Endangered B.C. orcas contend with machine-gun fire and smoke bombs

November 23, 2018

The 74 critically endangered southern resident killer whales frequenting British Columbian waters are slowly starving to death. The last thing they need is to inadvertently swim into the line of fire of a naval machine-gun exercise, say whale researchers.

But that’s exactly what happens from time to time in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, according to longtime whale researcher Ken Balcomb.

An endangered southern resident killer whale breaches in the Haro Straight. Conservationists say southern resident orcas can’t lose many more whales before there are not enough of them to stop their slide toward extinction.

To read the rest of the story visit The Star.com

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Washington lands chief asks lawmakers for $90 million to improve habitat for orcas, salmon

November 21, 2018

If approved, a $90 million budget request to the Washington state legislature could aggressively tackle what’s needed to help Puget Sound’s southern resident orcas survive.

A request on Monday by Hilary Franz, the state’s Commissioner of Public Lands, would increase the money already being spent on restoring habitats for salmon, removing barriers that inhibit the fish from reaching their spawning ground; researching ocean acidification; and removing rundown vessels on waterways, according to an emailed statement from the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

The department’s previous two-year budget for similar programs and efforts cost the agency $55.5 million, according to Franz’s staff. The overall budget for the department last year was $351 million.

“The items that we’re calling for are not new,” Franz said in an interview. “We’ve been doing this work for our Puget Sound and rivers and lakes and ocean shorelines for quite some time. The difference is that we are asking for an increase in funding so we can rapidly accelerate this work because we don’t believe we have time to waste.”

The request directly addresses suggestions from Gov. Jay Inslee’s orca-recovery task force. The group issued a list of recommendations last week to save the animals, including breaching two dams to increase salmon returns and partly suspending southern resident whale-watching tours for up to five years. It includes $22 million in operating budget requests and $68 million for one-time capital budget projects.

The $90 million request comes amid heightened concerns for the critically endangered local orcas, which suffered three deaths over the summer and haven’t had any of their calves survive in three years due to the lack of chinook salmon and the effects of pollution and vessel traffic in Puget Sound.Advertisement (1 of 1): 0:12

“This is a key moment for us,” Franz said, “to stand up and say ‘Are we going to take action and prevent the demise and lose of our critical orca and salmon species?’ “

Franz is faced with the challenge of getting state legislators to approve her request, but she is confident now is the time to address the issue.

Source: TDN.com

Researchers investigate death of newborn orca

November 19, 2018

NOOTKA ISLAND, B.C., A dead newborn orca washed up on the shores of Nootka Island off Vancouver Island Friday.

KCPQ-TV reports Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans is performing a necropsy to determine cause of death and also whether it’s a southern resident, transient or other type of orca.

Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research tells Q13 News he does not believe it is from the local endangered southern resident population, but is waiting on DNA results to be sure.

Source: kgmi.com

The Orca Task Force finally has a plan. Will it work?

November 19, 2018

With time running out, the group presents a 30-page document meant to bring Washington’s endangered orcas back from the brink.

Over the past six months, representatives from Washington’s science, wildlife management, conservation, tribal, government, and business communities have convened to discuss how the state might attempt to reverse the rapid decline of resident killer whales living in Puget Sound. Now at a 30-year-low, just 74 members remain, with three dying this summer alone.

After Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order to create the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force in March, the group met for seven full-day negotiation sessions across the state, with nearly 150 people attempting to reconcile the needs of Pacific Northwest communities with its directive to produce both immediate and long-term plans for saving the Southern Residents. More than 18,000 citizens sent in public comments, and more than 250 people showed up in person to deliver those comments. The 49-member voting committee presented its final list of recommendations to Inslee this past Friday, releasing and discussing the 30-page document publicly at a press conference at the Seattle Aquarium.

The recommendations

The task force decided on 36 recommendations meant to address three main threats, which all have roots in human activity: lack of food, boat traffic, and chemical exposure. The majority of ideas addressed the orcas’ food shortage, which is the most imminent threat.

