I dare you- no, I triple dog dare you- to find someone that doesn’t find themselves riveted while watching these amazing creatures on TV, or if they are lucky enough, to gaze upon them in their wild habitat. Whenever I mention to anyone that Defenders is working to save southern resident orcas from extinction, people get a light in their eye and sit up a little straighter. Many come with personal orca stories, some declare the orca as their totem or spirit animal, others just breathe a sigh of relief and say, ‘I’m so glad, they need it.’ These interactions stoke the fire in my belly and keep my mind churning, dreaming up ways to harness all the love for orcas that is out there and channeling it into the help and action orcas desperately need.
Orcas live in oceans around the globe. However, in the northeastern Pacific Ocean, orcas are grouped into three categories based on where they spend their time and what they eat: the off-shores, the transients, and the residents. Orca researchers break the resident category further into groups called communities, based on their placement along the Pacific coast of North America. Resident orcas live very close to shore, travel less than the other types of orca, and eat fish exclusively. The most endangered community of resident orca, called the southern resident orca, consists of only three pods, and mostly lives along the coastlines of Washington, Oregon and northern California. There are fewer than 80 individuals in this rare population, and their future is as uncertain as cursive writing, compact discs, or land-based phone lines.
Sometimes called killer whales, orcas are actually the world’s largest dolphin. They are incredibly intelligent and live in pods led by a matriarch, or older female orca. They live well beyond their reproductive age, and recent research suggests that the female orca has the wisdom and experience to guide the younger members of the pod through lean and tough times, thus increasing the survival of her species well beyond the years when she is actively giving birth to calves. One of the only other species known to do this is Homo sapiens. Yep. You and me….and orcas. Think about that one for a minute. The oldest southern resident orca is a female matriarch officially named J-2 and lovingly called Granny. She is a remarkable 104 years old and has led her pod through many a hard time. Granny’s got street cred.
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Washingtonians are the most fortunate when it comes to viewing this group of orcas. The southern resident orcas use the Puget Sound as their summer home. Whale watching opportunities from the shore and on water are a large part of the tourism economy. Orcas are also sacred to many Native American tribes that live along the coast, and are sometimes called wolves of the sea because they travel, hunt, and live in complex social groups. The southern residents also spend a hefty amount of time along the stunningly beautiful Oregon coast. Depending on the year and where the salmon are, they travel even further south and spend time foraging along the coast of San Francisco.
Two issues impact the southern resident’s survival most: pollution and prey abundance (the number of salmon available to eat). Both issues are tricky to tackle.
Just like humans, without food to eat, southern residents won’t last long. Scientists have already recorded indicators of nutritional stress, or starvation, in dead orcas that have washed ashore.
These orcas feed specifically on Chinook salmon – and the fish’s numbers have been dwindling steadily for many years all over the Pacific Northwest. The decline is linked to habitat alteration and destruction from human development; hydro-electric dams, barriers like railroad tracks and roads, pollution, and dredged rivers disconnected from their floodplains. How can we increase Chinook salmon numbers in the wild? Research suggests the answer is providing more pollutant-free habitat to let them spawn and rear safely and successfully.
Pollution in the orca’s marine home and in the food they eat also add to their troubles. Toxins affect their nervous and reproductive systems and just make them feel less up to the task of going about their daily business. Scientists call it reduced fitness. Animals that rely on a thick coat of blubber to stay warm in the cold ocean water are particularly vulnerable to build-up of toxins in their bodies because the toxins love to stick to fat cells. When food is low and they use their blubber reserves for energy, the toxins are mobilized and wreak havoc in their bodies. The toxins are also passed through the milk that females provide their young. Like human children, orca babies are more vulnerable to toxic chemical exposure because their bodies and brains are still developing.
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Southern resident orcas are in so much trouble that NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency that is in charge of keeping tabs on marine mammals, announced in May that the southern resident orca is one of eight focal species for the agency, selected because they have enough information to conclude that without concerted conservation attention, it will go extinct. Enter Defenders of Wildlife. Now, where did I put my orca superhero cape?
Since Defenders’ Northwest Program opened in Seattle last fall, our staff has been hard at work identifying ways we can start helping southern resident orcas.
Defenders is committed to working on increasing Chinook salmon abundance and reducing toxins in the marine and riverine environment. Our first focus is going to be on addressing the hundreds of derelict and abandoned vessels that litter Oregon and Washington shorelines, each potentially leaking fuel, metals, and other chemicals into the water.
Defenders also applauds the delegation of Oregon Representatives and Senators that introduced the Columbia River Basin Restoration Act to be considered by Congress. The Act would create a Columbia River Basin Restoration Program within the EPA and designate critical funds for removing toxins from the river that would otherwise concentrate in many organisms all the way to up to orca blubber. The Act has been assigned to a committee in the US House of Representatives and is still waiting to be heard – we’ll keep you posted.
There’s no one easy fix, but these actions are all part of the solution that will put the southern resident orca on the road to recovery. And it’s just in the nick of time.
This past winter and spring, five calves were born to the southern resident orcas, four of which still survive. Since 2012, no southern resident orca calves have survived, and a half-dozen adults have died, so the veritable orca nursery is good news. It is not surprising that the births followed an outstanding run of Chinook salmon in the Columbia River Basin last fall. Food was so good last winter that the southern resident orcas stayed off the Oregon Coast for the entire winter and never needed to travel down to Northern California. The relationship seems pretty clear: Where there are Chinook salmon, there are southern resident orcas. Now that the four calves have survived to the July population census, we have 81 southern resident orcas to fight for in the Pacific Northwest!