Orca whales are iconic natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest. Powerful and joyful, they are honored and cherished by coastal Indigenous peoples and many others. People travel from around the world to see them, particularly the Southern Resident Killer Whales. Typically each summer, the J, K and L pods that comprise the population gathers in the waters of the Salish Sea near the San Juan Islands in Washington State. The pods reunite here in the summertime after a winter of ocean foraging, to gorge on Chinook salmon as the fish congregate to run into area rivers to spawn.
The orcas are intelligent and unique. Their society is matrilineal, grouped around older females, often grandmothers and great grandmothers that male and female offspring stay with throughout their lives. The Southern Residents have their own distinct dialect, a language particular to them. They communicate through calls and sounds that can travel 10 miles under water.
To see the whales is unforgettable. Once, when I stood with others on San Juan Island watching an orca pod very close to shore, a large whale came out of the water and looked directly at us, then vigorously slapped its tail twice as if to say, “Have you ever seen anything like this?”
Now this wondrous species is facing an emergency threat to its survival. From 98 whales in 1995, they have declined to only 75 today. The Southern Residents are apex predators, a keystone species of the region’s marine ecosystem. They’re fish-eaters, distinguishing them from the transient orcas that eat marine mammals, and the offshore orca populations with a more generalist diet that includes sharks, fish, etc. For tens of thousands of years, these whales have lived by preferentially eating the biggest and fattest salmon, the Chinook, which historically filled the nearby seas and rivers. Supporting a body weight of anywhere from 3,000-12,000 pounds requires eating a lot of salmon.
But the workings of the capitalist system has now decimated the great natural bounty of salmon. The orcas are suffering food stress, even being starved to death. They are not reliably reproducing. And the Chinook salmon, like the orca, has become an endangered species.
Whale scientists were thrilled in July when the female orca Tahlequah, also known as “J-35,” gave birth to a calf in waters near Victoria, British Columbia. They rushed to document the new baby whale, which, if it survived and thrived, would have been the first for the endangered Southern Resident population in three years. But by the time they got there, the little calf was already dead. Over the past two decades, 75 percent of newborns have not survived.
For the next 17 days, Tahlequah carried and pushed her dead baby on her rostrum in a heartbreaking act of public mourning. For hundreds of miles around the Salish Sea in waters between Washington and British Columbia, even out to the ocean and back, Tahlequah pushed the calf while traveling with her pod.
“It was like a tour of grief,” Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research, told Truthout. One resident of San Juan Island reported to the Center that at sunset on the night of the new calf’s death, “a group of five or six female whales gathered at the mouth of the cove … in a close, tight-knit circle, staying at the surface in a harmonious circular motion for nearly two hours” in moonlight, as if in ceremonial ritual.
Scientists say displays of grief and mourning are common among many different whale species worldwide. Given the intelligence and social bonds among various whale populations, it’s not surprising.
Yet in no other known case has such a display continued for as long as Tahlequah’s.Whether by design or not, Tahlequah was sending a message to humanity.
As Tahlequah grieved, a young female whale in her pod, J-50, was also in trouble. J-50 was having problems keeping up with her pod, especially falling back when swimming against strong currents. She appeared to be starving and sick, possibly close to death. The loss of another whale, particularly a female, to an endangered population with only 27 females of breeding age and another seven juvenile females, would be devastating.
Scientists from the University of Washington, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and others went out to try to determine J-50’s condition. Deborah Giles, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, said that despite being almost four years old, J-50 was the size of a typical 1-year old whale. After collecting and analyzing breath samples and scat, the researchers decided to try to treat J-50 with an antibiotic and also a de-wormer to counter parasites.
In August, the NOAA and the Lummi Nation teamed up to try to feed J-50, releasing Chinook salmon in her path. It wasn’t clear if their efforts were successful. Hereditary Chief Bill James told the The Seattle Times the Lummi felt they couldn’t just let J-50 die.
“We are both fishing creatures; we both live for the salmon. And in our community, we come together when someone is hurting. We come together when someone needs help,” James said. “It is the same with the Salish Sea, and with the orcas. She is part of the web that connects us all … We each belong to the Salish Sea.”
