Now or never—BC’s last chance to save the Southern Resident killer whales

One of the few Southern Resident’s—if we don’t act now, there will be none at all.

words :: Nikkey Dawn

Marine biologist, Alexandra Morton recently stated, “If we lose the Southern Resident [orcas] it will be the first extinction where every individual’s name was known.”

The endangered Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) are made up of three pods: J, K and L. Alongside their pod letter, each whale is given a number, a practice common for research purposes. Feeling a strong connection to these whales, scientists and communities have also given each individual a name that reflects their lineage and personalities, Coast Salish culture and what was going on in the world at the time of their birth. For example, Princess Angeline (J17) keeps alive the remarkable story of her namesake, Chief Seattle’s daughter, whose life spanned the dramatic colonization and development of the region. By naming the SRKW, they become living record keepers of our culture. 

But these whales lives tell humanity’s tale in other ways too. In the last 60 years, the SRKW have gone from being shot on sight by fisherman and captured en masse for aquarium profit to living in polluted seas, being exploited for tourism dollars and being blamed for commercial fishing income loss. 

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Chinook salmon makes up 80 per cent of the SRKW diet. Dwindling populations of this fish mean the whales must travel farther in the winter months and expend more energy in search of food. Scarlet (J50), a four-year-old female, was the latest orca to be presumed dead after showing severe signs of starvation (her body was not recovered). 

In response, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) brought in new chinook catch restrictions for 2019. While they’ve caused an uproar in the fishing community, the restrictions still may not be strong enough to save the whales. Wild Salmon Program Director at Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Misty MacDuffee points out, “when you factor in the needs of endangered killer whales, much greater restrictions on sport and commercial fisheries are warranted.” 

The scarcity of  chinook coincides with an increase of boat and tanker traffic in the Salish Sea. While in these waters, the SRKW are in the presence of a vessel 80 per cent of the time. Killer whales rely on echolocation for social interaction, navigation and food finding. Boat and ship-caused noise pollution severely hinders the SRKW ability to feed. 

As an orca starves, their body metabolizes fat stores. In the SRKW, these fat stores contain PCBs, DDT (now banned for health impacts) and other harmful industry-produced chemicals that have been traced to neurological disorders, fertility issues, weakened immune systems and more. A study conducted by Dr. Peter Ross, president of research at Ocean Wise (a non-profit dedicated to ocean conservation), found the killer whales of the north east Pacific Ocean to be the most contaminated marine mammals on earth. 

Lack of food, disruptive marine traffic, harmful chemicals—on their own, each of these threats could cause the extinction of an endangered orca population. All three combined is looking like a death sentence. To ensure the survival of the SRKW, we must also confront a fourth underlying issue—our society tends to value other species only in the context of our needs and greed-driven wants. Do we value these whales because they are icons of our coast with inherent value, or because whale watching tours are good for business?

Lucky (L124), is the most recent SRKW born on the southern coast of BC, her name echoes the hope for her survival. But if history has shown us anything it’s that Lucky doesn’t need luck, she needs protection—from us.

At press time reports came in that J17 (Princess Angeline) has been sighted in a declined state of health with significant blubber loss. Scientists are unsure whether she will survive the summer. Help out at raincoast.org/killer-whales 

 

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