The above picture was posted online in the last several days. It shows a dead newborn Orca calf being carried around on its mother’s back near Victoria, British Columbia.
As heart-breaking as the image is, it’s even more disturbing when one realizes this was the first Orca calf born in three years to the three pods of what are called the southern resident population that swim in Puget Sound waters. Normally, four to five new calves are born each year.
The three pods (J, K, and L) now number 75 whales – down from 98 in 1995, with 8 members lost in the last two years. A related, and ominous threat is that reproducing females are ageing out of their calf rearing years. Some researchers believe that within five years there will be no longer any female Orcas within the pods capable of giving birth – spelling extinction of the southern resident Orcas.
Resident Orcas are different from other more transient Orcas that eat marine mammals. Resident Orcas eat salmon – specifically Chinook salmon. Historically, they follow the salmon in the Salish Sea (Strait of Georgia in British Columbia, Strait of Juan DeFuca, and Puget Sound in Washington) from northern British Columbia to as far south as Seattle – in summer, it has been a common occurrence to see them in our local waters.
And Chinook salmon they follow and eat are also in decline. It’s estimated a mature Orca eats 30 Chinook salmon a day. Without those fish, they starve.
But it’s more than just salmon decline, which in itself may be another symptom of a marine ecosystem in collapse.
Puget Sound waters are incredibly polluted – no matter how pristine the waters look in photographs, from shore, or from a ferry boat. The waters around Seattle, Tacoma, and other urban areas are contaminated with industrial and municipal waste. Given the basin structure of Puget Sound, it’s not possible to believe all that waste is swept out to the Pacific Ocean. That in itself begs the question that even it was, what is that doing to the ocean.
And as I mentioned in another post (see here), salmon in Puget Sound swim through a toxic soup of pharmaceutical drugs.
Those drugs are absorbed by the salmon and then concentrate in the tissues of the Orcas that consume them. The result for the Orcas are compromised immune systems. It’s also likely the concentration of the toxins are resulting in reduced fertility in female Orcas.
Add the stress of tour boats, which inhibit the sonar capability of the Orcas and it’s not difficult to see why they are in crisis.
Jay Inslee, Washington State’s governor, convened a Southern Resident Orca Task Force in March 2018; the task force is composed of state, tribal, provincial and federal officials, and is tasked to find ways to stem the decline of the Orcas.
It is too early to say how successful the group can be. But if history is any indicator, any proposals made will be either watered down or face stiff opposition from various vested interests. And even if strong proposals are made, a good part of the required actions will require Federal action – something not likely given the Trump Administration’s hostility and willful ignorance on environmental issue.
The loss of Puget Sound Orcas may be little noticed beyond the Pacific Northwest. But the loss of these awe-inspiring mammals should be a tolling of the bell in terms of human extinction for many of the same reasons as their decline.