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Our Southern Resident Orcas are Headed for Extinction

The most studied, celebrated and beloved killer whale population in the world is doomed unless dramatic action is taken to rebuild its food supply.

Brian Preston 27 Oct

Back in the day, Brian Preston had a serialized novel published in The Tyee called Too Many Georges. You can now find it here.

On Sept. 19, 2017 a young orca, J52, born in 2015 and in orca terms still a toddler, disappeared from the J pod of the southern resident killer whales who make their summer home in the Salish Sea. The last time he was observed was with his mother and presumed father off Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island’s southwest coast. He was suffering from severe “peanut head,” a condition associated with imminent death from malnutrition. At this time of year, he and his pod should have been further up the Strait of Juan de Fuca feasting on the annual run of Chinook salmon that account for 80 per cent of the their diet. But the Chinook run failed utterly to appear this year, driving the whales far afield to the open ocean to look for food.

On Sept. 25, a brief Canadian Press story, serving as an obituary of sorts, appeared in the Vancouver Sun to mark J52’s passing. Of the six whales born in 2015 — creating optimistic talk of a “baby boom” — he was the third to die. Three adults have also died since then, and no new babies have survived. The southern residents are now reduced to 76 members. A longer story about J52 appeared in the online Seattle Post-Intelligencer, under a headline drained of all optimism: “Another orca calf is dead — these killer whales are in the sunset of their existence.” The PI article was essentially a rewrite of a press release from Ken Balcomb, founder and lead scientist at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. The Center has been studying whales intensely for 42 years, and according to its website has created an “unprecedented baseline information on the whales’ population dynamics, health, demography, social structure, and individual life histories.” Thanks to the Center’s research, more detail is known about the endangered southern resident killer whales than any other group of marine mammals in the world.

The Center’s homepage radiates positivity and hopefulness, with a stunning photo of a breaching whale overlaid with the slogan “Research + Action = Recovery,” but the media release below it is much more doom and gloom. Balcomb writes, “This population cannot survive without food year-round — individuals metabolize their toxic blubber and body fats when they do not get enough to eat to sustain their bodies and their babies. Your diet doctor can advise you about that. All indications… are pointing toward a predator population that is prey limited and non-viable. Our government systems steeped in short-term competing financial motives are processing these whales and the salmon on which they depend to extinction…. If something isn’t done to enhance the SRKW prey availability almost immediately (it takes a few years for a Chinook salmon to mature and reproduce, and it takes about twelve years for a female SRKW to mature and reproduce), extinction of this charismatic resident population of killer whales is inevitable in the calculable future.”

Reached by phone at his home in Friday Harbor, Balcomb sounds heavy-hearted and weary when discussing the whales’ chances of recovery. Asked if he’s seeing malnutrition across the board in the southern population, he says it’s hardest on the females and babies. “They have the highest energetic demand, and they’re the ones that are showing the problems first, either with lactation or in gestation. Only two males are reproductively active in this population for the past 25 years, I mean very active — they produce over 80 per cent of the calves. All the rest of the males are just mouths to feed. With mothers and offspring dying, the bias toward males is getting greater, and this is not helpful.”

Asked if the press release about J52 is the most pessimistic thing he ever wrote, he says, “It’s not a pleasant scenario, and we’re going to try not to bum everybody out, but I really don’t know what to do. The Fraser River, even 10 years ago, was still supporting enough fish so that killer whales were coming in here from May to September, and even into the fall, but that Fraser River stock, and especially the Chinook, have just been decimated. More than decimated.”

Due to what? “The clarity of that is obfuscated by agendas: first we have the fishing interests, sport fishing and commercial, which are huge, and those people are the ones that vote, and have money, and they want to catch fish. Then there’s the Tribes, the First Nations, who also want to keep the pressure on for catches. Then you have the energy companies that want to lay pipelines and further degrade habitat. In fact, that’s what’s driving the DFO [the Department of Fisheries and Oceans], with all their workshops and ministerial announcements, where they state that ‘We are going to have no more net loss of habitat.’” He laughs ruefully. “Well, having no more net loss isn’t going to accomplish recovery. It’s already not doing it, the fish are already not making it, so these are platitudes.”

In Vancouver in mid-October the DFO, as part of the federal Liberal government’s “Oceans Protections Plan,” hosted a symposium to discuss the plight of the southern resident orcas. The main upshot from the government’s point of view was a plan to spend $7.2 million studying the effect of ship noise on the whales’ ability to hunt for food. Balcomb is not impressed. “That is one of the obfuscating issues,” he says. “The whales don’t give a shit about noise, they want fish. Noise does not interfere with them catching fish. The whales are not catching fish because the fish aren’t there. The whales will ride the bow waves of oil tankers. Noise is not the issue. Its an issue that gets money right now because you have it brought up as ‘Oh well, these whales can’t find food in a noise field.’ Well that’s a crock of shit. They can find fish under a seiner when a seiner is making a hell of a lot of racket, if the fish are there… This is just the crowning pile of crap, pointing to hydrophone systems listening to whales, and no net noise increase, as a solution, as a way they’re going to spend all this money to save the southern residents. Well that’s just wasting the money.”

