ORCA Threats

In February, 2016, the National Marine Fisheries Service singled out the Southern Resident Killer Whales as one of the eight species most at risk of extinction in their “Species in the Spotlight: Survive to Thrive” report to congress. The Southern Resident population is threatened primarily by lack of food due to declining chinook salmon runs; toxic pollution and other contaminants; climate change; noise and disturbance. The whale protection zone Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance is advocating for would give the population more quiet time for hunting, communications, and rest.

Prey Decline

SRKW Miscarriages Linked to Low Salmon Numbers. New technologies are allowing scientists to determine sooner and more accurately when SKRWs are pregnant, thus allowing for more precise research about the causes of miscarriage and infant mortality. Hormonal analysis of fecal samples, as well as drone photography are now being employed to unobtrusively monitor pregnancy in the whales. These methods have allowed the researchers to link miscarriages with low salmon supply, confirming the hypothesis that low prey abundance is partially responsible for the population’s failure to rebound. July 20, 2016


BC to Release Young Chinooks. The Canadian government has approved a plan to release 200,000 young Chinook salmon into the Sooke River to boost prey supply for the endangered SRKWs and to provide more fish for anglers. The South Vancouver Island Anglers Coalition, which raised the funds for the project through grants and donations, hopes to increase to 2 million salmon per year eventually. June 27, 2016


US Plan for Salmon Not Sufficient. The U.S. District Court of Oregon ruled that the federal government’s plan for the Columbia and Snake River Salmon violates the federal Engendered Species Act. The ruling ordered a new opinion and NEPA analysis by 2018. Stronger protection efforts for salmon will also have an impact on the SRKWs, which are dependent on these salmon for most of their food supply. May 5, 2016


Klamath River Dam Removal Proposed. Conservation groups are hoping that the removal of four dams on the Klamath River will have a positive impact on salmon populations that are critical for SRKW survival. The project is estimated to increase salmon numbers by over 80%, in a critical area for feeding between the Sacramento and Columbia Rivers. The removal of the dams should be completed by 2020 and will be one of the largest river restoration projects in the US. April 7, 2016


SRKWs Eat 98% Chinooks. New research based on analysis of orca fecal samples shows that chinook salmon make up 98% of the diets of the Southern Resident Killer Whales. This study provides further evidence of the crucial connection between salmon populations and the health of the SRKWs. January 10, 2016 (Courtesy of Salish Sea News)


New WA Program to Recover Chinooks. The Washington Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the Puget Sound Partnership have announced a $44.3 million funding program to restore Chinook salmon habitat and bring the species back from the edge of extinction. The money will be distributed in grants to organizations in 28 counties, spanning 128 projects. The projects will focus on removing barriers to salmon migration, improving salmon habitat, and protecting pristine areas that are crucial for spawning, and feeding. Dec. 9, 2015


Noise & Disturbance

Killer Whale Patrols Begin in San Juans. NOAA has begun patrolling the Salish Sea for the summer months in order to enforce Federal distance restrictions that are in place to protect SRKWs from boat noise and disturbance. The patrols also provide opportunities to educate boaters about regulations. June 30, 2016


Noise from Shipping Vessels. A recently published study based on three years’ worth of hydrophone data from Haro Strait has determined that the noise emitted by shipping vessels falls in the same high frequency range as that used by Orca to communicate. The presence of this background noise has the potential to disrupt orca communication and interfere with their ability to hunt and reproduce. February 2, 2016


New Monitoring of Shipping Noise. Researchers from the Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation (ECHO) Program have launched a listening station in the Strait of Georgia to monitor underwater noise from shipping vessels. This research will provide information about different kinds of noise produced by different vessels, and the impact of this noise of marine mammals. September 15, 2015


Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap to reduce harmful ocean noise. The plan includes more research into the effects of noise on ocean ecosystems, as well as outreach to federal, military, and private groups that contribute to ocean noise. The Administration has already begun using quieter vessels in an effort to reduce their own noise disturbance. The Roadmap is an early draft, and stands as part of a ten year plan to reduce the harmful effects of sound pollution in the oceans. June 3, 2016.


