The southern resident killer whales that feed and frolic in the Salish Sea have lost three members this year and about 20 per cent of their number in the past decade.
Images of the orca J35 Tahlequah carrying her dead newborn for a heartbreaking 17 days over 1,600 kilometres were seen around the world.
Canadian and American veterinarians and biologists then joined forces in dramatic fashion to diagnose and treat the ailing three-year-old J50 Scarlet from the same pod, but failed to save her life.
Three deaths this summer — including the young male L92 Crewser, which disappeared in June — have focused the world’s attention on the difficulties facing southern resident killer whales like never before.
Now, the world will watch as we bring the 74 remaining community members back from the brink, or witness their extinction.
Biologists and conservationists hope the celebrity of the Salish Sea’s orcas can be used to save them.
“They are a symbol for a lot of species that share their ecosystem and some of them are doing poorly, too,” said Vancouver Aquarium veterinarian Marty Haulena.
Sea stars, chinook and sockeye salmon and rockfish populations are all in distress, but considerably less photogenic than orcas.
“Hopefully the southern residents have the star power to get some attention,” said Haulena.
Orcas have strong family bonds, they play, and apparently grieve their losses, making them uniquely relatable.
“That is why we take their deaths so hard,” said Mark Leiren-Young, director of The Hundred Year Old Whale and author of The Killer Whale Who Changed the World.
“The photos of a baby orca leaping through the air that went viral — captioned ‘learning to fly’ — that was J50 Scarlet,” he said. “She was the symbol of a baby boom, the symbol of hope. And this is the whale that we just watched die.”
Scientists who study the West Coast’s killer whales identify individuals by their dorsal fins and a unique white saddle patch. Each gets a number and then a name, and hence a public persona.
Vets and biologists are now gearing up to provide personalized medical attention to the southern residents.
Veterinary researcher Joe Gaydos of UC Davis, working with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has created individualized health records for every member, like you and I have with our family doctor.
“We need to know a lot more about the individual health of these animals,” said Haulena. “We can’t treat them as a population anymore. We have so few left that we need to know why every individual has died. And we don’t.”
Gaydos has adapted an approach developed for a closely monitored group of mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda.
“(The gorillas) each have a health record, they are all vaccinated, and they are treated medically when something goes wrong,” Haulena said.
American researchers are able to collect feces, breath samples and “snot” from the southern residents, and use darts to collect samples of skin and blubber, according to Lynne Barre, southern resident killer whale recovery co-ordinator for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“We slice and dice these samples and cross-reference it with other data in every way we can think of to get a full picture,” she said.
The physical condition of the whales is assessed from photographs and video taken from the water’s surface and from aerial drones.
“So we watch and listen and sometimes even smell their breath,” she said.
Blubber samples in particular reveal the presence of toxins, from long-banned DDT and PCBs to newer threats such as PBDE flame retardants.
“Some of these are endocrine disrupters that are persistent in the environment and accumulate over time, affecting reproduction and the immune system,” said Barre.
A study published last week in the journal Science found that southern residents are moderately affected by PCBs compared to killer whale groups in Brazil and Europe, yet the contamination is predicted to negatively affect their ability to reproduce.
PCBs accumulate and concentrate in fish-eating fish such as chinook.
One sign of hope is that the whales continue to mate and conceive.
Females from J, K and L pods are showing signs of pregnancy and in mid-September the southern residents from all three pods merged into a super-pod near Race Rocks on Vancouver Island.
“We heard that there was a lot of social activity going on,” said Barre.
Time for action
The southern residents that make their summer home in the Salish Sea between the Fraser River and Bamfield on the west coast of Vancouver Island haven’t successfully produced a calf in three years.
Three members died just this summer, including the male L92 Crewser, who was declared missing in June. He was just 23 and in his prime.
Just a decade ago, surviving calves were being born at a rate of three, four or five per year. But since November of 2015, not a single one has survived.
Forty surviving calves have been born to the group since 1998. Over the same period, 73 southern residents have died.
Most cetaceans have a higher mortality rate in the first year of life, said Haulena.
But many of the other 17 orcas that perished since 2012 were in their prime — 13, 18, 20 and 23 years old.
“Orcas in their prime absolutely should be surviving,” he said.
A 27-year-old male, K25, has recently showed signs of decline in aerial photos, which Barre characterized as a “warning signal.”
Evidence points to a lack of food — mainly chinook salmon — as a threat to the orcas’ survival. Underwater noise from shipping, ferries, commercial and recreational fishing boats, and whale watchers interferes with their ability to locate what little prey is available.
