Comment: Too many orcas are dying; they need our help

I was two months into writing a novel about Granny the orca when I heard she had died. I felt crushed and furious.

Our magnificent southern resident orcas are rapidly sliding toward extinction along with our bountiful Salish Sea. Naming our new ferry Salish Orca seems like a hollow tribute unless we protect what we value. Economically, we stand to lose millions of tourist dollars, but orcas are invaluable. We need to take steps to protect them.

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Granny, our oldest wild orca matriarch, was admired by locals and tourists for her frisky leaps and splashing, and for her willingness to adopt younger whales. Most important, her pod depended on her 70-plus years of experience to find dwindling chinook salmon. Granny’s death further imperils her starving J Pod.

Each orca has a unique personality. Like humans, orcas care for their sick and disabled by feeding them. They rescue injured family members. At family reunions, there’s lots of playful rubbing together, splashing and excited calling.

Orcas are the largest members of the dolphin family and the apex predators of the Salish Sea. With their superior physical power and brains four times bigger than humans’, they can swim 100 kilometres a day searching for salmon and keeping our sea in healthy balance. Their complex communications and social systems enable them to hunt co-operatively in families with more than 20 members.

Seven of our southern resident orcas died last year, leaving only 78. Why have we lost 20 prime-breeding-age orcas in the past 20 years? Research by Orca Relief shows that when the chinook count is low, the presence of motorized boats decreases the orcas’ ability to forage. Autopsies show that they starve to death while burning their own toxin-laden blubber.

Our orcas need one million of the three- to four-million chinook run to replenish their numbers, but they don’t get their share. In Haro Strait, orca pods are often surrounded by up to 50 boats in the summer. They have to take evasive action to avoid collisions, while struggling to sonar-locate fish with all the interfering noise. Straitwatch observers report up to 100 interference incidents a day.

Southern resident orcas have been listed as endangered since 2002. The federal government is legally obligated to protect critical habitat of endangered killer whales. In 14 years, we’ve had decreased funding and decreased conservation actions, resulting in increased vessel traffic with more noise and more ship strikes, along with decreasing chinook runs.

How can the government approve increased tanker traffic when their own scientists show that more noise will endanger orca survival? They also know that a spill is inevitable. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed more than $1 billion to protecting our coastline, but spill-response companies promise a pathetic five per cent capture rate and the science shows that, once spilled, bitumen can’t be cleaned up. The only logical solution is to refine bitumen in Canada.

One billion dollars would be better spent on the urgently needed temporary closure of the commercial chinook fishery and the designation of a marine sanctuary to provide our resident orcas with a place to feed without interference.

In New Zealand, patrolled sanctuaries act as fish nurseries with increasing numbers of mature fish moving out and providing a stable income for nearby fishermen.

Wouldn’t visiting cruise ships and whale-watching companies look like heroes if they donated considerable sums to protecting B.C.’s orcas and the Salish Sea?

You can help by contacting your MP and donating to appropriate organizations (Google “protect BC orcas”). If we don’t stop taking all the chinook, and if we don’t provide a marine sanctuary, we will soon lose our resident orcas and a sea worthy of world-heritage status.

Jan Cadieux is an outdoor educator and a former park naturalist with Pacific Rim National Park.

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