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Toxins Key to Saving Beloved Southern Resident Orcas

| Sharon Ryals Tamm
Topics: Cetacean Habitat, Orcas, Science

How are Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs), the most studied and perhaps most beloved orcas in the world, doing after nearly 13 years on the endangered species list? Not well.

The Puget Sound Partnership’s comprehensive State of the Sound Report shows SRKW’s declining on all fronts.  Recovery goals, set following the work of Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project and other organizations in gaining their endangered listing under the US Endangered Species Act in 2005, will not be met.  The main problems are pollution, reduced Chinook salmon populations and noise and disruptions from shipping, commercial fishing, recreational boating, and military and industrial underwater activity in the orcas’ home waters.

The media seem to pay most attention to noise with a focus on whale watching and recreational boating.  Perhaps this is because these noise problems can be and are being solved, with speed limits and protective buffer areas around orcas.  

However important, reducing noise won’t save orcas, just as eliminating chatty birdwatchers couldn’t save bald eagles.  Many problems contributed to the decline of large raptors, but the key was DDT.  Until it was banned, every other effort just put a little Band-Aid on a mortal wound.  Similarly, toxins are the lynchpin in SRKW survival.  Unfortunately, no one specific toxin has been isolated as the fatal keystone.  

Record SRKW births in 2015-16 brought six new babies into the J, K, and L pods, creating a hopeful rise to 83 members.  Yet by the end of 2017, half the babies died along with Granny, the eldest matriarch, and males and females in reproductive generations.  The Center for Whale Research shows the population has plummeted to only 76 members, their lowest level in more than 30 years.  This is comparable to the devastation after the captivity industry captured and ultimately killed an entire generation of young and reproductive age orcas, (NOAA estimate: 47), from 1964-76.  The SRKWs have never fully recovered from those concentrated assaults, and their population is again at low ebb.

The accumulated deadly toxins in orca blubber, released into the blood stream when hunger burns up fat cells, are now the root cause of the majority of orca deaths.  

For most of the summer of 2017 there was no rain in the Pacific Northwest.  The Makah, a Native fishing culture where the Salish Sea meets the Pacific Ocean, have always known—after rain in the mountains, salmon come in, and orcas follow salmon.  With no summer rain, there were no summer salmon runs, and the resident orcas did not come in from the open ocean to the Salish Sea.  When rain finally fell, and salmon returned, the orcas who followed were underfed.  Hunting in the open ocean uses far more energy than feeding on dense salmon runs in the shallower waters of the Salish Sea.  

Many returning orcas had a dip at the base of their heads instead of the smooth line from mouth to dorsal fin seen in well-fed orcas.  A severe depression around the neck area, known as peanut-head, indicates life-threatening hunger.  All the orcas with peanut-head died.  The very young, recently weaned, and nursing mothers are particularly vulnerable.  But it isn’t primarily starvation that kills them.  The toxic load that is released, when their bodies must digest their own blubber to survive, poisons orcas long before they can starve to death.

J52 showing the characteristic “peanut head” depression behind the outline shape of the skull covered by a thin blubber layer. Photo by Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

Hunger related toxic death is rooted in a complex of human caused pollution and toxic runoff. As top predators in the sea, orca blubber contains every chemical found in generations of runoff from the polluted watersheds surrounding their native waters.   This includes high levels of mercury and heavy metals from mining, some of which ended decades ago, plus DDT and PCB’s—long banned poisons that persist in the marine food chain—along with many current toxins.  Orca bodies carry the history of human disregard for and pollution of land, air and water.

The largest source of ongoing pollution comes from rapid runoff from hardscape.  Buildings, concrete and asphalt cover watersheds that empty into the Salish Sea.  Millions of dollars have been spent to mitigate existing residential and commercial hardscape adding permeable soft-scape to slow and filter run off.  There are even incentives to remove seawalls and restore tidal filtering interchange along shores.  

Yet these costly efforts barely keep up with the new hardscape and sea walls being built.  Everyone knows it’s far less expensive and more effective to preserve healthy watersheds than to restore damaged ones, yet counties and cities around the Salish Sea have not aligned building regulations with protecting their remaining healthy watersheds or their exquisite and world famous inland sea.  The millions spent on mitigation when measured against unchecked development breaks about even.  

