What’s Killing the Southern Residents? SeaDoc Society Reviews…

By Elora West|March 20, 2017|News|


Food availability, contaminant burden, and noise and vessel stress would all appear to be acting in concert causing the decline of SRKW – according to a recent scientific review from the SeaDoc Society.

Written by, Scott West (Orca Relief, Executive Director)  

The SeaDoc Society, founded in 1999, conducts and sponsors scientific research in the inland waters of the Pacific Northwest, also known as the Salish Sea. (http://www.seadocsociety.org/) SeaDoc commissioned a review “…in light of major concern for the population trajectory of the SRKW population.” A panel of medical professionals, scientists, and others met in Seattle on March 6, 2017, to review information presented. Their report was published last week and can be found on the SeaDoc website: http://www.seadocsociety.org/publication/review-of-recent-research-on-southern-resident-killer-whales-to-detect-evidence-of-poor-body-condition-in-the-population/

The report states, “(SRKW) Body condition can be influenced by food availability (quantity and quality), energy balance, disease, toxin exposure, physiological status, genetics and stress from noise and vessel traffic, amongst other factors, although food availability is the most common cause in wild mammalian populations. For SRKW, food availability to individuals is determined by both prey availability and time to find, catch, share and consume prey. Anthropogenic disturbance will reduce food consumption and thus influence body condition.”

The report’s conclusion: “There are multiple lines of evidence that indicate the presence of poor body condition in SRKW. This review found that poor body condition is associated with loss of fetuses, calves and adults. The causes of this are complex, and analysis is further compounded by stochastic events such as vessel strike. However food availability, contaminant burden and noise and vessel stress would all appear to be acting in concert causing the decline of this population.”

The Southern Resident Killer Whale population is now down to 78 individuals. The review’s information and conclusions are disheartening, but not surprising. The findings are definitely alarming, “…presence of poor body condition in SRKW.” The Southern Residents are not doing well at all. NOAA previously identified food availability, contaminant burden, and noise and vessel stress as major threats to the recovery of the endangered SRKW. Orca Relief has been saying this for years. http://www.orcarelief.org/research/papers/

It is often said, and Orca Relief agrees, that the shortage of food (primarily Chinook salmon) is the key problem; however, simply stating the obvious does not help the SRKW. Questions have to be answered and concrete action has to occur. How will we increase the Chinook salmon population? What actions have to happen? When will the increase be seen and be available for the SRKW? Does the SRKW have that time and how likely is it that the needed actions will actually happen?

The SeaDoc review points out that the other threats, including vessel noise and harassment, act in concert with salmon shortage to cause the poor health found in the SRKW population. The point is that as long as there is a shortage of food for the SRKW, the harm from the other threats is exacerbated and contributing to the decline of the SRKW. Reducing or removing noise and vessel stress will address at least two aspects of the problem. It would allow for the SRKW to find and consume Chinook salmon that are currently available and would reduce stress, which works in concert with food shortage, causing the decline of the population.

There has been a lot of effort expended in the past several years to aid the recovery of the SRKW. That effort clearly has not been enough or adequate. It is time to do more or this population, the Southern Resident Killer Whales, will simply go extinct in our lifetime. It is not difficult to connect the dots here. It would seem that self-imposed whale watching industry rules and rules promulgated by NOAA and DFO, while perhaps helpful, are not sufficient. More is clearly needed.

The SRKW need one or more Marine Protected Areas. Orca Relief and partners call for a Whale Protection Zone in SRKW critical core habitat off of San Juan Island. We are calling for a process, which would bring everyone together to find the best possible solutions. Protected areas can be established relatively quickly.

Please show your support for doing more by commenting on the NOAA website before the public comment period ends of April 13.
Click here: https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=NOAA-NMFS-2016-0152

The more you are able to address these questions, the more useful your comment will be:

-(1) The advisability of and need for regulations to establish a whale protection zone;

-(2) the geographic scope of regulations;

-(3) alternative management options for regulating vessel interactions with killer whales, including but not limited to the option in the petition;

-(4) scientific and commercial information regarding the effects of vessels on killer whales and their habitat;

-(5) information regarding potential economic effects of regulating vessel interactions; and

-(6) any additional relevant information that NMFS should consider should it accept the petition.

Share this Post: