Marine biologists can’t say with certainty why one of the endangered southern resident killer whales swam up the Courtenay River this fall, an unusual behavior, but there’s a good chance it was scouting for salmon. The southern resident orcas that inhabit the Salish Sea waters around Vancouver Island are starving.
The population of southern orcas has dwindled to 74, and experts expect two more of the whales to die by summer. Although a new calf was recently born, no newborns have survived since 2015, and 73 have either died or gone missing since 1998.
Saving the orcas will take a complex mixture of conservation actions, according to Les Purce, former president of The Evergreen State College, who co-chaired the recently completed Washington State Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force.
The task force identified the three major threats to the southern orcas as primarily a lack of chinook salmon, their primary food source, but also vessel noise and toxic contaminants from stormwater runoff.
“Issues facing orcas are a metaphor for the whole Salish Sea ecosystem and the effect on aquatic and human life,” he told Decafnation by phone. “We must take it seriously and move in that kind of alliance.”
And to be effective, he said, the U.S. and Canada must coordinate their efforts.
U.S. versus Canada
So far, Canada and the U.S. appear to be taking different approaches toward the same goal.
Washington state Governor Jay Inslee has proposed a $1.1 billion orca recovery plan based on the 36 recommendations of the task force. Whether the state legislature, which just reconvened, will approve it all remains to be seen.
Canada’s federal government set aside just $167.4 million spread among recovery measures for three whale species, the southern resident orcas, the St. Lawrence Estuary belugas and the North Atlantic right whales. But Ottawa later added $61.5 million specifically for the killer whales.
Washington’s task force proposed a variety of measures to reduce contaminants in stormwater runoff, such as a ban on products containing polychorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Canada has not addressed stormwater contamination.
But stormwater is a major issue. Salmon absorb toxins– like PCBs, and PDBEs found in flame retardants — and when orcas eat them the toxins build up in their fatty tissues. Once metabolized, they are shared from mother to newborn calves via gestation and lactation.
But both countries say they are aligned on commitments to reduce vessel noise.
Noise travels five times faster in water than in air, and interferes with the whales’ echolocation, which they use to navigate and hunt for prey.
Washington’s Gov. Inslee has proposed a three-year ban on whale watching. But neither Ottawa or the B.C. government has shown an appetite for a similar measure.
The Canadian transportation minister did impose a new rule requiring all vessels to stay at least 200 metres away from killer whales. But conservation groups question if that’s enough to have a significant impact.
Five Canadian conservation groups joined a petition last fall asking Ottawa to ban whale watching or any commercial vessels from pursuing orcas in their summer feeding grounds. They say the 200-metre buffer zone doesn’t mitigate the disturbance to orcas’ ability to locate prey.
And neither country has addressed the impact of increased oil tanker traffic if Ottawa completes the TransMountain pipeline, which would bring a 10-fold increase in traffic and noise.
Washington task force co-chair Purce said a state senator raised the issue of increased tanker traffic, but there was no specific recommendation.
Canada’s whale recovery initiative includes a voluntary requirement for a vessel slowdown in Haro Strait to reduce engine noise. But they are working with BC Ferries on a noise management plan.
Lack of prey
“The southern orcas are starving. There aren’t enough salmon,” Purce said. So increasing the whale’s preferred food stock of chinook salmon is a priority for both countries.
To boost stocks, Canada has cut the chinook salmon fishery by more than 25 percent. And it has created sanctuary areas in locations orcas normally forage for food, closing them to all fishing and other regulations.
The main sanctuary is a 5,000 square kilometre critical habitat zone off the southwest coast of the island that includes the Swiftsure and La Perouse banks. It will likely have a negative economic impact on commercial and recreational fishing and tourism operations in coastal communities like Ucluelet.
A former senior official in the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Brian Riddell, recently told the Vancouver Sun that there’s no question the whales are struggling in terms of diet.
“We have to make a major change. If the decision is that Southern Resident orcas are the priority for recovery, then we’ll have to provide additional food and other actions as well,” he told the Sun.
Both Washington’s task force and Canada’s DFO have identified a complex set of issues affecting salmon populations, including habitat, availability of forage fish for chinook, hydro dams and other fish passage barriers, growth in predators like harbor seals and sea lions, fishing limits and the ability of hatcheries to increase production without creating genetic risks to wild fish.
Despite Canada’s commitment to increasing chinook populations, the federal DFO still plans to open the last remaining herring roe fishery off Denman and Hornby Islands in March. Several groups are fighting to have it closed, including the Conservancy Hornby organization. Read about this topic here.
Neither country has fully implemented its recovery plans.
Northern orcas thriving
There are more than 300 northern resident orcas, or about four times as many as their southern cousins.
While they both feed on chinook salmon, the northern whales have cleaner waters, less vessel noise disruption and less competition for the food. There are also more fish from three major salmon producing rivers, while the southern orcas count on mainly the Fraser River, with a little help from the Columbia River.
“If one system is bad … our northern residents have the opportunity to shift their focus to fish returning to another system,” Lance Barrett-Lenard, a marine biologist, told CBC news.
But northern whales could eventually face the same fate as the southern orcas if chinook stocks continue to decline. And, it’s possible they could even take over the southern group’s territory.
Disclosure: Thomas “Les” Purce is a friend of the author from their overlapping careers in Olympia, Washington.