  • Increasing the number of Chinook salmon in Puget Sound The Southern Residents eat chinook salmon almost exclusively, and stocks have shrunk 60 percent since the Pacific Salmon Commission began tracking it 1984 — largely because of overfishing, dams, hatcheries management, habitat loss, and climate change. Proposals addressing this goal include expanding salmon habitat, increasing dam spill levels (the amount of water let out of reservoirs into salmon habitat), expanding hatchery salmon production, and limiting fishing. The most controversial recommendation here involves starting discussions for breaching or removing the Lower Snake River dams.
  • Reducing boat traffic Orcas share their home waters with barges, ferries, and whale-watching boats. Orcas waste time and energy avoiding boats rather than hunting, and boat noise interferes with their ability to hunt salmon. The task force recommends options like a limited-entry permit system on all whale-watching, go-slow areas for boats, limitations on shipping and drilling for oil, making ferries quieter and more fuel-efficient, and increasing the minimum distance required for boaters who encounter orcas. Most notably and contentiously, the task force has recommended a five-year moratorium on Southern Resident whale-watching.  
  • Mitigating chemical exposure Stormwater runoff carries toxic chemicals and other forms of pollution from roadways far into Puget Sound and the Salish Sea where it winds up in the tissue of Chinook salmon and ultimately in whale fat stores. Whale starvation exacerbates the danger: Without enough food, whales resort to burning fat for energy, which releases more toxins into their bloodstreams.

Mindy Roberts, Puget Sound program director for the Washington Environmental Council and a member of the task force’s contamination working group, acknowledges that the report’s recommendations might seem overwhelming — but there’s a lot that needs fixing.

“There was a pressure, I would say, to only limit this report to a few recommendations and I actually pressed back on that because I felt like our responsibility in the task force is to be honest about what the orcas need,” says Roberts. “What I’m seeing is a list of very ambitious actions and we are looking forward to turning those recommendations into actions through the legislature next year.”

Wins and losses

Dr. Deborah Giles, a killer whale researcher who served on the prey and vessel working groups, says she’s satisfied with the task force’s first-year recommendations.

“I think that on some [recommendations] we could have gone farther, and on others we may have jumped the gun a little fast… [and it] has been cumbersome to some degree, but ultimately it was an overall positive experience to move us in directions that have jump-started work and action certainly by years, if not by decades,” Giles says. “I might have jockeyed the recommendations around in a different order, but given how complicated these issues are, i’m actually pretty happy. Things could be better, but things could be a whole lot worse.”

Giles says the task force’s biggest wins had to do with “huge” habitat protections for salmon and limitations on incidental bycatch (the salmon fishermen are allowed to keep without targeting it). The task force is recommending that orca be taken into further account in the next negotiation of the international Pacific Salmon Treaty, a process which requires federal input.

Beyond individual solutions, task force co-chair Les Purce praised the process as a whole.

“Equally gratifying is the way that these people with such disparate backgrounds came together to accomplish that and to agree on a document of this magnitude and heft,” Purce says. “The vast majority of people came to an overall consensus, [and] when you weigh that against the fact that we had 36 recommendations, it’s really quite extraordinary.”

But not all task force members came away satisfied, and some abstained from the final vote in protest. This included Center for Whale Research founder Dr. Kenneth Balcomb, who has publicly disagreed with the task force’s approach over the last few months.

“I have to really decide whether or not this task force is for me or not — it doesn’t seem to be for the whales so, therefore, I think it’s not for me,” Balcomb told Q13 Fox News in September.

Balcomb reportedly hoped the task force would push for faster action on the Lower Snake River dams, and he disagreed with the recommended moratorium on whale-watching. He expressed further disapproval with the task force in early November in a Facebook post.

“Frankly, I am embarrassed for the conveners and participants of the Orca Task Force who had to endure blatant and ill-informed political manipulation of a process launched with the good intention of doing something bold to help recover the Southern Resident Killer Whales,” he wrote.

Public Response

On the day the task force presented its work, a group of activists calling themselves The Remaining 74 Assembly took to the Washington State Capitol’s Temple of Justice holding 74 paper orcas. They demonstrated in support of breaching the four dams along the Lower Snake River before the next legislative session.

“Today, let’s wake up our sleepy policy makers, and rebuke the sleepy Orca Task Force. Let’s tear down some dams,” said Michelle Seidelman, co-creator of the rally, to an assembled crowd.

