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Scientists suggest new threat to endangered B.C. orcas: pink salmon

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Gene Johnson, The Associated Press


Published Friday, January 18, 2019 6:02PM EST


Last Updated Friday, January 18, 2019 6:11PM EST

SEATTLE — Over the years, scientists have identified dams, pollution and vessel noise as causes of the troubling decline of the Pacific Northwest’s resident killer whales. Now, they may have found a new and more surprising culprit: pink salmon.

Four salmon researchers were perusing data on the website of the Center for Whale Research, which studies the orcas, several months ago when they noticed a startling trend: that for the past two decades, significantly more of the whales have died in even-numbered years than in odd years.

In a newly published paper, they speculate that the pattern is related to pink salmon, which return to the Salish Sea between Washington state and Canada in enormous numbers every other year — though they’re not sure how. They suspect that the huge runs of pink salmon, which have boomed under conservation efforts and changes in ocean conditions in the past two decades, might interfere with the whales’ ability to hunt their preferred prey, Chinook salmon.

Given the dire plight of the orcas, which officials say are on the brink of extinction, the researchers decided to publicize their discovery without waiting to investigate its causes.

“The main point was getting out to the public word about this biennial pattern so people can start thinking about this important, completely unexpected factor in the decline of these whales,” said one of the authors, Greg Ruggerone. “It’s important to better understand what’s occurring here because that could help facilitate recovery actions.”

Ruggerone, president of Seattle-based Natural Resources Consultants and former chairman of the Columbia River Independent Scientific Advisory Board, and the other authors — Alan Springer of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, Leon Shaul of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and independent researcher Gus van Vliet of Auke Bay, Alaska — have previously studied how pink salmon compete for prey with other species.

As news stories chronicled the struggles of the orcas last year — one whale carried her dead calf on her head for 17 days in an apparent effort to revive it — the four biologists looked at data on the Center for Whale Research’s site. Thanks to their previous research, it took them only a few minutes to recognize a trend that had escaped the attention of other scientists.

“We know that some are good years for the whales and some are bad years, but we hadn’t put it together that it was a biennial trend,” said Ken Balcomb, the centre’s founding director, one of the foremost experts on the so-called Southern Resident killer whales.

Further analyzing the data, the researchers found that from 1998 to 2017, as the population of whales decreased from 92 to 76, more than 3.5 times as many newborn and older whales died during even years — 61, versus 17 in odd years. During that period, there were 32 successful births during odd years, but only 16 during even years.

That biennial pattern did not exist during a prior 22-year period from 1976 to 1997, when the whale population was recovering from efforts to capture orcas for aquarium display, the researchers said.

But in 1998, salmon harvests were curtailed amid efforts to boost runs decimated by overfishing, pollution and habitat loss. A strong change in ocean conditions occurred around the same time, benefiting pink salmon especially by increasing the abundance of zooplankton, which make up much of the pink salmon’s diet.

The combined effect of the ocean changes and fishing restrictions has greatly benefited the pinks, which are by far most numerous salmon species in the North Pacific. When they return to the Salish Sea, there are about 50 for each of the bigger, fattier Chinook. Nearly all pinks return to their natal streams in odd years, completing their two-year life cycle, unlike other salmon, which stay in the ocean longer.

Meanwhile, Chinook populations have continued to struggle — the dearth of Chinook is considered the most severe threat to the orcas — and many scientists say they will continue to do so unless four dams on the Lower Snake River are breached. The researchers speculate that the blossoming numbers of pinks in the Salish Sea during odd-numbered years have interfered with the echolocation the orcas use to hunt increasingly sparse Chinook. The orcas almost never eat pink salmon.

Because the whales are such large mammals, the theory goes, the stress caused by the pinks in odd years would not affect their mortality rates and reproductive rates until the following year — and that’s why more die in even years.

Another possibility is that presence of pinks means less food for the Chinook — and thus less food for the orcas, Ruggerone said.

The researchers also put forth a contrary hypothesis: that the presence of pinks somehow enhances the orcas’ hunting, improving their survival in odd-numbered years — though they say they have no reason to believe that’s the case.

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More groups join in support of women in STEM program at Carleton

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OTTAWA — Major companies and government partners are lending their support to Carleton University’s newly established Women in Engineering and Information Technology Program.

The list of supporters includes Mississauga-based construction company EllisDon.

The latest to announce their support for the program also include BlackBerry QNX, CIRA (Canadian Internet Registration Authority), Ericsson, Nokia, Solace, Trend Micro, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, CGI, Gastops, Leonardo DRS, Lockheed Martin Canada, Amdocs and Ross.

The program is officially set to launch this September.

It is being led by Carleton’s Faculty of Engineering and Design with the goal of establishing meaningful partnerships in support of women in STEM.  

The program will host events for women students to build relationships with industry and government partners, create mentorship opportunities, as well as establish a special fund to support allies at Carleton in meeting equity, diversity and inclusion goals.

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VR tech to revolutionize commercial driver training

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Serious Labs seems to have found a way from tragedy to triumph? The Edmonton-based firm designs and manufactures virtual reality simulators to standardize training programs for operators of heavy equipment such as aerial lifts, cranes, forklifts, and commercial trucks. These simulators enable operators to acquire and practice operational skills for the job safety and efficiency in a risk-free virtual environment so they can work more safely and efficiently.

The 2018 Humboldt bus catastrophe sent shock waves across the industry. The tragedy highlighted the need for standardized commercial driver training and testing. It also contributed to the acceleration of the federal government implementing a Mandatory Entry-Level Training (MELT) program for Class 1 & 2 drivers currently being adopted across Canada. MELT is a much more rigorous standard that promotes safety and in-depth practice for new drivers.

Enter Serious Labs. By proposing to harness the power of virtual reality (VR), Serious Labs has earned considerable funding to develop a VR commercial truck driving simulator.

The Government of Alberta has awarded $1 million, and Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) is contributing an additional $2 million for the simulator development. Commercial deployment is estimated to begin in 2024, with the simulator to be made available across Canada and the United States, and with the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) helping to provide simulator tests to certify that driver trainees have attained the appropriate standard. West Tech Report recently took the opportunity to chat with Serious Labs CEO, Jim Colvin, about the environmental and labour benefits of VR Driver Training, as well as the unique way that Colvin went from angel investor to CEO of the company.

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Next-Gen Tech Company Pops on New Cover Detection Test

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While the world comes out of the initial stages of the pandemic, COVID-19 will be continue to be a threat for some time to come. Companies, such as Zen Graphene, are working on ways to detect the virus and its variants and are on the forefronts of technology.

Nanotechnology firm ZEN Graphene Solutions Ltd. (TSX-Venture:ZEN) (OTCPK:ZENYF), is working to develop technology to help detect the COVID-19 virus and its variants. The firm signed an exclusive agreement with McMaster University to be the global commercializing partner for a newly developed aptamer-based, SARS-CoV-2 rapid detection technology.

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