Is it too late to save the Salish Sea orcas?
There are only 78 of B.C.'s iconic southern resident killer whales left.
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Last year was not a good year for the killer whales.
Seven members of the Salish Sea orca population, including two breeding-age females, two breeding-age males, two calves, and one elder died in 2016.
Researchers say with only 78 orcas left, that death rate is not sustainable.
The killer whales are declining for a variety of reasons ranging from infection, starvation, and conflict with large ships, both head-on and from the noise pollution they emit.
The good news is the orcas off B.C.’s coast are among the most studied marine mammals in the world. Scientists say they know how to save them.
“This is the saddest part. We know what to do to save these animals. The problem is whether we will find the political will to do something about it,” said Deborah Giles, a scientist at the Center for Whale Research in Washington State.
“If we do it fast enough, then yes, I think this population can rebound.”
The Salish Sea orcas, also called the southern resident killer whales, are a distinct group of orcas that have their own distinct culture, language, and genealogy. They survived the 1960s and 70s where about 50 of them were either captured for captivity or killed, but the iconic population is now facing a no less dangerous situation.
The endangered killer whales are swimming in a toxic soup that makes it harder for them to find the little prey that remains, all the while having to dodge oil tankers. Tanker traffic in the Salish Sea is forecasted to increase seven fold after the Kinder Morgan expands its pipeline through Burnaby in 2019.
Researchers agree this combination of threats, if not addressed, is enough to choke the iconic animals until there are not enough whales to keep the population alive.
“It’s like a death by a thousand cuts,” said Giles.
She and her team are responsible for taking a bi-annual census of the Salish Sea orca population and both Canadian and American governments rely on that data for their records.
The Canadian government announced its intention to help preserve the northern and southern resident killer whale population in 2011 and committed to an action plan in 2017 that included 98 possible measures.
But wildlife advocates describe the plan as a commitment to do something, rather than actually doing something.
“World Wildlife Fund Canada was disappointed in this action plan from the government,” said Kim Dunn, an oceans specialist with the non-profit.
“What it needs is specific immediate and measurable action to address the threats to this population.”
The government can’t afford to dawdle if it is serious about saving the whales, said Dunn.
Twenty scientists from around the world penned an open letter to the Canadian government last week, calling for a reduction of underwater noise in the Salish Sea by three decibels in 10 years.
The Minister of Fisheries and Oceans was not available for an interview.
Those kind of concrete measures would help the Salish Sea orcas because ship noise masks the animals’ calls to each other as well as the sounds they make to use to hunt for food.
Taking even that one small step would show meaningful conservation efforts are within reach, said Dunn.
“I think there are a lot of smart people working in industry, government and in the environment sector as well as a whole lot of scientists who can bring solution to this problem that will work for the southern residents,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s impossible.”
Dunn says noise pollution is among the biggest threats to the whales.
The killer whales traditionally spend a lot of time in the Salish Sea, described as the waters between the south tip of Vancouver Island and B.C., as well as along the Washington Coast. With the promise of more tankers coming into the area to ship crude oil from B.C. to the world, the water will become too noisy for the normally chatty orca, said Dunn.
“There is noise that could be coming from port activity. There are also things coming from shore that can create noise,” she said.
“It all combines to create a noisy environment that makes it harder for the whales to do what they need to do to survive.”
WWF-Canada is working with industry such as the Port of Vancouver to reduce underwater noise.
In 2017, the Port of Vancouver started offering vessels up to 47 per cent off on harbour fees if they have new quieting technology installed.
“We agree as a port authority that the southern resident killer whale population needs to be protected that’s why we have these initiatives,” said Orla Robinson, manager of the port’s Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation program.
The port also installed an underwater listening station in 2015 to monitor noise levels in the harbour, and has so far collected the acoustic signature of 2,700 vessels.
Robinson says eventually vessels will be ranked according to how much underwater noise they make and the port can create more incentives for quieter ships.
The port accepts about nine ships a day and forecasts that to increase to 12 a day by 2026.
The hope is companies will voluntarily upgrade their vessels and crews will slow down to reduce the noise they make.
But Giles says even the quietest ocean will not be enough if the whales cannot fulfill their most basic need – food.
The southern resident killer whales are picky eaters with chinook salmon making up about 90 per cent of their diet, said Giles, who analyzes whale scat to monitor their health.
Researchers can tell there isn’t enough of it because the population’s mammal-eating cousins – called transient orcas – are plump compared to the southern residents.
Giles and her co-workers at the Center for Whale Research are also responsible for a census on the transient population that ply the same waters as the endangered southern residents.
“The transients look like sausages compared to our skinny little sardines southern resident killer whales,” she said.
“These whales are in a constant state of starvation.”
But eating daily is more important than just keeping hunger pangs away, said Giles.
Mammals store toxins in their fat and it does little harm unless the animals don’t have enough to eat, she explained. Starving whales metabolize the fat to survive, releasing toxins into their body and effectively making them sick.
She calls this a “synergistic impact” where multiple factors combine to make things much worse for the animals.
Protecting salmon stocks for the southern resident killer whales would help them in two ways, said Giles. Larger salmon runs will sustain enough whales to maintain healthy family lines – in other words, prevent inbreeding – and it will keep the ingested toxins, like pesticides and flame retardants, locked up in the whales’ blubber.
Canada’s department of fisheries and oceans is working with its American counterpart to ensure chinook salmon is available for the orcas, said Sheila Thornton, the lead planner for the Canadian government’s efforts to save B.C.’s orcas.
“We’re looking specifically at key foraging areas critical to the southern killer whale and overlaying those areas with data on fishing openings, recreational and first nations fisheries to identify those pressures where the overlaps are occurring.”
The government can use various fishery management tools, including altering fishing seasons and boundaries to accommodate the whales foraging habits, said Thornton.
The Canadian government also recently committed to ensuring new industrial development will not increase underwater noise in the Salish Sea.
People in the local tourism industry are crossing their fingers the orcas can be saved.
“Definitely killer whales have been very important and we get people from everywhere in the world,” said Cedric Towers, owner of Vancouver Whale Watching.
Just pick up any tourism brochure – orcas are often prominently featured, he said.
“People come here specifically to see whales. They come to Vancouver.”
Extinction would be “devastating” to the industry, said Towers, who has been taking people out on the water to see the orcas for the past 19 years. Many whale watching companies follow research guidelines that dictate boats must stay at least 100 metres away from cetaceans.
“It would be a real slap in the face for people of the Pacific Northwest to see we haven’t been able to maintain this resource.”
The science shows governments have a small window of time to act if they want to save the orcas, said Giles.
“Do we have the political will to make the hard decisions? I don't think so,” she said.
“In that regard, yes, this population is doomed.”