As of August 20, the NOAA reports that J-50 was seen socializing with the rest of her pod and may be improving slightly, yet her condition is still very serious. Tahlequah, meanwhile, is no longer carrying her baby. The Center for Whale Research says she seems in good physical condition, and was seen vigorously chasing a school of salmon with her pod-mates. While this is slightly encouraging news, it doesn’t address the deeper extinction threat to the Southern Residents.
Threats to Orca Survival
In the 1960s and ’70s, 50 Southern Resident orcas were cruelly captured for aquarium and marine park displays. Historically around 140 individuals, the population was reduced to 71 by the year 1976.
At the same time, Chinook salmon numbers have plummeted and some runs have been eliminated entirely, and the orcas are suffering other threats caused by a human society that puts profit before all else. They’re being poisoned by toxic chemicals that accumulate in their blubber and are released when the whales are food stressed. Noise from vessels interferes with the fine-tuned echolocation the orcas use to locate prey. And now, escalating climate change is disrupting and killing off salmon and ocean life.
The orcas are also threatened by plans by the Canadian government to vastly increase oil tanker traffic through the Salish Sea. Importantly, a Canadian court recently ruled that the Canadian government did not properly assess the impact that the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project, a controversial fossil fuel pipeline extending across Canada to the Pacific Coast, could have on the survival of the endangered Southern Resident orcas, including the threat posed by a seven-fold increase in oil tanker ship traffic through whale habitat. The court also ruled that Indigenous people in British Columbia were not properly consulted before the project was approved. This represents a significant setback for the embattled pipeline project.
In 2005, as a result of a petition and then a suit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Southern Resident orcas were listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and 2,500 miles of critical habitat essential for protecting the whales was designated in the Salish Sea waters. But since the ESA protections were established, the orca population has continued to decline.
Catherine Kilduff, who is a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity and works in the Center’s Oceans Program, told Truthout that whales are dying more often in the winter and early spring, when they’re dependent on salmon in Pacific coastal waters. Photographs show the whales in a more emaciated state at this time, indicating the need for more salmon and protecting the ability of orcas to forage successfully. In 2014, the Center filed a petition to expand critical habitat along the Pacific coast. Kilduff says this would require the federal government to consult experts about management rules to protect whales before permitting commercial and military activities, which can disrupt foraging.
Despite the NMFS agreeing in 2015 to expand critical habitat, the Trump administration has failed to implement protections for the whales. Instead, the administration is pushing for expanding drilling offshore, which could prove devastating for marine life, including orcas. So this August, the Center filed suit against the federal government to expand habitat protections their own agency agreed are needed. The Center’s lawsuit says better habitat protections would reduce “the principal threats” to the whales of “starvation, contamination from toxic pollution and harassment from noise and vessels.”
A 2017 study in the journal PLOS One found that the main factor limiting population growth and reproductive success among the Southern Residents was lack of proper nutrition, especially lack of Chinook salmon. Ken Balcomb documented that in the first decade of the Center for Whale Research’s orca survey, from 1976-1986, the interval for viable calf births for a female in the population was a little over one every five years. Now it is more than every nine years. Females are still getting pregnant, but at least two-thirds of pregnancies seem to result in miscarriages. And the calves that are born often die.
Restoring Wild Salmon and Removing the Snake River Dams
If the whales are to be saved, immediate large-scale efforts must be taken to increase salmon for the orcas to eat. While evidence shows the orcas depend on many different Chinook runs, especially important to restoring wild salmon are the historically massive runs in the Fraser River in British Columbia, and the Columbia River and its largest tributary, the Snake. Fraser River Chinook are depleted and in serious trouble.
Historically, the mighty Columbia River was host to 10 to 16 million wild salmon every year, with 4 million headed for the Snake River watershed. Wild spring-summer Chinook salmon returns in the Snake River alone were 2 million.
Rick Williams, fisheries ecologist at the College of Idaho, told Truthout that the number of salmon in the Columbia system today is only about 10 percent of historical levels, an about 85 percent are hatchery fish. So the wild fish numbers today are only about 1.5 percent of what existed before Europeans arrived. Williams said wild fish are much more genetically fit than fish produced by hatcheries, as they are “evolutionarily adapted to do well in the environments where they live.” Fisheries scientists measure that fitness with what they call the “Smolt to Adult Return Rate,” or SAR. Williams says Chinook SARs measured over the last 15 years in the Snake River are around 1 percent, meaning for every 100 smolts traveling to the ocean, 1 adult returns to spawn. This compares to historic SAR estimates of 8-15 percent for wild fish in the Pacific Rim.
