Last year’s orca baby boom was cause for cautious optimism. This year, the outlook is looking more bleak with the death of a female member of the southern resident killer whale population.
We should be concerned, not just for one species, but for the health of the ocean and for the well-being of all species, including humans.
The Center for Whale Research, based in Friday Harbor, Washington, announced the death of 24-year-old J28 last week, saying it would also likely mean the death of her calf, J54. The 10-month-old calf is too young to survive without its mother’s milk and has apparently not been adopted by another lactating female.
J28’s death brings the population of southern resident killer whales to 80, down from 85 in January. It also reduces the chances the species’ population will recover to a sustainable level.
“Mothers are dying and babies are dying, so it’s unrealistic to expect anything positive,” the whale centre’s Ken Balcomb said at a press conference in Seattle.
It is estimated that at least 50,000 killer whales, or orcas, inhabit the world’s oceans, but that doesn’t have much relevance to the Salish Sea orcas, as not all orcas are of the same species. Transient orcas, for example, subsist primarily on sea mammals, while the resident killer whales live on fish, primarily chinook salmon. The two species do not interbreed.
In the late 1800s, about 200 southern resident orcas lived in B.C. and Washington coastal waters. The species took a big hit in the late 1960s when the mammals became big attractions at marine parks. Nearly 50 whales were captured in the Salish Sea, and by 1971, the population had fallen to 67. After capturing of the mammals was halted in 1973, the population began to recover, reaching 83 by 2003.
The birth rate among the whales depends on food supply and environmental conditions, and those conditions are far less than ideal. Chinook salmon comprise nearly 80 per cent of the southern resident orcas’ diet, and when salmon numbers are low, as they are now, females don’t conceive, or if they do, the calves succumb to starvation.
Orcas are also susceptible to marine pollution, and are considered to be the most PCB-contaminated mammals on Earth. Research shows strong links between chemical contamination and reduced reproductive rates among orcas and dolphins.
Southern resident killer whales were listed as endangered in 2003 under the Species at Risk Act. The federal government has an action plan that includes ensuring the mammals have an adequate food supply, protecting habitat, limiting pollutants and protecting the animals from harmful effects of human activities.
Government action plans tend to move at glacial speeds, and might not be enough to save the Salish Sea orcas. Individuals and groups are pushing for more immediate action. For instance, Balcomb and others want to restore chinook salmon stocks by stopping overfishing in the Fraser River and removing dams in the lower Snake River in Washington state.
It is not mere sentiment that demands we protect the orcas, but our own well-being and perhaps even our survival. Orcas are among the many “canaries in the coal mine” species whose illnesses warn us that all is not right with the environment. When we flush toxins down our sewers or dump plastics into the ocean, we are not just threatening orcas, we are fouling our own nest.
We cannot look at any habitat or any species in isolation. The world is not divided into isolated ecosystems, but parts of a whole, where conditions in one realm affect conditions in another, where the fate of one species hangs on the well-being of another.