“The monster dams are killing fish and orcas, and worst of all, there is no real need for the four deadly dams on the Lower Snake,” argued Howard Garrett, cofounder of Orca Network, at the event. “You’ve gotta undo all this misinformation, and there’s reams of it.”

Scientists we spoke with acknowledged that the task force initially considered recommending Inslee work with the Army Corps of Engineers on dismantling the dams. But with so many stakeholders affected by dam removal, Giles cautioned against forcing the action without buy-in from Eastern Washington communities.

“If they had tried to push this any faster than they did, trying to cram it into Year One, we would have been facing years of litigation, whereas if we have a calm arena in which to bring the science and the science can be hashed out in a safe, non-biased, communal place. I think that’s what it’s going to take,” Giles says. “You have biologists on both sides of the fence. We have to have an unbiased arbiter come and analyze the data and tell us once and for all, what is the economic and ecological impact to all of these different arenas? I’m confident that the science is going to back the removal.”

Roberts points to increased spill from dams as the best immediate course of action.

“To me, that’s the fastest way to get more smolt salmon out to the ocean from the whole Columbia River system, so we are looking forward to that moving forward quickly,” Roberts says.

Others joined Balcomb in criticizing the five-year moratorium on Southern Resident whale-watching. Citing the blow to tourism, the task force representing the Pacific Whale Watching Association voted against the final recommendation.

“I think a lot of folks are questioning if there’s science that says this is an absolute problem now,” Roberts says. “At this point, I feel like we should be taking the precautionary approach. And noise is something that we can turn off now that will have immediate impact.”

What’s next

Now that Inslee has recommendations in hand, some task force members hope the public will continue to pressure state government to act on them quickly enough to make an impact.

“Nobody should take their foot off the gas right now,” Giles says.  

But Purce notes that much of the hard work ahead resides with legislators and government officials. Every one of the recommendations requires government input, Purce says — from enacting changes in regulation to increasing enforcement of existing laws and policies.

“We’re very hopeful that the governor will embrace these recommendations, in terms of taking the first steps in providing the resources for what we’ve outlined,” Purce says. “It’s tough work for him and his staff. There are sizable budgetary items that will make the most effect, in regard to the orcas themselves, so, the next steps for us are going to be some really in-depth conversations with the legislature after the governor comes out with the budget and his priorities.”

Whether the orcas can last through typically slow-moving legislation is an open question, but Roberts thinks an engaged public is the orcas’ best shot.

“I do feel like the public has such unprecedented support for these actions — that’s what the legislators need to know in order for them to move quickly on this, so we’re optimistic,” she says. “We’ve had conversations with several legislators already and they were waiting for these recommendations and now there will be a ton of work over the next two months to turn those recommendations into legislation. The orcas really can’t stand in line any longer. That’s why it’s so important to take care of their needs in this next bi-annual budget which will kind of set the stage for 2019 through 2021. We can’t defer any of the big needs until the following bi-annual budget in 2021 to 2023. We just don’t have that time.”

As a researcher, Giles says being able to share and discuss her work directly on even footing with a vast assortment of interest groups felt significant. Being on the working groups allowed Giles to infuse policy discussions with the lived realities of Orcas like J-35, who carried the body of her dead calf for 17 days over the summer; and J-50, a malnourished young female, who succumbed to poor health in September.

“This process has afforded an opportunity for these diverse stakeholders to be in dialogue together in a way that has never happened before,” Giles says. “We’d been going around living our lives while this poor mom is still carrying around her baby, so I let the working group know.  When she ended up dying, I had somebody from Bonneville Power Administration email me a condolence email.”

“I would never have come into contact with this person before the task force,” she says. “If we ever talked, it would have just been my science saying, ‘your organization is running dams that are impacting the food source of the whales that I study that are starving.’”

Source: crosscut.com

Dead newborn orca calf washes up near Vancouver Island

November 17, 2018

Officials say a dead newborn orca calf washed up on the shores of Nootka Island off Vancouver Island Friday.

KCPQ-TV reports Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans is performing a necropsy to determine cause of death and also its ecotype, whether it’s a southern resident, transient or other type of orca.

Ken Balcomb, founder and principal investigator at the Center for Whale Research, told Q13 News he does not believe the dead newborn is from the endangered southern resident population.

