Learning from our past mistakes can help save the Southern Resident killer whales and the precious Pacific Northwest Ecosystem.
The southern resident killer whale population (we’ll call them SRKW for short) is a group of orcas that inhabit the waters off Vancouver Island and Washington State coasts. The subspecies consists of three pods: L pod with 34 members, J pod with 22 members, and K pod with 18, for a total of 74 members currently living in the wild. That’s down from about 100 members in the mid 1990s. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time those numbers have declined. Although stringent record keeping of orca populations didn’t begin until 1976, there were at the very least 100 individual SRKWs in 1964. By 1976, there were 71.
Both of these fluctuations were caused by human interference, but the first time was under much different circumstances.
In August of 1970, in Penn Cove off the coast of Puget Sound, Washington State, a group of approximately 80 whales from the SRKW population were rounded up using boats and helicopters. After being held in pens for hours on end, seven juveniles were captured. At least three others died from stress, their bodies weighted down with rocks in an attempt to hide what their captors had done.
Unfortunately, this was just one of many events. From 1964 to 1976—before the capture of Southern and Northern Resident killer whales was banned after intense public outcry—an estimated 58 individuals from the SRKW population were either captured for use in marine parks or killed during the process. Lolita, a whale captured at Penn Cove as a juvenile, is the only surviving member of those captured alive. Considering that the average lifespan of a killer whale is 60 plus years—even higher for females—these are pretty sobering statistics.
Lolita has been in captivity at the Miami Seaquariam for 48 years; she has not had an orca companion since 1980 and resides in a tank that is only 24 by 11 meters and 6 meters deep. In 2015, Lolita was included in the endangered species list as a member of the southern resident killer whale population. This does not exempt her from being held in captivity. Lolita’s mother, who is believed to be the matriarch of L pod, L25 or Ocean Sun, is still alive and swimming freely with the rest of Lolita’s estranged family.
The plight of captive orcas is an important topic—especially since whales are still being captured in Russian waters—but that’s something that requires a whole other post to delve into properly. We bring up the SRKW capture now, however, because it proves that perspectives can be shifted and change enacted when it comes to saving these animals. Although the solutions may not be quite as simple as they were the first time around, change is still possible.
According to biologist Catherine McKenna, from 2008-2014, 70% of pregnancies in the SR population failed; no whale has survived past infancy since 2015. Recently, orca J35/Tahlequah carried her dead new born calf to the detriment of her own health for over two weeks, an unprecedented observed amount of time for what scientists believe to be an act of grieving. And just last month, juvenile orca Scarlet/J50 was declared dead after researchers made several attempts to help the visibly ailing female, including live feeding Chinook salmon injected with antibiotics. Scarlet was last observed trailing far behind her pod on September 7th.
As an apex predator, a strong orca population reflects a strong ecosystem, and the ways in which we can help improve their numbers will also go a long way in protecting other vital species and the environment as a whole. Government agencies and NGOs alike on both sides of the border, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries) and the Rain Coast Foundation, agree that there are three main priorities needed to improve this population:
1. Revive Salmon Populations
Chinook salmon comprise the majority of the SRKW population’s diet, and studies for NOAA and Fisheries and Oceans Canada have shown a direct correlation between death rates and salmon populations. A restriction in fishing practices and protected feeding grounds would help increase salmon numbers.
2. Reduce water noise pollution
Keeping whale-watching boats at a comfortable distance to avoid stressing pods and banning them entirely during certain times of the year at designated feeding refuges is crucial. Reducing commercial boat and ship speeds in designated areas would also greatly benefit the well-being of SRKW populations.
3. Reduce pollution and contaminants
PCBs (plastics, paints, rubber), DDT still found in some pesticides, and PBDEs (fire retardant chemicals used in everything from TVs to mattresses) are all found in high counts in the tissues of deceased SRKW whales, and reducing the pollution of these by-products in West Coast waters is essential to the longevity of these whales and the ecosystem as a whole.
There is a way to ensure that these intelligent creatures can thrive for years to come. We humans have a responsibility when it comes to improving the quality and quantity of life of an animal we’ve had a negative effect on—directly or indirectly. Together, we must strive to do better, because if we don’t, quickly and soon, there won’t be anything left on this planet to be better for.
Sara is a graduate of both Nipissing and Ryerson Universities. Since completing two post-secondary programs apparently wasn’t enough for her, she is also currently in the second year of the Professional Writing Program at Algonquin. When not making every attempt to avoid the 9-5 lifestyle, she can be found testing the waters of musicianship, binge watching any genre of television you can think of (as long as it’s worthwhile) and pretending to be good at video games. She is also passionate about animal welfare and loves spending time with her Chihuahua mix Tula and cat Oki.