It's no secret that the amount of animals ending up on the Endangered Species list is growing more and more each year. In the recent decades, the use of pronged satellite tags on endangered killer whales have become a pivotal tool for determining their critical habitat and tracking their movements. But there are some naturalists and scientists that completely oppose this practice, their argument is it could be harmful and possibly fatal to the killer whales. Last month, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) temporarily shut down the use of satellite tags after a 20-year-old male Southern Resident orca, L95, was found with the prongs of the tracking device stuck in his dorsal fin.
L95 was tagged on Feb. 24 off the coast of Washington state, but three days after tagging satellite transmission ceased. This cease of communication, "suggesting premature tag detachment," NOAA reported. But on March 30 the Orca's highly decomposed carcass was found near Vancouver Island. The NOAA responded, "We are concerned that parts of the tag were found retained in the dorsal fin. The team has halted tagging activities until a full reassessment of the tag design and deployment is completed.”
As reported by the NOAA, of the 533 tags placed in whales and dolphins in the recent decades, only 1 percent are known to have left prongs in animals. An initial necropsy done by Fisheries and Oceans Canada could not find an apparent cause of death. A complete autopsy report should be finished in a week. Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist at NOAA Fisheries said the second autopsy will be looking for signs of any infections. “It could be a possible connection between what was seen internally and the tag site itself, but there was nothing at the tag site to suggest anything going on there,” Hanson reported.
The tags, although they may be detrimental, are important for determining the full extent of their main habitat, and that is required under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. And so, the NOAA deploys these tags to thoroughly document the inland water movement of the orcas, but the data on where they go in the open ocean is lacking. Since 2012, eight Southern Resident orcas have been tagged and since the program began in 2004, 66 orcas have been darted. Critics are saying that tagging is invasive and the remaining prongs can cause detrimental harm to animals. “Not enough thought was given during tag design and development to the issue of tag damage to the whales or whether they would tolerate it,” executive director of Center for Whale Research, Ken Balcomb, reported. “These whales are endangered, and any stress or injury to them should be avoided, not maximized to facilitate attachment.”
If in fact, these tags are detrimental to the health of killer whales there is another alternative. Canada currently prohibits the use of pronged tags because of their invasive nature. And so, Canadian researchers instead rely on underwater hydrophones and visual sightings to track the whales. Because there is an alternative to tagging, hopefully this method can be applied to our current practices.