Toxins & Contaminants

Skewed Sex Ratio of Young SRKWs. Researchers have begun looking into the skewed sex ratio of the young SRKWs- all but one of the calves born since 2014 has been male. Preliminary hypotheses speculate that toxins in the environment may be partially responsible for the low number of female calves – a situation that will inhibit the population’s reproductive capacity as these whales mature. April 6, 2016


Toxins Cleanup Funding Declines. Washington State budget cuts threaten environmental cleanup efforts. Falling oil prices have led to lower tax revenue from oil sales, decreasing the amount of funds available to legislators for environmental cleanup efforts. Debate within the Washington legislature regarding the best use of funds- to cleanup old pollution or prevent new pollution- further complicates decision-making. March 8, 2016


Medications Harm Salmon. Researchers have found dozens of contaminants related to over- the-counter medications and personal care products in the tissues of juvenile Chinook salmon in Puget Sound. This contamination is the result of inadequately treated wastewater discharge. The substances recorded (collectively known as “Contaminants of Emerging Concern) included antibiotics, ibuprofen, DEET, estrogens, caffeine, and antihistamines. Most of the reported contaminants are little studied, and have no established levels of safety within the ecosystem. The impact of these contaminants on the salmon, as well as those species that prey on them (most especially the Southern Resident Killer Whales), is unknown and requires further study. February 26, 2016


Storm Runoff Carries Toxins to Salmon. Researchers have linked stormwater runoff – which carries oil, pesticides, and other toxins into urban streams and rivers – with the decline of the endangered Coho salmon. However, simple, inexpensive filtration systems may be able to remove these contaminants from stormwater before it reaches waterways. October 12, 2015


Oil in Marine Waters Harms Salmon. New research shows that low levels of crude oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill were harmful to embryonic salmon and herring, leading to decreased survival. Expose of fish embryos led to heart malformations and decreased swimming capacity, making fish more susceptible to predation and disease. This research has implications for the impact of small and large scale oil spills on fish populations in the Puget Sound, and the other species that rely on those fish for food. September 8, 2015


Oil Spill Risk Increases with Shipping Traffic. Increasing transport of oil in the Salish Sea increases the risk of oil spills that could threaten the survival of the southern resident killer whales. Numerous projects planned to increase transport of oil into Puget Sound could lead to tripling of oil tanker traffic through the Salish Sea. June 18, 2015


Oil Spill Cleanup Kits Available. A partnership of organizations will be distributing over 1,000 small oil spill clean-up kits in an effort to curb pollution from recreational vessels in Puget Sound. Research shows that small oil spills from recreational boats and commercial fishing vessels made up 99% of reported spills over the past 15 years. The kits will be available during free vessel safety examinations being conducted by the Coast Guard Auxiliary. July 24, 2015


Climate Change

Effects of Climate Change on Krill. Research on krill larva has shown that increased levels of carbon dioxide dissolved in water can prevent krill eggs from hatching. This finding is a troubling suggestion that increased levels of CO2 in ocean water, particularly in the Antarctic, one of the fastest warming parts of the planet, may have serious repercussions for the marine food chains that rely on krill. If current carbon emissions remain steady, the Antarctic could see a 20-70% reduction in the krill population by 2100. Oct. 29, 2015.


Concerns Mount over Whale Deaths in Gulf of Alaska. Warm waters off British Columbia and in the Gulf of Alaska may be responsible for the death of 30 whales in 2015. This “unusual mortality event”, which represents a threefold increase over the standard mortality rate of whales in the region, is likely due to predation, starvation, or disease, possibly resulting from the unusually warm waters in the North Pacific, which may be altering prey behavior or contributing to algal blooms that produce deadly toxins. Research is ongoing to determine the cause of these whale deaths. August 24, 2015


Climate Change Flooding App Developed. A new app has been developed to model potential flood scenarios for the Seattle area based on current global warming trends. The app uses data about sea level rise combined with potential flooding from the Snohomish River to model what flood levels would look like in various carbon emission scenarios, as well as with different flood levels. The app can be accessed at http://maps.coastalresilience.org/pugetsound/ (Courtesy of Salish Sea News)


Climate Change, Evidence & Causes (an overview from the Royal Society and the US National Academy of Sciences) makes clear what is well-established and where understanding is still developing. It echoes and builds upon the long history of climate-related work from both national academies, as well as on the newest climate-change assessment from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It touches on current areas of active debate and ongoing research, such as the link between ocean heat content and the rate of warming. February 27, 2014


Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation in Washington State: Technical Summaries for Decision Makers summarizes existing knowledge about the likely effects of climate change on Washington State and the Pacific Northwest, with an emphasis on research since 2007. This “State of Knowledge” report provides technical summaries detailing observed and projected changes for Washington’s climate, water resources, forests, species and ecosystems, coasts and ocean, infrastructure, agriculture, and human health in an easy-to-read summary format designed to complement the foundational literature from which it draws. The report also describes climate change adaptation activities underway across the state and data resources available to support local adaptation efforts. Prepared for the Washington State Department of Ecology. 2013


