The Current Status of the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW)
The population of Killer whales (Orcinus orca) native to Puget Sound, also known as the Southern Resident population, are on the brink of extinction. These majestic creatures have a long history in the Salish Sea area and are an important cultural icon for the Pacific Northwest, but human activities over the last few decades are threatening their future. Though this population was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, little has been done since to tackle the causes of their decline. The challenges facing the SRKW population are many, but they can be generally placed into three groups: water pollution, noise pollution, and prey decline.
Orcas are top predators, which exposes them to a process called bioaccumulation. Pollutants are concentrated in prey items at each level of the food chain, resulting in extremely high levels in the animals at the top, like Orcas. Researchers have found strong links between exposure to certain types of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and negative effects on wildlife. POPs are stored in fatty tissues and are passed from mothers to calves during pregnancy and nursing, and can re-enter the body when fat stores are burned for energy. These chemicals are likely at least partially to blame for the fact that this population has not had a successful birth in three years.
Our resident orcas rely heavily on Chinook salmon to get the energy they need. Unfortunately, local Chinook populations are also in decline, meaning the orcas have to work harder to find food and still may not be getting enough. As mentioned above, lack of food can cause the whales to be exposed to toxins that have been stored in their blubber, putting more stress on their already weak systems. To top it all off, noise levels in the Salish Sea have been increasing with boat traffic, making it more difficult for the orcas to communicate with each other and find food. Orcas spend most of their time in close-knit family groups and use highly coordinated behaviors to hunt, so the loss of communication further exacerbates the effects of prey decline on their ability to find food.
Help is on the Way?
In early August, the world watched as Tahlequah (J35) carried her stillborn calf with her for 17 days and over 1,000 miles, giving all of us a window on her intense mourning. On September 13, Scarlet (J50) was also declared dead, bringing the overall population of Southern Residents down to 74.
Watching J50 during the past three months is what extinction looks like when survival is threatened for all by food deprivation and lack of reproduction.”
While many people were deeply moved watching the terrible events of this summer, decisive action has yet to come. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has made it clear that salmon recovery is the key to orca recovery, yet the dramatic actions necessary to make such a recovery possible are still elusive. After the death of J50, frustration was at an all-time high. This frustration and sense of helplessness is what led Seattle chef Renee Erickson to remove Chinook salmon from her menus. “I just couldn’t stomach the feeling like we were contributing to the starvation of this one whale as well as all the other ones,” she said of her decision, made in the wake of J50’s death. Other Seattle businesses, including PCC Markets, took similar action to remove Chinook from their menus and shelves. PCC Vice President Brenna Davis explained to KING5 news, “…in terms of how this will help the Orcas, we know that orcas are facing so many problems…this is just one small step we can take to both raise awareness but also hopefully help the salmon and orca populations.”
PCC has been working to share the motivation behind this action with their shoppers in an effort to increase public awareness, but some scientists are skeptical that these actions are helpful at all. Ray Hilborn, a professor at the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, explained his doubts to KUOW in August.
Any individual’s choice to not eat Chinook salmon would have no impact at all because it wouldn’t change the number of Chinook salmon that are being caught. If you don’t buy it, somebody else is going to. And this is true of basically all of these boycott movements.”
Dr. Hilborn argued that the only way for boycotts of this type to have an effect would be if they resulted in fishery closure. Even then, the orcas would still be competing with other marine mammals, including California sea lions and harbor seals, and with the overall decline of the Chinook population.
The Dangers of Bandwagoning
This debate has brought to light an important idea that all of us at Conservation Made Simple have been grappling with lately. How do we make sure that inspiring action in others isn’t mistaken for action in itself? While rallying people to the cause and making sure our voices are heard is crucial for making sure that our concerns are addressed in larger political arenas, it is just as crucial to make sure that our actions don’t stop there.
If we think back to the Exxon-Valdex oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989, the immediate outcry was enormous. Media coverage ran constantly, spreading photos of dead, dying, and damaged wildlife to the far corners of the country. The immediate effects on the local communities and wildlife was obvious, and it was clear that they would continue far into the future. Studies released decades later continue to catalog the effects of the spill, long after the public memory forgot all about it. One study published in 2003 estimated that protected areas with mussel beds may require 30 years to recover to pre-spill conditions (Peterson et al. 2003). Next year, those beds will finally hit their 30 year mark.
Despite the massive outcry this disaster caused, history repeated itself in 2010 with the Deepwater Horizon explosion. By most measures this spill was larger and more difficult to manage by a long shot, and the media outcry was absolutely deafening. Everything the Exxon-Valdez spill taught us points to a long and unpredictably complex recovery, and yet there has been almost no action to improve spill prevention or response technologies.
In a recent study, this apparent collective amnesia was attributed to the media coverage (Humphreys and Thompson 2014). When news breaks, public outcry reaches a maximum as public awareness swells. But as coverage continues, viewers are lulled by the appearance of action and punishment and forget to question the systemic issues that led to the disaster in the first place. When coverage wanes, the public doesn’t even notice.
This dangerous cycle is why Chinook salmon boycotts could be more than just ineffective. If local companies set the bar for action this low, the public will follow. Our orcas deserve more from us.
Taking Effective Action
Raising awareness is a great first step as long as it is only the first step. Businesses and restaurants should collaborate with conservationists and researchers to develop a set of action items for the public to take. These action items should include easy changes to daily actions and more difficult calls to action to make it clear that simply knowing about the problem won’t be enough to fix it. The Center for Whale Research has a list of action items on their website that would be a great starting point for individuals. Looking at the bigger picture, here’s a wish list of things that should be researched and considered as potential solutions.