But he said he won’t know for sure until DNA results come in, which could take weeks.

Southern resident killer whales’ numbers are the lowest they’ve been in more than three decades, with only 74 remaining in Puget Sound.

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Information from: KCPQ-TV, http://q13fox.com/

UPDATE: The calf was only 3-5 days old. A member of the Transient ecotype the calf likely died becouse it was separated from its mother. The calf’s mother either died, the calf was neglected or the calf simply failed to thrive. 

Source: Terracestrandard.com

Scientists: Removal of dams key to orca survival Researchers sent letter to Inslee, task force discussing species, recovery

October 15, 2018

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 whales need chinook — their primary prey — year round, scientists state in their letter, and the spring chinook runs in particular returning to the Columbia and Snake are among the most important. That is because of the size, fat content and timing of those fish, making them critical for the whales to carry them over from the lean months of winter to the summer runs in the Fraser River, the scientists wrote.

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 at eight federal 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 and calls for NOAA, the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power from the dams, and other agencies to take a serious look at dam removal.

However, the scientists call 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.

However, the reliance by orca whales on spring chinook from the Columbia and Snake in particular is well documented, the scientists wrote.

All three pods are spending less time in their spring and summer habitat of the San Juan Islands, and more time off the coast, because of diminished Puget Sound and Fraser River chinook runs. Their travels reflect their search for food. The whales depend on chinook from rivers all over Puget Sound as well as the from the Fraser, Columbia and Snake rivers.

Chinook recovery has been a long struggle in the Columbia and Snake rivers, where hatchery fish make up most of the runs. Hatchery chinook recently have been surging, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show. Yet even good returns are a fraction of historic numbers. Wild runs — the basis for long-term recovery in the Columbia and Snake — 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. Those two factors in combination have led to the recent decline in the southern resident orca population, which today stands at just 74 individual whales — a 35-year low.

The letter comes as the governor’s task force on orca recovery is set to convene its final meeting and public hearing before making its recommendations to Gov. Jay Inslee, due Nov. 1.

Source: The Columbian

New collaboration hopes to save endangered Northwest orca whales

October 4, 2018

A new scientific effort will sequence the genomes of critically endangered Pacific Northwest orcas to better understand their genetics and potentially find ways to save them from extinction.

The collaboration announced today involves scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, the nonprofit Nature Conservancy and BGI, a global genomics company.

The project will sequence the genome — the entire genetic code of a living thing — of more than 100 southern resident killer whales using skin or other samples collected from live and dead orcas over the past two decades. Initial results are expected next year.

Scientists said the information could help explain, for example, whether internal factors such as inbreeding or genetic variation in immune systems are preventing the whales from rebounding.

The distinctive black-and-white fish-eating orcas have struggled with pollution, boat noise and a dearth of their preferred prey, chinook salmon. The death of a young orca last month — despite a weekslong international effort to save her — leaves only 74 in a group that has failed to reproduce successfully in the past three years. That’s the lowest number in over 30 years.

“This will help us fill in some really critical gaps in our understanding about why the population is not recovering,” Mike Ford, director of conservation biology at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, said during a news conference in BGI’s Seattle office. “As we fill in those gaps that will lead us to potentially better solutions.”

Ford was lead author on a study published earlier this year that found that just two males in the small population fathered half of the calves that were born and sampled by scientists since 1990.

“Inbreeding could be a problem but we don’t have enough data to study that in-depth,” Ford said.

Inbreeding, for example, could affect whether a female orca will become pregnant, whether she’ll have a calf or how likely that calf would be to survive.

Female orcas have been having pregnancy problems because of nutritional stress linked to lack of salmon. A multi-year study last year by University of Washington and other researchers found that two-thirds of the orcas’ pregnancies failed between 2007 and 2014.

BGI will sequence the orcas’ genomes and provide analyses and results to U.S. fisheries biologists and other scientists. They’ll compare that research to the genomes of the Alaska population of killer whales that have been thriving, as well as mammal-eating transient whales.

Yiwu He, CEO of BGI Groups USA in Seattle, said that like so many others in the region, he and his family have been captivated by the iconic whales that spend time in the inland waters of Washington state.

