Orca Month

Future of endangered whales is black and white

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

June is Orca Awareness Month in the Pacific Northwest.

Officially declared in Washington several years ago, Oregon and British Columbia joined unofficially last year, and it’s a good thing they did. Orcas are in serious and life-altering danger, with seven adult southern resident killer whales lost last year, including the 105-year-old matriarch known as Granny.

It’s undeniable that the waters of the Pacific Northwest are vastly different today than when Granny was born. The changes in the Salish Sea—the waters that are critical to orca survival—are profound, and that’s one of the reasons the orca population is in rapid decline.

A majority of the threats facing orcas today emerged during Granny’s long lifetime. When she was born circa 1911, there were about 200 southern residents; today only 78 of these endangered animals remain.   

The quality of orcas’ waters has also changed during Granny’s 105 years. The increase in the number and size of ships and tankers plying the Strait of Georgia create noise and disturbance. Vessel traffic interferes with pod communication and their ability to find the already sparse salmon they eat, not to mention it puts the species at a real risk of collision.

Scientists have also found alarmingly high concentrations of PCBs and PBDEs (human-made industrial chemicals that don’t break down in nature) in these whales. Why? Because the soup of chemicals coming from industry and municipalities continues to end up in the ocean, contaminating the food supply.

Orcas sit atop the food chain, so the food they eat—which is contaminated with pollutants—only increases in concentration in their bodies. These chemicals stay and accumulate in the fat reserves of whales’ bodies, negatively affecting their health.

But southern residents are contending with more than contaminated waters. Their main food supply, chinook salmon, is no longer plentiful due to habitat change, harvest rates and hatchery influences, along with the impacts of climate change and threats from disease coming from open net cage salmon farms.

As a society we must more fully consider the repercussions of how our decisions impact our oceans and the cost they have on our coastal communities. Orcas are important ecologically and are a symbol of this region. They’re also critical to the billion-dollar coastal and nature-based tourism industry. Whale watching alone contributes $27 million to the local economy, as well as 150 year-round and 200 seasonal jobs.

The fact that marine life is changing is proof that our oceans are also changing—and we shouldn’t ignore this. Oceans are a bellwether for the planet. They sustain the ecosystems that produce the oxygen that we can’t live without. It’s all connected. We’re all connected.

Part of the solution is to better manage the waters of the Salish Sea. This can be done through better marine planning, such as the creation of national marine conservation areas. These are high-protection zones that allow for sustainable use within them, with one having long been considered in the Southern Strait of Georgia.

But what we really need is urgency if we have any chance of healing the wounds to orca habitat. Action plans for southern and northern residents are unlikely to achieve any real progress because they lack actionable items with clear deadlines. They lack the urgency we so need. Orcas have been in decline for many years and they cannot wait for more assessment, monitoring and research. They don’t have time.

The Orca Salmon Alliance is working to restore the orca’s salmon food supply in the orca’s core summer range in the Salish Sea, and along the Washington, Oregon, and Northern California coasts. The overarching goal is to mobilize support and resources to stop and reverse the decline of southern resident orca and wild salmon populations.

The Alliance today includes the Center for Whale Research, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Endangered Species Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Oceana, Orca Network, Save Our Wild Salmon, Seattle Aquarium, Southern Resident Killer Whale–Chinook Salmon Initiative, Washington Environmental Council, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation. 

Southern resident killer whales need you to give them a voice before theirs is forever extinguished. If we don’t succeed, what the future holds for all of us is unclear.

Christianne Wilhelmson is executive director at Georgia Strait Alliance, a regional marine conservation organization. This article was originally published in the Vancouver Sun on June 1, 2017.

Orca Month Events in Washington

June 10 – Orcas In Our Midst Workshop| Langley | Orca Network |
June 10 – Hour for the Ocean: Beach Cleanup | Seattle | Seattle Aquarium, Puget Soundkeeper, Whale Scout
June 13 - Orcas Love Raingardens | Tacoma | Washington Environmental Council, Defenders of Wildlife
June 22 – Project ECHO | Seattle | The Whale Trail
June 24 - Orca Sing | San Juan Island | Lime Kiln Point State Park
June 24-25 - Orca Awareness Weekend | Seattle | Seattle Aquarium
June 25 – Two if By Land, One if By Sea: Oil Transport Threatens the Salish Sea | Bellingham | RE Sources, Washington Environmental Council, BayKeeper, Sierra Club, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, and Friends of the San Juans
June 28 – Our Toxic Orcas | Tacoma | Washington Environmental Council, Defenders of Wildlife, and Toxic Free WA
Throughout June - Naturalists on the Ferries: Find naturalists aboard many Washington State Ferries to learn more about Southern Resident orcas and the Salish Sea | Washington State Ferries and Orca Network

Photo credit: Robin Agarwal aboard Blue Ocean Whale Watch.

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