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Orca whale dies caught on fishing line, U.K. pod nearly extinct

By Marcus Hondro     Jan 8, 2016 in Science
When Lulu the orca whale was found dead on the beach of a Scottish island last week the public and marine biologists moaned her loss. The pod she was part of — Britain's last of its type — was given little chance of survival; it's now given none.
Orca whale death
An examination of the orca determined that she would have died an agonizing death over a period of time. She had become trapped in fishing line and could not swim and would not have been able to surface for long, likely drowning over the course of several days.
Dr. Conor Ryan, Sightings and Strandings Officer of the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT), a group located on Scotland's Isle of Mull that monitors cetaceans, has been keeping track of Lulu's pod and said her passing leaves very few whales left in it.
"The prospects for the population were never good but now they’re worse," Dr. Ryan said. "With a population as low as eight the chances of them recovering is slim to nil at this point."
The pod has been monitored since the 1990's and Dr. Ryan said that in that time there has not been one calve born, though he can't say if this is due to aging females, dwindling food resources or pollution; it's possible a combination of all of those factors are to blame.
The plight of this pod is in contrast to the three southern resident pods in the waters of coastal B.C. and northern Washington State. Those pods had eight births in 2015 alone and have their numbers back up to 84 and are no longer considered endangered.
Public outrage, grief
Lulu's death has resulted in a public outpouring of anger and grief and it is hoped that will lead to changes in fishing regulations so as to prevent whales being caught up in lines and nets. It's happening to whales all over the planet and unless the public is moved to act it will likely continue.
Dr. Andrew Brownlow of the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme has been involved with over 2,700 mammal strandings — in a large majority of the cases the mammal was dead or died after being discovered — is doing a post mortem on the dead Lulu; he notes that there has never been a reaction to a dead orca quite like this one.
"The response has been astonishing," he said. "It’s the highest level of reaction I’ve seen by an order of magnitude. Killer whales are so charismatic and so iconic that they really capture the imagination. And people have been very affected by the images of Lulu stranded on the beach.
"She is one of a very small population," he added. "She had a name, her death was unpleasant and unfortunately, directly or indirectly, it was due to human impact. When you stack these reasons up you can see why people have been so bothered about it."
The post-mortem is not yet completed but Dr. Brownlow is already certain the fishing line was to blame for Lulu's death. He hopes to learn about her pod by examining her blubber for contaminants she may have encountered and looking at her reproductive organs to find out why she did not reproduce.
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