Human activity has decimated the wild salmon throughout their range, including deforestation, overfishing and now climate change. In 2015, 475,000 mostly wild sockeye salmon passed the Bonneville Dam in the Columbia River headed for the Okanogan River system. The fish were coming back not due to hatcheries, but because of restoration measures enhancing oxygenation and flow in Osoyoos Lake where the fish spawn. But of these huge numbers of fish, only about 10,000 made it back. They were killed off by extremely warm waters they encountered in the Columbia River due to its lack of flow and the drought that year, fueled by climate change.
In the Columbia system, the building of hydroelectric dams has devastated the runs. Dams kill many juvenile fish in their journey to the ocean and are a significant barrier for adult fish to pass on their spawning runs. They vastly reduce flow, causing waters to warm. The Snake River has eight dams on it, which form a serious block to thousands of miles of prime spawning habitat upriver in Idaho.
Whale researchers, fisheries biologists and environmental groups are pushing for the removal of the lower four Snake River dams and restoring the river. This could help in increasing wild salmon runs, and in saving the orcas from extinction. Proponents of these dams argue they produce enough green energy to sustain Seattle for a year. But studies show these old, inefficient dams could be replaced by other forms of sustainable energy, and combined with conservation, would cost customers essentially the same they are currently paying.
Williams argues that other dam removals have shown the ability of fish to rebound faster than scientists often expect.
“The salmon evolved in a large Pacific Northwest landscape that was dominated by ice sheets and glaciers, so they’re readily adapted to move into newly opened habitat, even when that habitat is still in flux … and make a go of it,” Williams said.
Removing the Snake River dams would help orcas. Still, this would take some years, and more must be done immediately. The Wild Fish Conservancy in the US and the David Suzuki foundation in Canada have proposed a closure of Chinook salmon fishing and whale watching, at least short-term, as the best emergency, scientifically supported actions to save the orcas.
Clearly, the existing framework is not working in the interests of wild fish or orcas. For many decades, fisheries managers have tried to restore salmon runs by pumping out more hatchery fish through what amounts to an industrial production system, spending billions and repeatedly failing. Williams is a co-author of an important article titled, “Wild Pacific Salmon: a Threatened Legacy.” It details this history of failure, and faults a conceptual approach where salmon are privatized as a commodity, and technology—especially hatcheries—are seen as the solution. The result has been a continuing decline in the abundance of salmon, extinction of many populations and a deteriorating fitness of the salmon population as a whole, as the wild salmon are pushed to the brink.
What is needed, the article argues, is a completely different approach and methods flowing from it. This starts with “a new conceptual foundation that links the salmon to their habitat and key ecological processes, and includes recognition of the value of wild salmon as a public trust and a legacy for future generations.”
Williams and his co-authors advocate developing a salmon national park as an important step to protecting wild salmon and treating them as a public trust instead of as a commodity.
Saving the Southern Resident Orcas at a Time of Mass Extinction
Balcomb described how, when the fish were plentiful around the San Juan Islands in summer, the Southern Resident pods would come together in one super-pod “like big extended families coming to an annual picnic reunion … Everybody with food and reproduction on their mind, touching and rolling around each other … Now, you don’t see much of that.” Instead, the orcas are searching everywhere for food, using up more energy. Even their society is being devastated.
Orcas are in a crisis. Saving them requires emergency action. Many measures are needed: removing the Snake River dams, enhancing wild salmon habitat, expanding critical habitat for orca foraging, shutting down or curtailing commercial fishing, an emergency moratorium on all new fossil fuel tanker traffic, and other measures. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has launched a task force to address orca survival, but the orcas can’t wait for more years of discussion and pledges.
The paradigm of making small, ineffective changes guided by “business as usual” and commodity relations must end if orcas and wild salmon are to survive and recover. This is a moment of widespread species extinction worldwide and impending climate catastrophe brought to us by a destructive, profit-driven system. We must mobilize people to resist, to bring forward change before it’s too late and we lose so much of the planet’s natural heritage.