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Mayday Monday – Ask an Expert

So, it’s not Monday, but we still wanted to share this amazing Ask an Expert with Howard Garrett of Orca Network about the current state of the Southern Residents and what the future holds for them.  Read on to find out more!

1) The decline in the Southern Resident population is a product of many different interacting factors: low food availability, chemical contamination, and impacts from vessel traffic. Each of these alone is harmful, but could you talk about synergistic interactions between threats that make the overall problem greater than the sum of its parts?

Howard Garrett (HG): Each of these stressors strain the whales’ immune systems and may contribute to psychological tensions, both chronically, especially in the case of chemical contamination, and acutely, especially in the case of extreme noise pollution. But pollutants and noise can be tolerated and survived if they are able to find sufficient quantities of food, which is not always the case. Chinook salmon, these whales’ primary source of sustenance, are no longer available consistently in sufficient abundance to provide their nutritional needs.

When Chinook runs are scarce, two consequences occur that harm Southern Resident orcas:
First, to maintain their essential high energy levels, their bodies must draw from the energy stored in their fat supplies, so the lipid cells in their blubber and elsewhere must metabolize into caloric energy available for muscles and other bodily functions. The bioaccumulative organochlorine pollutants, such as PCBs and PBDEs, that have been chemically bonded to those lipid cells are then flushed into the blood streams and endocrine systems of the whales, where they mimic the action of natural hormones that regulate everything from immune response to reproductive systems. These pollutants are like fake keys that fit into the locks that real hormones, in miniscule proportions, normally open to regulate bodily functions. So the pollutants attach to the locks but they don’t open them, instead they block the ability of real hormones to operate normally. The most immediate result is to compromise their immune systems, but in the case of the very young, including those in fetal stages, the pollutants can also inhibit normal growth and development of reproductive systems among other essential developmental processes.

Second, when Chinook runs are few and far between, the orcas must search high and low, and far and wide, requiring greater dispersal of the pods and matrilines, and more energy overall to catch the fish. If noisy vessels from thunderous cargo ships or screeching recreational boats are nearby, the whales are vulnerable to acoustic disruptions to their ability to locate the fish because the range of their echolocation may be diminished or masked by background noise. High noise levels may also crowd out communications between orcas separated by miles to search for more fish, making it harder to share information about where to find those fish.

2) All three of these threats are important issues, and it’s generally understood that salmon stock depletion contributes the most in terms of stress on the population. Do you think, if we were to restore salmon stocks to a sufficient level, that the population could manage the other issues at least enough to stabilize?

HG: Looking at all these factors, it appears abundantly clear that if there are sufficient, consistent Chinook salmon stocks the So. Residents would not suffer serious effects from hunger or chemical contamination and would manage to forage and socialize despite sporadic high noise levels.

3) Small populations have their own inherent risk – they’re less resilient to random or catastrophic events, and demographic structure of the population isn’t in their favor, either, since there aren’t many reproductive females right now. What effect on the population as a whole did live-takes for marine parks during the 1960s-70s have, and are they still feeling the effects of that today?

HG: Captures for marine parks in the 1960s-70s may have so shattered the matrilineal and clan structures that the survivors’ ability to cooperatively forage and socialize in their traditional manner may have been diminished in the immediate aftermath. Except for 3 or 4 adults who died during the captures the vast majority were between 1 and 5 years old. It’s difficult to know if the reproductive capacity of the population as a whole was effected until about 1990 when the age cohort of those animals who were removed would have begun to reproduce. Overall, the population grew to almost 100 So. Residents in the mid-1990s. Over the next five years they suffered an almost 20% decline primarily due to high mortalities, down to only 78 individuals in 2001, when their numbers began to rise again. We now know that those high losses from 1995-2001 were closely correlated with overall Chinook salmon numbers, chronically low for decades but brought much lower in the late 1990s due to a record-setting El Nino weather pattern during those years.

Thus it is reasonable to surmise that, given that the carrying capacity of these whales’ habitat is defined by the amount of consistently occurring Chinook salmon available to them, it is possible that even if the captures had not removed up to 40% of the population and it had numbered well over 100 in 1995, the low levels of Chinook during the late 1990s may have reduced the population to 80 or below by 2001 in any case.

