In contrast to the Southern Resident Orca, the Northern Resident Orca have fared much better since the captures of the 1960-70’s. In response to these captures, in 1971, the Canadian Ministry of the Environment hired marine biologist Michael Bigg to do a scientific census of the orca population in Canadian waters. Bigg’s work was ground-breaking and furthered our understanding of orca greatly, and the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve in the Johnstone Strait is named in honor of Michael Bigg.
Bigg sent out 15,000 questionnaires for public sightings of orca on one day, July 26,1971, and August 1-3 in 1972-73. This limited day survey was to eliminate duplicate sightings, and from the 500 survey returns, Bigg estimated there were 200-350 orca on the BC and Washington State coast. He also began a photo ID survey using the dorsal fin with its distinctive nicks and scratches, and the saddle patch, which is standard practice today. Bigg also utilized hydrophone recordings of orca vocalizations which are unique to each pod. He reported that the northern and southern residents do not interact or interbreed, discovered there were two distinct groups – the residents and transients (now the offshores are also recognized), and that the residents were organized in very stable matrilineal pods. He began a catalogue giving a letter to each pod beginning with A Pod.
A well known orca was a big male A5, Top Notch, and one of the first orca identified in the Johnstone Strait area. The A5 Pod was named after him. This was the pod that was captured in Pender harbour in 1969, including Corky. Being a large male, Top Notch was not wanted for captivity, and was released.
Presently there are 16 pods with 34 matrilines, in the three clans A,G, and R. Since the 1970’s, the Northern Resident orca population has grown at a rate of 2.9%, and at the end of 2017 they numbered 309 orcas.
The most extensive research on the Northern Resident Orca has been done by Paul Spong and Helena Symonds at Orca lab on Hanson island. (www.orcalab.org) In 1967, Dr. Spong was hired by the University of British Columbia to do research on Skana, a captive orca at the Vancouver Aquarium. Spong soon realized a highly intelligent, aware, and acoustic based orca like Skana was depressed and suffering confined in a concrete tank. After advocating for her return to the ocean, he was fired, and began spending summers on Hanson Island, on Johnston Strait, the home waters of the Northern Resident Orca.
In 1970, on Hanson Island, Spong began building Orca Lab out of driftwood, and has faithfully been following his philosophy of land based, non-invasive study of orca for the past 48 years. He put an array of hydrophones in the water to record orca vocalizations, and later installed shore based and underwater cameras to follow the orca. Explore.org has helped provide, install, and maintain a fantastic array of surface and underwater cameras with live streaming. See www.explore.org. With an excellent group of volunteers, Orca Lab has amassed a huge audio collection of the distinctive dialect vocalizations of each pod, followed all the Northern Resident Orca pods with yearly changes from deaths and new births, and studied the behaviors and habits of these orcas.
In 2002, Orca Lab played a key role in the reuniting of A73 Springer, the two year old orphan A Pod baby orca. Springer’s mother had died, and she ended up alone, and in poor health by a ferry dock in Puget Sound. Using vocal recordings of Springer, Orca Lab helped determine that she was A73 from the Northern Residents. With a team lead by Jeff Foster, Springer was placed in a sea-pen and given food and medication and nursed back to health. Then she was transported by a high speed catamaran 250 miles north to a sea-pen in Dong Chong bay next to Orca Lab. The next day, Springer was fed salmon provided by the local ‘Namgis First Nation tribe, and was spy-hopping and calling out to members of her A4 Pod that had showed up nearby. The nets were lifted and Springer swam out to her pod mates, and over time was re-integrated into the A4s. A51 and A61 were observed escorting Springer and keeping her away from boats. It was a great relief to see Springer looking in good shape, and return the next year with the A4s. The complete success of this re-introduction of Springer to her family was further dramatized in 2013, when she was seen with her first calf A104, and then again in 2017 with her second calf A160.
Donna Sandstrom, who was part of the Springer rescue team, reported on the 15th anniversary of the great success of the re-introduction of Springer to her family. She encourages us to use this example of cooperation as a model for the future to help the orca, such as the highly endangered Southern Residents.
Springer A73 with her calf Spirit, A104, June 2014
FISH FARMS THREAT TO ORCA
80-90% of open ocean fish farms in British Columbia are infected with the Piscine Reovirus (PRV) which has been verified to cause a severe heart and muscle inflammation in farmed Atlantic salmon. Farmed fish are also infected with sea lice. These fish farms are breeding grounds for many diseases and pollution, and farmed salmon inevitably escape and infect wild salmon, which are in sharp decline.
Orca researcher and biologist Alexander Morton, and First Nations Tribes of British Columbia lead by the ‘Namgis and Dzawada’enuxn have spearheaded a long fight to expose these deadly side-effects of salmon fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago, and have them removed. For years, Alex Morton has been researching and reporting on PRV, and taking samples around fish farms to have analyzed to verify the presence of PRV. The large Norwegian company Marine Harvest tried to have her barred from taking samples, but a court ruled she can continue taking samples, but banned First Nations from doing it.
‘Namgis chief Ernest Alfred lead a 280 day occupation of a Marine Harvest fish farm off Swanson Island, calling on the BC government to not renew the licenses of the 20 fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago which were due to expire in June 2018. Although the BC government did not do this, they did order that the licenses be renewed on a “month to month” basis. Ernest Alfred felt this was a positive effect of the occupation. The Dzawada’enuxw has filed suit in the BC Supreme Court to have nine fish farms in their Aboriginal Title in the Broughton Archipelago removed.
These groups are advocating that British Columbia follow the lead of the State of Washington that in March 2018, passed legislation phasing out open ocean Atlantic Salmon fish farms.
As an alternative to open ocean fish farms, ‘Namgis First Nations advocate land based containment fish farms such as Kuterra near Port McNeill.
Paul Spong has expressed serious concern over the impact of open ocean fish farms on wild fish stocks, and makes the strong point that last year wild salmon returns in Alaska, where fish farms are banned, were at high levels, whereas in British Columbia, where there are over 100 fish farms, salmon returns were at an all time low.
Vancouver Island photographer Tavish Campbell took this photo of a pipe spewing blood near a fish farm packing plant near Campbell River BC. He reported that samples taken from the bloody water were positive for the PRV virus.