I have never made a cent from my work with Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance, and, in contrast, have donated tens of thousands of dollars, in cash, to whale research by others, in an attempt to expand scientific knowledge about what is killing our local whales. We don’t make money off the whales.

In other words, before anyone expresses an opinion on this subject, they should be compelled to make full disclosure of whether they, and / or anyone in their family, make money watching whales.

I’ll take Howie’s points in order:

1. Salmon. Howie seems confused here, saying we made an error by ignoring the importance of salmon. The first sentence of our first point is, ”These whales have a diet composed of about 70% chinook (king) salmon; when that population crashes, as it did this year off the California coast and locally, the whales pay.”

As I noted in speaking to the People for Puget Sound meeting at the Friday Harbor Labs, and as Orca Relief has noted for over a decade now, the decline in salmon lays the foundations for whale starvation. We strongly believe in, and support, all efforts to restore salmon runs, and always have.

2. The role of whale watch boats. Again, Howie is confused; we never made the statement he seems to be attributing to us. But we strongly believe that starving whales, already on the endangered species list, should not be chased regularly by boats, for financial gain. Virtually every paper on boat / whale interactions depicts negative interactions, and most of these contribute to the starvation condition foundations of low salmon count.

3. PCBs. More confusion. As a Stanford graduate in marine biochemistry, I have some appreciation for chemicals in the sea, and what they do. While Howie mistakenly calls PCBs fire retardants, they in fact are generally found as electrical insulating liquids in things like old transformers and other electrical equipment. He is probably thinking of PBDEs, which are flame retardants.

For decades, conservationists have tried to make the case that PCBs were the cause of whale death, but in fact there is absolutely no correlation between the two -something he continues to fail to admit. With the advent of each new chemical, new studies are needed. But this “red herring” is fairly easily put aside by noting that whale populations increase, as they have done for the last five years, while PBDE concentrations also increase. There is no correlation.

All of these chemicals, including PBDEs, are bad, but real scientists don’t confuse the idea of something being bad, with whether it is the cause of, or correlates with, something else. Howie has consistently confused finding high chemical counts in tissue, with whether this is causing death.

To make matters even more confusing, Howie states that “no scientist says either PCBs or pesticides are the primary cause of whale deaths.” But here is a quote from Howie himself, taken from his website December 26th:

“The orcas' steep population decline is a reflection of the problems and issues facing the greater Puget Sound marine and watershed ecosystems: declining salmon runs, PCB contamination, and the effects of a rapidly increasing human population ”

No wonder the public is confused.

Orca Relief is very strongly in favor of all efforts to remove all toxic chemicals from the environment, even if they cannot be shown to be the direct cause of whale death.

4. Regarding the Center for Whale Research being the first whale watch operators. I happened to be working with Ken Balcomb when he initiated his Earthwatch program: each “volunteer” paid thousands of dollars, shared with the Center, for the pleasure of going out in boats and photographic whales, generally over a week or so. These came in shifts over a summer term.

I have a signed letter from Ken Balcomb claiming to have been making just under $100,000 per year through these efforts. This was the first financially successful effort to take large amounts of money from the public for whale watching, even if the results included lots of useful photos for the Center.

5. Boat Rules and Behavior. I am not sure what point Howie is trying to make in this description, but it is important to note again that what may look benign above the water to a tourist, may be having critically negative effects on whale starvation. We know that boats cause whales to need more food, and while lowering their foraging efficiency. The result is predictable and avoidable: already starving, they need more food, and get less. This happens even when all boats obey all current rules -rules which have their origins in 1950s-dated federal guidelines for watching gray whales.

6. The Whale Museum. Ken Balcomb had the idea for the museum, asked me if I would create it, and I said “yes,” the second time around. Since Ken had no money, I required his board to agree to let the Museum be run financially autonomously. I arranged the lease for the building, and with Annie Howell (Adams) managed day/night construction work teams; took the vision from a shop-for-money to the world’s first research-based whale museum, and found and managed all of the five hundred or so volunteers. Ken contributed $400 (in two checks) and a skeleton (not yet cleaned) to the cause; I raised the rest of the money, recruited support from five local universities, and from the local San Juan community. The museum’s appraised value on opening: about a quarter million dollars.

Ken later offered me the job of executive director of his parent company -with my pay to come from the Museum. (I drew very little pay, ever, from the Museum, preferring to invest the money in exhibits.) I saw this as another way of getting the Museum’s money, and declined. His board, made mostly of family members and housemates, then fired me. All of the Museum membership quit in a day, and the Museum advisory board immediately took over his company’s board positions and fired Ken, which is why he had to change his company name.

Yes, Ken had the idea for a museum / shop in town. And yes, I and my friends did almost all the rest. I usually say we were co-founders, which doesn’t accurately reflect the work load or funding allocation, but seems otherwise fair, even now.

I am sorry Howie raised this also-unrelated issue, but perhaps this was as good a chance as any, a couple of decades late, to get the real story into the public record. We tried to publish this at the time in the Museum journal Cetus, but Howie and others physically removed those pages, according to then-Curator Bruce Stedman. I have the only remaining original issue.

In summary: I hope your readers realize the lengths to which Howie Garrett, and others involved in making money chasing our endangered orca, will go, in order to avoid their own responsibility in protecting the orca.

It is illegal to pursue them; I hope, now that we have pointed this out, that this is enforced. The fastest, simplest way to remove starvation pressure on the whales is to halt operations of the whale watch fleet. Unlike toxins remedies, which require decades, this could be done in a day, with immediate beneficial effect.

It also makes no sense to advertise orca whereabouts, since it is illegal to pursue them. This data should be embargoed for days or a week before being given to the public on a website.

I thank Howie, and the Island Guardian, for giving me this opportunity to further clarify the history of these events, and what is known today about what is killing the local whales.

Mark Anderson

Tom Bauschke
John Evans
Mary Kalbert
Ron Keeshan
Gordy Petersen
Janice Peterson
Bruce Sallan
Terra Tamai
Amy Wynn
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