Tougher measures needed to save southern resident killer whales, experts warn


“Canada claims to have spent hundreds of millions of dollars protecting the home of the southern resident orcas, but it’s really part of an imaginary world where politicians get to say ‘Look at what we’ve done for the orcas.’”

As much as we love them, the southern resident killer whales would be much better off if people weren’t around.

Humans beings, and nearly everything we do, present an existential threat to the 74 orcas that spend time in and around the Salish Sea, say experts.

Airborne pollutants from industry and transport, waterborne toxins from agriculture, ship strikes, fishing pressure on their main food sources, and our past efforts to kidnap their young have all conspired to diminish their numbers, sicken the whales and interfere with their ability to reproduce.

While opportunities to perform post mortem necropsies on recently deceased killer whales from West Coast waters are relatively rare, researchers examined 53 dead whales over 10 years found between California and Alaska, including nine in British Columbia.

“What was really striking was within the group of southern resident killer whales, about 40 per cent of them presented with evidence of blunt force trauma,” said Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist with the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries.

Such injuries are strongly suggestive of a ship or propeller strike, according to a study led by Raverty, published last month in the journal PLOS One.

“There are far fewer (such injuries) among transients and northern residents,” he said. Southern residents “enter the Georgia Strait and places with more shipping traffic, large vessel traffic, commercial fisheries or even recreational fishers where there may be an increased opportunity for interactions.”

Transient killer whales — free-ranging mammal eaters — tend to stick to the outer coast, while northern residents range from Vancouver Island to southern Alaska and suffer “less frequent interactions with humans.”

“What really prompted the study was the decline of southern resident killer whales, from about 102, down to 78 individuals in 10 years, through the 1990s,” said Raverty.

Only five to 10 per cent of whales that die are ever found floating or cast up on a beach, and suitable for examination. But a recent program of necropsies has allowed researchers to gain insight in to the life history of the animals, what their prey was, and the presence of contaminants and disease.

We are the enemy

More than 260 killer whales were captured in B.C. and Washington waters during the ’60s and early ’70s and about 50 were displayed in aquariums, according to a 1975 study. Twelve others died during capture or transport.

Juveniles were typically targeted because they survived longer in captivity.

Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research observed that 27 of the displayed whales were taken from the now-endangered southern resident population.

“All those years of captures stripped 10 years worth of kids from that population — 10 years worth of reproductive growth — and that’s an existential threat,” said Balcomb’s son Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, spokesman for the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

After the death of the orca L41 last year, the elder Balcomb noted that he was one of the first calves born to the southern residents after captures ceased in 1976.

 “We watched the energetic young male baby as he grew up, and we had great hopes that he and his companions would fill in the youthful cohorts of the population that had been decimated by captures between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s,” he said.

L41 was one of nine calves born to the southern resident pods in 1977. Since 2012, they have produced fewer than two live births a year on average, 17 in all, and six of those have died, according to the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission.

Listening for clues

Efforts to protect the surviving southern residents began in earnest after they were listed as endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act in 2003.

To reduce ship strikes, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has funded an array of marine hydrophones, listening devices that can identify the unique sounds of different clans of whales as they move through the Salish Sea.

A SFU computing science researcher, Steven Bergner, is using artificial intelligence to recognize the calls of southern residents to inform a warning system that would alert ships to their presence.

The goal is to detect whale calls automatically and send alerts to ships to slow down or change course hours before orcas may be in their path, he said.

Orcas along the West Coast are categorized into three families known as the J, K and L pods, each of which has its own dialect and calls that differ from the others.

Last week, the Canadian Coast Guard established a 24-hour marine mammal desk to advise vessels of the presence of whales in southern B.C waters using information gleaned from “automatic identification systems” radar, coast guard sightings, light stations and aircraft operated by DFO and Transport Canada.

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority-led ECHO Program runs several voluntary programs to slow commercial vessels and ask vessels to stay distanced from the foraging areas favoured by the southern residents.

