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.
The National Energy Board released the decision Friday as it laid out the schedule for reconsidering its approval of the project by the Feb. 22 federal government deadline.
Dr. Robert Steedman, chief environment officer of the NEB, said the decision to limit the area of the assessment to 12 nautical miles, known as the territorial sea limit, was based on the comments received from interested parties. The precise reasons for the decision won’t be made public by the board until next week.
However, one of the environment groups that sued Ottawa over its original environmental review of the project, says the distance does not cut it.
“From the get go it looks like a political exercise, not an environmental one,” said Misty MacDuffee, a conservation biologist at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation in British Columbia.
Raincoast was one of the groups behind the successful lawsuit challenging federal approval of the expanded pipeline. It argued, and the court agreed, that cabinet and the National Energy Board erred in not considering the negative impacts of additional oil tankers on marine life, particularly on the highly endangered southern resident killer whales.
The court also found that the federal government had failed in its duty to consult with affect Indigenous groups.
The NEB had looked at some of those things in its 2015 review and even said it expected the increased tanker traffic would have a negative impact on the orcas. However, it also decided that marine shipping was outside its purview so it didn’t take that into account in deciding to give the project the green light.
After the Federal Court of Appeal struck down the approval in late August, Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi ordered the NEB to go back and do a new review of the marine tankers.
Raincoast had wanted the new review to cover the area known as the exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 nautical miles from shore. MacDuffee said the 12-mile distance could leave out a number of endangered or at-risk whales, such as blue whales, finn whales and sei whales.
MacDuffee said the NEB’s decision is very disappointing and might simply be setting the project on another collision course with the courts for failing to do a broad enough assessment.
Steedman said organizations can still submit comments to the board about the impact on other whales if they wish.
It’s estimated the project, which will triple the capacity of the existing pipeline, would result in an additional 30 oil tankers traversing the Burrard Inlet each month.
The NEB review will look at the environmental effects those extra ships will have on species at risk, the potential for oil spills and any mitigation measures that are feasible to prevent negative impacts from increased tanker traffic.
The board is imposing filing deadlines for interveners starting this month, will hear oral traditional evidence by Indigenous groups in November and December and will hear potential oral summary arguments in January.
The federal government has appointed former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci to oversee a new round of consultations with Indigenous communities. It has put no deadline on those consultations.
© 2018 The Canadian Press
The Seattle Times / October 15, 2018 by Lynda V. Mapes
Southern resident orcas that frequent Puget Sound may not survive without breaching the Lower Snake River dams to help the salmon the orcas live on, scientists say.
Leading killer-whale scientists and researchers are calling for removal of four dams on the Lower Snake River and a boost of water over the dams to save southern resident killer whales from extinction.
The scientists sent a letter Monday to Gov. Jay Inslee and co-chairs of a governor’s task force on orca recovery.
The need for Columbia and Snake river fish is so acute, “we believe that restoration measures in this watershed are an essential piece of a larger orca conservation strategy. Indeed, we believe that southern resident orca survival and recovery may be impossible to achieve without it.”
Based on the science and the urgency of the current threats confronting the southern residents, the scientists recommended two top priorities for the task force in its recommendations for orca recovery: Immediately initiate processes to increase the spill of water over the dams on the Columbia and Snake, to create more natural river conditions, and to breach the Lower Snake River dams.
The letter comes as the death of three southern resident orcas in four months last summer, one from L pod and two in J pod, have added fuel to the long running-campaign to free the Snake.
Lower Snake River dam removal has been debated in the region for decades as a way to boost salmon runs. Three federal judges in a row in five rulings since 1994 also have called for an overhaul of hydropower operations by federal agencies at eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers to boost salmon survival, including a serious look at dam removal. The latest court review now underway will not be concluded until 2021.
However, the scientists called for urgent action now because the orcas are continuing to decline and need food. “Orca need more chinook salmon available on a year-round basis as quickly as possible,” the scientists wrote.
As orca advocates joined forces with dam busters, BPA has pushed back. In a recent press briefing, BPA managers said the Columbia and Snake produce only some of the fish the orcas use, and that the four Lower Snake River dams are important to the region.
The whales depend on chinook from rivers all over Puget Sound as well as the from the Fraser, Columbia and Snake rivers, a recent listing of fish runs important to the whales shows.
Columbia and Snake rivers were once the biggest chinook producers in the world, but recovery efforts have been a long struggle.
