We are all familiar with the orca. The beautiful “blackfish” found in all oceans, from the Arctic and Antarctic regions to tropical seas. They are an iconic species, recognized by all, and recent exposés highlighting the cruelty of their captivity by marine parks such as SeaWorld, have only increased awareness towards the threats faced by the species.
What is fascinating is that despite the orca being generally considered monotypic (belonging to one species) scientific studies have revealed that different species or subspecies of killer whales actually exist worldwide.
The Southern Resident Killer Whales are an example of this. They are a large extended family and are made up of three different pods – the J-Pod, K-Pod, and L-Pod. This family of orcas resides primarily in the waters of the Salish Sea, a group of waters the runs between British Columbia and the northwestern tip of Washington State. Although Southern Resident orcas are among the most well-known pod clusters, they are also the only orcas to be classified as “endangered” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The latest calf of the Southern Residents was recently born to the J-pod and has been labelled J-51. This means that there are now 79 Southern Resident orcas in total, and 26 members of the J pod. The birth of J-51 is a highly positive development in the survival of this species. But why is it that births are so rare and calves are struggling to survive infancy?
A Species on the Edge of Extinction
According to the Center for Orca Research the size of all three Southern Resident pods was reduced in number from 1965-75 as a result of whale captures for major marine parks. The live capture of orcas is a brutal exercise and at least 13 whales were killed during these captures while 45 Southern Resident whales, including Lolita who now lives at Miami Seaquarium, were sent to marine parks around the world.
Since 1998, sixty-one Southern Resident Killer Whales have died. With only thirty-eight orcas being born and surviving infancy during this period this is incredibly alarming. So what is causing this? We know that the trauma associated with losing members to captivity can compromise wild pods, but there is another greater threat facing this species.
These orcas are starving. Once upon time, these black fish would have survived soundly in their natural environments, but now these great whales have to compete with the ever menacing presence of human industry.
Humans, Dams, and Salmon
The Southern Resident Killer Whale Salmon Initiative highlight that Chinook salmon are the orcas primary food and, therefore, vital for the survival of this struggling species. Worryingly the Chinook salmon are also an endangered species, and there are simply not enough of them to feed the South Resident Killer Whales which are relying on a plentiful population of salmon to recover their own species.
So, what has threatened both the salmon and subsequently the Southern Resident Killer Whales? It’s a dam problem!
According to Southern Resident Killer Whale Salmon Initiative, there are four lower Snake River dams which are having a devastating impact on the salmon population. Snack River is a major waterway in the Pacific Northwest that spans all the way from Wyoming to Washington State which serves as a critical habitat for Chinook salmon.
Millions of juvenile salmon attempt to migrate down river every year but never make the now treacherous journey because of these dams. Even if they do make it down river, they rarely survive the journey back through the dams to their spawning grounds. The ripple effect of these depleting populations of salmon is then noticed in the struggles of Southern Resident Killer Whales when their most important source of food is being decimated.
The federal government has spent billions of dollars on habitat restoration measures, but it seems this is to act as a greenwash to avoid any meaningful efforts in the form of significant changes to dam operations. Billions of dollars are being wasted to avoid tackling the source of the problem that is threatening the very survival of Southern Resident Killer Whales – which also support a multimillion-dollar tourist economy in the local area.
A campaign is growing in support to breach the dams. A petition on Change.org has been signed by over eleven thousand people calling on congress to authorize the removal of the four lower Snake River dams.
Campaigners highlight the National Marine Fisheries Service Recovery Plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales which states that, “Perhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late 1800s has been the decline of salmon from the Colombia River basin.”
This plan would open up 140 miles and fifteen million acres of habitat for salmon as well as steelhead. This would provide the life source for the orcas and provide all the ingredients needed to see more orca births such as J-51.
What You Can Do to Help and Support the Southern Resident Orcas
In the words of Dr. Rich Osborne, research associate at the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, “Restoring Columbia River Chinook salmon is perhaps the single most important thing we can do to ensure the future survival of the Southern Resident Community of killer whales. We cannot hope to restore the killer whale population without also restoring the salmon upon which these whales have depended for thousands of years. Their futures are intricately linked.”
Humans jumpstarted the decline of the iconic Southern Resident orca populations when we began to capture them from the wild for the sake of our entertainment; it is now up to us to do all that we can to restore these delicate populations – before it is too late.
Restoring the Chinook salmon populations is vital for the survival of the Southern Resident Killer Whales. The federal government is seeking public comments by January 27, 2017 on managing dams in the region, including four dams in the lower Snake River that have severely damaged wild salmon populations.
Please sign this petition to add your voice to the campaign. Don’t forget to share the petition!
You can also check out this excellent resource from the Center for Whale Research which highlights a number of things you can do at home and at work to support the species. Or consider “adopting” a member of the Southern Resident pod to help fund research and protection efforts.
Image source: Putneypics/ Flickr