For 17 days this summer, a grieving Mother Orca captured the hearts of the world when she refused to follow her pod. Known by researchers as J35, the mother circled an area off Vancouver Island in an effort to keep her deceased newborn baby afloat. As attention swelled for this orca, so did the attention for the plight of her critically endangered pod of southern resident orcas, who call the waters off Washington State (U.S) and British Columbia (Canada) home.
Destruction of Orca Habitat
This heartbreak highlights a greater tragedy facing the orcas and the ecosystem they rely on in the Salish Sea, a busy waterway stretching from south of Seattle to north of Vancouver. Survival rate of newborn orcas has dived, due to the collapse of the once abundant wild Chinook Salmon stocks. A cross-border environment coalition sent an emergency order, to the Federal Govt, to stop Chinook fishing, stop whale watching and create a whale refuge, with a second petition in the works demanding federal action to stop the extinction of these orcas. But there’s more…
You see, in addition to starvation and a birth mortality of 70%, this endangered pod (down to just 75 orcas) faces a 7-fold increase in ship strikes and the looming threat of oil spills because of the expansion of Kinder Morgan’s controversial Trans Mountain pipeline project. The pipeline’s goal is to move unrefined tar sands (cruder than crude oil) from recession-stricken Alberta, through First Nations territories, to the BC coast to meet a potential market for this unrefined oil in China.
Led by indigenous nations along the pipeline route, a cross-border protest has been on hard boil for years: Environmental groups, climate change activists, unions, coastal residents, Pacific Northwest recreationists and more declared the pipeline a big mistake But the Canadian Govt went ahead and approved the pipeline in 2016. Unsurprisingly, the project stalled, partially because a court order ruled that the plight of the southern resident orcas was not adequately addressed, In particular the threat from the increased ship traffic that completion of the pipeline would enable.
On August 12, the bereaved orca mother, known as Tahlequah by the indigenous cultures, finally allowed her calf to sink into the Salish Sea. But the swirling controversy around the pipeline did not.
A Tragedy of the Commons
Folks, we don’t have an environmental problem. We have a people problem. Our decisions are affecting all residents of the ecosystem we call home. J35’s tragedy is a tragedy of the commons. While many grieve with this mother Orca, we are all culpable by our shallow thinking. Nature photographer Tim Flach says it so eloquently: “Our future depends on a new relationship with the natural world… We can know something, but it’s not until it touches our hearts do we actually want to take action.”
Photo – Amous Nachoum took this image off the coast of Norway of an Orca mother with dead calf.
Research by The Guardian has shed an ominous light on the plight of Orcas not just in Canadian waters but around the world. In “Orca Apocalypse” the Guardian quotes a new study published in Scientific Reports predicting that half of the killer whale populations may go extinct due to toxic pollutants.
Being a top predator in the marine food chain, poisonous chemicals like PCBs are concentrated in killer whales. With toxic concentrations 100 times safe levels,
Most Contaminated Animals on the Planet
Although PCBs were banned in the 70s and 80s they are still leaking into the marine environment from plastics, paints and electrical components trashed in unlined landfills. In 2004 the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants mandated that these toxic sources be cleaned up. “Superfund” cleanups demonstrated that the U.S. took this seriously, however other nations lagged behind.
“Our abysmal failures to control chemical pollution ending up in our oceans has caused a killer whale catastrophe on an epic scale. It is essential that requirements to dispose safely of PCBs under the Stockholm Convention are made legally binding,” said Lucy Babey, deputy director at conservation group Orca.
The result is that Orca populations found in chemical “hotspots” offshore of industrialized countries are the most vulnerable. Killer whale populations in these areas have already diminished dramatically.
The UK’s last pod of killer whales, off northwest Scotland has been reduced to just eight members. The pod has not produced a new calf in the 19 years that it has been studied.
“In these areas, we rarely observe newborn killer whales,” study participant Ailsa Hall
This fact further highlights the vulnerability of orcas. They take 20 years to reach sexual maturity and requires 18 months for gestation. Then the mother’s high concentrations of toxic chemicals are passed on thru fat-rich milk to their calves.
Dolphins are just as susceptible to PCB poisoning as Orcas as an ongoing study of bottle-nosed dolphins off Portugal indicates. Studied for 40 years the pod has produced no successful offspring for a decade with foetal death and abortion common.
Nicola Hodgins of Whale and Dolphin Conservation said, “Many thought that just because PCB’s were banned many years ago that the problem would go away.” However, unlike whaling and getting trapped in fishing nets, PCBs were a “silent killer.”
One hopeful note is that Orca populations that inhabit waters in the far north off the coasts of Iceland, Norway and Canada are increasing and not under threat. “If global cleanup efforts are successful killer whales could return to areas that are currently contaminated.” Said Paul Jepson of the Zoological Society of London. (photo – Amos Nachoum)
Adding “it is an incredibly adaptive species—they have been able to [live] from the Arctic to the Antarctic and everywhere in between.”
New Efforts to Save the Southern Resident Orcas
The Canadian Government has been taking a lot of heat over the threat to the Salish Orcas. In response they announced in early November, new measures to save the critically endangered species. Spending US$50 million they hope to address three main concerns. A diminished supply of chinook salmon, the orcas favored food. Increasing traffic of vessels and the resulting noise in orca areas. And toxic contamination in the marine habitat of the southern resident orcas.
Also, under consideration is the creation of orca protected areas off the west coast of Vancouver Island and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Vancouver Island and Washington State in the US. (photo – NOAA Fisheries)
“We are in the process of consulting on those new critical habitat areas and expect to be able to move forward on them in the next couple of months,” Jonathan Wilkinson, Canadian Fisheries Minister explained. “We are also talking about creation of killer whale sanctuaries, which essentially are within the areas of critical habitat … which means that we can prohibit a range of different activities, not simply fisheries, where you can regulate that ships cannot go.”
Is It Enough?
As important as these actions are, are these efforts to save the endangered Salish orcas, too little and too late? As reported recently by Seattle King 5, only two males are fathering calves and only a few females are reproducing.
“There’s only about four females having babies in the last decade,” said Ken Balcomb, founder of Center for Whale Research. What’s more, 100 percent of the pregnancies in the past three years have failed to produce viable offspring, the center notes.
“Without reproduction, there is no chance of survival,” Balcomb said. “This is what extinction looks like in slow motion.”
See These Related Blue Ocean Articles:
How To Get More Ocean-Hearted Intel Delivered To Your Inbox!
We believe ocean lovers can change the world. If you care about the health of the ocean and want to do something about it, then connect with the Blue Ocean tribe: Our growing community of ocean change-makers is turning ocean lovers into ocean leaders. It starts with you. Join us!