Jessica Rekos Fellowship for Orca Conservation - Orcas of the Pacific Northwest
The project is examining threats to orca populations worldwide, focusing on the communities of the Pacific Northwest. This region is one of the best places to view orcas in the wild, and home to some of the most well-studied orca populations in the world, including the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales.
The process of using photo ID to identify individual orcas developed in this region, and has allowed researchers to follow pods and track their status for more than 40 years. From our knowledge of the orcas living in these waters, we have come from viewing these top ocean predators as voracious killing machines to being drawn to them as complex, charismatic individuals that are much closer to us than originally thought. Not only do they share the traits that make us mammals, but they are also intelligent, long-lived, incredibly social, and care for their young for their entire lives. Perhaps it’s these subtle, shared traits that draw us so much to orcas, and have made them icons of marine biodiversity and protecting the ocean.
The killer whales that live off the West coast of America are divided into groups that differ in diet, behavior, communication, and even culture. While they may inhabit or visit the same areas, these orcas do not often interact and apparently do not interbreed, making each group unique and genetically distinct. Resident (fish-eating), transient (mammal-eating), and the enigmatic offshore (fish and shark-eating) orca are all found in the Pacific Northwest, and all face numerous threats. Habitat degradation and marine pollution, overfishing and bycatch, climate change, ship strikes, disturbance and an increasingly noisy ocean are affecting orca populations worldwide. As a top predator, killer whales are a sentinel species that can give us important information about the health of their habitats and the entire ocean.
On the northwest coast of America, resident orcas in particular face serious problems in the declining stocks of Chinook salmon, their fatty and high-energy food of choice. Lack of available prey means that more time and effort is put into finding food, and less into reproducing, resting, or caring for young – things important to grow and sustain a population. For the Southern Residents, whose population was severely impacted by the live-capture industry in the 60’s and 70’s, food is a key aspect of their recovery and future survival.
As part of the project, we will examine the past, present, and emerging threats to orcas, and identify focus areas where more knowledge and research is needed to help conserve and protect orcas and their habitats. We will use this information to assist in the recovery of the Northwest populations, and continue to learn about orcas worldwide. The more we can discover about their ecology, distribution, abundance, and unique populations, the better prepared we will be to mitigate current threats and prevent more conflict with human interests from occurring, protecting these charismatic and unique killer whales for years to come.