Hatchery chinook recently have been surging, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows. Yet even good returns are a fraction of historic numbers. Wild runs have remained far below the level of adult returns required for recovery — let alone to prevent extinction.
Signing the letter were Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, and Deborah Giles, who is resident scientist at the University of Washington Friday Harbor Labs and the science and research director for the nonprofit Wild Orca.
Their research shows a steady increase in mortality and orca pregnancy failure due to lack of adequate food. Today the orca population among the southern residents stands at just 74 individual whales — a 35-year low.
As early chinook runs have declined on the Fraser, Columbia River fish runs have become even more important, Wasser said. “If they didn’t have that Columbia River infusion, they would really be cooked. … The Columbia replenishes you, and sustains you until the Fraser peaks. I don’t think unless you have those Columbia runs you can save these whales.”
The letter comes as the governor’s task force on orca recovery is set to convene one of its last meetings before making its recommendations to Gov. Jay Inslee, due Nov. 16.
The meetings are scheduled for all day Wednesday and Thursday at the Tacoma Landmark Convention Center at 47 St. Helens Ave., in the Plaza Grand Ballroom.
The agenda includes three hours scheduled for public testimony between 5 and 8 p.m. on Wednesday. A summary of public comments shows a bigger consensus for Lower Snake River Dam removal than for any other action considered for orca recovery.
Published: Oct 12, 2018 Updated: Oct 16, 2018
OTTAWA — The National Energy Board will consider the impact of more oil tankers from the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline on marine life out to 12 nautical miles off the B.C. coastline.
But the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, one of the groups which sued Ottawa over the original environmental review of the project, says that distance does not cut it.
Misty MacDuffee, a conservation biologist at the foundation, says the distance — and the fact that groups like hers have just five weeks to submit evidence about their concerns — suggests to her this second review is just a political exercise and may result in another court challenge.
The second round of environmental assessment comes after the Federal Court of Appeal threw out approval for the pipeline project in August, citing insufficient consultation with Indigenous communities and the lack of attention paid to the environmental impacts from increased oil tanker traffic off the coast.
MacDuffee says limiting the zone for assessment to the 12 nautical mile territorial limit will leave out a number of at-risk species like blue whales and finn whales, and that the NEB should look at the impact all the way to what is known as the Exclusive Economic Zone, which is 200 nautical miles off shore.
Dr. Robert Steedman, chief environment officer of the NEB, says the distance decision was based on the comments received from interested parties and that concerns about any species at risk can still be raised by interveners in their submitted comments.
The critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales (SRKWs) that inhabit the Pacific Coast of Canada and the United States are balancing on a knife-edge. A study published today shows a 25% chance that these iconic whales could be lost within the next 100 years. With appropriate and resolute actions, however, this risk of extinction could be significantly reduced.
An international team of renowned scientists representing academic and conservation organizations in three countries has published a peer-reviewed paper in the journal Scientific Reports evaluating the relative importance of known threats that endanger Southern Resident killer whales. This population has experienced almost no growth over the past four decades and has declined in the last two decades.
The team, whose expertise included killer whale behaviour, ecology, bioacoustics, and population biology, was led by Robert Lacy, Ph.D., Conservation Scientist for the Chicago Zoological Society, and Paul Paquet, Ph.D., from the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Together, the team assessed the viability of this small population of genetically isolated killer whales, which subsists largely on salmon. To evaluate the severity of known coast wide threats to the population (nutritional stress, pollutants, excessive noise), the new research considered more than 40 years of data collected by the Center for Whale Research regarding killer whale survival and reproduction. Then, by simulating various combinations and levels of these threats, the capacity for the population to recover was examined under different future scenarios.
“Not surprisingly, we found that SRKWs face a highly uncertain future with a low probability of recovery under existing conditions of food availability, pollutants, and vessel noise and disturbance,” said lead author Robert Lacy. “Conversely, increasing Chinook salmon abundance combined with reducing vessel noise and disturbance significantly increases the whales’ likelihood of long-term survival, reducing the risk of extinction.”
“The noises caused by commercial and recreational vessels of all types mask the frequencies used by killer whales to detect salmon and communicate. In addition, vessel disturbance changes the behaviour of whales, which also reduces their foraging efficiency,” said co-author Christopher Clark, PhD. “Killer whales need habitat full of salmon, but they also need a habitat quiet enough to find their food. For this already food-stressed population, reduced feeding leads to lower birthrates and lower survival.”
New research shows 25% chance Southern Residents will be gone in 100 yrs without action.
