Orcas Approach Extinction

Scarlet was a three-and-a-half year old Orca, her personality described as highly exuberant by local Marine Naturalist Jan Hare and her daughter, Kierce. The youngest member of the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) Population, Scarlet suffered—like many of her peers—from starvation and malnourishment due to a dwindling and corrupted salmon supply along the south Pacific coast of Oregon, California, Washington, and British Columbia. 

Scarlet was found deceased on Thursday, September 13, after going missing from her family earlier this month. She is survived by only 74 remaining SRKW killer whales consisting of three remaining pods, or social groups, on the verge of extinction. Each of them are studied and adored by Hare and her daughter, who grew up alongside Scarlet and those that remain.

Orcas, or Killer Whales, are sensitive, social animals with intricate family relations. They share food, swim together for life, and are even thought to be capable of revenge—a trait marking intelligence and advanced brain development. According to Keirce, orcas are now “dropping like flies”—the few that survive childbirth often dying by the age of one or two. This fact has only recently been popularized by media images of one SRKW mother—a member of Scarlet’s pod—carrying the body of her dead baby for 17 days in what Hare would refer to as “The journey of grief”—picking it up as it sank and holding it as she went up to breath for dozens of miles each day. The calf was the first live birth since 2015 and only survived for roughly half an hour. 

Pacific Pods & Personalities
“It’s just really interesting to get to know the orcas better because…if people have some sort of emotional identification then they want to do something about it,” said Kierce.

Orcas share unique characteristics with humans when compared with the majority of the animal kingdom. Each pod speaks their own dialect, and whales in general are the only other species who experience menopause. As Hare explained, the emotion-processing portion of their brains is larger than that of humans, so they’re highly empathetic, not only with each other but toward people.

“There’s some question of whether they’re more intelligent than we are,” she said.

According to Hare, there’s only three remaining SRKW pods left: J pod, K pod, and L pod. Hare completed her Marine Specialist Certification through the Center for Whale Research, and has been studying the Southern Resident orcas for over 20 years. CWR has been studying orca populations since 1976, their endangerment developing exponentially since being labeled as endangered in 1992. 

Each orca is named and tracked for their age, gender, and identifying information. Currently, J Pod suffers from worse conditions than the other two. Prior to her death, CWR had been following Scarlet, feeding her salmon with antibiotics and vitamins in an attempt to restore her diminishing health.

Hare said that historically, babies would never leave their mothers and that pods would always swim together. Now, they’re seeing behaviors they’ve never seen before, as the orcas are observed splitting up to find food and are inbreeding. A recent study on inbreeding by the CWR explains that there are “genetic risks associated with small population sizes, including loss of genetic diversity and inbreeding depression.” Hare said that while usually the three pods would gather together for reproduction, as numbers decrease, pods have begun to breed amongst each other.

The reasons for these changes in behaviors and their general endangerment rest on a complex set of issues and events long studied by Hare and the CWR, all coming back to… 

Dr. Jan Hare, marine specialist

Sea World & Salmon
“Let’s get one thing straight. The Southern Resident orcas, with 100+ individuals before the capture era, are endangered because of SeaWorld and other marine parks, and remain that way due to the lack of Chinook Salmon.” This quote comes from an instagram post by the PNW Protectors, whose mission is to empower individuals to save the SRKW.

The original catalyst to killer whale endangerment can be traced back to the 1970s, when they began to be captured for marine parks, namely SeaWorld. Because the orcas’ main food source is salmon, changes in the Chinook population have exacerbated the problem. According to Kierce, unlike transient killer whale species who feed on mammals, the resident killer whales’ salmon-based diet requires about 360  pounds every day to stay healthy.

Despite nine species of Chinook salmon being identified as endangered by the U.S Endangered Species Act,  no fishing ban has been ordered . The population’s decline began with what was a salmon fishing free-for-all in the late seventies and early eighties.