4) We believe that NMFS has the information it needs to act now to expand critical habitat. Though continued data collection and analysis are integral parts of their recovery plan, and have greatly expanded our knowledge about the Southern Residents, it seems like uncertainty is getting in the way of conservation. To what extent do you think this is true, and do you think that adaptive management should play a greater role in conservation?

HG: From a wide range of sources, beginning with scholarly overviews of the conditions of salmon habitat and abundance before and after European contact centuries ago, up to very recent data on salmon abundance, the So. Residents’ dietary needs, range patterns, and birth and mortality rates, the broad view is clear that salmon, especially Chinook, have been literally decimated and continue to be severely impacted by all manner of degradations and harvest issues, and that reproductive success and overall health and vitality of the So. Resident population varies in extremely high correlation with Chinook numbers and consistency. A wide range of habitat restorations and harvest management measures are underway currently but it seems incumbent on NMFS and many other relevant local, state and federal agencies to assess the most effective ways to provide the greatest returns in the shortest time frames, and focus educational efforts and funding toward accomplishing those projects, even if important sectors of our society object vociferously. The Southern Resident orcas are teetering on declines that approach a point of no return and need immediate emergency resuscitation via all means possible, including actions not previously thought possible.

5)  Southern residents are widely adored by the people of the Pacific Northwest, and elsewhere. They’re a key part of the ecosystem, and a cultural icon… an extinction of this population would be devastating. It’s a big, complicated, frustrating problem, but what are things that can people do to help, before it’s too late?

HG: In the broadest terms, to improve prospects for this struggling clan of orcas, the voting public needs to become nearly unanimous as proponents for protection and restoration of both salmon and orcas. At its root the problem is political – it’s about managing ourselves to take better care of our own nest, which is the planetary biosphere that nourishes us. The fundamental motivation needed may depend on personal emotional impulses to adapt our lives and our institutions in accord with our limited role in, and our utter dependence on, the productivity of life on Earth. Whether that emotion is a generalized affinity to all Life or a deep resonance with particular plants or animals, a profound and widespread appreciation for the power and grandeur of life on Planet Earth would generate political decisions at all levels to honor and nurture the life with which we share our one and only planet.

For several decades now most modern societies have shown an almost universally positive emotional response to whales and dolphins. People across most political, religious and ethnic divides often express deep interest in cetaceans, and often are eager to learn more about them. When educational messaging about whales includes their dependence on specific food sources and habitats, that emotional bonding tends to translate into a political constituency able enact coordinated actions to help provide the whales’ essential needs.

Southern Resident orcas are becoming well understood and widely appreciated in the Pacific Northwest, though still not nearly to the extent needed for our governments and major institutions to champion their cause effectively. Our common goal is to broaden and deepen the respect for, and understanding of, this endangered orca clan through all manor of public involvement, outreach and information dissemination, instilling positive values and quality education about them.

In this regard and in large part to further these purposes we hope to bring home a daughter of the Southern Resident family to her natal waters, for rehabilitation after over four decades away as a performer in a marine park, to swim free in the waters she was born and raised in, and have the opportunity to reintroduce herself to her family of birth. It’s reasonable to expect that that attention of much of the world will be attuned to her progress, her travels, her encounters with her family, and her general welfare. To the extent possible we hope to impart the truths about her family’s need for more abundant Chinook salmon to our greater society, domestic and foreign, in hopes the public will generate the political will needed to provide the essential sustenance for her and her family.

By whatever means possible we need to protect, restore and enhance Chinook salmon runs from California to Alaska if we wish to enjoy and learn from this unique orca community in future years.

To help protect the ocean home of the Southern Residents and the Chinook salmon they depend on, please sign our letter urging the National Marine Fisheries Service to act NOW to expand Critical Habitat for Southern Resident orcas.

Howard Garrett is a long-time orca researcher and activist, as well as co-founder, director and President of the Board of Orca Network, a non-profit focused on raising awareness about orcas of the Pacific Northwest, and the importance of quality habitats.  He has lent his expertise to the films Blackfish and Fragile Waters to promote awareness and action on behalf of wild and captive orcas. Since 1995, OrcaNetwork has led a campaign to return Tokitae (Lolita), the lone Southern Resident orca still alive in captivity, to her home waters in the Salish Sea.