“We very much want to do something to help,” he said, adding the genome sequencing could help unravel questions about why the animals are not reproducing. He noted that BGI has extensive experience sequencing whole genomes of humans, plants and animals.

Kevin Werner, science and research director for the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said the project enlists more experts outside of government to work on the problems.

Ford said the results could put other problems faced by the whales, such as lack of prey or contamination, into context and could lead to different solutions. Whales found to have weaker immune systems because of lack of genetic diversity of immune-system genes, for example, could warrant more active treatment or management in the future.

“We don’t know what we’re going to find,” Ford said, adding: “Maybe we’ll learn something new about the population that we don’t already know.”

Source: Star Advertiser.com

Orca ‘apocalypse’: half of killer whales doomed to die from pollution

September 27, 2018

At least half of the world’s killer whale populations are doomed to extinction due to toxic and persistent pollution of the oceans, according to a major new study.

Although the poisonous chemicals, PCBs, have been banned for decades, they are still leaking into the seas. They become concentrated up the food chain; as a result, killer whales, the top predators, are the most contaminated animals on the planet. Worse, their fat-rich milk passes on very high doses to their newborn calves.

PCB concentrations found in killer whales can be 100 times safe levels and severely damage reproductive organs, cause cancer and damage the immune system. The new research analysed the prospects for killer whale populations over the next century and found those offshore from industrialised nations could vanish as soon as 30-50 years.

Among those most at risk are the UK’s last pod, where a recent death revealed one of the highest PCB levels ever recorded. Others off Gibraltar, Japan and Brazil and in the north-east Pacific are also in great danger. Killer whales are one of the most widespread mammals on earth but have already been lost in the North Sea, around Spain and many other places.

“It is like a killer whale apocalypse,” said Paul Jepson at the Zoological Society of London, part of the international research team behind the new study. “Even in a pristine condition they are very slow to reproduce.” Healthy killer whales take 20 years to reach peak sexual maturity and 18 months to gestate a calf.

PCBs were used around the world since the 1930s in electrical components, plastics and paints but their toxicity has been known for 50 years. They were banned by nations in the 1970s and 1980s but 80% of the 1m tonnes produced have yet to be destroyed and are still leaking into the seas from landfills and other sources.

The international Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants came into force in 2004 to tackle the issue, but Jepson said the clean-up is way behind schedule. “I think the Stockholm Convention is failing,” he said. “The only area where I am optimistic is the US. They alone produced 50% of all PCBs, but they have been getting PCB levels down consistently for decades. All we have done in Europe is ban them and then hope they go away.”

The researchers said PCBs are just one pollutant found in killer whales, with “a long list of additional known and as yet unmeasured contaminants present”. Further problems for killer whales include the loss of key prey species such as tuna and sharks to overfishing and also growing underwater noise pollution.

The new research, published in the journal Science, examined PCB contamination in 351 killer whales, the largest analysis yet. The scientists then took existing data on how PCBs affect calf survival and immune systems in whales and used this to model how populations will fare in the future. “Populations of Japan, Brazil, Northeast Pacific, Strait of Gibraltar, and the United Kingdom are all tending toward complete collapse,” they concluded.

Lucy Babey, deputy director at conservation group Orca, said: “Our abysmal failures to control chemical pollution ending up in our oceans has caused a killer whale catastrophe on an epic scale. It is essential that requirements to dispose safely of PCBs under the Stockholm Convention are made legally binding at the next meeting in May 2019 to help stop this scandal.” Scientists have previously found “extraordinary” levels of toxic pollution even in the 10km-deep Mariana trench in the Pacific Ocean.

“This new study is a global red alert on the state of our oceans,” said Jennifer Lonsdale, chair of the Wildlife and Countryside Link’s whales group. “If the UK government wants its [proposed] Environment Act to be world-leading, it must set ambitious targets on PCB disposal and protect against further chemical pollution of our waters.”

The research shows that killer whale populations in the high north, off Norway, Iceland, Canada and the Faroes, are far less contaminated due to their distance from major PCB sources. ”The only thing that gives me hope about killer whales in the longer term is, yes, we are going to lose populations all over the industrialised areas, but there are populations that are doing reasonably well in the Arctic,” said Jepson.

