Killer Whales Are Not Our Lab Rats!

From the Keyboard of Stephanie Prima-Sarantopulos: The National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed additional satellite tagging for our Southern Resident Killer Whales to obtain additional data on their winter habitat.  Whale expert Kenneth Balcomb, from The Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, wrote an extensive letter protesting the proposed tagging, accompanied with vivid photos that corroborate his allegations that the method of attaching the satellite transmitters are much too invasive.  Since there is no urgency to fill the data gap, Balcomb suggests alternatives to the methods currently proposed.

Balcomb personally photographed satellite tag wounds on T-30, a female transient killer whale.  At 140 days after being tagged there was swelling on her dorsal fin (Figure 1); seven months after tagging, there was still skin sloughing in the region (Fig 2); a year and a half later, the swelling is still quite evident (Fig 3).

Fig. 1. Transient ecotype killer whale T30 one hundred and forty days after tagging, illustrating significant swelling at barb sites after tag loss.

He has also seen other, very serious tag wounds (Figs 4 a & b) and dangerous attachments (Figs. 5 & 6) on killer whales, to the point that he considers the tags to be inhumane, unsafe and unacceptable.  To make matters worse, there is no planned follow-up to monitor the injury and healing process.  As Balcomb explains, “the development appears geared toward maximizing tag life, rather than minimizing wound trauma.” Even so, the tag life is still only 23-29 days average, 76 days at the most; but the primitive hardware used to attach them stays much longer.  The barbs that hold the tags in place do not get smaller and just disappear; some of the exit wounds are visible for years; others may seriously disfigure or cause lasting distress to the whale.  These types of injuries can cause significant risk for the already Critically Endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.

Fig 2. T30 nearly seven months after tagging, illustrating continued swelling and skin loss at barb sites.

Fig. 3. T30 one and a half years after tagging, illustrating continued swelling at barb sites.

Balcomb proposes methods of gathering data that are minimally invasive to the animals, causing the least potential pain and stress.  After all, “They are not our lab rats.”

The comment period on the proposed satellite tagging has expired, but if the permit is issued you can contact your elected representative to protest the use of these darts.  If you’ve seen our Southern Resident Killer Whales and felt the majesty of these magnificent, gentle creatures, you can help Ken continue his vigilance with your donation of ANY denomination.  Send to The Center for Whale Research, PO Box 1577, Friday Harbor WA  98250, or click on the “Links and Donations” page on their website.  I know more than one of our local whale watch tour operatorsconsiders Ken Balcomb, a nationally recognized authority on killerwhales,  “the best hope for Southern Resident Killer Whales.  He has his finger on their pulse.”

Fig. 4 a. Transient ecotype killer whale T99A thirty-five days after tagging and two days after tag transmission ceased, illustrating fresh exit wounds at barb sites.

Fig. 4 b. Close-up view of T99A exit wounds at barb sites, illustrating extent of tissue extrusion. The open wound does not appear to be infected.

Fig. 5. Transient ecotype killer whale T90, tagged near trailing edge of the dorsal fin on the left side, illustrating barbs protruding up to three inches on right side of fin.

Fig. 6. Juvenile transient ecotype killer whale T100C, tagged near trailing edge of the dorsal fin on the right side, illustrating barbs protruding up to one inch on left side.

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One Response to “Killer Whales Are Not Our Lab Rats!”

  1. Thanks for sharing this and spreading the word about this invasive research concept. It seems strange that the same government agency that is threatening to end commercial whale watching in the San Juan Islands is the same one that just gave permission to the Navy to use bombs and skull-splitting sonar in their home range. And now this!

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