Can Southern Resident Killer Whales be saved from extinction? Optimism surfaces on The Whale Trail

(November 2018 photo by Trileigh Tucker – resident orcas being observed by licensed researchers)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Many point out that Earth Day isn’t really about saving the planet – it’s about saving those who live on it, ourselves included.

Some are in more imminent danger than others. In particular, the Southern Resident Killer Whales, whose plight was the focus of this month’s Orca Talk, presented by The Whale Trail.

Their population remains at 75, only four above their historic low of 71. “If they go below 71, no one can say whether they’ll come back.”

That was the somber reminder from both TWT founder/executive director Donna Sandstrom and the Thursday night event’s featured guest, retired marine-mammal expert Dr. Tim Ragen. He opened with toplines on his background, including working on the Marine Mammal Commission in D.C. 2000-2013. More recently – in “retirement” – he’s spent time focusing on other species in danger,from Hawaiian monk seals to Florida manatees.

Addressing the status of the SRKWs, Dr. Ragen explained that the number 75 doesn’t tell the whole story.

“What if they were all (one gender)?” Currently the population includes 36 males, 38 females – 9 post-reproductive, 25 of reproductive age (but only 18 have reproduced), 4 immature. The youngest SRKW’s gender isn’t yet known. Key categories are all on the decline. “We have to figure out how to turn that around, and it’s not easy to do.”

Only one SRKW born since 2015 is still alive, the one born in January, “too soon” to forecast its ultimate survival chances. Other deaths are troubling, whales of “prime age.”

Dr. Ragen explained that factors affecting one risk – the shortage of the Chinook salmon these orcas prefer to eat – isn’t just affected by what happens in the water. Logging, dams, water diversion for agriculture, and more are factors too: “There are a lot of places where things can go bad for Chinook salmon.” And contaminants are a problem – logging-related changes t water quality as well as chemical pollutants. “You have to get at their source” to keep them from getting into the water in the first place, because once they are in the water and bioaccumulate, it’s very difficult to avoid their effects.

Regarding noise, another factor putting the SRKWs at risk, Dr. Ragen explained “masking”- how engine noise and bubbles from boats interfere with the echolocation that orcas need to use to find their food. And habitat loss has reduced the area in which they hunt. Human-generated sound also has lesseed the whales’ ability to hear each other across long distances. Disturbance also causes energy loss too.

Dr. Ragen focused in on the western San Juan Islands, a key habitat area for the SRKWs. There’s concern that vessel disturbance there has caused the whales to stay away, so there’s debate about making it a protected reserve.

The threats, he said, all work together – lack of prey, noise and disturbance, contaminants. How they’re all affecting each individual whale, impossible to say, but “we probably know more about this population than many other marine mammal populations.”

Then he dove into his observations about what’s being done and what we can learn from efforts with other species. He began by reading from Section 2 of the Endangered Species Act, after observing that conservation “is science-informed, but value-driven.”

Some species have gone extinct. He showed a few examples – North Atlantic Gray Whale, Steller Sea Cow, Caribbean Monk Seal. Some are about to go extinct – Alaska AT1 killer whales (only a few left), Vaquita (harbor porpoise, 10 or so left, down from 500+ in the ’90s, killed by nets), North Pacific Right Whale (a few dozen), Cook Inlet Beluga Whale (300 or so), North Atlantic Right Whale (400 or so). He also talked about the sharp decline of Steller sea lions, hundreds of thousands gone in just a few decades at the end of the 20th century.

In the attempt to save SRKWs from going extinct, “We should expect surprises,” he warned. An oil spill, for example, could be devastating. Disease could be decimating (he described die-offs in other marine species). The sex ratio imbalance – 25 males born in recent decades but only 14 females – puts them at risk of “inbreeding depression” (genetic-trait trouble), “social dysfunction,” “ecosystem decline” such as what’s killed off about 10 percent of the Florida manatees recently (including “red tide” and vessel strikes).

He concluded: “We ca take strong measures” – but will we?

Examples he cited of “strong measures” taken in the past:
1946 International Convention on Whaling
1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act
the aforementioned 1973 Endangered Species Act
1989-1991 Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Protected Species Zone – he compared that to what’s being debated now about protecting SRKWs in the San Juans. A “massive” zone was created to stop a problem that was ravaging endangered animals in a conflict with long-line fishing.

