An American agency has admitted the death of an endangered orca was caused by their tracking tag.
The announcement was made Wednesday.
One of the Salish Sea’s 82 endangered killer whales, called L-95, died from a severe fungal infection, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The whale was tagged for research purposes and human error during the tagging process could have played a serious role in his death.
The whale’s infection was caused by a tracking tag inserted at the base of the whale’s dorsal fin on Feb. 23. NOAA says one of their workers did not properly sterilize the tracking tag before injecting it into L-95, which may have caused the lethal fungal infection. Another possible factor was the placement of the tracking device.
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The orca’s carcass was found near the village of Tahsis off Nootka Island on Mar. 30 and taken to the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands for examination.
“An advanced state of decomposition made it difficult to determine the cause of death,” Dr. Stephen Raverty told Global News.
“Our strongest hypothesis is that the fungus lived on the skin of the animal, and the tag provided a portal for it to enter the animal’s blood vessels.”
Exactly what caused L-95’s infection is unclear
Raverty’s necropsy report suggests the tag’s location gave the local fungus easy access to the bloodstream. However the tag not being properly bleached in the sterilization process by an NOAA worker could have also been a contributing factor.
NOAA says normally the tag is inserted into the centre of fin, not the base, minimizing damage to the animal. Accurately tagging whales while in the water can be tricky however, and other orcas tagged at the base of the fin have not died from the procedure.
After Raverty’s initial report was released in April, the NOAA ceased its whale tagging operations immediately. Michael Milstein, public affairs officer with NOAA, says they’ve never had something like this happen before.
“We’re all upset about this. We’ve tagged eight whales since 2012, and L-95 is the first to get hurt like this.”
Milstein says the NOAA is taking steps to stop this from ever happening again.
“We’ve convened a panel of independent experts to review the exam findings and circumstances of the tagging. We’re determining if further tagging is even necessary since we’ve already gathered so much data since 2012.”
Orca whales are tagged during the winter to track their movements when they swim into the deep sea during colder months. L-95 was 20 years old and had just reached the age of sexually maturity. He did not have any children in his pod.