Last Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that a male orca died as a result of an infection caused by satellite tagging.

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The orca, referred to as L-95, was discovered dead about a month after NOAA scientists tagged the Southern Resident orca in February. The hardware was found in pieces in the orca’s tissue, and a necropsy revealed that the injury resulted from a lethal infection that ultimately led to the whale’s death.

The scientists with NOAA had been cruising around the coast in a 22-foot Zodiac with a dart rifle in an attempt to pinpoint the dorsal fin on a killer whale. They then came across the pod of orcas in the part of the Pacific Ocean that lines the U.S. border with Canada. Unfortunately, winds picked up, turning the waters rough and causing the satellite tag and dart they fired to miss the mark.

The scientists had been trying to attach minuscule satellite transmitters to the endangered orcas in order to track where they travel to in winter and thereby determine why their populations have become so low. The researchers got their dart back, reloaded the rifle, and hit L-95 — the healthy-appearing 20-year-old male.

NOAA officials believe it was human error that contributed to the fungal infection, since the tag wasn’t cleaned per the NOAA protocol of alcohol and bleach after it fell into the water, was retrieved, and shot again at L95. The tag was only cleaned with alcohol between shots, and landed near essential blood vessels of the orca, which could have provoked the infection to enter his bloodstream rapidly.

Since the research began in 2012, eight whales have been tagged, but only L-95 has been confirmed dead as a result. Critics believe it was only a matter of time, however.

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The accident left whale scientists devastated. NOAA is “deeply dismayed that one of their tags may have had something to do with the death of this whale,” said Richard Merrick, who is the agency’s chief scientist, and a former whale researcher.

“Everybody is devastated by this—nobody more so than me,” noted Brad Hanson, another NOAA whale expert who helped implement the orca satellite tagging operation and now runs the program.

This accident has also provoked further questions from the scientific community. Was L-95’s death more than just a one-time mishap? Or does satellite tagging pose more risks than originally assumed?

NOAA has suspended the tagging of endangered orcas at this time, and will analyze if other, less invasive tracking methods may be better suited to protecting the livelihood of the species. NOAA is even organizing a special workshop for the 88-country International Whaling Commission to address tagging worldwide.

Satellite tagging “is becoming more widespread, becoming commercially available to scientists all over the world, but the level of experience and training people have around the world varies,” explained Alex Zerbini, a NOAA scientist who has studied how tagging affects whales. “We need to be very careful. We need to take every precaution.”


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