The orca population of the Pacific Northwest is dying. There isn’t much debate about this; every expert in marine biology agrees. The local orcas, known as the southern resident killer whales (SRKW), have had population fluctuations since the 1970’s, but the latest data shows a population in permanent decline. This is really bad news. As apex predators, the orcas are our marine canary-in-a-coalmine. Their health reflects the overall health of our environment. As they go, we go.
Sure, we Pacific Northwesterners will still be physically alive after our orcas are gone. But the health and security of our marine environment will continue to deteriorate, leaving us with cratered salmon populations, polluted waterways, and compromised freshwater sources. The plight of the orcas is as much about us as it is about them.
The southern resident killer whales are the icons of our region. Long before Europeans appeared, the native tribes recognized these mighty hunters as our allies among the waves.
A Tlingit legend describes an ancient hunter named Natsilane, who sought vengeance against his wife’s family, who had mocked and betrayed him. Natsilane carved the image of a mighty blackfish from yellow cedar. This wooden fish came to life in the water and attacked Natsilane’s dastardly in-laws, tipping their boats and killing them. This alarmed Natsilane, who asked the blackfish to never harm humans again. Their pact continues to this day. There is not a single documented case of a wild orca killing a human being.
Every native tribe of the Pacific Northwest has their own legends and beliefs, but all of them view the orca as a powerful friend, a sentinel of the sea who watches over marine creatures and humans alike. We can hardly ask for a better description of these creatures. As we bumble about, degrading our environment, the orcas call to us from the waves.
Orca populations inhabit nearly every ocean and sea, but our southern resident killer whales are a quirky bunch. Unlike the vast majority of orcas, the southern residents don’t hunt marine mammals. They much prefer salmon. Chinook salmon in particular. One can hardly blame them. For millennia the salmon of the Pacific Northwest have been plentiful. But this dietary restriction is proving to be their downfall as salmon populations face challenge upon challenge.
Our SRKWs are the smallest population of orcas in the Northeast Pacific ocean and are the only endangered population of orcas in the United States. Comprised of three pods (J, K, and L), they currently number 73 individuals, a 30-year low. In July 2018, the world gasped in horror as videos emerged of a J-pod mother known as J35 Talequah carried aloft the dead body of her deceased calf. It was the first calf born in three years, making its loss all the more troubling.
In April 2019, the L pod was spotted in Monterey, California, sporting a healthy three-month-old calf, which was welcome news. Then, in August 2019, it was discovered that three whales – one from each pod – are missing and presumed dead. This is demonstrative of the southern resident decline: one step forward, three steps back.
In addition to the southern resident pods, we also have one “transient” orca family known as AT1. The transients are genetically distinct from the residents. They prefer eating marine mammals and although they occasionally cross paths with the southern resident pods, they do not breed with them. In the 1980’s our local transient whales were counted at 22 individuals, living together in their own little tribe.
Then, in 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in Alaska. AT1 whales were spotted inside the spill area. Not surprisingly, eleven of the whales went missing (presumed dead) within a year. Other members of AT1 have been found washed up onshore in the intervening years. AT1 currently numbers just 7 individuals and are considered to be on the edge of extinction.
The southern residents and transients are in such a poor state that it’s hard to find a silver lining.
We asked whale expert (and founder of the Center for Whale Research) Kenneth Balcomb III how he appraised the current health of the SRKW pods.
“The SRKW population is critically endangered, and cannot possibly meet any of the recovery goals that have been set by the US government agency responsible for their survival. The SRKW population is on a ‘fast track’ to extinction due to many failures in normal reproduction; however, because these are naturally long lived animals the last whale to die or disappear may be decades from now… and we can wring our hands until then.
“The physical health of individual whales has been quite variable over the past twenty years, depending upon seasonal availability of suitable prey resources – notably chinook salmon. Virtually all SRKW are long-term undernourished and skinny episodically during critical development stages of their life cycle. They are in survival mode, and humans are doing little or nothing to remedy that.”According to Dr. Deborah Giles, Science and Research Director for Wild Orca, not only are the SRKW pods showing signs of malnutrition, but their calving rate has hit catastrophic lows.
“We do actually know a fair bit about how they’re doing physiologically even though we can’t take blood from them. We have a lot of information about them in the form of fecal samples from our team and also aerial photography from the drone team and also things like breath analysis and blubber biopsy.
“Bottom line is, we know from the fecal hormones that 69% of females that are getting pregnant are losing their calves before the calf is born alive. That’s a huge amount of loss. She’s putting a lot of energy into gestating these fetuses, and out of that, an almost 70% loss. 23% of those losses are in late term. So, as we know from humans, not only does it take a toll on the body to get pregnant and stay pregnant, for these females 23% are losing them in late term, which is very dangerous for the mom because it’s harder to pass a dead fetus that big.”
The most pressing problem for the health of the SRKW is the dwindling stock of chinook salmon. The whales are wholly dependent upon robust salmon runs to survive. In the Pacific Northwest, wild salmon have faced habitat destruction since the 19th century, when mining facilities poisoned the creeks and rivers. Industrial pollution and hardened shorelines continue to damage salmon habitat to this day. Hatchery programs have been implemented, but these efforts are a double-edged sword.
