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Orca Killed by Satellite Tag Leads to Criticism of Science Practices

The death of a rare killer whale in the Pacific Northwest has been linked to a tagging effort, causing an outcry and re-evaluation…


The tragic death of the Southern Resident Orca L95 was senseless. It was well known that only 83, and now only 82, of these highly endangered Southern Resident Orcas remain, what the threats are to them, and what needs to be done to give them the best hope for recovery. The Center for Whale Research and Ken Balcomb who are the foremost authorities on this population of Orca denounced this NOAA tagging effort as unnecessary before it even began.

The GWC is deeply concerned not only by this death but by the scope of implant or satellite tagging efforts on whales in the USA and globally. Why are so many whales tagged, what do we learn from these tags, and most importantly what good does it do to these threatened and endangered species to have these tags placed in their skin? What harm can come to individuals hosting these tags?

It has been well documented that some of these tags cause large bulges and open wounds (Blue whales), crater-like depressions and smaller bulges (Blue, Humpback, Right whales and others). It has also been documented that some tags cavitate over time allowing their seal to be broken, which can allow bacteria, fungus, and other unwanted germs to enter the whale’s body.

The fact that the Brad Hanson’s (NOAA) team has placed tags 530 times on 19 species, including Pilot whales, Gray, Fin, Humpback, Beaked whales, and 56 Killer whales (Orca) is deeply troubling to the GWC. We wish to know how these species have directly benefited from this amount of invasive research? Could the same benefits have been realized if far fewer tags had been deployed on these whales?

Considering the above the GWC takes the following position on the tagging of whales.

  1. GWC has no issue with non-invasive suction-cup-attached tags that do not penetrate the skin of the host whale, although permits for these types of tags should be monitored more strictly than at present.

  2. GWC takes great issue with any implant type tags that penetrate the skin of the host whale.

While not opposed to all implant tags, the GWC believes that a strict set of rules must be implemented. Permits must be issued only after approval by a select joint body of scientific and conservation experts. These permit applications need to show a direct positive effect (i.e., prove need for policy changes) to the species being tagged, and limited to very few tags per year on any given species in any one geographic region. If the tagging effort does not clearly illustrate a concerted effort to help the plight of the species in question we firmly propose that no permit shall be issued.

Michael Fishbach – Executive Director/Great Whale Conservancy

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