Orca survival depends on humans taking action

by Bruce Stedman

Special to the Sounder

That the local orca whale population, known as southern resident killer whales, is in dire trouble is not in dispute, even as recent widespread press reports have focused on the positive news of the birth of J-50, a new calf in J-pod (J, K and L pods together make up the endangered southern resident orca).

While this is great news, and we all hope for this newborn to survive and prosper, it is far from guaranteed. And we must at the same time be reminded that J-50 is the only calf born to this population to survive – so far – since 2012.

Historically, the southern resident orca population has averaged four surviving calves every year. One surviving calf in three years is not enough to sustain this endangered population, let alone help it recover.

With the death, in December, of 18-year-old J-32 and her almost full-term calf, the number of reproductive female Puget Sound orcas has also dropped to an estimated 15, the lowest in seven years. This is another serious problem for population recovery. There are now only 78 whales, down from the high of 90 in 2005.

The Puget Sound orcas are headed for extinction, and the onus is upon us to do everything within our power, as quickly as possible, to enhance their recovery. What are the most immediate steps we can take to give our treasured resident orcas their best chance of survival?

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service – the federal agency entrusted with protecting the endangered orca – three primary factors combine to harm orca health in Puget Sound:

Low chinook salmon counts year after year (the orcas’ highly preferred food in the summer), leading to periods of starvation, a very high toxic load in the whales’ blubber and noise and disturbance from motorized vessels, particularly from commercial whale watching vessels and the private boats they attract.

Unless we take action today, these trends and their causes might very well lead to the extinction of the resident orca whales of Puget Sound.

While the first two factors – more salmon and reduced toxic pollution – are certainly needed, those solutions will likely take decades, and huge expenditures of scarce public dollars, before standing a chance of success. This is not an affordable time frame for the orca.

But the third point gives us an opening to make a difference now. A reduction in noise and disturbance can be achieved at little expense and relatively quickly, by creating a Whale Protection Zone, which would, at minimum, give the orca one relatively quiet area in which their sonar, which is how they find the food crucial to their survival is less blocked, their ability to communicate with one another would be less disturbed and even their socializing would find a place away from the constant loud noise of motorized vessels currently operating near them all day long from May through October.

After years of consideration and input, Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance is proposing that the National Marine Fisheries Service create a whale protection zone off the west coast of San Juan Island; a speed zone for all boats and a permit system for motorized whale watching.

Inviting a public discussion is the next step in saving our resident orca whales. To launch both our proposal and a public discussion, Orca Relief has submitted a blueprint to the National Marine Fisheries Service showing how a whale protection zone might be designed, managed and enforced (see www.orcarelief.org).

All of us care deeply about the survival of the southern resident killer whales. Establishing a whale protection zone is something we can do now to try and ensure their survival and their residence in our waters. This is the only measure we have; the power to enact today, before we “love our whales to death.”

Editor’s note: Bruce Stedman is executive director of the Orcas Relief Citizens’ Alliance.