According to the port authority’s website, in 2020, the ECHO Program asked vessels to slow down to between 11.5 and 14.5 knots, depending on vessel type, in two separate voluntary slowdowns areas. In both voluntary initiatives, participation rates exceeded 80 per cent, reaching a record-high participation rate of 91 per cent at Haro Strait and Boundary Pass and an 82 per cent participation rate in its trial at Swiftsure Bank.

Underwater microphones installed during the 2017 Haro Strait slowdown found that noise dropped by six to 11 decibels.

The port’s Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation program seeks to understand and mitigate the effects of vessel traffic on at-risk whales. The program focuses on acoustic disturbances, physical disturbances and contaminants, while separate habitat enhancement programs are aimed at improving the whales’ supply of food.

‘Imaginary’ regulations 

“The existential threat faced by the southern residents is that nearly every regulation we have relating to protecting the oceans, the orcas, and the environment is imaginary,” said Mark Leiren-Young, host of the podcast Skaana, author of Orcas Everywhere and director of the documentary The Hundred-Year-Old Whale.

“There’s no enforcement.”

After the world watched the orca mom Tahlequah carry her dead calf for 17 days, no one can say they aren’t aware the southern residents are endangered, he argued.

“Remember when pleasure boaters whipped through a bunch of orcas off the coast of Stanley Park?” he asked. “There’s video of that boat and to my knowledge no one has ever been charged.”

The fact is that charges and penalties for such violations are so rare they can hardly be considered a deterrent.

Transport Canada issued more than 140 warning letters to recreational boaters who violated killer whale sanctuaries and distance requirements last year, while pursuing another 89 investigations.

The incidents still under investigation may warrant “stronger action,” said Michelle Sanders, director of the department’s clean water policy division. “To date, no fines have been issued, however, we will not hesitate to ifssue a fine if it is warranted.”

“That is obscene,” charged Leiren-Young. “That is a complete abdication of responsibility by the people enforcing these rules.”

Even the government programs touted as relief for the orcas are largely imaginary, he said.

“Canada claims to have spent hundreds of millions of dollars protecting the home of the southern resident orcas, but it’s really part of an imaginary world where politicians get to say ‘Look at what we’ve done for the orcas.’ whenever they take any action related to oceans or environmental safety.”

 “Upgrade a ferry, add it to the orcas’ tab. Change the design of a pipeline? That was for the orcas, too. Replace some culverts? That was for whales as well,” he fumed.

Critical habitat

Southern residents may come in close proximity with commercial vessels in areas that also attract chinook, the southern residents’ preferred food for at least part of the year.

An acoustic study of orca movements at Swiftsure Bank near the opening of the Strait of Juan de Fuca found that southern residents frequent the area every month of the year, while northern residents were present in the spring and fall.

The bottleneck at the opening of the strait presses chinook, orcas and shipping traffic into tight quarters.

“High levels of use by both of these populations highlights the importance of Swiftsure Bank to both, supporting the expansion of resident killer whale critical habitat to include this site,” wrote the authors, led by a University of Victoria research associate, Amalis Riera.

Both resident orca groups are listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, which mandates the protection of critical habitat.

To date, efforts to address the myriad issues facing the southern resident killer whales have been anemic at best, said Balcomb-Bartok.

“We have a patient arriving by ambulance thrown on an ICU bed and all we’ve managed to do is quiet the halls,” he said of efforts aimed at the shipping industry. “Maybe it’s time we put in an IV drip and address the food supply.”

Governments need to look at the entire web of life, starting with herring and salmon that are the cornerstones of life in the sea and on land and that nourish creatures such as orcas, birds and bears, said Balcomb-Bartok, who has spent his entire life around the southern residents.

He worked on the feature film Free Willy (1993) and the documentary Blackfish (2013).

“I know this sounds pie in the sky, but we have to talk about stopping fishing,” he said. “The southern residents have stopped using their summer feeding grounds. They weren’t here in May, they weren’t here in June.”

“When the shelves are bare, the whales aren’t there.”

Fishing pressure on chinooks is the number one threat to the southern residents, he said, noting that many runs have declined over time from millions of fish a year to thousands. The massive fishery hauls of the past are just that, history.

