Declining Orca Population Fueled By Humans
BELLINGHAM, Wash. — The world-renowned Southern Resident Killer Whales found in the Salish Sea have a continually declining population that may be a result of human activity.
Amanda Colbert, a certified marine naturalist and employee of Orca Network, said in an email this week that the SRKW population was listed as an endangered species in 2005 with just 75 orcas remaining in the wild.
“While being the most studied, and arguably the most adored orcas on the planet, their endangerment is complex and multi-faceted, as well as on full display with their close proximity to humankind,” Colbert said in an email.
What Are Southern Resident Killer Whales?
According to Colbert, SRKWs are “a genetically and culturally distinct ecotype” of orca who reside in the Salish Sea, but also travel the length of northeastern Vancouver, B.C. to central California.
“The term resident is derived from discovering that their travel patterns and locations could be assumed, given the time of year and rivers from which salmon were running,” Colbert said.
According to Colbert, the SRKWs are made up of three pods: J, K, and L. Each of these are further broken down into matriarchal lineages.
“Southern Resident Orcas stay with their mother for their entire life, learning language, culture, behaviors, and hunting strategies,” said Colbert.
The “Capture Era”
According to Colbert, a period from the 1960s to the mid-1970s is known as the capture era for orcas. During this period, humans realized that orcas were not the vicious killer whales that they had been perceived to be for many generations. This led to the capture of orcas to be put on display for human entertainment.
On August 8, 1970, roughly 80 SRKWs were corralled in Penn Cove, Washington in a capture.
“Adult males and mothers were separated from juveniles, and this resulted in absolute chaos at the scene,” said Colbert. “…five whales had drown during this capture attempt; four juveniles and a female. In order to cover up the casualties, the men that had corralled them also sunk the bodies by filling their stomachs with rocks and utilizing chains that were weighed down by anchors.”
Colbert said that seven orcas were successfully captured and sold. One female captured remains in captivity today at Miami Seaquarium in Miami, Florida. Her given name is Tokitae, but is also known as Lolita.
Why Are There So Few Left?
According to Colbert, the capture era nearly decimated family lineages and removed many of the sexually mature females. To this day, the population is failing to produce living and/or healthy offspring.
Colbert also attributed the declining population to decreased prey availability.
“The Southern Residents have a prey-specific diet primarily consisting of calorie-rich Chinook salmon,” said Colbert. “Chinook salmon have been recorded at historically low numbers in the Salish Sea, too, mostly due to manmade variables.”
Colbert noted that each adult orca requires 18–25 Chinook salmon every day to thrive.
Other major factors contributing to the declining population include contaminants/pollutants and vessel noise.
“It’s highly unfortunate, but Southern Residents are the perfect example of decline via human-made variables,” said Colbert. “As apex predators eating at the top of the food chain, they have no other natural predators besides humans and our interferences.”
What Can Humans Do To Help?
According to Colbert, the following actions can be taken in both Washington State and the world to contribute to the SRKW population:
-Speak up to local politicians and urge them to take action. Research and vote for elected officials and political measures that support salmon recovery, water quality, and restoration of the Salish Sea.
-Volunteer to remove invasive plant species and replace them with native ones, especially around streams in which salmon spawn.
-Educate others and be a role model. Set a good example for others — the more people know, the more they’ll be willing to help.
-Be “Whale Wise” and follow Washington State regulations regarding interaction with and distance from marine wildlife.
-Be an informed consumer and replace harsh chemicals with safer biodegradable products.
-Conserve water and electricity. Reduce, reuse, and recycle. Refuse single-use plastics and other items.
-Pick up after your pet. Feces is nutrient-rich and becomes runoff that makes its way to rivers, streams, and the sea. This also applies to the water you use to wash your vehicle. Wash your car at a designated car wash where the water will likely be recycled for reuse.
“You may only be one person, but there are multiple things that can be done to help Southern Resident Orcas,” Colbert noted. “Every effort counts!”
Caitlyn Blair, a second-year student at Western Washington University, noted that the disappearance of this keystone species would impact more than the biological aspect of the Salish Sea.
“Orca whales hold a very strong cultural aspect to the peoples of this land,” said Blair. “They have been said to hold a deep spiritual connection, and are important culturally.