A mixed bag of news for endangered Southern Resident orcas was announced at the end of Orca Action Month in June. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) declared 13 individuals in the population “vulnerable” ahead of the summer season when the orcas are usually in their core summer habitat around Washington’s San Juan Islands.
This triggers additional restrictions on commercial whale watching boats to maintain a larger distance from vulnerable orcas and groups they are traveling in. While WDFW and the National Marine Fisheries Service encourage all boaters to “Be Whale Wise” and give the orcas space, the restrictions only apply to commercial whale watch vessels. Research on the effectiveness of the additional vessel regulations for Southern Resident orcas has found that recreational boaters are unaware of these laws and more likely to negatively impact the orcas.
Send a message to Washington elected officials asking them to breach the lower Snake River dams to help orcas
The assessment is based on continuing research and monitoring of orcas’ body condition in the Southern Resident community. Photographs taken from drones (under permit) can track the overall health of whales and note what seasons and areas they may be more food limited, as well as detect pregnancies. Some of the whales noted as vulnerable have concerning body condition – thinner than they should be – but some are considered vulnerable because they are pregnant. And pregnant whales are always good news. At least one of those pregnant whales may have already given birth, with the recent sighting of a new calf with K pod (still to-be-confirmed).
The news of exceptionally vulnerable whales came shortly after the findings from a recent study on salmon availability for the Southern Residents were announced. Researchers looked at estimates of the abundance and size of salmon from 1979-2020 in the Salish Sea and off the West Coast of Vancouver Island, and the nutritional needs of the Southern Resident population.
They found that for 6 of the past 40 years, including 2018-2020, the orcas had a nutritional deficit: they were not getting enough to eat to meet their energetic needs. Other studies show lower population growth rate and higher mortality rates in those same years. A lack of food is one of the biggest threats facing the Southern Residents, causing issues like the poor body condition that leads to a “vulnerable” designation.
Without enough to eat, orcas may look thinner and have higher rates of pregnancy loss, and the long-term impacts of nutritional stress have led to slower growth rates and shorter adult sizes in recent generations. The major threats to Southern Residents: not enough salmon, toxic contaminants, and noise and disturbance, can negatively magnify the effects of each other. Designating certain whales as “vulnerable” could help reduce disturbance in the short-term; however, in the long term, the entire population needs more food throughout their range.
One way to help? Send a message to Washington elected officials asking them to breach the lower Snake River dams. Restoring this river is vital to increasing the Southern Resident orcas’ food in coastal waters and helping them meet their nutritional needs year-round.