Southern Resident Killer Whales or Orcas: Endangered Animals
Orcas or Killer Whales in the Salish Sea
The Salish Sea links British Columbia and Washington. From spring to early fall, it contains a distinct group of orcas, or killer whales, known as the southern residents. These animals are socially and genetically isolated from other orcas in the eastern Pacific Ocean. They are in serious trouble due to lack of salmon to eat and perhaps other reasons. The group has been plagued by a low rate of reproduction and the death of calves and adults. The animals are classified as endangered.
At the time when this article was written, some unusual behaviour had been noted. In late June, 2019, the whales still hadn’t returned to the Salish Sea from their overwintering areas. They usually arrive in May. Some people wonder if this is another sign of problems in the population. The animals may need our help in order to survive. I have included updates about the latest situation with respect to the whales at the end of the article.
I don’t think anybody here recalls any June without whales. It’s really unprecedented.— Michael Weiss, Center for Whale Research
The Strait of Georgia is located between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca is located between southern Vancouver Island and Washington, and Puget Sound extends down to Seattle and beyond.
The Salish Sea
The part of the Pacific Ocean between Vancouver Island, mainland British Columbia, and northern Washington is known as the Salish Sea. The area contains a complex network of waterways. The largest bodies of water in the sea are the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound. The narrow ocean channels that are bordered by land and connect to these larger bodies of water are considered to be part of the Salish Sea. One of these channels is Burrard Inlet, which is located near my home.
The Salish Sea is part of the Pacific Ocean but is somewhat sheltered from it. Activities and problems in the area are of concern to both Canada and the United States. Canadian and U.S. researchers are studying the orcas that frequent the area. The scientists often cooperate with one another.
Killer Whales in the Eastern Pacific Ocean
Killer whales have the scientific name Orcinus orca. Though the common name "killer whale" is still widely used, "orca" is preferred by some people. The names are often used interchangeably.
Five groups of the animals can be found in the eastern Pacific. They are classified into three ecotypes: offshore, transient, and resident.
- Offshore Whales: Little is known about these animals. They feed an a variety of fish, perhaps including sharks.
- Transient or Bigg's Whales: These animals are found all along the Pacific Coast of North America. They hunt for marine mammals.
- Alaskan Residents: The whales spend the majority of their time around Alaska. Like the other two resident populations, they primarily feed on fish.
- Northern Residents: These whales are often seen in the northern part of British Columbia, but their range partially overlaps that of the southern residents. The two groups don't appear to interact and genetic studies suggest that they don't interbreed.
- Southern Residents: The southern residents are found in the Salish Sea in late spring to early fall. At other times of the year, they are generally seen on the open coast next to British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon but are sometimes discovered by Alaska or California.
Southern Resident Killer Whales (as they are often called) are more widely dispersed when they are outside the Salish Sea. Their exact distribution in winter isn't known. Occasionally, some animals are seen in the Salish Sea in winter. As of January 11, 2019, the group contained seventy-five individuals.
Dr. Michael Bigg was a respected marine biologist who made some important discoveries about killer whales in British Columbia. Transient killer whales were renamed in his honour.
Southern Resident Killer Whales or Orcas
The southern resident orca group consists of three pods: the J Pod, K Pod, and L Pod. Each pod is led by a mature female. As a group, the three pods form an extended family. The orcas are distinct from the other killer whales in the eastern Pacific. Though the resident orcas sometimes encounter these animals, researchers say that they don’t interact with them.
According to the Center for Whale Research, the J pod contains twenty-two members. This is the pod that is most often seen in the Salish Sea. The K pod contains eighteen members. The L pod contains thirty-five members.
The animals have attracted the public's attention not only because of their problems but also because they are more likely to be seen when they are in the Salish Sea. Some travel a considerable distance inland along Puget Sound. That being said, about two weeks before this article was written, four transient killer whales were seen in False Creek, an ocean inlet in the city of Vancouver. It was a strange sight to see whales beside city buildings. Killer whales are sometimes seen in Burrard Inlet as well.
Seventy to eighty percent of the resident group’s diet consists of Chinook salmon. They also eat other types of fish. The animals share their catch with members of their pod. They are known to have a distinct “dialect”, or repertoire of vocalizations, compared to other members of their species. On top of this, each pod in the group has a few vocalizations that are distinctly their own.
