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Project Haro to be First Study On Killer Whale Deaths

University of Washington scientists and the non-profit Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance (ORCA) are teaming up to help answer the question of why the local killer whale population is declining. This is the first research project to explore the cause of the recent increase in mortality among the Southern Resident Population of killer whales. The population has lost just under one-fifth of its whales in a straight-line decline beginning in 1995.

All initial work on ORCA's "Project Haro" will be done by University of Washington scientists at the School of Fisheries, and administered through the U.W. Friday Harbor Laboratories. The purpose of this first phase will be to perform a thorough review and analysis of existing scientific data on potential threats to local whales. ORCA is providing the funding.

"We anticipate that one of the primary results of this effort will be to identify where future research should be targeted, either because of promising existing data, or a lack of scientific information where it is most needed," said Mark Anderson, Executive Director of Orca Relief.

The cooperative venture grew out of discussions between Anderson and Friday Harbor Laboratories Director, A.O. Dennis Willows. The project will be led by Department of Fisheries Researcher Dr. Glenn VanBlaricom and graduate student Carlos Alvarez.

Technical description of this work:
The population of Orcas known as the Southern Resident Community of Orcas has declined in the last four years. This observation and potential explanations were discussed in a workshop held at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory.

Four main alternatives were discussed:

1. There is no external effect and the observed decline can be explained in terms of the natural dynamics of the population in its interaction with the environment;

2. There has been a shift in environmental quality potentially represented by a decline in the abundance of the orcas’ favorite prey items that include different salmon species;

3. There has been a considerable increase in the number of whale watching boats in the region and this may impose an unusual level of stress in the animals;

4. Contaminant levels in the bodies of Orcas from the SRC are of the highest for marine mammals worldwide.

"The present project will continue on the development of the research priorities defined in the workshop and will attempt:

1. to create an alternative population model that can lead to a better understanding of the population dynamics and,

2. to establish quantitative relationships between potential causal factors of changes in Orca abundance."

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