$750,000 OK'd to study orca fatalities
BREMERTON, WA— A federal spending bill approved last week contains $750,000 to study what has been killing Puget Sound orcas, the first federal money allocated by Congress for killer-whale field studies since the 1970s.
Researchers say they are thrilled but could use much more. Scientists have struggled in recent years to find money just to count the orcas.
"I think it is pretty exciting and long overdue," said University of Washington whale researcher David Bain.
The most recent federal money for field studies helped Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research begin counting the whales each year.
Since then, Balcomb has struggled to find private money to maintain the annual census — which is what tipped off experts that the whale population had plummeted from 99 to 78 in just five years. Births have brought the count up to 82 as of last summer.
Bain said everybody now agrees research is needed to figure out why the population is dropping. Orca researchers say they could use as much as $5 million in the next three to four years.
"This is a huge shift in priorities," Bain said. "It is a really big step forward, but it is short of what we need to do."
Bain said researchers generally agree that studies should focus on three principal concerns: toxic chemicals, which may be causing immune and reproductive problems; food availability; and the effect of whale-watching, which can stress the whales.
Scientists may learn many important things about the whales, he said.
"I hope it's not a one-shot deal. We will need similar amounts every year for the next several years," said Bain, who helped to organize a research conference last year. "If this is all there is, the private sector will really need to pitch in."
The National Marine Fisheries Service found money last year for Balcomb to begin gathering information this winter from fishermen and others who may see orcas. It has always been a mystery where the three Puget Sound pods, known as its southern resident orcas, travel in winter.
Linda Jones, who manages regional studies for the Fisheries Service, said a top question for researchers is why the whales contain such high levels of toxic chemicals.
Scientists could research how chemicals move from contaminated sediments into the orcas' food supply.
"Contaminants are on everyone's mind," she said.
Another big issue concerns the genetics of the whales and how they are related to other orca populations.
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