Grant to fund false killer whale conservation, research

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A new federal funding source for false killer whale research will allow researchers to dive deeper into their understanding of the elusive marine species.


A new federal funding source for false killer whale research will allow researchers to dive deeper into their understanding of the elusive marine species.

Last week, the Department of Land and Natural Resources, in partnership with Hawaii Pacific Univeristy and the Olympia, Wash.-based Cascadia Research Collective, received nearly $1.2 million in grant funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association fisheries division to support further conservation and research relating to the whales.

The Species Recovery grant is for a 3-year period. The DLNR has received similar grants from the NOAA for monk seal and sea turtle recovery programs since 2007. This year’s award will also help support these efforts. Partner organization Cascadia has received Species Recovery Grants for its work with humpback and blue whale populations on the mainland’s West Coast.

The state of Hawaii “has traditionally been involved with a lot of protected species issues,” Cascadia researcher Robin Baird told the Tribune-Herald. “This is the first time they’ve gotten funding specifically for false killer whales.”

False killer whales are the third-largest members of the dolphin family. They are much smaller than orcas, the largest members in that family, and are gray and black without white markings.

Hawaii’s insular false killer whale population was listed as endangered in 2012. There are other populations that live around the Northwestern islands and offshore in deeper waters.

Baird said there are about 150-200 living around the main islands.

And although Cascadia studies all species of resident whales and dolphins in Hawaii, the false killer whales are the group’s highest priority species for the area.

”They’re the only endangered (cetacean) species in Hawaii that’s resident,” Baird said. Other species, like sperm whales and humpback whales, pass through Hawaiian waters but do not live here year-round.

‘The species is of particular interest to the state because it’s a local population,” DLNR communications specialist Deborah Ward wrote in an e-mail. She said the grant is also noteworthy because of its multi-year, multi-partner nature, as well as its emphasis on combining various methods of research and outreach efforts.

False killer whales keep a lower profile than larger species like humpbacks because they live in offshore waters, but they often interact with fishermen.

The whales eat the same types of fish people like to eat, such as mahi mahi, ahi, and ono. Cascadia’s Facebook page has not only a video of false killer whales taking mahi mahi from a jetski fisherman, but also one of fishermen moving in on a school of mahi mahi that had been corralled by the whales.

“We’re trying to better understand the interactions between false killer whales and local fisheries,” Baird said. That includes increasing awareness among fishermen of the animals’ endangered status, and helping people learn to distinguish the whale from other similar-looking species, like pilot whales, melon-headed whales, and pygmy killer whales.

Cascadia provides identification guides to fishermen for free — they have distributed more than 700 to date — and offers the same service to tour boat operators.

The group first began working in Kona in 2002, taking advantage of the leeward waters and plentiful research days that come with calm seas.

The grant will help researchers continue tagging animals so their movements can be better tracked and understood.

“We have a lot of tag data from the past, but there’s some pretty big limitations to the data set,” Baird said. “We don’t really know what they’re doing from February to June.” Cascadia research teams are only in Hawaii during a certain portion of the year. Lately, research has expanded to include areas besides the Big Island, since the whales move back and forth from here to as far away as Kauai and Niihau.

“It’s all part of the same population,” Baird said. There are three main social groups within that population, but two of them have been better-studied than the third. This summer, individuals from the so-called Cluster 2 population were tagged off the Kohala coast.

“These are long-lived social animals, where they have very strong social connections,” Baird said. “The differences between pods can actually be really important.”

The social nature of false killer whales can extend to humans as well. They have been recorded sharing fish with people on “a number of occasions,” Baird said.


“It’s behavior that’s very, very unusual,” he said. “They’re actually very interested in (people).”

Email Ivy Ashe at

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