Six groups, including the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the David Suzuki Foundation, asked the courts on Sept. 5 to compel the federal government to issue an emergency order under the Species at Risk Act to protect the southern residents and their main food source, chinook salmon.
The chinook are themselves in deep crisis. The Columbia River chinook are listed as endangered in the U.S., and last week Fisheries and Oceans Canada released data showing this season’s chinook returns in the Fraser River were well below the historical average.
The southern residents, too, are listed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act. The next status after endangered is “extirpated,” meaning they are reproductively non-viable, or dead. Ottawa is taking public input on the Species at Risk Act recovery strategy for northern and southern resident killer whales until Nov. 3.
Earlier this year the litigating groups asked Ottawa to curtail sport fishing and whale watching in critical feeding areas. The government responded by reducing the chinook catch by 25 to 35 per cent and increasing the buffer zone for whale watching to 200 metres.
Parts of the most important foraging areas in the Gulf Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca were closed to all fishing and partial closures were implemented at the mouth of the Fraser River.
“Since the death of three whales, including J50, we have upped our ask,” said Misty MacDuffee, a biologist for Raincoast. “Now we want the closure of all marine-based commercial and sport chinook fisheries.”
The groups are also calling for a full ban on whale watching for the southern residents.
Up to two dozen whale-watching vessels follow the group daily in their main feeding areas on the Salish Sea, she said.
Whales or oil?
The plight of the southern residents is now central to the progress of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.
In overturning the pipeline approval, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the National Energy Board should have considered the impact of increased tanker traffic on southern resident killer whales.
Federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson hinted this week that further protections for killer whales could come before cabinet decides whether to approve the pipeline again, after the National Energy Board’s do-over review is complete.
The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion would increase the number of large vessels entering the Port of Vancouver by about six per week. The port currently serves 3,200 vessels a year.
Ottawa’s $1.5-billion Oceans Protection Plan — created in advance of Trans Mountain’s original approval — included plans to improve prey availability for the whales and to reduce underwater noise that interferes with the their ability to communicate and locate prey.
The government will invest an additional $167 million over five years in the Whales Initiative, supporting research, enforcement and education, and adding fisheries officers to ensure compliance to new regulations by anglers. Aerial surveillance over critical habitat has been increased by 30 per cent, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada is spending $9.5 million on chinook habitat restoration on the Fraser, Thompson and Skeena Rivers and salmon streams on Vancouver Island, much of it in collaboration with First Nations.
A $150-million industry-funded oil spill protection plan was suspended when the pipeline approval was overturned.
A recent study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology suggests that a major oil spill near the orcas’ summer feeding grounds could affect up to 80 per cent of their critical habitat.
Animals such as orcas that spend a lot of time at the water’s surface are most likely to suffer from contact and ingestion of diluted bitumen, the main product to be exported by the proposed pipeline expansion, the authors said.
The port has implemented two programs aimed at reducing the impact of shipping on the southern residents.
Vessels travelling through the Strait of Juan de Fuca have been asked to shift their route as far south as possible within the shipping lane to create more distance between the ships and foraging areas.
In its fourth year, Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation is a voluntary program in which ships are asked to reduce their speed through the Haro Strait to reduce underwater noise.
Underwater microphones installed in the Haro Strait found that noise created by slower vessels was “significantly” reduced, by about 6 to 11 decibels.
“We asked vessels to slow down to 11 knots,” said Carrie Brown, the port’s director of environmental programs. “We’ve had 87 per cent participation by ships in the current slowdown period.”
The program doesn’t have a specific threshold or goal for the level of underwater noise; instead it operates on the notion that any reduction in noise will be of benefit.
American authorities are considering dramatic action to improve chinook stocks and there is real public pressure to demolish four Lower Snake River dams.
Washington Governor Jay Inlee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force has just released draft recommendations that include expanding hatchery programs, real-time orca monitoring to close active fisheries when the southern residents are in the area and removing barriers from a river system that has 14 hydroelectric dams.
After the removal of a dam on the Elwha River in 2014, chinook are returning to spawning areas above the former dam site, according to the Klallam Nation.
A massive increase in local populations of harbour seals and sea lions is also contributing to prey scarcity, because they also selectively eat chinook, according to recent research published by the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.
The report also contemplates “management actions” to control the number of harbour seals in Puget Sound. Earlier this summer, the U.S. federal government authorized a cull of sea lions in the Columbia River.
“If we don’t increase the availability of chinook and lessen the toxic load in the chinook population then we are watching (the southern residents) vanish,” said Leiren-Young.