Breaking even is not good enough and nets zero for salmon and orcas.  No amount of mitigation can make up for continued rapid destruction of healthy watersheds.

Shouldn’t development regulations be required to align with the Endangered Species Act?  Why isn’t all new development required to include filtering swales and other soft-scape to mitigate toxic run-off?  What about protecting all remaining undeveloped creeks, rivers, and wetlands as open space corridors with large riparian boundaries?  And just stop issuing sea wall permits.  “No net loss” is all most permitting agencies are aiming for, which nets zero for salmon and orcas.

Protecting and restoring the endangered Chinook salmon population is also largely a toxins issue.  Toxic runoff into salmon rivers from development, logging, mining, agriculture, nuclear waste, and other human activity, disrupts habitat that salmon require and loads toxins into the salmon that survive.  Toxins are the key threat to both salmon and orcas, especially in their primary Salish Sea and Columbia River salmon spawning and resident orca feeding grounds.  

The Columbia River Keepers report high levels of heavy metals, PCB’s, flame retardant, endocrine disrupters and other chemicals in fish from the Columbia River.  Salmon that spend much of their lives in the open ocean, show somewhat lower levels of toxins than river dwelling fish which is good news for orcas, but not good enough.  Radioactive waste from the Hanford site also still floods the Columbia River, after years into Superfund cleanup efforts.  

The Fraser River complex contains the spawning grounds for the majority of Chinook salmon in the Salish Sea, upon which both Northern and Southern Resident Orcas depend, yet I’ve heard locals call it the colon of British Columbia.  Old and current mining operations leach mercury and heavy metals and at times spill tons of mining waste into both headwater creeks and the river.  A toxic soup of over 200 substances has been identified, some of which are linked to the rapid decline in spawning fish populations beginning in the 1990’s.  Joint efforts between the US and Canada are urgently needed to clean it up.  

Studies have shown Atlantic salmon farm pens, with their concentrated wastes and associated parasites and diseases, can decimate other salmon species.  A recent pen breakdown in Washington released more than 150 thousand non-native salmon that compete with and attack native species.  Native fishing tribes with treaty fishing rights, say the farms threaten already declining wild salmon.  Yet neither British Columbia or Washington ban fish farms, even with large wild fishing interests to protect.  Two ban bills are in progress in WA.  Republican House Bill 2260 calls for an immediate ban and Democratic Senate Bill 6806 bans new permits, but allows existing farm pen operations to gradually phase out as permits expire.  Someone needs to light a fire under the Dems.  

Dams erected early in the last century cut off spawning grounds and, even with fish ladder mitigation, they are grossly inadequate for spawning species.  Many old dams are dangerously decrepit, and no longer serve the purposes for which they were built.  They need to come down.  Save Our Wild Salmon and Earth Justice both say removing four hydro-electric dams on the Snake River, which feeds the Columbia River, is not only feasible but vital to restoring the large salmon runs that orcas depend on in their southern feeding grounds at the mouth of the Columbia.

Dam removal is a blog in itself.  Suffice to say here, the major dam removal and restoration projects begun in 2011 on the Elwha River in the north Olympic Peninsula and on the White Salmon River that empties into the Columbia River, demonstrate how well it can work.  In the first year after removal, unexpected Chinook were detected swimming up their heavily silted waters.  Spawning success varies but has improved by about 42% since.  

The hope is that well-fed orcas will not die from digesting their own toxic blubber.

Though dam removal is restoring salmon runs stifled for 100+ years, we must also actively protect healthy watersheds and salmon rivers, and keep cleaning up toxic watersheds, or dam removal will also net zero for both salmon and orcas.  

Corporate money still pours in to fund more studies of our SRKWs, some of it even coming from Sea World, which did the most to destroy these orcas for their own profits.  More studies will not help our orcas now.  Resources must go to make cities and counties create and enforce rigorous development regulations; protect still healthy watersheds and salmon rivers; and ban toxic fish farms.  Restoring damaged and polluted habitat must continue.  If combined with successful protection of healthy habitats, restoration will have a growing impact instead of netting zero.  

Our beloved southern resident orcas are dying off.  We know a lot about them, who’s related to whom, what they eat, and what they need.  It’s time to get the work done.

Header image copyright Center for Whale Research /