The Last Surviving Southern Resident Orcas

Photo: Taylor Henley /  @tahenley

Photo: Taylor Henley / @tahenley

Will Southern Resident Orca Whales Survive?

The recent loss of a newborn Southern Resident killer whale calf warranted an emotional response when footage circulated of the mother carrying the carcass for 21 days across 1,000 miles. This incident helps highlight a population that is in a state of emergency, but does little to illuminate the backstory of why Southern Resident orcas are dying.

There are not many people that haven’t heard of orca whales. The public is drawn to orca whales because of their charismatic personalities, intellectual capacity, and fierce loyalty to their families. In recent years there has been a shift towards seeing orca whales as sentient, and growing controversy surrounding captive entertainment industries continues to draw media attention with every captive death. While orcas at Seaworld have allowed us to learn more about their intelligence, much of the public isn’t informed of their wild and social behavior, or the threats pushing them to the point of extinction.

Orca whales, which are actually the largest member of the dolphin family, are found in every ocean around the world. They sit at the top of the food chain as the true apex predator of the ocean – even above Great White sharks. They are one of the most intelligent species on earth, with a uniquely inquisitive nature and deep social bonds that they keep throughout their lives. Despite their size, they are gentle and loyal to their family and pod. They are remarkable creatures and absolutely essential to a healthy ocean.

There are separate ecotypes of orca populations across the world. They don’t breed with one another and differ in food preference, behavior, and repertoire (or “language”). The most endangered of all orca populations are the southern resident killer whales (SRKWs), found off the coasts of Washington and British Columbia, which are dropping to the brink of extinction and at risk of disappearing forever. Only 74 of these creatures remain.

If that number isn’t alarming enough, when their slow reproduction rate is factored in – mothers give birth only every 4-10 years, and inbreeding shortens the lifespan of many offspring – it becomes clear that this population is in trouble.

the many threats to orca populations

Orca whales are strong and resilient. They want to live, but so many issues threaten their survival. In the 1970s and 1980s, 48 individual whales were taken from the SRKW population for the seaquarium demand and captive entertainment. Boat traffic and underwater noise has increased steadily in their waters, damaging their ability to communicate underwater and use echolocation to find their food. Persistent pollutants, called POPs by scientists, contaminate the water and are linked to a weakened immune system, respiratory illness, neurological damage, cancer, developmental issues, and miscarriages. However, one single issue magnifies all the others and has pushed these killer whales towards a tipping point in their survival: the overfishing of chinook salmon.

Chinook salmon are the primary food source for southern residents, and they require vast amounts to stay healthy over the course of their 50+ year lifespans. Humans, who also like to eat salmon, take loud fishing boats into this habitat daily to outhunt orcas for their catch. chinook salmon cannot reproduce quickly enough to provide sufficient food to fill the growing demand of humans while supporting the orca population. To make matters worse, salmon have to travel upriver to reproduce, and many critical migratory waterways have been blocked by dams. As the chinook salmon have declined in the past decades, southern resident killer whales have followed the same exact trend.

By depleting the chinook supply, humans have set off a complex chain of obstacles for orcas that would have been hard to predict. The aforementioned pollutants typically stay in an orca’s blubber for most of its life. In times of starvation, when the blubber is processed as reserve energy, the pollutants are processed along with it, posing numerous health risks. Scientists have been using aerial drone footage to monitor these animals, and they’ve documented individuals getting thinner and thinner. Moreover, there hasn’t been a successful pregnancy in the population for three years.

As food supply dwindles and noise pollution increases, the health consequences of pollution grow more difficult to bear. The poor health of individual orcas, as evidenced by the researches tracking their activities, serves as further evidence that this group is in critical condition – and to save them, immediate action is necessary. While all groups of orcas across the world are exposed to these threats, the combination and magnitude facing southern residents is pushing them to a breaking point.

The oceans cannot be cleaned up quickly enough to save southern resident killer whales. Likewise, it’s not possible to halt fishing and noise pollution from boats. In the long-run, we should collectively work towards a quieter and cleaner ocean through policy, public outreach, and education. But short-term action is necessary to save this population. Breaching Eastern Washington’s controversial Snake River dams would restore the regular upriver migratory patterns for chinook salmon and replenish the food supply for whales, giving both populations a chance to recover. A long-standing debate about the dams has tilted in favor of removal, with hydropower becoming a less valuable source of energy.

Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State is currently working with a task force to save these amazing animals with a project ending on November 16th, 2018. They are working to determine the best course of immediate and long-term action. The task force is accepting public comment until October 29th at midnight PST. You have the power right now to help these animals. Click here to tell Gov. Inslee the importance of saving the orcas.

When this deadline has passed, you can still call Governor Inslee at (360)-902-4111 to tell his office that you want these dams breached in 2018. You can also write a letter addressed to 415 14th Avenue, SW Olympia, Washington with your recommendation. Follow @pnwprotectors on Instagram for daily updates on this critical issue and to stay updated on ways to help.

You can make a difference. Every call, email, and letter puts another crack in the dams to save this family of whales. Give the southern resident killer whales a voice before the population is lost forever.

Photo: Taylor Henley /  @tahenley

Photo: Taylor Henley / @tahenley