Reducing runoff of harmful chemicals and pollutants would be good for the whole ecosystem, and by extension the Orcas. Keep pharmaceuticals and chemicals out of the waterways, drive less and keep your car running smoothly, and work with your community to find better storm water drainage solutions that keep pollutants from entering the water directly.
Follow boater regulations when there are whales in your vicinity. Never approach whales, stay at least 200 yards away at all times and 400 yards from their direction of travel, and reduce your speed. When possible, view whales from the shore or from a licensed whale watch provider.
Source your food and other goods locally to reduce your overall carbon footprint. Climate change presents many challenges for the ecosystems in the Salish Sea, and predicting the impacts on our Orcas accurately is almost impossible. Keeping your purchases local also reduces the number of goods that have to be shipped across the ocean, keeping noise pollution at a minimum.
Stay up to date on proposed actions that might increase vessel traffic in the Salish Sea. Pipeline projects through BC have been the most recent threats, potentially increasing tanker traffic dramatically through important Orca habitat. Call your elected officials!
Mobilize your community and find neighbors and friends to team up with. Your creative solutions will mean the world to future generations in the Pacific Northwest!
Conservation Made Simple
For more information about the SRKW see:
The Center for Whale Research at https://www.whaleresearch.com
UW Center for Conservation Biology: http://conservationbiology.uw.edu/research-programs/killer-whales/
The Whale Museum: https://whalemuseum.org/pages/issues-affecting-the-orcas
For more information about water pollution locally, see:
Puget Soundkeeper website: https://pugetsoundkeeper.org/pollution/
UW Puget Sound Institute: https://www.pugetsoundinstitute.org/blog/
For guidelines and information for boaters, see:
Clean Boating Foundation: http://www.cleanboatingfoundation.org
For more detail on the impacts of POPs, see:
Lundin, J. I. et al.2016. Modulation in Persistent Organic Pollutant Concentration and Profile by Prey Availability and Reproductive Status in Southern Resident Killer Whale Scat Samples. Environmental Science & Technology 50:6506–6516.
Mongillo, T. M.2016. Exposure to a mixture of toxic chemicals: implications for the health of endangered southern resident killer whales. US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Seattle, Wash.].
Ross, P. S.2006. Fireproof killer whales (Orcinus orca): flame-retardant chemicals and the conservation imperative in the charismatic icon of British Columbia, Canada. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 63:224–234.
For details about salmon populations and conservation efforts, see:
NOAA Fisheries website: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/chinook-salmon-protected
Kareiva, P., M. Marvier, and M. McClure. 2000. Recovery and Management Options for Spring/Summer Chinook Salmon in the Columbia River Basin. Science 290:977–979.
Rechisky, E. L., D. W. Welch, A. D. Porter, M. C. Jacobs-Scott, and P. M. Winchell. 2013. Influence of multiple dam passage on survival of juvenile Chinook salmon in the Columbia River estuary and coastal ocean. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110:6883–6888.
Williams, R. et al.2011. Competing Conservation Objectives for Predators and Prey: Estimating Killer Whale Prey Requirements for Chinook Salmon (Killer Whales and Salmon). PLoS ONE 6:e26738.
For guidance on sustainable seafood, see:
Seafood Watch: https://www.seafoodwatch.org
Marine Stewardship Council: https://www.msc.org/home
Note: Sustainable seafood guides usually do not factor in carbon footprint, so local is still (almost) always better
Agnew, D. J., N. L. Gutiérrez, A. Stern-Pirlot, and D. D. Hoggarth. 2014. The MSC experience: developing an operational certification standard and a market incentive to improve fishery sustainability. ICES Journal of Marine Science 71:216–225.
Sampson, G. S. et al.2015. Secure sustainable seafood from developing countries. Science 348:504–506.
For details about noise pollution impacts on the SRKW, see:
Houghton, J. et al.2015. The Relationship between Vessel Traffic and Noise Levels Received by Killer Whales ( Orcinus orca). PLoS ONE 10:e0140119.
Veirs, S., V. Veirs, and J. Wood. 2015. Ship noise in an urban estuary extends to frequencies used for echolocation by endangered killer whales. PeerJ PrePrints.
Williams, R., C. Erbe, E. Ashe, A. Beerman, and J. Smith. 2014. Severity of killer whale behavioral responses to ship noise: A dose-response study. Marine Pollution Bulletin 79:254–260.
For more information on pipeline projects happening in British Columbia, see:
New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/30/world/canada/alberta-oil-pipeline-trudeau.html
New York Post: https://nypost.com/2018/03/10/indigenous-and-environmental-leaders-protest-canada-pipeline/
Fountain, H. 2013. Lessons From the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. The New York Times.
Humphreys, A., and C. J. Thompson. 2014. Branding Disaster: Reestablishing Trust through the Ideological Containment of Systemic Risk Anxieties. Journal of Consumer Research 41:877–910.
de Luna, R. 2018. Seattle chef Renee Erickson pulls king salmon from menu. KUOW.
Malcom, K., and A. Hurst. 2018. Boycotting chinook salmon to save orcas? It won’t do much. KUOW. All Things Considered.
Mapes, L. 2018a. Southern-resident killer whales lose newborn calf, and another youngster is ailing. The Seattle Times.
Mapes, L. 2018b. Orca J50 presumed dead but NOAA continues search. The Seattle Times.
Peterson, C. H. et al. 2003. Long-Term Ecosystem Response to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Science 302:2082–2086.