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Are Satellite Tags Helpful or Harmful for Southern Resident Killer Whales?

On December 28, 2014, Blackberry J27 was tagged by NOAA’s North West Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC). Blackberry is an adult male Southern Resident Killer Whale.

He is the fifth Southern Resident to be tagged since the program began in 2012.

The purpose of tagging is to determine coastal distribution in the winter and to designate Critical Habitat location according to the Recovery Plan for Southern Residents.

The satellite tagging program has been a subject of controversy from its start, with strong opinions on both sides.

The tags are deployed with a Pneumatic dart projector from about 4-12 meters. The darts penetrate the fin tissue and the retention petals secure the transmitter to the fin. NWFSC reports that they typically only see a “flinch” by the whale and a more rapid than normal dive.


The first Southern Resident tagged, J26 Mike, was tagged in 2012. This tagging proved a failure after only providing three days of data.

On December 29, 2012 the next Southern Resident, K25 Scoter, was tagged. While the tag on Scoter provided more data, the tag itself resulted in an orphan dart in the fin.

Scoter with tag.jpg

Photo of K25 Scoter at Lime Kiln Park by Melissa Pinnow at,

Summer 2014

L88 Wave Walker was the next Southern Resident to be tagged on March 2, 2013, however the signal only transmitted for a little over a week, likely to have fallen off.

In response to the attachment failure of the tag deployed on K25, NWFSC assessed the cause of the failure and worked with the tag manufacturer on a modification to mitigate for this possibility. The redesign incorporates a petal at the base of each dart to put more drag on the dart in the event of transmitter loss, which will reduce the time the dart remains in the fin.

On December 26, 2013, a tag was deployed on L87 Onyx, most commonly seen with Jpod. Onyx’s signal transmitted for 30 days, thought to have fallen off rather than battery failure.

Josh McInnes, Marine Biologist and Cetacean Expert at University of Victoria, told Ocean Advocate News:

"Satellite tagging would be beneficial for collecting data for habitat assessment and modeling. In the case for the southern residents looking at the overall habitat use allows researchers to approach management sectors in order to hopefully set up extended protection zones.”

He states that with satellite tagging, researchers were able to quantify data as to where Southern Resident orca spend their winter months, which opens up new perimeters in their ecology. He feels that the SAT tag data is very important in management decisions. Without the data, proposals are hard to prove.

Transmitter T.jpg

Transient T090 with barb left behind.

Those opposed of the tags have raised concerns about how tagging might exacerbate the potential for SRKW to be further immuno-compromised due to their relatively high contaminant burdens. NWFSC themselves admit that the extent to which SRKW are immune-compromised due to toxin loads is unknown. Since they recognize that there is a risk to whale health, no reproductive age SRKWs will be tagged.

Candace Calloway Whiting, a writer and former whale and dolphin trainer, writes in January 2012,

There is a fine line between necessary science, satisfying curiosity, and meeting some ridiculous rule about defining habitat before proceeding to do what needs to be done to protect the whales. Even in the confines of the Salish Sea, around Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands the government is unable to enforce the regulations already in place, and it is absurd to think they will be able to do so out on the open ocean.

The problem is that no one wants to do the only thing that will truly help the orcas because the fix is both highly contentious and expensive; restore Chinook salmon populations.

Candace further told OA News,

"For me, the problem is that NOAA is too slow in taking any concrete action, so whatever good comes from the tagging studies is not likely to make much difference if something isn't done now to preserve the remaining SRKWs. Of course, it is only natural that the researchers want to gather all available data points, come up with a plan, secure funding, and implement changes gradually but the SRKWs are perilously close to extinction."

Others close to the situation see both the pros and cons to tagging.

Orca Network’s Howard Garrett recently told Ocean Advocate News,

“The info is very valuable and could help get better protections, but the pain and potential for infections are very real.”

Four years and five whales later, we don’t know much more than we started with. No significant patterns have been proven, no additional food sources have been named, and five Southern Resident Killer Whales have holes in their dorsal fins, potential for infection. If this project is going to be worthwhile, more data is needed safely and quickly before the remaining 78 Southern Resident orcas have vanished forever.

You can follow Blackberry’s continued movements on the NWFSC 2015 blog

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