Northwest Fisheries Science Center

Southern Resident killer whale tagging

Frequently Asked Questions

Note: We have suspended the Southern Resident killer whale satellite-linked tagging program pending expert review of the program. These FAQ were written for the active program and are retained here for background information.

How has NOAA Fisheries responded to the final necropsy and expert panel review for the death of L95?

We halted tagging in April 2016 when the initial necropsy report showed that parts of the tag had broken off in the wound. We then convened a panel of independent experts to review the exam findings and circumstances of the tagging. The expert panel raised important questions about the need for further tagging. The Northwest Fisheries Science Center will convene an expert science panel to evaluate the satellite tagging program, and explore alternative methods. In the meantime we will focus on better understanding the health challenges of this population of killer whales, including what we have learned from the loss of L95.

What do we know about the death of L95 in March 2016?

On March 30, 2016 the carcass of an adult male killer whale was discovered floating west of Nootka Island during a DFO Cetacean Research Program survey. DFO transferred the animal to land and conducted a necropsy to investigate cause of death. Although the advanced state of decomposition eliminated the possibility of identification from photos, the presence of two small holes at the insertion of the dorsal fin suggested a satellite-linked tag had been recently attached to the animal. NWFSC researchers had previously tagged L95, an adult male Southern Resident killer whale, on February 23, 2016. Genetic testing revealed that this animal was a Southern Resident killer whale and due to the location of the tag site, it is assumed the deceased whale is L95. The NWFSC will work to confirm this ID from our library of SRKW genetic samples. Canadian authorities examined the carcass and have released a preliminary results statement, available on their The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site website.

The NWFSC research team encountered L95 with members of L pod on February 23, 2016 during the NWFSC winter killer whale cruise off the northern coast of Washington, near La Push. The 20 year-old adult male L95 appeared to be in good health based on general body condition and behavior. A satellite-linked tag was deployed by experienced staff under a NMFS research permit. The deployment was routine in all regards and close examination of the photos post-deployment did not indicate any breakage of the tag body during the deployment process. [10/5/16 Note: Further examination of the incident revealed that the tag entered the water during an unsuccessful initial tagging attempt and only one of two required sanitation steps was conducted.] The satellite-linked tagging system used is a standardized system employed regularly by wildlife researchers, and has been deployed on 533 cetaceans in 19 species with less than 1% of deployments documented with attachment parts remaining post- tag loss.

On February 25, 2016 they noted the tag attachment looked secure on L95 and also observed the outline of ribs were slightly visible on several members of L pod, including L95, but observed nothing suggesting a change in his health status. The last satellite transmission received from L95's tag was the next day on the morning of February 26, 2016, suggesting premature tag detachment. The team last observed L95 on February 27, 2016 and at that time he was with other whales and was behaving normally (See L95 Permit Incident Report.)

As stated in the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Ocean statement, the cause of death is not currently known. The preliminary necropsy examination found the animal was in fair to moderate health condition and found no signs that the satellite-linked tag contributed to mortality. The examination did find a few small satellite tag attachment system 'petals' retained in the dorsal fin. Although there were no signs of infection at the tag site upon initial examination, veterinarians are investigating whether the tag attachment penetration sites may have provided a pathway for infection. Additional tests are underway to determine presence of disease agents such as viruses or bacteria that will provide further details as to the cause of death. An update of the results will be provided when available, expected in approximately 3-4 weeks once additional tests have been completed.

UPDATE October 5, 2016: The final necropsy conducted by Department of Oceans Canada was released in early October 2016. The necropsy found that L95 died from a fungal infection that may have been introduced through the tag wound. We don't know the source of the fungus. It may have been present on the whale's skin. But the necropsy indicated that it appears to have infected the whale through the tag wound.

In light of that finding, we convened an expert panel of veterinarians and biologists to review the case. They interviewed the biologists involved and the Canadian pathologist who conducted the necropsy. They looked at the background of these tags, which have a long track record of successful use on cetaceans. They concluded that a few extenuating factors may have predisposed the whale to the fungal infection. These included:

Since the reports are not definitive, we will never know exactly what happened or precisely which factors were at play.

What does this mean for the future of the tagging program?

All satellite-tracked tagging on Southern Resident killer whales has been halted pending a comprehensive review of the tagging program. If the program continues, the agency would formally reinitiate consultation under the Endangered Species Act to ensure this type of tagging would not jeopardize the population. We would simultaneously conduct reviews under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Animal Welfare Act to reassess all effects of invasive tagging on the Southern Resident individuals and the population.

What is the objective of satellite tagging southern resident killer whales?

