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Endangered orcas cause delays for major earthquake research

Columbia University/Earth Institute

Updated 6/18/12, with comments and links from whale advocates.

An expensive science mission off the Washington and Oregon coasts has been scaled back, at least for now, out of concern for orca whales. A research ship is using blasts of sound to create maps of a major earthquake fault, which is considered the greatest tsunami risk along the U.S. Pacific coast.

The ship is based at Columbia University, and it sails all over the world making maps of the ocean floor – especially along major earthquake and tsunami zones. As reported last week, the geologic maps could help us better predict where the strongest shaking and worst damage will happen when that fault lets loose.

The lead seismic researchers got a permit from the federal agency that’s charged with protecting whales and dolphins, NOAA Fisheries. But, apparently, the regulators based in Maryland didn’t know enough about the three pods of endangered orcas that spend summer in Puget Sound.

Experts based in Washington and Oregon initially were not consulted. Lynne Barre, a biologist who supervises the marine mammal program for the Seattle office of NOAA, says the three endangered pods of orcas, called "southern residents," rarely go out into the open ocean. But rarely doesn't mean never:

"In the summer, those southern residents spend lot of their time in inland waters, like around the San Juan Islands, locally. And so I think that was just a miscommunication somewhere along the way, about the potential for the whales not to be in that area, but to be along the coast, as well."

The earthquake scientists aboard the R/V Langseth spent three days confined to port in Astoria, Ore., this week, negotiating with marine biologists over how to use the sonar but still protect any killer whales that happen to swim near the research ship. 

The sound blasts are loud and powerful waves that potentially could harm the whales.

As a precaution, the Langseth uses  an underwater listening device, so scientists on the ship could hear any orca clicks and calls in the vicinity. Whenever a whale is detected, by sight or sound, the sonar blasts must be suspended.

For now, the ship is limited to just one out of a total of three surveys that were planned, although researchers say that's the most important one. A statement from Columbia says, "scientists aboard the ship will conduct the first-ever imaging of an entire oceanic plate—the Juan deFuca—from the ridge where it is growing, to the trench where it [is] diving under North America."

Negotiations are still underway over the other two surveys, which take it closer to the endangered orcas habitat in Washington state. According to researchers, "... the results of these surveys could contribute to improving the resilience of communities exposed to earthquakes and tsunami in the Pacific Northwest. "


Additional information from whale advocates and from the sponsors of the seismic research.

Whale advocates submitted a formal letter (posted online) to NOAA, the agency that must grant permission to harm a marine mammal. It's signed by Susan Berta and Howard Garrett of Orca Network, John Calambokidis of  Cascadia Research Collective, and Michael Jasny of NRDC, among others.

They say:

"This error could have been avoided through communication with regional scientists with expertise in the Southern Resident population. Unfortunately, although NMFS headquarters noticed a proposed incidental harassment authorization for public comment, this notice was apparently not seen by researchers or personnel at NMFS’ Northwest Regional office, and according to Brent Norberg, NMFS’ Northwest Regional director, they did not receive any word of this project from NMFS headquarters. Nor did NMFS, Lamont-Doherty, or NSF contact other researchers in the region. "At several points, the Proposed IHA commits Lamont-Doherty and NSF to coordinate with other researchers, including with “other parties that may have interest in the area and/or may be conducting marine mammal studies in the same region during the seismic surveys.” Yet apparently no effort has been made to contact either the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife or Cascadia Research, which are actively conducting NOAA-funded surveys off Washington. "After the demise of L112, it seems incredible that this project did not raise any red flags for the agencies who apparently signed off on it, and that no notice was given to NOAA Northwest Region, or to the researchers and nonprofits who are monitoring the Southern Residents' travels in that area. "We ask the agencies to postpone the activity for further consideration, and to conduct an adequate Endangered Species Act Section 7 consultation in regard to the possible presence of the Southern Resident orcas in the project area. At the very least, we urge immediate coordination and communication between the project leads, NOAA Fisheries Headquarters and the Northwest Regional office, and those of us in the region who actively track the location of the Southern Resident orcas, in an attempt to minimize harassment or death of any members of this fragile community, as well as the other whales that will be in the project area."

Following is the official statement from the scientists in charge of the seismic survey (which was provided only in email form):


TheResearch Vessel (R/V)Marcus G. Langseth is the academic community's flagship research vessel and is owned by the National Science Foundation (NSF). TheR/V Langseth is used by universities, research institutes and labs across the nation to study the earth’s interior below the world’s ocean floors. The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, part of Columbia University, operates the ship as a scientific research facility on behalf of the NSF, and is charged with ensuring its safe operation. Scheduling of ship assignments for the Langseth and other cooperative U.S. academic research vessels is coordinated by the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System, an organization of 61 academic institutions and national laboratories involved in oceanographic research.

The scientists involved in this series of research cruises are from Columbia University, Oregon State University, University of Nevada, University of Oklahoma, University of Washington, University of Wyoming and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The purpose of these cruises is to study the 680-mile Cascadia subduction zone off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia and its potential for megathrust earthquakes and tsunamis.  In the first of three survey legs between June 13 and July 23, scientists aboard the ship will conduct the first-ever imaging of an entire oceanic plate—the Juan deFuca—from the ridge where it is growing, to the trench where it diving under North America. Working from 20 to 600 kilometers offshore, the Langseth will send pulses of sound to the seafloor and read the echoes to produce CAT-scan images of the crust. A major aim of the study is to understand how much water is being drawn into the crust and underlying mantle, a factor that plays a role in how and when earthquakes are triggered and how volcanoes inland evolve and erupt. The second and third survey legs focus on other aspects of the Cascadia subduction system. By advancing understanding of the Cascadia margin, the results of these surveys could contribute to improving the resilience of communities exposed to earthquakes and tsunami in the Pacific Northwest. 

Each survey leg is subject to the marine scientific research consent regime as described in Part XIII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. With part of the first leg to take place in the Northeast Pacific, within Canada’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the United States sought and has received a Letter of Agreement from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) for the study. TheLangseth is operated in accordance with rules and regulations set forth by the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, and National Environmental Policy Act, and receives permits reviewed and approved by fisheries biologists and endangered species experts with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. Other organizations contacted include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington and Oregon state Coastal Zone Management offices, the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, and the U.S. Navy. The principal investigators are coordinating educational outreach programs with the Quinault Tribe and the broader public.

The Langseth follows strict procedures to minimize any disruption to marine mammals. During seismic operations, at least four observers will be on board listening and watching for protected marine mammals. If marine mammals come within a designated radius of the ship, its sound sources will be shut down.  The cruise has been timed to avoid conflict with breeding schedules of marine mammals.

The following links were also provided by Columbia University and were not curated by KPLU.

Public documents related to the cruise:

Other Resources from Columbia University


Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.