Will orcas join salmon on list?

Published on Thu, Sep 6, 2001 by Laura Thoren

Read More News

Will orcas join salmon on list?

By Laura Thoren

Peter Hamilton received the call March 18, 2000; an orca had been beached in Boundary Bay.

“It was chaotic, kids were walking around in pools of blood.” Hamilton said. “The body was left uncovered and eagles and other birds could’ve begun picking at the body and consuming contamination that would’ve stayed in the food chain,” he said.

As founder of Lifeforce Foundation, a local marine mammal protection organization, Hamilton sent recommendations to Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans not to dispose of the body in Boundary Bay.

Increased amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs would jeopardized the ecosystem, Hamilton said. Instead, he suggested the DFO incinerate the body to prevent the toxins from entering the environment.

Hamilton identified the whale as J-18, a member of the southern resident community’s J pod, more fondly known as Everett. Despite Hamilton’s recommendation Everett was disposed of in Boundary Bay.

Biologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, report that the southern resident orca population has fluctuated since the 70s, reaching a peak of 97 in 1996. However, in recent years the population has steadily declined to an estimated 78 whales.

“We know so little about these animal outside their summer foraging areas,” said Brent Norberg, NOAA fisheries biologist. “ We don’t even know where they spend their winter or the extent of their range. That makes determining the reason for the decline quite a challenge.”

On August 7, the National Marine Fisheries Service, agreed to review the status of the southern resident group of orca whales in Puget Sound. The review was requested by 11 conservation groups including The Whale Museum and the Center for Whale Research, who submitted a petition to NMFS last May.

Completion of the review could result in a listing of this specific population of orcas as an endangered or threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act by May 2003.

This group of orcas, known as J,K and L pods, frequents Puget Sound between southern Vancouver Island and the Washington coastline as far south as Gray’s Harbor. During the 1960s and early 70s, it was documented that commercial aquariums in the United States and Canada killed or captured 48 orcas from the southern resident population.

“The orcas’ decline indicates the health of an entire ecosystem,”said Mike Sato, director of the non-profit environmental organization People for Puget Sound, “Its not an isolated problem.” Conservationists believe several factors are contributing to the declining orca population. Sato thinks the problem is strongly tied to decreasing food supplies and increasing toxins in the marine environment.

“It should trigger people getting serious about saving salmon,“ Sato said.
Studies of various salmon runs conducted by scientists at the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor indicate orcas prefer chinook salmon, a species that was listed as endangered just this year.

“During the 1970s Puget Sound used to have a resident population of salmon,” said Ken Balcom, biologist at the Center for Whale Research, “Over fishing and pollution have caused habitat destruction.”

Although the orcas will eat from other salmon stocks, Balcom said, scarcity during the winter forces the whales to rely on body fat reserves while expending more energy searching for alternative food sources. These food sources generally consist of bottom fish which are known to be highly contaminated with toxins in Puget Sound.

One of the most harmful of these toxins are PCBs. “PCBs attach to fat, and won’t break down,” Balcom said. As animals continue to eat other individuals in the food chain, PCBs accumulate in fatty tissue. “In orcas, PCBs are usually passed on to offspring through the mother’s milk which contains a lot of fat,” Balcom said. “PCBs trigger problems in fetal development and cause problems in the reproductive systems of adult orcas.”

The manufacturing of PCBs has been banned since the 1970s but residual PCBs remain in Puget Sound. “PCBs are ubiquitous,” said Brian Gorman, spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle. “The principle source was the manufacturing of electrical transformers. When the transformers were deposited in landfills, PCBs leached out into soils and groundwater and eventually into Puget Sound,” Gorman said.
Other factors may put stress on the orcas including intrusion from whale watchers and noise pollution from boats.

Although declining fish populations and pollution are a more significant threat to the whales, educating boaters about whale watching guidelines is a more direct approach to protection, Sound Watch coordinator Kari Koski said. This year, organizations in Puget Sound and Vancouver are coordinating their efforts to educate boaters and protect the whales.

Laws regulating boater behavior near the orcas cannot be enforced due to the federal Marine Mammals Protection Act, Koski said. “The way the law is currently written is very broad in order to be all inclusive,” Koski said, “which means it’s not very enforceable.” The act generally states that harassment by boaters causing a change in the whales behavior is illegal. “It was written to prevent all kinds of activities,” Koski said.

“Unless it can be proven that the whales’ behavior is changed, no one can issue a ticket.”

Counties and states cannot make any law that goes beyond the federal legislation, Koski said. Communities can agree to educate the public and encourage voluntary measures such as designating slow zones or go zones to protect the whales’ foraging and traveling paths
“Communities can work with people to create a voluntary stewardship ethic,” Koski said. Public pressure could turn the suggested guidelines into enforceable laws for specific populations of animals, she said. “Until the federal government puts guidelines into law, nothing could be legally enforced,” she said.

The Lifeforce Foundation, in operation since the early 1980s, also strives to educate whale watchers. The Orca Center, located at Lighthouse Marine Park educates the public on orca identification and appropriate whale watching. Peter Hamilton focuses on studying behavior of marine mammals, primarily the orcas. Lifeforce studies are examining the affects of boat traffic near the orcas through sound and travel pattern studies. “Currently we’re also trying to correlate whale behavior with vocal noises,” Hamilton said.
In order for the orcas to be listed as threatened, they must be found to be biologically and genetically distinct and the risk of possible extinction must be determined.

“The listing could result in increased federal protection of Salmon runs and control of toxic chemicals being dumped in Puget Sound,” said Rich Osborn of the Whale museum in Friday Harbor. .

. .

Back to Top