If a global clean-up, which would take decades, can be achieved, these populations could eventually repopulate empty regions, he said, noting that killer whales are very intelligent, have strong family bonds and hunt in packs. “It is an incredibly adaptive species – they have been able to [live] from the Arctic to the Antarctic and everywhere in between.”

He praised the billion-dollar “superfund” clean-ups in the US, such as in the Hudson River and Puget Sound, where the polluter has paid most of the costs: “The US is going way beyond the Stockholm Convention because they know how toxic PCBs are.”

Source: The Guardian.com

Another orca is sick; more orcas are pregnant

September 25, 2018

Two weeks after it was announced J50 was presumed deadNOAA reports another resident orca appears to be ailing.

Side-by-side photography shows a 27-year-old male, K25, is noticeably thinner than in previous years. NOAA says the change in body condition coincides with the loss of K25’s mother — K13 — in 2017.  They say it likely reflects the struggle he faces without his mother’s help capturing and sharing prey.  Male orcas rely on females to help meet their energy demands and a mother’s death often initiates increased mortality rates for male adults.

On a positive note, NOAA reports K27, K25’s sister, appears to be heavily pregnant, according to aerial images. Other female orcas in all three resident pods — J, K, and L — are pregnant as well. However, there is a high rate of failed reproduction among the K pod, according to NOAA. K27 has aborted a fetus in the past.

On March 14, Gov. Inslee signed an executive order establishing the Southern Resident Orca Task Force. The group has been developing a long-term plan to aid the Southern Resident killer whales. Among the initial recommendations are slow zones for boats, studying harbor seals, and creating no fishing zones. Read more.

The presumed death of J50 captured the attention of people around the state, even prompting a memorial last week and motivation for restaurants to stop serving Chinook salmon.  The 3-year-old orca had been struggling to gain weight. Teams of scientists administered antibiotics and the Lummi Nation attempted to feed her live salmon with medication. They were trying to get close enough to administer de-wormer.

J50 was considered an important member of the Southern Resident killer whale population as a young female with the potential to reproduce.

In late July, J35 or Tahlequah, lost her female calf. She carried it for 17 days and over 1,000 miles before finally letting it go on Aug. 11.

Source: MY Northwest.com

As southern resident killer whales dwindle, more food options mean northern population is thriving

September 20, 2018

As concern grows over the decline of the southern resident killer whale population following the presumed death of the young female J50, the story off B.C.’s north and central coast is much different. 

The most recent count of the northern resident group of orcas reported 309 whales, more than four times the number of southern residents.

“The northern killer whale population is doing much better… [and] doesn’t seem to be going through the same slow decline,” said Lance Barrett-Lenard, head of the cetacean research program at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Both populations feed on chinook salmon as their primary prey but Barrett-Lenard said the northern whales have less competition and more options to choose from, with fish returning to the Skeena River, Nass River and Owikeno Lake.

More options for food

“If one system is bad… our northern residents have the opportunity to shift their focus to fish returning to another system,” Barrett-Lenard told Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk.

“In the case of the southern residents, however, that population is really dependent on chinook bound for the Fraser River and to some extent the Columbia [River] … When those systems are down it doesn’t have anywhere to go.”

He said with stocks of chinook declining across the province, northern residents could very well face the same fate. He noted their population growth has begun to taper off after keeping a steady rate for the past 30 years.

Another possibility his colleagues have considered is that the northern whales might take over the southern residents’ territory if the latter were to die out.

Maintaining marine diversity

Barrett-Lenard said the disappearance of the southern residents would be a huge loss of cultural significance for the province.

“As people, we value diversity. We value the diversity of Indigenous groups, we have words like cultural genocide, we’re very concerned if a language is lost. In the same way I think we recognize that these killer whale populations are ancient, unique, distinct cultures,” he said.

“If one of them goes, it will eventually be replaced in space by another one — but once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. We as humans have made this value judgment that we don’t want that to happen.”

To protect and sustain the northern resident killer whales, Barrett-Lenard said people must me mindful of the factors that have caused the decline of their primary food source.

“Certainly, climate change is important; preserving those estuarine​ and river spawning habitats is incredibly important; and keeping our own monitoring and management of our fisheries is important,” he said.

Source: cbc.ca