Orca whales are some of the most magnificent creatures to grace the earth. They have evolved over the course of millions of years to thrive in their ocean environment, working perfectly in sync with one another to ensure their collective survival. Orcas are among the most intelligent and emotionally developed beings on the planet, scientists have posited they even possess more capabilities than humans – after all, orca pods have a shared sense of self and will go out of the way to help injured or disabled members of their family survive. For an animal that possesses the nickname “killer” whale, orcas are actually very peaceful creatures.

Despite the orca’s inherent prowess, they have, like many other animals, fallen prey to human activities. Threatened by the captivity industry, plastic pollution, ship strikes, and habitat encroachment, wild orca pods are growing increasingly endangered. Although orca whales can be found in virtually every major marine region across the world, there are a number of orca family pods that are currently considered endangered or threatened.

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The southern resident orcas are the most well-known endangered family, comprised of the J, K, and L pods. These pods can be found off the coast of British Columbia and Washington state. It’s interesting to note that these same waters are where the very first wild orca captures for Marineland Canada and SeaWorld took place. While wild capture for orcas is no longer practiced for U.S. marine parks, there is a new threat to these highly endangered pods – dams. 

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans recently confirmed the death of J34, a 22-foot-long, 18-year-old orca who was found off the coast of Sechelt in British Columbia. This juvenile whale was considered to be in the prime of his life and given that there are only around 79 southern resident orca whales left in the wild, his loss is heavily felt.

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Scientists have been working to determine the definitive cause of death for this young animal, but signs point to malnutrition and starvation. Howard Garrett, a specialist from the Orca Network points to the drop in Chinook and Coho Chum salmon in the region for this. Unfortunately, the creation of four dams across Snake River, a major body of water that runs from Wyoming to Washington state has decimated the Chinook salmon.  Millions of juvenile salmon attempt to migrate down Snake river every year but never make the now treacherous journey because of these man-made blocks. Even those that do survive and make it to the ocean outlet have a very slim chance of being able to navigate back through the dams to their spawning ground. Chinook salmon make up 98 percent of the southern resident orca diet.

According to Komo News, the J-pod already lost a mother and a calf back in October and orca advocates said both showed signs of malnutrition. A member of the L-pod was also found dead in April, the cause of death appearing to be lack of food. In an interview with Komo News, Garret points to salmon as being the definitive solution to orca population loss. “We need to get more fish for these whales, they’re not getting enough salmon year round. Especially in the Columbia watershed due to the dams, especially on the Snake River because that blocks the largest wilderness spawning area on the west coast, so those salmon are severely depleted. That’s what these orcas depend on. ”

The southern resident orca whales don’t stand a chance if their primary food source is not restored. Luckily efforts are being made to help. This past summer, a group of fishermen in British Columbia received funding to begin a salmon hatchery aimed at providing food for orcas as they travel around the inland waterways of Strait of Juan de Fuca and Strait of Georgia. This project was met with opposition, however, as it does little to resolve the source of the issue.

There are also many organizations working to raise awareness for this grave problem and petition the U.S. government to allow breaking in the Snake River dams for the sake of orcas. If you’d like to support this important work, check out the Southern Resident Killer Whale Chinook Salmon Initiative, here.

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We can also help reduce the strain on marine ecosystems by reducing our personal consumption of fish and seafood. The world’s fish stocks are predicted to collapse by 2048 due to our appetite for fish, so we can all have a tremendous impact by choosing an alternative instead. One of the best things you can do is share information like this and encourage others to see how human actions impact others in our global ecosystem. Through education and action, we can help restore the damage that’s already been done, and hopefully, avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Image source: Graham Moore