Southern Resident Orca Population at its Lowest in Decades

November 29, 2016

So, the season is winding down, and people are preparing for their winter migration or hibernation; this is normally the time of year when I would write a summary of the summer’s activities and sightings, as well as a prediction for what next year will look like.

But this year I am forced to write something different.

My main job at Prince of Whales is being a naturalist on the boat. That’s right, I’m one of those obnoxiously enthusiastic people spewing an absurd amount of whale facts in-between cheesy porpoise puns and subtle jokes about dolphins’ reproductive tendency towards promiscuity.

But like I do, once a trip, every trip, I must get serious. We have to talk about not only about the grave challenges facing our most perilously endangered species, the southern resident orca, but what you (YES YOU!) can do to help them.

Nothing emphasizes the jeopardy that resident orca are in more than the death of a young reproductive female and her calf. Unfortunately, we had to realize this exact tragedy last month.

J28, also known as Polaris, was declared missing from her family group on October 19th following a dramatic and notable health decline after the birth of her second live calf in January. Multiple encounters with her family (and without her) have confirmed the worst. Polaris is dead. Her 10 month old calf, J54, will not survive without his mother and has likely already died as well. Center for Whale Research director Ken Balcolm documented J28’s older daughter, J46, attempting to feed both her emaciated mother and brother before their death, but the efforts of this determined little female were not enough to help her struggling family. After J28’s death, several family members were seen attempting to keep J54 swimming and at the surface, resulting in his body being covered in scratches known as rake marks.

Without her body, we may never know exactly how Polaris died, but the threats to the population remain clear, Ken Balcolm breaks it down in his obituary of J28:

“1) We have introduced legacy contaminants into the natural ecosystem that have known adverse health effects on all animal life, including our own. And, we know that the whales have bio-accumulated these contaminants to unsafe levels in their blubber.

And, 2) We have drastically altered the availability of the food supply – predominantly Chinook salmon – both in abundance/biomass and seasonal distribution. These two wrenches work in tandem to have a profound effect on the SRKW population.

When there isn’t enough food to support gestation or lactation whales metabolize their blubber supply for energetic needs. Their own blubber is now actually toxic to them, and when metabolized and circulated in the blood stream it causes reproductive malfunction, immune-suppression, and nervous system impairment. If a pregnant female gets in this malnourished and poisonous situation it can affect the development and survival of the fetus as well as her own health. If the calf is born alive, the contaminants go directly from the mother’s milk to the nursing calf, creating another set of developmental problems.”

With so many threats from so many sides, you might wonder what on earth a single person can do to help. According to Ken, the first thing we need to do is get these guys some food, and one of the simplest ways to do that, is remove the dams on the Lower Snake River. You can do more by decreasing the demand for salmon by choosing a more sustainable seafood option (i.e. avoiding both wild-caught and farmed salmon), decreasing use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides (in your garden and by choosing organic produce), looking for products like shampoo and body wash that are paraben-free, and being mindful in your day to day life, everything that goes on land gets in the water, and all the water in the world gets to the ocean eventually.

This is all information we discuss in detail, on every one of our trips. Our goal as a company is to spread this information as far and wide as possible, to educate as many visitors as possible to appreciate this ecosystem, not only for its beauty, but also for it’s fragility. We are blessed to have the Salish Sea as the backdrop upon which we launch our floating classroom; our place of serenity and beauty.

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By Jennifer Dickson