So what does need to be done? “Habitat restoration of the Fraser River ought to be seriously looked at. They need to recover that system.” He mentions a recent Simon Fraser University study showing agricultural floodgates along the river are being left shut when they should be open, severely impeding the movement of juvenile salmon. The floodgates “are so rusted-up that they don’t even work any more, so basically we’re going to piss away X million dollars on sound issues, and not fix floodgates that are part of the problem in the salmon habitat. We’re going to keep on issuing permits for shoreline developments, including industrial ones, even though we know the salmon are not surviving in the current situation.”

At the end of the DFO’s killer whale symposium in Vancouver, seven Canadian environmental groups, including the David Suzuki Foundation, the West Coast Environmental Law Association, the World Wildlife Fund Canada and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, issued a joint statement accusing the federal government of failing “to identify concrete actions to ensure the recovery of the endangered killer whales.” The groups listed six actions that need to be taken, among them closing Chinook fisheries and creating marine refuges that restrict human access to key whale feeding grounds. Also called for is action to restrict and reduce noise levels. Misty MacDuffee of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation agrees with Balcomb that food supply is the number one issue, but when food is scarce, then boat noise can interfere with the whales’ ability to find and catch it.

MacDuffee gives some credit to the government for bringing stakeholders together at the Vancouver symposium, but chides them for “putting all these issues on the table and acting as if they are all new. We know DFO researchers have released papers and submitted findings to the Pacific Salmon Commission, showing how closing fisheries can increase survival rates. We know that even closing fisheries on the Fraser River and Puget Sound can take whales from a declining annual growth rate to a growing annual growth rate. That’s their own scientists, but they have hidden this stuff.” She sees new government money for noise studies as “a tactic to delay.” She says DFO knows that fishery closures are needed, but “the holdup is political will. We need to be talking compensation for fishing communities that are going to see closures, and there isn’t the political will to do it. Those are very powerful industry lobbies, both the whale watching associations and the commercial and recreational fishing lobby. The whale watchers are all about food supply, and the fishing community wants them to look at noise and disturbance. As long as there is no agreement they can just keep delaying.”

Raincoast announced today the release of a peer-reviewed paper in the journal Scientific Reports, estimating that the southern residents have a 25 per cent chance of going extinct in the next 100 years, and suggesting that a 30 per cent increase in Chinook populations is required for their survival. Various other scenarios are also estimated: for example, a 15 per cent increase in Chinook coupled with a 50 per cent reduction in marine noise might also be sufficient.

DFO did not respond in time to a request for comment on this story, but the Tyee did connect with Richard Beamish, an emeritus scientist listed on the DFO website as head of salmon interactions, coastal and oceanic ecosystems. Beamish is a Coho specialist, but knows enough about Chinook to say they’ve been in serious decline everywhere, including Russia, which accounts for 10 per cent of the world’s Chinook catch and more than 50 per cent of the overall Northern Pacific salmon catch (Canada accounts for only three per cent overall). In other words, it’s not just the Fraser River and Puget Sound that are seeing Chinook declines, it’s planet-wide. Others have suggested that among salmon species, Chinook may be more susceptible to climate change, and our warming, acidifying oceans. Oddly enough, as Beamish points out, “Pacific salmon in general are probably doing better than they have in recorded history. We are getting record catches of pink salmon in the North Pacific, especially in odd numbered years. [Pink and Chum] are doing quite well, but that’s not what the general public understands.”

Beamish remains optimistic the Chinook fishery can be “rebuilt to higher abundances.” Asked to respond to those who suggest complete closure of the fishery is required, he says, “That’s a social issue, really. There are other people who depend on Chinook salmon, so I can’t comment on that.”

Orcas are long-lived animals. Asked to imagine, given current human behaviors continuing into the future, what the southern resident population is likely to look like in 50 years, Balcomb says, “This is a slow-motion extinction program. Fifty years from now you might have 26 whales around, and they’re all either unable to reproduce or post-reproductive.”

One can imagine a day, decades from now, when the Salish Sea is largely barren of salmon, that the whale watching boats will pull up at the feeding grounds and dump a bunch of fish over the side to sustain a dependent remnant of whales, much like the staff at Sea World do now for captive orcas. Tourists will snap photos of the last of the southern residents, and the government of the day will call for further study.  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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