NOAA Fisheries is mandated under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to develop a Recovery Plan for listed species, and completed a plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) in 2008. The Recovery Plan identifies the threats, data gaps, and research priorities for the population. One of the highest priorities identified for SRKW was to determine their coastal distribution in the winter. Although their summer range in inland waters is well defined, their coastal distribution, where they spend the vast majority of their time during the winter, is uncertain.

NMFS is also mandated to designate Critical Habitat for ESA listed species. A prerequisite to Critical Habitat designation is determination of the area occupied by species and collection of location and habitat use data that are sufficient to determine "those physical and biological features that are essential to the conservation of a given species and that may require special management considerations or protection." Habitat features may include, but are not limited to, the following: (1) space for individual and population growth, and for normal behavior; (2) food, or other nutritional or physiological requirements; (3) sites for breeding, reproduction, rearing of offspring; and generally; (4) habitats that are protected from disturbance or are representative of the historic geographical and ecological distributions of a species. The designation of Critical Habitat adds an increased threshold of protection under section 7 of the ESA. Once critical habitat is designated, section 7 of the ESA requires Federal agencies to ensure that they do not fund, authorize, or carry out any actions that will destroy or adversely modify that habitat. This is in addition to the requirement that Federal agencies ensure their actions do not jeopardize the continued existence of listed species. Examples of Federal actions that have been analyzed for impacts to SRKW critical habitat include fisheries regulations, in-water construction projects, wastewater treatment at Federal facilities, and issuance of scientific research permits. A 5-year review of the status of SRKW completed in 2011 recommended "Increasing knowledge of coastal distribution, habitat use, and prey consumption to inform critical habitat determination, identify any unknown threats, and assess and minimize impacts of ongoing and new coastal activities (i.e., fisheries, alternative energy projects)."

How might satellite tag-derived location data be used for Critical Habitat designation? NMFS was able to partially designate Critical Habitat for SRKWs within the inland waters of Washington due to the very large data set (approximately 54,000 sighting reports collected over the last 20 years) from opportunistic sightings available from a long-term sighting network. However, the paucity of SRKW sighting data from the outer coast (less than 50 sightings over the past 20 years), combined with their wide-spread range, stretching from Monterey Bay, California, to the north end of the Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia, precluded NMFS from designating appropriate areas along the Pacific coast. Because there are so few locations over this long period, there are no discernible patterns of habitat use to allow for determination of essential features. Collection of movement data with satellite tags can provide spatially unbiased data over a short temporal scale to be able to assess occurrence and movement patterns that indicate specific areas of importance. Data from satellite tags can also fill in key data gaps, such as how far offshore the range of the SRKW extends, and data can direct studies, such as ship cruises, working to identify habitat features, including the specific prey the whales are eating in coastal waters.

An example of how satellite tagging information can help NMFS accomplish designating Critical Habitat in an effective manner was evidenced with Hawaiian Insular false killer whales. This small population was listed under the ESA in 2012 and a significant body of satellite tag location data has been obtained and has also been used to inform the Critical Habitat designation process. NMFS has relied almost exclusively on this dataset from 23 satellite-tagged whales and is on track to designate Critical Habitat. Although far fewer SRKWs will be tagged, we have found that a significant amount of new data can be gained from only a small number of tag deployments. An example of this is from recent tag deployments on a small number of Southeast Alaska resident-type whales. Like SRKW, despite extensive research efforts in the inland waters of Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound for the past 25 years, little was known of their coastal movements. With the deployment of nine tags from 2007 through 2014, we have discovered that these whales range well to the west of Kodiak Island, which was completely unknown and this information will be important information to understanding their role in the Gulf of Alaska Ecosystem.

Why can't SRKW occurrence and movements be determined using non-invasive approaches?

Since 2005 the NWFSC has actively used and supported (and will continue to support) several non-invasive approaches to assess the winter range of SRKW. Despite ongoing efforts to document the whales' winter distribution through an enhanced coastal sighting network, deployment of autonomous passive acoustic recorders, and dedicated research cruises, a significant information gap remains in their spatial and temporal distribution which has precluded delineating coastal Critical Habitat. The coastal sighting network has yielded fewer than 20 sighting between 2005 and 2012. While these are valuable data and represent a significant increase compared to previous years, the three to four sightings gained per year do not provide sufficient data by themselves or in combination with other recently derived data to allow for Critical Habitat determination.

