This year’s orca baby boom is a cause for celebration, but not a reason for complacency. The whales are barely breeding at replacement rate, when population growth is needed to ensure the long-term survival of the endangered mammals.
The new orca calf that dominated the front page of Wednesday’s Times Colonist is much more than a cute tourist attraction — it’s a reminder of the interconnectedness of all living things. The state of the orca population is a direct reflection of the ocean’s health, and without healthy oceans, we human beings are in trouble.
Whale-watchers spotted the new calf swimming in Puget Sound on Monday with its mother. It is the fifth calf born this year to the southern resident killer whales that swim off the coast of B.C. and Washington, bringing the total population to 81.
It’s the best year for orca numbers since 1977, when nine calves were born, but this year’s births follow two years in which no new calves survived. The big test will be to see how many calves are still alive next spring, after spending the winter in the open ocean.
Researchers attribute this year’s birth rate to last year’s plentiful supply of chinook salmon, which comprise nearly 80 per cent of the orcas’ diet. When salmon numbers are low, 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.
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 same contaminants that orcas ingest when they eat salmon are also found in coastal grizzly bears that, like the orcas, depend heavily on salmon. When the bears harvest the spawning salmon, the feces and fish carcasses they deposit on land enrich the forest. Healthy forests are vital to our atmosphere and watersheds.
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.
A new orca calf in Puget Sound is reason to rejoice, but its future is still uncertain, as is ours, if we do not become wiser stewards of this small planet.