“Our study reconfirms that Chinook salmon abundance has the greatest influence on SRKW population health, but also demonstrates the powerful interaction of salmon abundance with vessel noise and disturbance,” noted co-author, Rob Williams, PhD. “We found that recovery of SRKWs requires a 30% increase in Chinook salmon above average levels. Or, we could double our conservation impact by increasing Chinook salmon abundance by 15% and reducing noise and disturbance by half.”
Unfortunately, key threats to the population are predicted to increase. This includes an expected increase in noise because of increased shipping and a predicted decrease in the abundance of Chinook salmon because of climate change.
“The most important message from our study is that with appropriate and resolute actions, the chance of survival for these iconic whales over the next 100 years can be significantly improved,” said co-author Paul Paquet. “Canadians, Americans, and global citizens care about the future of these whales.” Paquet concluded.
The Salish Sea’s Southern Resident killer whale population is one of the most critically endangered populations of marine mammals in Canada and the U.S.
The world’s oceans are increasingly subject to a multitude of human-caused pressures, with continental shelf ecosystems among the most heavily affected. As a result, Canada’s Salish Sea is now a patchwork of degraded environments where harmful effects on marine mammals include damaging levels of noise, lack of food, toxic pollutants, fatal collisions with ships and disruptive vessel traffic. Predictably, the Salish Sea’s Southern Resident killer whale population is one of the most critically endangered populations of marine mammals in Canada and the U.S.
Both countries list this transboundary population as endangered, citing three primary risk factors: lack of the whales’ preferred prey, Chinook salmon; chronic and acute underwater noise and physical disturbance (e.g., from ferries, commercial ships, whale-watching boats, fishing boats, and recreational traffic); and high levels of contaminants, including polychlorinated biphenyls. Consequently, under existing conditions of food availability, pollutants and vessel traffic the Southern Residents face a highly uncertain future. Routine starvation of whales is one grim manifestation of these cumulative human caused disturbances.
Conservation science is tasked with quantifying the relative importance of multiple threats to endangered species, both to determine if cumulative disturbances exceed sustainable levels and to guide effective recovery plans. In so doing, the first axiom is that the most severe threats of extinction should be abated while the addition of new hazards is stopped. Accordingly, endangered Southern Resident killer whales are a conservation reliant species requiring ongoing protection because they live in a degraded environment that can no longer sustain them. All available evidence confirms the present level of human caused disturbances is more than the whales can tolerate.
The Salish Sea is now a patchwork of degraded environments.
Optimistically, the current threats exposing the population to extinction and preventing recovery could be moderated but not eliminated. Rarely understood but critically important, multiple stressors that are moderated are still cumulative. Combined and acting synergistically, even mitigated multiple stressors would likely remain significantly higher than all the disturbances whales coevolved with and progressively adapted to over millennia.
Experiencing almost no population growth, Southern Residents have remained at a population size of less than 100 individuals for the last four decades, with an average of 85 individuals in the last decade. The population now stands at 76 individuals. At present, nutritional stress associated with reduced abundance and availability of the whales’ primary prey, Chinook salmon, is the most important negative influence affecting population wellbeing. Any future conditions that increase noise, reduce food, or expose individuals to random death, will significantly increase the risk of extinction. If any of these threats combine, extinction of the Southern Residents within the next century is probable.
Our science indicates that we can make a difference, if we act now.
For example, increased noise from tankers will diminish the ability of killer whales to communicate and acquire food. Such chronic disturbances resulting in even small reductions in foraging efficiency will affect survival of individuals and translate to population-level adverse effects, which in turn threaten persistence of the population. This is especially critical for small, genetically isolated and slow-reproducing populations, because these populations lack resilience and are unable to recover from disturbances. Moreover, the enduring threat of loud tankers combined with the additional possibility of an oil spill places these killer whales in untenable and unacceptable peril. Even if the probability of a large oil spill is low, the consequence of such an event is potentially catastrophic.
Southern Resident killer whales are already severely compromised and unable to effectively contend with additional disturbance. Yet, the obvious folly in attempting to recover this impaired population while knowingly subjecting it to additional harm seems to have escaped the federal government. By acquiescing to the demands of industry and consistently failing to confront prevalent human related threats causing the endangerment of these killer whales, the federal government appears willing to sacrifice Canada’s Southern Residents for more unsustainable industrial development. Their decision is distressing considering the Southern Residents’ already fragile population and is destined to hasten the demise of this iconic and unique population of killer whales.
A version of this article previously ran in The Province.