Ocean Acidification: From Knowledge to Action, Washington State’s Strategic Response. Washington State’s Strategic Response to the developing problem of ocean acidification. Today’s ocean acidification is important not only for the amount of change that has occurred thus far but also for how quickly it is happening. The current rate of acidification is nearly ten times faster than any time in the past 50 million years, outpacing the ocean’s capacity to restore oceanic pH and carbonate chemistry. The rapid pace of change also gives marine organisms, marine ecosystems, and humans less time to adapt, evolve, or otherwise adjust to the changing circumstances. November 2012


Impacts of Climate Change on Ecosystem Structure. A paper published in the Journal of Bioscience has collected information about the physiological impact of ocean acidification and hypoxia on marine invertebrates and the cumulative impact of these effects on animal behavior and ecosystem structure along the west coast of North America. This work serves as an indicator of the changes that Southern Residents Killer Whales may experience as the top predator of the Salish Sea marine ecosystem. January 11, 2016


Threats from Energy Projects. New research published in the journal PLOS One outlines the various environmental threats posed by increased marine vessel traffic from energy-related development projects in the Salish Sea. The study considers the cumulative effects of these threats on various species (including the SRKWs) with financial and cultural significance to Coast Salish First Nations, and evaluates the challenges of managing risk in ecosystems spanning multiple governments. Dec. 21, 2015


Carbon-reduction Policy & Actions

Trans Mountain Pipeline Approved. The Canadian National Energy Board has approved the Kinder Morgan proposal to expand their Trans Mountain pipeline, despite acknowledging that the project poses a threat to the SRKWs from the increased shipping traffic noise the project will create. Conservation groups argued that the project would be in violation of the Species At Risk Act, which protects endangered species. First Nations also opposed the ruling, citing the cultural and ecological importance of the Orca. May 21, 2016


Gateway Pacific Terminal Rejected. The US Army Corps of Engineers has rejected a proposed coal export terminal, citing the historic fishing rights of the Lummi Tribe. The Gateway Pacific terminal would have significantly increased vessel traffic and built hundreds of new docks, threatening both salmon and orca. This project is the latest in several that have been denied in the region over concerns that the project will threaten salmon populations. May 12, 2016

Victory for Wildlife Over Costly Coal

B C Recommends that Trans Mountain Pipeline be Rejected. The Government of British Columbia has recommended that the National Energy board not approve the Kinder Morgan plan to expand the Trans Mountain oil pipeline. Environmental Minister Mary Polak stated that the recommendation resulted from Kinder Morgan’s failure to provide an adequate plan for preventing or responding to oil spills. (Courtesy of Salish Sea News) January 11, 2016


Whidbey Island Tidal Energy Project Closed. The Snohomish County Public Utility Department has officially closed its tidal energy project, asking federal regulators to cancel its ten-year license. The project, which involved installing turbines on the seafloor off of Whidbey Island, was still in the developmental phase, but had been non-operational since fall of 2014. The plan was deemed “no longer economically feasible” after the budget nearly doubled and the state was unable to secure further funding from the federal EPA. January 7, 2016 (Courtesy of Salish Sea News).


Tacoma Methanol Plan Might Threaten Chinooks. A methanol plant planned for the Port of Tacoma has come under scrutiny from environmental activists. Of particular concern is the large amount of water needed for the methanol production process; the plant could potentially double the city’s water consumption, threatening the Green River, a crucial habitat for the Chinook salmon. January 6, 2016. (Courtesy of Salish Sea News)


BC Natural Gas Export Facility Receives First Permit. A joint venture company led by Shell Oil has received the first facility permit from the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission necessary to build a liquefied Natural Gas export facility in northern British Columbia. The project received environmental approval from federal and provincial governments in June of 2015, but will require one final permit from Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The joint venture company proposing this facility has yet to make a final investment commitment for the project. (Courtesy of Salish Sea News) January 6, 2016


WA Carbon Reduction Rule Hearings. The Washington State Department of Ecology has proposed a rule that would require a 5% reduction of carbon emissions every three years from the state’s largest industrial producers of greenhouse gases. Four public hearings have been scheduled for the proposal, and a final rule is anticipated in June of 2016. January 6, 2016 (Courtesy of Salish Sea News)


BC Natural Gas Export Facility Review. Assessment Agency has resumed a review of a proposed project to export liquefied natural gas from British Columbia. Environmental groups have expressed concerned that the planned terminal on Lelu Island will pose a threat to nearby salmon habitat. An assessment report from the CEAA is anticipated in early 2016, accompanied by a document outlining environmental conditions that must be followed if the building process proceeds. (Courtesy of Salish Sea News) Dec. 20, 2015