Again, Dr. Giles:
“Hatcheries were looked at, and in a lot of cases they were, and have been, vital to saving salmon runs. Unfortunately, hatchery production has not been well-regulated. Essentially, the more hatchery fish in the system, the more mouths to feed. And that’s taking vital resources in the form of prey away from the wild chinook salmon. The reason this is bad is because wild chinook salmon have the gene to grow pretty big, whereas hatchery fish don’t. And so the more hatchery fish you have in a system, the more hybridizing occurs between hatchery and wild fish and it’s resulted in the physical shrinking of the wild stock. So hatcheries have been both a blessing and a curse for wild chinook salmon, which are the ones the whales have evolved to eat.
“Hatchery fish swim in the habitat, and whales intercept them, but not preferentially. Hatchery fish are lipid-poor compared to wild fish, so they’re less fatty. And they’re smaller. We’re lucky if we see a 30 pound wild chinook nowadays. Hatchery fish are smaller than that. They average about 12-15 pounds. Think about that in terms of how much the whales have to forage to find the 300 to 350 pounds of meat they need daily to survive.”
Failing salmon runs affect us all, orca and human alike. Hatcheries have acted as a band-aid solution, but they don’t resolve the fundamental issues. We’ve dammed too many rivers and polluted too many creeks and seascapes. The orcas have been shown to suffer from elevated levels of PCB’s in their bloodstream and mother’s milk. Pollution from storm water runoff and industrial waste have rendered Puget Sound and the Fraser River delta poisonous for orca and salmon alike.
In response, last May Governor Jay Inslee signed five crucial orca recovery bills into law, providing $1.1 billion to invest in habitat restoration and toxic cleanup. This rare outburst of smart legislation will go a long way in resolving a host of problems, but it may be too little too late.
Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research had this to say:
“The slate of initiatives offered by the Governor’s Orca Task Force (OTF) and the Governor consisted largely of dusted-off projects from the past that never received funding. The politicians in OTF rode on the backs of the SRKW in hopes that some of the projects would finally get attention. There are many worthwhile projects that were elevated to the slate, but also raised were some agency self-serving pork barrel dishes commonly served at political functions.”
Along with the Orca Task Force legislation, there is also a call to remove the lower four dams on the Snake River. These low-capacity hydro dams are barriers to the salmon that historically migrated there. While the dams can be removed with no meaningful impact on power generation, it will take years to study, plan, and remove the dams, and many more years for the salmon to re-discover the lower Snake River and rebuild their spawning grounds.
According to Wild Orca’s Dr. Giles, we may not have that kind of time.
“The whales are declining so fast. They’re not going to be able to wait for those dams to come down. We’ll have to do something in the interim because if those dams came down today we still wouldn’t have those salmon runs available to the SRKW for many years. These whales can’t last that long without some major overhaul or other major change.”According to Dr. Giles, dam removal should remain a top priority, but it isn’t the solution we need today. Instead, we need to re-think how we apportion fishing rights in the Pacific Northwest.
“(We need to be) factoring in the whales as a major stakeholder in fisheries management decisions. So when the total allowable catch of fish is being divvied up, the whales need to be considered a major stakeholder by commercial and recreational fishing interests. Right now they’re not. They’re lumped in with what’s called ‘natural mortality’. And that means anything that happens out in the ocean happens in a black box. You don’t really see what’s going on. But that’s where marine mammals and other fish are coming into contact with both large and small chinook salmon.
“Fisheries are managed very tightly. Fisheries managers are re-factoring and re-calculating estimated rate of returns all the time. But we know—and they will admit—that those calculations are almost always short. They routinely over-estimate the number of fish that are going to be returning at a specific time. That’s really unfortunate because it’s after the fact that they figure out their numbers are wrong. We shouldn’t be making calculations based on a hopeful wish, but on history. And history has shown that we regularly over-estimate the number of fish that actually return. And so in our bidding of that total allowable catch for the human stakeholders, that’s not good enough. That’s not allowing for whales to eat. That’s what I’ve been asking about for four years. The whales need to be factored in as stakeholders.”
It seems pretty clear that we need to provide adequate prey for the orcas. We can’t wait for dam removal or habitat restoration efforts. The time to act is yesterday.
Among the few organizations that seek to balance salmon consumption is Lummi Island Wild. They are a small specialized group of salmon fishers who rely solely on reefnetting and selective catching to harvest salmon. Lummi Island Wild boats anchor near Lummi Island. When a spotter sees some fish reach an underwater channel, the vessels raise their net and smoothly guide the catch onto the boat, where fish are selectively captured or carefully tossed overboard to live another day.
Unlike factory trawlers, which regularly patrol salmon migration lanes and intercept them with massive machine nets (resulting in untold by-catch and wholesale de-population), local reefnetters can harvest salmon smartly and selectively, and provide a superior product for the backyard BBQ chefs who appreciate a high quality fish. We don’t have to completely end our salmon consumption. We just have to do it smartly: with sustainable practices and orca-forward fisheries regulations.