Seven southern B.C. chinook stocks are considered endangered and four are threatened, according to the Committee on the Status of Wildlife in Canada.

“We need to shut it down and let the patient recover,” Balcomb-Bartok said. “To extend the hospital metaphor, you want the room to be clean, you want the halls quiet, but the patient is dying and needs nutrients.”

“If the government can write cheques for not farming, they can write cheques for not fishing,” he added. “The food supply has declined to the point that it is critical that we let the chinook recover unmolested.”

Government intervention

The federal government has implemented several measures designed to protect the whales’ access to chinook in key foraging areas, including closures of commercial and recreational fishing in designated areas and a ban on fishing within 1,000 metres of killer whales in all B.C. waters.

Sanctuary areas closed to all vessel traffic have been established near Pender Island, Saturna Island and Swiftsure Bank from June 1 to November 30.

All vessels are prohibited from approaching within 400 metres of a whale and boaters are required to idle their engines if a whale breaches that distance. Additionally, whale watching guides have entered into an agreement with the federal government not to pursue the southern residents on their tours.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has also funded research on the impact of contaminants on killer whales, which includes monitoring toxin levels in the whales and their prey.

The 2017 Action Plan for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whale — built on plans developed in 2008 — enumerated 98 recovery measures, which are reviewed regularly for effectiveness.

Too many fish?

What if the problem isn’t a shortage of fish, but too many of the wrong kind?

Greg Ruggerone, a Washington-based fisheries scientist, shocked scientists and other who care about orcas with his observation that, since 1998, the hyper-abundance of pink salmon in odd years appeared to triple mortality and reduce live births by half among southern residents the following year.

While the mechanisms aren’t clear, factors such as shipping, toxins and the availability of chinook cannot explain the “massive effect.”

Earlier research bears out the notion that a poor year for chinook is followed by increased mortality among orcas, which suggests that pinks are affecting chinook returns or the sheer abundance of pinks is interfering with the orcas’ ability to feed.

“Large mammals don’t die right away after a poor season, but after they go through that winter period,” said Ruggerone. “That kind of makes sense as they are huge animals.”

During the period of the study, there were 61 deaths in even years but just 17 in odd-numbered years. There were just 16 successful births in even years, compared with 32 successful births in odd years, according to the study, which relied on data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Center for Whale Research.

Oddly, conservation measures aimed at reducing the chinook catch may have backfired, triggering a massive increase in pink abundance.

In 2018 and 2019, there was a “phenomenal hyper-abundance” of pinks, representing more than 70 per cent of all salmon returns.

Pinks primarily enter the Salish Sea from mid-July to early September, at about the same time as chinooks. So, when fishing was restricted, pink numbers exploded.

“The low harvest rates on highly abundant pinks allowed the escapement of pink salmon to more than double from 1999 to present compared with the earlier period, corresponding to the period of (the southern residents’) decline,” said Ruggerone.

“Both species migrate along the west side of San Juan Island and Boundary Pass where orca feed on chinook,” he added.

The problem is that orcas “almost never” eat pinks.

“We hypothesize that highly abundant pink salmon interfere with orca foraging efficiency on chinook in odd years and this contributes to mortality and fewer successful births in the following even-numbered year,” he said.

Selectively fishing pinks, which tend to stick closer to the surface than chinook, could reverse the effect, he suggested.

Adding to the orcas’ problem is a gradual reduction in the size of chinook salmon, effectively putting the whales on a calorie-reduced diet at the worst possible time.

Size-selective fisheries scoop up the bigger fish, as do the whales themselves. Chinook also have to compete for food in the open ocean with the suddenly hyper-abundant pinks, which makes it harder for them to add body mass.

Adding to that, chinook produced in hatcheries tend to return to near-shore waters younger, smaller and less nourishing for the whales.

“This is why it is important for hatcheries that are trying to ‘feed the orca’ attempt to produce older chinook and more chinook returning in the spring and summer months, which have seen the greatest decline in chinook abundance in the Salish Sea,” Ruggerone advised.

This article written by Randy Shore about Tougher measures needed to save southern resident killer whales, experts warn originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun on January 23, 2021. 

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