“They decimated, literally, the population of the Chinook salmon,” reads one quote from Ken Balcomb, head researcher, founder, and principal investigator of resident orcas from the CWR, on the CWR website.

What is needed now, as echoed by the Hares and others from the CWR, is for the lower four Snake River dams to be breached. The Snake River—travelling from Eastern Idaho into Eastern Washington and joining the Columbia River before emptying into the Pacific Ocean—holds the travel route for native salmon populations. After birth and development, the salmon swim to sea, then travel back upriver and lay their eggs in the spawning grounds. Thus, the salmon life cycle relies on undammed rivers, as dams do not allow enough salmon to make it out or travel back to spawning grounds.

According to Kierce, there is nothing at stake for breaching the four lower Snake River dams. While she believes the dams serve no purpose, they do not need to be completely destructed, she said, but rather opened. Hare agreed, adding that breaching the dams would take only a couple of weeks and be cheaper than the current cost of maintaining them. Contrary to claims made by politicians, Kierce argued that local power bills would not likely increase, and if so, would only rise between ten cents to a dollar. 

The salmon population has been further decimated by the release of farmed salmon, or genetically modified salmon, as they gradually ruin the gene pool of the wild, native population and spill toxic content into the sea.

“All these fisheries are releasing these salmon into the water that are weakening the wild salmon; their DNA is weakening the DNA of the wild salmon,” said Kierce.

“There’s so many other problems with farmed salmon,” she continued, “They spill so much toxic load into the ocean. It’s like GMO salmon, so even farmed salmon isn’t the best thing to buy.” In general, Kierce thinks boycotting salmon would be the best action to take in combating the species’ endangerment.

Pipeline to Make Matters Worse
Another threat looms for our resident orcas—the Trans Mountain Pipeline is expecting an expansion that will increase oil tanker traffic seven-fold, according to Greenpeace’s breakdown of the project. The organization specifically addresses how the expansion will affect SRKW and says that due to increased ship traffic and noise, it will interrupt their communication, as orcas use echolocation to communicate.

Ship strikes are an expected problem, as well as water contamination. Greenpeace referenced a 2017 study “Evaluating Anthropogenic to Endangered Killer Whales to Inform Effective Recovery Plans,”  which found, as stated in Greenpeace’s report, “that the increase in these threats due to the construction of TMEP would have serious consequences for the orca population, with over a 50-percent chance that the orca population would fall below 30 individuals.”

Balcomb has been quoted stating that there are only four or five years left of whale survival in terms of reproductive survival.

Keirce added, “There’s so many reasons to fight for a species that are going extinct, but [orcas] also have good relationships with humans; they live in harmony.” For example, the tribes in the San Juan islands, particularly the Lummi Nation, have close bonds with the species. 

Hare reiterated their peaceful personalities, saying that orcas engage in a lot of play and are very tactile—to the extent of acting as midwives. The CWR is almost certain that Scarlet was born breeched, having scars identified as teeth rakes from what they presume was a pod member helping to pull her out of her mother.

The presence and personalities of the SRKWs have inspired awe and respect from those who’ve studied them—even revealing, perhaps, a secret wisdom. Reflecting on words from Balcomb, Hare said, “He thinks that they’ve known for a long time that humans are responsible for the disappearance of salmon. He thinks they’ve been watching for a long time.” 

Kierce and Balcomb have reported the same answer when asked how to save the few resident orcas we have left. “All you have to do is not eat salmon. It’s as basic as that,” said Kierce. Other concerned parties are taking further action by contacting Washington’s governor Jay Inslee and asking to have the lower four Snake River dams breached.  

A last quote from Balcomb urges, “We’re at a point in history where we need to wake up to what we have to consider: Do we want whales or not?” 

The Center for Whale Research Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force is preparing an in-depth report and recommendation for recovering the SRKW that will be finalized by November 1. 

By Josephine Wallace

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