The videos in this article show the southern resident whales. The photos show other varieties. The video below shows whales by Galiano Island in the Strait of Georgia. According to the description of the video, J and L pods have come together. The sounds created by the animals as they swim and exhale can be heard.
Problems in the Population
Although the lack of whales in the Salish Sea in June is unexpected, researchers say that the animals have been reducing the time that they spend in the area since 2013. The area may no longer be the best home for them for much of the year.
In 2018, the whales came to the public’s attention due to the moving behaviour of Tahlequah, or orca J35. She carried her dead calf on her head for at least seventeen days. Biologists try not to assume that other animals are experiencing the same emotion as a human might do during a particular event. It was widely acknowledged that Tahlequah appeared to be exhibiting grief, however. Sadly, J17, Tahlequah’s mother, was close to death when last observed.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a high miscarriage rate in the group. A multi-year study suggests that between 2007 and 2014, up to two thirds of pregnancies in the group ended in miscarriage. Calves that are born often live for only a short time.
Why Are the Salish Sea Orcas in Trouble?
The reasons why the Salish Sea orcas are in trouble appear to be complex. The Chinook salmon is their main food source. Like the whales, the fish is endangered. Researchers who follow the whale pods see individual whales losing weight and becoming weaker as they apparently starve. There are probably more reasons for the animals’ problems than the loss of salmon, however. Orcas are intelligent animals that can survive on other food sources besides Chinook salmon if the foods can be found, are sufficiently nutritious, and are safe to eat.
Noise from ships is thought to be playing a role in the animal’s problems. One researcher says that hunting by echolocation isn’t easy when the ocean is filled with noise. Echolocation involves the emission of high-frequency sound waves and their reflection back to the sender when they hit an object. A whale that uses echolocation can detect a lot of information about an object from the reflected waves, including the location of prey. Sound waves from other sources may interfere with this ability.
Pollution may be another problem for the whales, as they are for some other marine animals. Contaminants are building up in the bodies of some whales and may be collecting in prey animals, too.
It’s thought that inbreeding in the pods may be causing genetic problems in the whales and contributing to their reproduction troubles. In 2018, researchers discovered that close relatives are breeding within each pod. They also discovered that two males–one in the J pod and one in the L pod–were the fathers of more than half of the calves born in the group since 1990. If inbreeding is the main or a major contributor to the group's decline, it might be very hard to help the whales.
Already a small population of 76 animals, the southern residents are acting more like a population of only 20 or 30, with few animals breeding.— Michael Ford, NOAA Fisheries Science Center, 2018
Why Are Chinook Salmon in Trouble?
The Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) is the largest salmon. It’s an important component of its environment. Multiple animals feed on the living or dead fish, including orcas, bears, and bald eagles.
According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), the salmon’s population is decreasing or is potentially threatened due to a variety of factors. Some of these factors are listed below. (Other factors may exist.)
Since Chinook salmon are found in both fresh and salt water, depending on their life stage, habitat changes in multiple areas can affect their population. Forestry, agriculture, urbanization, and changes to the coastline have harmed the fish.
Until 2010, the fish was heavily harvested. Though the harvest rate is now decreasing, it will take time for the population to recover from overfishing. It may also be difficult to establish a suitable harvest rate.
Hatcheries can spread diseases from farmed animals to wild ones or physically block migration routes for fish. Fish and undesirable chemicals may escape from the hatchery into the ocean, affecting the wild animals.
Climate change may decrease the amount of water in streams and rivers and increase their temperature. The rise in temperature could decrease the amount of oxygen in the water, reduce growth of the fish, reduce the amount of suitable prey, increase the density of certain parasites, and change the timing of migration.
Warmer and saltier oceans may affect the survival of young salmon and their migration. Temperature changes may be especially important in the relative shallow water of estuaries and shorelines. Predator and prey abundance may be altered by the changed environment.
Marine Mammal Interactions
This factor is often mentioned in relation to the decreased salmon and orca populations. The population of California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) has increased seasonally and that of Pacific harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) is increasing on a year-round basis. Since connections are often complex in nature, the reason why these animal’s populations are increasing needs to be understood.
The Trans Mountain Pipeline
The Trans Mountain Pipeline is a sixty-six-year-old pipe that transports oil from Alberta to Vancouver in British Columbia. Here the oil is transported in tankers to other areas. The pipeline currently delivers 300,000 barrels of oil a day. A proposed expansion via a parallel line would allow the transport of 890,000 barrels a day and would require far more tanker traffic.