Not only can we make fast changes to wild chinook health, we can also mitigate the damage caused by marine noise. Orcas rely on sound waves to communicate, locate prey, and navigate their environment. Underwater noise from ships and boats can confuse and harm them. Last May, the US Navy approved plans to stage a massive live test of new technologies, including drones, high-tech rail guns, sonar, and underwater demolition.
Despite the Navy’s acknowledgment of the deleterious effects of these practices on marine mammals back in 2001, and despite decades of pleas from marine biologists, the war games continue. Naval sonar and underwater explosives will be used. These technologies cause whales to strand themselves and have been proven to cause deafness, which can be a mortal blow to an already stressed whale. There is currently no plan to halt the tests.
Conversely, we humans can also love an animal to death, which has sometimes been the case with whale watching excursions. While such tours create an appreciation for the whales and drives voters to support whale conservation, the presence of noisy boats, spinning propellers and gawking humans can confuse them and cause them to vacate areas where vital food is available. Stricter set-backs on whale watching boats have been put in place to mitigate these issues and afford opportunities to view the whales without disturbing them.
In Bellingham, Washington, Todd Shuster of Gato Verde Adventure Sailing has a solution. As owner and captain of a spacious, comfortable catamaran, he provides whale watching excursions without all the noise. Relying on sails (and a silent electric motor in a pinch), the Gato Verde takes up to six passengers on adventures among the waves to watch whales and even listen to their underwater songs.
Lummi Wild and Gato Verde are using innovative harm-reduction ideas to make life a little easier for the SRKW. But in the end, the plight of the SRKW is yet another sad chapter in the history of exploitative practices, externalized ecological costs, and governmental inaction.
Here’s an overview from Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research:
“It is strange that such beloved and important icons of the Pacific Northwest are given such a low priority in the machinery of modern human life in this country. Yes, we live in a democracy in which all citizens supposedly have a voice (and majority rules), but we have really created a great hypocrisy in this country by judging all things by marketplace rules (and minority rule). Money is not everything, and alone it cannot sustain anything.
“Even the agencies that are tasked with preventing their extinction refer to whales and salmon as ‘living marine resources’ rather than neighbors and important elements of an ecosystem. I am not sure that humans can save the whales or the salmon without changing the basic definitions in our thinking.”
Time is literally running out on our orcas. If we don’t get them the salmon they need and a healthy environment to procreate, we will have to say goodbye to these mighty creatures. For thousands of years they have lived among us in peace and pledged to do no harm.
Will we honor the pact made by Natsilane those many years ago?
Our Relations Under the Waves
In August, Lummi Nation held a Sna’teng, a traditional naming ceremony, for the Southern Resident Killer Whale population on a beach at H’eT’atCh’L, an ancestral village site on Orcas Island in the Salish Sea. Traditional names connect family members to one another, to ancestors, to culture, and to spirit. In receiving the name Sk’aliCh’elh, the qwe’lhol’mechen (orcas) were affirmed as members of the Lummi family.
“We call the orcas qwe ‘lhol mechen, which means “our relations under the waves,” said Lawrence Soloman, Secretary of Lummi Nation. “Now we can call those relations by their proper name, Sk’aliCh’elh.”
“The Southern Resident Killer Whales are like us: they depend on these waters for their survival, for their well-being, for food and recreation, for their spirituality as well,” Leonard Forsman, Chairman of Suquamish Tribe and President of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians explained. “What they need is more salmon, more clean water, less vessel traffic. They’re asking for the same things that we’ve been asking for.”
“What happens to them, happens to us,” said Chief Leah George-Wilson of Tsleil-Waututh Nation. “We’re out of balance right now, but I think we’re in a period of transformation: we are becoming what we’re supposed to be, and what we’re supposed to be is naut’sa mawt, one heart, one mind.”
Take Action for Orcas
Things may look bleak for the southern resident killer whales, but there are some things you can do to help:
- Give generously to organizations working to save the SRKW, such as Wild Orca Center for Whale Research, Orca Conservancy, Orca Network, the Whale Museum and the Langley Whale Center.
- Contact the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and ask them to include the SRKW as stakeholders in their annual fisheries quota.
- Limit your own salmon consumption. Purchase sustainably caught fish.
- Attend meetings of your local municipal committees that oversee public works and remind them that storm water runoff mitigation and clean waterways are top priorities for you and your fellow voters.
- Publicly decry any residential or commercial development that hardens shorelines or impinges on creeks and rivers.
- Go whale watching with whale-friendly tours that strictly observe the regulations regarding proximity. To know the SRKW is to love them.
- Change your landscaping habits to include native, creek-friendly practices on your own property.
Ted Rosen is a member of the Bellingham Greenways Advisory Committee and has been a champion of land conservation since his youth in the industrial wastelands of northern New Jersey. He enjoys writing, day hikes, photography, guitar, and the occasional pale ale.
Shane Russeck is a modern day photographer, adventurer, and explorer. His background in fine art and his passion for Americana and outlaw culture make his work both raw and visceral. For two years he traveled the country shooting rodeos and wild mustangs. Both series were followed by critically acclaimed gallery shows. Visit him at: shanerusseckphoto.com.