A new theory suggests a massive decline in seals, sea lions and sea otters in the North Pacific may have been triggered by over-fishing of great whales. He says the authors of the orca paper greatly overestimate the number of sea otters being eaten by the killer whales, partly because he's sure these killer whales are also eating lots of other things, like fish. Ecologists say killer whales are eating the otters, but as NPR's John Nielsen reports, not everyone buys that theory. Killer whales, or Orcas (Orcinus orca) are toothed whales in the oceanic dolphin family. Ms. TERRY WILLIAMS (University of California at Santa Cruz): It's a bizarre way of hunting, where these killer whales have learned to swim upside down, below a sea otter that's resting on the water's surface. People raised on movies like "Free Willy" tend to think of killer whales as well-meaning, fence-jumping giants who want nothing more than to live in perfect harmony with all the other creatures in the ocean. Some feed exclusively on fish, while others hunt marine mammals such as seals and other species of dolphin. Scientists recently found that as many as half of the world’s killer whale populations may not survive the next 100 years because of PCB pollution. Orcas were eating otters because the really big whales they used to eat were nearly wiped out by commercial whalers back in the 1950s. Their ship at Cape Horn was trapped at anchor for eight days by howling weather. Some researchers can distinguish individual pods, and even matrilines (the line of relationship that can be traced from one mother to her offspring), just by their calls. The Navy estimates the southern population of killer whales in the Puget Sound region could be subject to the non-lethal take two to 51 times a year during the seven years of Navy activity. Accuracy and availability may vary. They are easy to identify because of their distinctive white and black colouring. NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. NIELSEN: DeMaster is director of the federal government's Alaska Fisheries Science Center. "It's a big ocean, and it's a rough ocean. Killer whale, (Orcinus orca), also called orca, largest member of the dolphin family (Delphinidae). What might threaten sea otters? The primary focus of CWR research is the Southern Resident population of killer whales (orcas). It's still waiting to be tested. NIELSEN: Environmental groups say the orca paper does a disservice to the cause of conservation by diverting attention from what they say is the real problem in the Bering Sea: overfishing. The whales were smaller than other killer whales, and they had rounded heads and pointier fins. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Whale researchers spotted a baby orca swimming energetically with its mother west of San Juan Island on Friday. Question Sheet: Sea Otters, Kelp, and Killer Whales. Since 1990, otter populations off the Aleutian islands have plummeted by as much as 80 percent. The notion that there might be some unusual kind of killer whale emerged in 1955. I should point out that killer whales around the world are doing fine, but this population is listed as endangered on both sides of the border of the U.S. and Canada. First, Williams determines that the average orca needs to eat the equivalent of five to seven sea otters a day just to get by. Lifestyle. Share this: Facebook; Twitter; Reddit; Google Classroom; Email; Print; By Science News for Students. Ms. WILLIAMS: We all want to think they're smiling at us and happy and they'll eat a few dead fish, and we're out there saying, `Well, gosh, no. "Visibly," she says, "this form is the most unusual and distinct form of killer whale on the planet.". (B) Global overview of PCB concentrations in killer whale blubber (ppm, parts per million).Light and dark green circles represent males and females, respectively. A rare photo of "type D" killer whales off South Georgia island, located between South America and Antarctica, shows the whales' blunt heads and tiny white eye patches. Ecologists say killer whales are eating the otters. When the big whales got hard to find, Williams says, the orcas switched to big, stellar sea lions and then to medium-sized seals. NOAA biologist Lisa Ballance, who's married to Pitman, was part of the team. The domino effect reaches even farther. 2). The killer whale is easy to identify by its size and its striking coloration: jet black on top and pure white below with a white patch behind each eye, another extending up each flank, and a variable “saddle patch” just behind the dorsal fin. Second, we evaluated the impact of killer whales on sea otter populations at Adak Island by contrasting otter population trends and sur-vival rates between Clam Lagoon, an area uniquely inaccessible to killer whales, and ad-jacent Kuluk Bay, an open coastal environment (Fig. The chemicals were affecting their ability to reproduce. Since 1990, otter populations off the Aleutian Islands have fallen by as much as 80 percent. Different populations of killer whales make different vocalizations, and different pods within these populations may even have their own dialect. Mr. DeMASTER: The people who really know killer whales, who spend their lives following them around and studying them--they just don't find any evidence that large whales are an important part of their diet. A group of ecologists says it solved the mystery of Alaska's missing sea otters. Last year, he assembled a team to go to Cape Horn, in Chile, to look for what's now technically called the "type D" killer whale. Then in 2005, Pitman met a French biologist at a science conference who showed him a photo of an odd-looking killer whale swimming in the southern Indian Ocean. Either way, the mystery killer whales of the Southern Ocean have been found. ", It was a slow start. (The sea otter is an endangered species). Second, we evaluated the impact of killer whales on sea otter populations at Adak Island by contrasting otter population trends and sur- vival rates between Clam Lagoon, an area uniquely inaccessible to killer whales, and ad- jacent Kuluk Bay, an open coastal environment (Fig. Populations of mammal-eating transient orcas, gray whales and humpback whales are increasing. (A) Conceptual model of PCB bioaccumulation and magnification, leading to elevated PCB concentrations in killer whale populations. ", Pitman picks up the story: "The sun came up in the morning at 5:50. 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