Orca Killed by Satellite Tag Leads to Criticism of Science Practices

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In February 2016,  scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had been trying to attach tiny satellite transmitters to the endangered cetaceans to track where they go in winter, to help see why their populations are so depressed. So the researchers retrieved the dart, reloaded the rifle, and took another shot, this time hitting the animal, a healthy-looking 20-year-old male known as L95.

The darting seemed “routine in all regards,” a report would later state, until the orca wound up dead and that dart became the prime suspect. On Wednesday, an expert panel of scientists agreed that efforts to attach the satellite tag to L95 likely paved the way for a rare fungal infection that killed the endangered mammal, leaving only 82 orcas left in that population.

The accident and findings left whale scientists reeling. NOAA is “deeply dismayed that one of their tags may have had something to do with the death of this whale,” said Richard Merrick, the agency’s chief scientist, himself a former whale researcher.

“Everybody is devastated by this—nobody more so than me,” said Brad Hanson, another NOAA whale expert who helped start the orca satellite tagging operation a decade ago and now oversees the program.

But it also raised new questions: Was the death a collision of unfortunate circumstances that are not likely to be repeated? Or does a common tool intrinsic to marine research around the globe—satellite tagging—pose more risks to large marine mammals than once thought?

For now, NOAA is suspending tagging of endangered orcas and will review whether less invasive tracking methods are necessary. It is also planning a special workshop for the 88-country International Whaling Commission to discuss tagging worldwide.

That angered whale-protection activists who called the tagging program barbaric and defective, suggesting scientists should turn to underwater acoustic monitoring—which is used in Canada to track orcas—or some other method.

NOAA scientists acknowledged the error, but said tagging already has brought them valuable insight, allowing scientists to follow them more frequently in winter and even get prey and fecal samples. That ultimately may lead regulators to expand habitat protections for the endangered animals as far south as northern California.

“It has been a quantum leap for us,” Hanson said. “We were all surprised by how much time they were spending down there. That’s information we got from satellite tags.”

read more: news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/10/orca-killed-by-satellite-tag-l59/
article: Craig Welch
photo: NOAA Fisheries

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