Although SRKW have been located on four of the five NWFSC killer whale-focused survey cruises prior to use of satellite tags, as well as on a few other cruises, like the sighting network data, these data are too limited to provide more than just isolated snapshots of the whales' locations. Consequently, these small numbers of sightings in recent years are insufficient to provide the data needed to allow adequate determination of their coastal range as well as fully assess essential habitat features and identify specific areas with those features needed to designate additional Critical Habitat. It is important to note that these methods are limited by inclement weather which biases the data obtained and limit their effectiveness. While ocean-class vessel surveys offer the potential opportunity to follow the whales day and night to determine habitat use and possibly collect predation samples and feces for diet studies, it is important to note that the NWFSC is typically only allocated 10-20 sea days per year on NOAA's ocean-class vessels. In two recent years the NWFSC was not able to secure sea days due to funding cuts, and given ongoing fiscal constraints of the federal government it is likely that future opportunities will be extremely limited. Passive acoustic recorders have provided the greatest number of detections of SRKWs in coastal waters since we began this work in 2006. At the seven moorings that were typically deployed each from Cape Flattery, Washington to Pt. Reyes, California each from 2006-2014 we have detected SRKWs on a total of approximately 293 days. With support from the U.S. Navy we have been able to expand the number of recorders off the Washington coast to 16 for the past two years and have detected SRKWs on approximated 85 additional days in 2015. Despite this relatively large sample size there are still numerous multi-week gaps in the locations of the whales, such that a high degree of uncertainty continues to exist with respect to their winter range. These multi-week gaps may be due to the infrequent vocalizing by the whales, a trait we have noted while following satellite tagged whales and their pod members on the Shimada and monitoring them acoustically with our towed hydrophone array. It also important to note that the passive acoustic recorders, while providing the most data to date, does not provide sightings in near real time. Therefore, the information gained is limited to location data after the recorder has been recovered such that there is no ability to respond to detections in order to collect prey or fecal samples for diet analyses. Acoustic techniques and large-vessel surveys are also biased to locality, i.e., where we locate the recorders and where we direct the ship goes is based largely on past sightings, and visuals sightings are restricted to nearshore or areas of regular whale watch activity. The sighting data for SRKWs obtained to date are typically clustered based on effort more than anything else. These biases can be directly addressed by satellite tag data.

While it has been suggested that aerial surveys are a useful non-invasive technique, the NWFSC has not used this method due to the small benefit for the high costs incurred. Aerial surveys are expensive relative to the amount of information they return, i.e., although they have the advantage of covering a lot of area relatively quickly, even if a killer whale sighting is obtained we still may not be able to ascertain even the ecotype, much less obtain photos suitable for individual ID, because of the need to maintain altitude for safety reasons. In addition, the prevalent inclement weather during winter severely restricts aerial operations, much more so than an ocean-class survey vessel. Aerial surveys have been attempted to assess the winter distribution of gray whales off the Washington coast in the 1990s and this approach was determined to be very limited. The NWFSC has approached the Navy about obtaining killer whale detections on its hydrophone systems to monitor SRKW movements, but the Navy's response is that there is "no Navy environmental hydrophone network along the US West Coast". The Navy also noted that "Any other "Navy" system would be more operational and classified, in addition to not being used for environmental analysis." However, the U.S. Navy has provided additional financial support to the NWFSC to increase the number of autonomous passive acoustic recorders off the Washington coast.

How are you minimizing potential impacts to the whales and population?

We are authorized to tag a very limited number of SRKWs - a maximum of two per pod per year, for a total of six per year. However, we expect the reality of the logistics associated with deploying this many tags to substantially constrain these efforts, and result in fewer deployments than what are authorized. Because we are only interested in winter movements our only opportunities will be when the whales enter Puget Sound in the late winter or when we encounter them on the outer coast. These very limited opportunities will be further constrained by workable conditions (day length and sea state) for small boat operations. In addition, close proximity access to the small number of whales that are designated eligible for tagging will further limit opportunities. Consequently, based on previous encounter experience, we consider it likely that we will only tag a couple of whales/year.

Following a small number of tag attachment failures that were detected in 2010, the tags and darts were redesigned to reduce the likelihood of tag breakage on deployment on orphaning darts. The redesigned tags have been thoroughly tested and all have worked well. None of the several redesigned tags that have been used since then were documented to have failed on deployment. However, in response to an orphaned dart observed in K25 in 2013 additional modifications were made to the tag attachment system to prevent migration into the tissue and add additional drag to the orphaned dart to facilitate its out-migration.

Which whales will be tagged?

Only adult males or post-reproductive females will be tagged. This is part of the mitigation: erring on the side of caution by selecting animals that do not contribute directly to the reproductive potential of the population (i.e., reproductive females).

What tags will be used?

The tags used are location-only SPOT tags sold by Wildlife Computers. These tags were originally developed by Russ Andrews (of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Alaska SeaLife Center) to examine movements of killer whales in Alaska and the Antarctic.

Other researchers are also using these tags in Alaska, California, and the Antarctic to study movements of both fish-eating and mammal-eating killer whales. In addition, these tags have been used the study movements of several species of cetaceans in Hawaiian waters (see more information at The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site and off the coasts of California, Washington, North Carolina, Alaska, and in the Bahamas.