Under the heading “never give up,” he showed a Guadalupe fur seal – a species brought back from the brink.

“Are we willing to change?” is the question.”The basic tools we have are controlling our own activities.”

Ensuing Q&A/discussion included some mythbusting, including along the touchy topic of whether healthy seal/sea lion populations are eating too much salmon that as a result isn’t getting to orcas. It’s “not true” that those populations are growing wildly, Dr. Ragen contended, saying humans had “knocked (them) down” and they’re finally recovering. He concluded: “There are good reasons to be optimistic but there are no good reasons to be complacent.” He vowed to do his part: “It’ll be a battle I’ll take to my grave.”

Earlier in the evening:

TASK FORCE UPDATE: Sandstrom served on the governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whales Task Force and provided an update. She worked on a reduction of noise and other disturbance from whale-watching. Right now, she said, anyone can declare themselves a whale-watching vessel, and 130 did at the peak of last season. “The best thing we can do to protect these whales in the near term is to turn down the volume so they can find the food that’s out there,” while they work to increase salmon. So they worked to recommend a permit system – which in the best case won’t be in place until 2021 – and a suspension of whale-watching in the meantime. She compares it to the point when the state, decades ago, sued to stop commercial capture of orcas. Gov. Inslee supported both of those – but then the Legislature happened. The whale-watching industry hired a lobbyist who was “very, very effective,” she lamented, and got the word “suspension” removed from the legislation. “We were very sad … not the big change we were hoping for, not the big quiet we were hoping to give the whales.” But the permit proposal did make it through both houses and is on its way to the Governor’s desk to be signed. It means WDFW gets to make rules. “The zone goes with the whales.” She led a toast with attendees. “Never give up.”

Dr. Ragen added in admiration, “Donna was a force to be reckoned with” on the task force.

Three other bills of note passed, she added: Shoreline armoring (to create more habitat for young salmon), escorts for oil barges to prevent spills, and identifying products with contaminants that could leak into the Sound, so you can make informed purchasing decisions. “We are just getting started, really,” she summarized, The task force had dozens of recommendations that didn’t even make it to the Legislature but there’s next year, and the year beyond, and the year beyond. “It’s going to take … all of us coming together.” She also implored those in attendance to tell their friends about the noise and contaminants – everyone’s heard about the salmon problem, but the other risks need to be just as top-of-mind. As an example, she said, most of the whale watchers on the water are from out of state, while most of those watching from shore are local – they got the message. But, she clarified, “We don’t want whale watching to end – we just want them to leave the Southern Residents alone.”

FUNDRAISING: Bob Livingston, who’s on the board, talked about a new dawn for The Whale Trail.”We’re not just about putting up signs – we’re about being a voice for the whales.” So they’re hoping to raise $30,000 – “$10,000 per (SRKW) pod” – just $100 each for 300 people – so they can do the work.

COMING UP: Local father-and-daughter researchers Mark and Maya Sears (they’re in the photo atop this story) will be featured at the next Orca Talk, plus a fundraiser May 3rd: “Gathering of the (human) superpod,” smiled Sandstrom. Watch for updates.

3 Replies to "Can Southern Resident Killer Whales be saved from extinction? Optimism surfaces on The Whale Trail"

  • Howard April 23, 2019 (12:48 am)

    Many point out that Earth Day isn’t really about saving the planet – it’s about saving those who live on it, ourselves included.”Many people point that out do they? “I hear a lot of people say” – Donald TrumpSighting sources would be better. 

  • j April 23, 2019 (12:54 am)

    If I could wave my magic wand…1)Remove all nets from beginning Straight of Jaun de Fuca down.2) Add/create/replace rearing ponds the numerous “dead” creeks and streams throughout the region. Add salmon fry to existing ponds like Seola Pond. It could easily have a salmon run (assuming the fry could bypass the sewer treatment plant)3) Address the salmon flu being caused/perpetuated by Canada’s horrible salmon farming…see YouTube documentary4) Remove all chemicals being applied to the roads during icy/snowy conditions and educate all these Johnny come lately people/out of state sdot directors on our fragile ecosystem. We use chains and studded tires here. But not for long. Chemicals all the way now.5) Ban all non-organic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides for commercial and residential use. There….that would be a good start

Sorry, comment time is over.