The federal government knows enough now to better protect Puget Sound’s southern-resident orcas.
WHALE watchers and researchers are celebrating a baby boom in the local orca community after spotting another new “southern resident” killer whale calf in Puget Sound just a few weeks ago. The surprise discovery of newborn J52, swimming alongside her mother, builds on the good news of three other births earlier this year.
The thrill over this new calf might give the impression that all is well with a community beloved by photographers, tourists and nature lovers. But the reality is that the southern residents are still some of the rarest killer whales on Earth. Those four births have been offset by four deaths in the last year, so the population is barely hanging on after decades of decline. Only 81 of these beautiful creatures are left, and they face extinction if we don’t do more to protect their habitat.
The federal government recognized the threat, listing the species as endangered in 2005 and protecting some 2,500 square miles of their Puget Sound summer habitat a year later. But that’s just a small portion of the important habitat of the southern residents, whose numbers may continue to decline while the federal officials wait beyond 2017 to finalize new rules. They need protection and the information is there to act now.
Researchers closely monitor the orcas in these three pods, perhaps the most carefully studied marine mammals in the Pacific. Through trackers placed on two of these killer whales, K25 and L88, we now know they travel up and down the coast from Puget Sound to the mouth of San Francisco Bay. As they migrate through some 9,000 square miles of ocean, and breed and forage for food near the mouths of rivers, dangers await.
Southern residents face a trio of threats to their survival: declines in food sources like chinook salmon, increased boat traffic and other marine noise, which scare away prey and disrupt foraging, and chemical contamination. These orcas, which can live 100 years or more, are often so filled with toxic chemicals that they must to be treated as hazardous waste when they die. Basic regulation of marine traffic and pollution along their foraging routes would go a long way toward protecting them.
The Center for Biological Diversity and its allies petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) last year to protect more of this community’s West Coast habitat. Critical protections could trigger limits on pollution, ocean noise and ship traffic that disrupt killer whales and degrade their habitat. In February, the agency said that expanded habitat protections are needed along the coast of Washington, Oregon and California, but its approach delays protections beyond 2017.
It’s vital that these changes happen soon. But they won’t happen without members of the public — those who value these orcas and want them around for future generations — speaking alongside our political representatives urging the agency to designate critical habitat now. We know enough about the habitat these killer whales need for their survival. Waiting to implement habitat protections will allow contamination and other threats to build while we should be acting now to reverse habitat threats.
Let you thoughts be known by contacting Lynne Barre, who leads NMFS’ Seattle branch: Lynne.Barre@noaa.gov
In many ways, these killer whales are a reflection of U.S. economic and environmental policies going back decades. The toxic chemicals now being found in these orcas when they die include PCBs, the toxic industrial pollutant that was banned by Congress in 1979, and DDT, the once widely used pesticide exposed as dangerous by the 1962 book “Silent Spring,” which helped sparked the modern environmental movement. More recently, the orcas have been affected by political fights over watersheds and salmon runs, as well as the increased maritime traffic from global capitalism.
They deserve better than what they’ve gotten so far. One look at the newborn orcas and it’s hard not to want to fight to give them a better future. But the window to save these incredible killer whales won’t remain open for long. Human activities have pushed the southern-resident killer whales to the brink of extinction. It’s up to us to help bring them back.