The tags are comprised of a transmitter (which is about the size of a standard 9 volt battery) that uplinks to System Argos receivers mounted on weather satellites (see more info below) and two short (about 6 cm) surgical grade titanium retention darts.

How are the tags deployed and how do the whales react?

The tags are deployed with a Pneumatic dart projector from about 4-12 meters. The darts penetrate the fin tissue and the retention petals secure the transmitter to the fin.

We typically only see a "flinch" by the whale and a more rapid than normal dive. In some cases there was no observed response. In most cases we are able to re-approach the whale for photographs within a few minutes of tagging.

How do the tags work?

Satellite-linked tags transmit a signal to a satellite, and position data is then relayed to the researcher. The Argos system functions very differently than the Global Positioning System (GPS) most people are familiar with. The transmitter on the whale emits a signal when the whale is at the surface and during the specific hours of the day when the transmitter is programmed to be on (to conserve battery life). The signal the transmitter emits is received by System Argos receivers on NOAA's polar orbiting weather satellites (the transmitter produces a quarter watt signal that has to be detected by a satellite 800 miles above). Weather satellites orbit overhead about every 90 minutes, are overhead for only about 8-14 minutes and are generally most directly overhead during the morning hours to give weather forecasters a first look at cloud cover and/or environmental data the satellites collect. Assuming the satellite is overhead when the tag is turned on and the whale is at the surface, several signals may be received during a satellite overpass. When tag transmissions are received, these signals are then sent to a ground station which sends the entire transmitter ID and frequency information to Argos headquarters in France for processing. Getting an estimated location requires the emission and receipt of a series of signals from a very stable frequency of the transmitter, and using a principle known as Doppler shift (this is what occurs when you hear a train horn sounding lower at the instant it passes by) a series of algorithms are applied to the signal data to estimate the transmitter signal's location. Each location we receive has a location quality rating which estimates the amount of error associated with it. Argos has seven location quality ratings, four of which have no error estimate associated with it - in other words the location may be correct or may be off by dozens of miles. For the three ratings that have error estimates assigned to them the actual locations are generally accurate within a couple of miles. Determination of the final set of locations requires the use of a filtering program to select those points that have the highest probably of being correct, based in part on the speed between consecutive locations. The result is a detailed and relatively accurate track of the whale's movements for the time the tag was on during the day.

When would tagging occur?

Tagging will only be conducted in the early winter to early spring - late December through April, in order to determine winter movements. Tagging would occur when the whales come into Puget Sound or during coastal surveys. This tagging will be timed to maximize chances for follow up/sample collection on NOAA ocean-class vessel surveys or other survey efforts. If tags are deployed during ocean-class vessel surveys we will attempt to track the whales for the duration of the cruise with the goal of collecting a variety of data including predation event samples and feces to determine winter prey selection and stress hormones. To the extent feasible, but recognizing the substantial constraints associated with lack of daylight and persistently inclement weather, coastal small boat operations will be undertaken on an opportunistic basis.

How will you assess if there are any effects to the whale?

During all encounters of populations of whales that may have been tagged, most if not all of the individuals in the group are photographed. In many cases, previously tagged animals are identified during the encounter. We do look for both physical (e.g., is the animal emaciated or how has the tagging site healed?) and behavioral (e.g., does the animal surface/dive/swim normally, is it associating with conspecifics?) cues to assess potential effects. Information on re-sightings has also been used to examine survival rates of tagged versus non-tagged whales, and assess reproduction (in the case of females of other species that have been tagged).

Over the past 10 years over 500 of these tags have been deployed on 18 different species. We have conducted both dedicated and opportunistic resighting efforts with a number of collaborators. Despite the challenges associated with resighting animals that can range widely, a substantial number of the tagged animals have been resighted both during the time the tag was attached as well as post-tag loss. In no instance have we observed any anomalous behaviors or change in overall health status of the animals. Individuals of a number of species have been documented giving birth post-tagging, including transient killer whales, Cuvier's beaked whales, Blainville's beaked whales, pygmy killer whales, and false killer whales.

How much data do you expect to obtain?

The median duration of signal contact for tagged killer whales is approximately 31 days with some deployments exceeding 3 months. We typically receive several reliable locations/day. Consequently, for each deployment we expect to acquire several hundred new locations.

What organizations will be involved in the tagging project?

The project is led by the NWFSC with logistical support from Cascadia Research Collective due to their extensive of experience in the deployment of satellite tags. We will provide location data from the satellite tags in a timely manner to the Center for Whale Research and DFO Canada and other researchers so that they have the opportunity to locate the whales to obtain resighting data that will be used to assess the whale's condition and the condition of the fin tissue at the tag attachment site.