NOAA: Satellite Tag Infection Killed Orca

KING 5's Alison Morrow reports.

SEATTLE – A male orca died due to an infection caused by satellite tagging, NOAA announced Wednesday.

L-95 was found dead about a month after NOAA scientists tagged the Southern Resident orca in February. Pieces of the hardware were found in the orca's tissue. A necropsy, recently finalized, revealed that the injury caused a lethal infection leading to the whale's death.

NOAA officials believe human error may have contributed to the fungal infection. During the tagging process the tag fell into the water. Before it was attached to L-95 is wasn't cleaned per NOAA protocol, which requires the tag to be cleaned with alcohol and bleach - it was only cleaned with alcohol. The tag was also attached near very important blood vessels, which could have allowed the infection to enter the ocra's bloodstream quickly. 

The research began in an effort to understand where the whales traveled during the winter when they leave Puget Sound in hopes of supporting the endangered species. 

Eight whales have been tagged since the research began in 2012. So far, none but L-95 have been confirmed dead due to the process. However, critics have vocalized concern that it would eventually happen.

"The NOAA/NMFS tagging program is certainly injuring and disfiguring these Endangered icons of the Pacific Northwest, and it is my subjective opinion that it is adversely altering their behavior toward benign vessel interactions to approach them for photo-identification," wrote Center for Whale Research Senior Scientist Ken Balcomb soon after L-95 was found dead. "I discussed these shortcomings with Dr.’s Mike Ford and Brad Hanson several years ago and was told the sat tagging program would proceed in spite of my concerns; and, I was instructed to simply document tag healing and report any issues to them, which I have done. I do not know if these problems have been reported up the chain of command to the NOAA/NMFS Permit Office, but the feedback I have been receiving is that the hardware issues of yesteryear have been “fixed”.

Balcomb said for the last two years he has been talking with government officials about barbs remaining in orcas after tags have fallen off. He said he has seen infected flesh around the barbs on orcas and calls the practice "barbaric."

Balcomb also raised concerns about the purpose of tagging the animals. He said the research of where the orcas are traveling isn't needed because it has been documented for years. Balcomb said resources need to be reallocated to provide more food for the animals, such as removing damns and culverts.

“I was showing the researchers and the permit office the photographs of hardware left in whales, the infections that festered, the injuries that were not minor, the potential invasive agents that could get in there through a wound. It was like, this is unthinkable really. You wouldn’t do this to your kids,” Balcomb said Wednesday. “It doesn’t make any sense to me to be stuck on more and more study, research, and statistical mumbo-jumbo when we know that they’re predators, they need food and we know what food they need. All we need to do is provide it.”

NOAA stopped tagging orcas after L-95's carcass washed ashore. They will not continue with the research in the near future.

None of the Southern Resident orcas tagged by NOAA are currently wearing the sattelite tags, and none are known to have any hardware left in their tissue.

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L95 Necropsy

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