The pipeline was originally owned by a Texas company named Kinder Morgan Inc. In 2018, it was sold to the Canadian government. In June 2019, the government approved the expansion of the pipeline system, despite protests from environmentalists and indigenous people living near the line. The government says that the expansion is in the national interest because it will create jobs as well as new markets for Alberta’s oil.
Opponents worry about how the oil will harm the Salish Sea, the orcas, and the salmon if a spill occurs. They also worry about the increased noise caused by vessels. The situation might cause even more problems for the animals. Spills from the first line have already occurred. One occurred where I live, though it was due to human error. A contractor working on a sewage project accidentally damaged the oil pipe. Some of the oil travelled through the storm sewage system to Burrard Inlet. It also sprayed houses. Both problems required a major clean-up.
Importance of Genetic Diversity in Animals
The survival of the southern resident animals may be important on an emotional level for some people. It's important with respect to maintaining genetic diversity in orcas, too, since the animals have genetic differences from their relatives.
Some people may wonder why it matters if one group of orcas is in trouble when many others exist in the world. Genes give animals many of their characteristics. It's possible that if the environment changes in a particular way, whales with a particular genetic composition will have an advantage. They may be able to survive while those with other genetic compositions may not. It's also possible that when we study their genome and its effects, we'll learn something relevant and useful with respect to our own genes. This opportunity may be lost if the animals disappear.
The Fate of the Whales
Agencies are taking steps to help the whales. Hopefully these steps aren't a case of too little, too late. The Government of Canada has announced salmon fishery closures at key times, rules for reducing underwater noise, the addition of new chemicals to the toxic and prohibited list, and the increased monitoring of water quality.
Some scientists suspected that the whales would eventually visit the Salish Sea in 2019, even though their long absence was unusual. (As described in the first update below, they eventually did.) News reports describe the altered behaviour as yet another sign that the animals are in trouble. Perhaps it’s actually a sign that they’ve found a better place to spend most of their time. The Southern Resident Killer Whales are a unique and impressive group of animals. I think their survival is important.
Whale Habitat in the Salish Sea
Update: July 5th, 2019
On July 5th, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) made a significant announcement on their website. Some of the southern resident killer whales were seen off the west coast of Vancouver Island and in the Salish Sea.
- Canadian researchers saw four members of L pod on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island on June 27th.
- On June 30th, the researchers saw a “large number” of J and K pod whales (including a new calf in the J pod) and some animals from L pod in the area.
- On July 5th, US researchers saw about 40 members of J and K pods in the Haro Strait off the west coast of San Juan Island. This island is one of a group of islands known as the San Juan Islands and is shown in the map above.
The researchers and other people concerned about the whales were delighted that the animals reappeared and that a calf was with them. July 5th was a very late date to see the whales in the Salish Sea for the first time, though.
The CBC article also announced that the ECHO or Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation trial has started. (Whales, dolphins, and porpoises belong to a group known as cetaceans.) The trial is being operated by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority. It involves the voluntary slowdown of marine vessels in the areas where the whales have been seen and is supported by both the government and the marine transportation industry. Its purpose is to reduce noise in the places where the whales feed.
Update: Early 2020
More news about the whales was released in late January, 2020. A male aged approximately forty-three has disappeared from his group. He's known as L41 or Mega. His age and his thin body when last seen make researchers suspect that he has died. In late 2019, it was assumed that seventy-three whales existed. If Mega has died, that would reduce the number to seventy-two.
I think it's important to keep track of the whales and hope the ECHO trial is helpful. I'll follow the fate of the animals and will update this article again if significant discoveries are made. Hopefully the next report will be a happy one or at least not a sad one.
- Facts about the Salish Sea orcas from the David Suzuki Foundation
- The Salish Sea orcas are late from The Star newspaper
- Southern resident killer whale information from the Marine Mammal Commission
- Lean times threaten a matriarch orca from The Globe and Mail newspaper
- Information about Chinook salmon in the Salish Sea from the EPA
- Inbreeding in the whales from the Vancouver Sun newspaper
- The government approves the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion from The Globe and Mail
- Protecting Southern Resident Killer Whales from the Government of Canada
- Endangered Killer Whales Spotted from CBC Vancouver
- 2020 update about the whales from the CBC
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Linda Crampton