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The ‘Soul’ of the Pacific Northwest is dying of starvation

“I believe we have orcas in our soul in this state.” Those were the words of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this year after forming the Southern Resident Orca Task Force, an initiative meant to keep endangered killer whales alive in the region.

But perhaps the latest news is the most concerning – Over the last three years, not a single birth across the three Southern Resident pods has been recorded. This has led to a 30-year low in the resident orca population, according to KOMO News.

The annual census of Puget Sound’s resident orcas found that just 75 killer whales. The three pods (J, K, and L), are still swimming through the Pacific Northwest waters. The J pod has 23 members, while K has 18, and L has 34 members.

The census also reported two members as missing and presumed dead – 23-year-old Crewser (also known as L-92), and a 2-year-old calf named Sonic (J-52).

Pacific Northwest losing salmon
Scientists point to a number of factors for the dwindling number of orcas in the region, including pollution, both old and new sources, that accumulate in their primary prey, Chinook salmon. This pollution gets stored in the orca’s fatty tissues, suppressing their immune system and making the whales more susceptible to disease.

We can also add the declining numbers of Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon. In May this year, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) announced a ban on recreational salmon fishing on the Skeena and Nass Rivers on the North Coast of British Columbia due to declining numbers of returning Chinook salmon this spring.

The Pacific director of salmon management, Jennifer Nener, said the two species of most concern are chinook and sockeye salmon. Nener said that not only are fewer salmon returning to spawn, but they are smaller in size. This means fewer eggs and less fish in the next generation is very possible.

Floating aquaculture on Puget Sound.

Floating aquaculture on Puget Sound.
Joe Mabel

Ken Balcomb, a founder and senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research, recently concurred with DFO, “In 2017 — a very poor year for Chinook — and we’re in the core area here where orcas used to feed almost daily. And the salmon (they do find) are smaller, much less numerous, and they are virtually all hatchery fish.”

Noise from transportation
Seattle PI also points out that the region the orcas inhabit, Haro Strait, between the San Juans and Vancouver Island – is getting noisier, and is set to get worse, now that the Trans Mountain Pipeline construction is due to restart, ending in British Columbia.

“It’s also essentially a big rock ditch where sound bounces off. When you add in commercial vessel traffic going to Vancouver, recreational boaters, and whale watching operations, it’s a pretty noisy place,” Brad Hanson, team leader for recovery efforts for the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, was quoted as saying by The New York Times.

View northwest from the Space Needle  overlooking (left to right) Elliott Bay  Duwamish Head  Puget ...

View northwest from the Space Needle, overlooking (left to right) Elliott Bay, Duwamish Head, Puget Sound, and Restoration Point.

Whale-watching operations were at the center of a demand for closer access to more abundant killer whale populations after the Canadian government imposed a 200-meter viewing distance limit to protect the southern resident orcas.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers of fisheries, transportation and environment, commending the government on its efforts to protect the whales, but noted there were other killer whales in the area.

“Since we are in the education business and teaching our customers about the entire marine eco system, we need to be able to share the experience in reasonable proximity. Viewing from 100 meters is a globally accepted distance to view marine mammals,” the letter said.

A school of Chinook salmon.

A school of Chinook salmon.
Zureks (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sheila Thornton, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ lead killer whale scientist disagrees. “Transients are believed to be more sensitive to acoustic impacts because they undertake foraging using stealth predation. They need to sneak up on their prey which are marine mammals. Disturbance from vessels prevents them from being able to successfully undertake those foraging events.”

“What’s most concerning to us is the decline in the condition of the animals,” she said. “They don’t appear to be robust. The moms and calves are not looking particularly robust and this is what’s concerning and worrying for us.”

This is why In March, Governor Jay Inslee issued an executive order directing the state agencies to do more, and two months later he convened a task force that included British Columbia, Oregon, California, Idaho, and Alaska, along with tribal and federal officials to work on solutions to help the orcas survive.

“It’s an ecosystem-wide problem,” Hanson said. “Things are out of whack and we have to get them back to where we can sustain killer whales. And the clock is ticking.”

Written By

Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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