A Lament for the Orca

Co-Written by Hussein Alidina, Senior Officer, Marine Science & Planning and Tonya Wimmer, Manager, Species Conservation

The recent death of Rhapsody, a pregnant female southern resident orca, highlights the precarious situation of the southern resident killer whale (SRKW) population that inhabit the waters of Southern BC and Washington State, an area generally known as the Salish Sea.

© forwhales.org

This marks the 4th death – 5th if you count her baby – of an individual from this critically endangered whale population in the last six months. Tragic, to say the least, and even more so when you look at this population’s dwindling numbers. There are 77 remaining, and only 28 of them are females of breeding age. This means that southern resident killer whales are on the edge of extinction and could well disappear within the next 100 years.
One would think their small numbers alone would warrant drastic and immediate measures to protect them. Yet as precarious as their situation is, the pressures on them and the threats they face show few signs of disappearing anytime soon.
As a transboundary species, the southern resident population is classified as endangered under federal legislation in Canada and the US. Both countries have developed federal recovery strategies and plans and have legally identified the Salish Sea as critical to the survival of these animals.
© forwhales.org
© forwhales.org

As one of the most studied whale populations in the world, the threats to their recovery are well known. On the list is the scarcity their primary food, chinook salmon, which are also a target for commercial fishing.  Contaminants that accumulate in the whale tissue and reduce their fitness is another. And the list grows even longer with the addition of disturbance from industrial activity and commercial and recreational shipping. Underwater noise pollution from these activities impairs their ability to communicate, sense their environment, find food and avoid danger.
Click to enlarge

In grand and tragic sum, the threats these rare whales are facing amount to the marine equivalent of “death by 1,000 cuts.”
Complicating the issue even further, and perhaps the deepest cut of all, is the holdup recovery plans face when they conflict with important economic interests. As the US recovery plan review notes, “regulatory actions could involve restrictions on commercial fishing, contaminant discharge, and vessels.” While we know what’s needed to save these animals, the legal protections they are afforded seem to be increasingly sidelined or overlooked in favor of economic gain.
You need look no further than commercial shipping projections in the Salish Sea for confirmation. This major source of underwater noise – and threat to orcas – is poised to increase with a doubling of the container capacity at the Port of Vancouver and a proposal by Kinder Morgan to increase tanker traffic seven fold. Can we in fact reduce disturbance and noise impacts to orcas in a situation when vessel traffic is growing significantly? There is little discussion on the real matter of limiting or freezing levels of shipping because that is not economically palatable.
Southern resident Killer Whales in Haro Strait.  © Scott Veirs, beamreach.org/Marine Photobank
Southern resident Killer Whales in Haro Strait.
© Scott Veirs, beamreach.org/Marine Photobank

We are at a critical juncture for the future survival of this species. More than ever, we need collaboration amongst all stakeholders and effective changes to be implemented and regulations to protect endangered species like southern residents upheld. WWF has been working with partners to find solutions to protect southern resident killer whales from the impact of ocean noise by advocating for controls on underwater noise, quieter ships and reducing noise levels in critical habitats.
This population of orcas is like no other, their social structure and the ways in which they interact with one another is unique. We have a responsibility – and the tools – to protect them…we just need the will at the “right” places.
The Salish Sea is a place of much change and will continue to be so. In this shifting seascape the orca has and continues to be a canary not just for the health of the Salish Sea but to the health of all those who depend on it.