Living on the Edge of the Abyss

Southern Resident orca J32. She died in 2014 while pregnant at near full term, becoming a symbol of the 70% miscarriage rate among this population as newly reported at the time.  Photo by Center for Whale Research, NMFS PERMIT: 15569/ DFO SARA 388.

The world is on fire, or flooding. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch continues to expand. Environmental protections are being greedily stripped away. Sometimes it’s just all too much, and we go numb.

And sometimes humans are galvanized by an image, a story they can very much relate to. Such was the case this summer when an orca in the Pacific Northwest gave birth to a female calf, only to have her die within a half hour. The mother, named J35 by researchers who study this orca population, carried her calf’s lifeless body on her rostrum for 17 agonizing days as millions followed her story.

Even the guy who famously stole a plane from SeaTac airport asked for J35’s location so he could have a look.  Many of the less suicidal among us, including me, cried daily in grief and empathy. (This is not anthropomorphism; it’s a bedrock belief in the emotional intelligence of animals.)

Since crises like this don’t happen overnight, or in a vacuum, I wanted to gain insight from someone in the trenches on how the Southern Resident orcas arrived at this flex point. So I contacted Cindy Hansen, an educator I know from my trips to whale camp on the Baja California peninsula.

Since 2001 she’s been a guide at the seasonal camp in Mexico, educating visitors about gray whales and the natural history of San Ignacio Lagoon, where giddy humans experience love-ins with friendly grays. I’ve been there three times, experiencing her knowledge and friendly enthusiasm on each of them. But her home base is the San Juan Islands near Seattle, where advocating for the Southern Resident orcas of the Salish Sea is her regular job.

The Salish Sea includes the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Strait of Georgia, Puget Sound and all their connecting channels and adjoining waters.

Ms. Hansen, who earned a B.S. in Zoology from the University of Washington, has been involved with the orcas for twenty years – first as a whale watch naturalist, then as Education Curator at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor for over eight years, and finally since 2016 as the Orca Network’s Education and Events Coordinator. Her expertise with the Orca Network is to transform research results into educational content that helps the public understand and support the organization’s conservation work.

Kids for Orcas event
Cindy Hansen, far right, and friends at a ‘Kids for Orcas’ event during Orca Awareness Month in June, 2018.  Image provided by Orca Network.

History vs. today’s reality

The Southern Resident orcas exist in three distinct pods – J, K, and L. They’re toothed cetaceans that eat salmon, a potentially existential difference between them and Biggs transient orcas, which prey on mammals. There are only 75 Southern Resident orcas left, a 30-year low, due to a complex web of human-induced stressors that interact in harmful ways.

Historically these orcas were able to feast on very large and plentiful Chinook salmon, thus maintaining the body fat and nutrition needed to survive. But due to such things as damming of rivers, historical overfishing, habitat destruction, and competition from other wildlife, the fewer and smaller salmon they do consume don’t provide enough nutrition to offset the energy burned hunting them. “The research is overwhelmingly showing lack of the prey is the number one contributing factor to the decline of the population,” Hansen says.

Lack of prey is also changing the social structure of the pods. Orcas are highly social, and these pods used to travel cohesively. But the presence of fewer salmon has caused fragmentation of the pods; they’re no longer observed together very often. The J, K, and L pods used to congregate in superpods during summer months but this, too, is now a rare occurrence.

The salmon are key, but are just one aspect of the story because these orcas spend much of their time in waters profoundly affected by human activity – urban waters, so to speak. Chemical runoff, underwater noise from vessel traffic, and the very real possibility of a Canadian oil pipeline running through their foraging habitat are compounding the orcas’ problems.

“We know that these orcas are some of the most toxic marine mammals in the world,” says Hansen. “They have very high levels of industrial chemicals such as PCBs, DDT, and flame retardants – many of these have been banned for decades but are still present in the marine environment.

“These toxins sequester in the blubber and if the whales were getting enough to eat, probably wouldn’t be causing too many problems. When food supplies are low the blubber is metabolized and the toxins are spread throughout the body.” She notes that the Biggs orcas, by comparison, are also exposed to toxins and vessel traffic, but are thriving. “Why is that? They don’t have a shortage of prey,” she explains. “There are plenty of harbor seals, sea lions, and porpoise for them and we’re seeing these orcas in greater numbers each year.”

Excess noise from shipping traffic and recreational watercraft, among others, can hinder the orcas’ ability to use echolocation to find the few salmon present. If the controversial Trans Mountain Pipeline is built (where is the Justin Trudeau who said this at COP21 in 2015?), concern over even more shipping noise would take a back seat to the threat of catastrophe. “It becomes not a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’,” Hansen says. “An oil spill could mean the end of the Southern Residents.”

(Update: On August 30, 2018 the Canadian Federal Court of Appeals ruled unanimously against the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. The decision cited a lack of consultation with Indigenous people, as well as the failure of the country’s energy regulator to include in its evaluation the effects of marine shipping on the environment. This does not mean the end of the pipeline project, but for it’s now indefinitely delayed. We can only hope that in the end it proves to be a death knell.)

The result of this perfect storm writ large is the dramatic population decline of the J, K, and L pods. The start is traced to orca captures in the 1960’s and 70’s by Sea World and other entities, which removed approximately one third of the population. The captures ceased in 1976, but they likely had a lasting effect.

There’s evidence the oldest males have the most breeding success, and the disruption caused by the captures – along with the deaths of several adult males in the late 1990’s and 2000’s – prompted a decline in birth rate and a shrinking of the gene pool. The pods are closely related genetically, and since they don’t mate with other orca populations there’s concern about low genetic diversity and inbreeding.

When mating and pregnancy do occur, females are increasingly unable to carry a calf to full term. A study covering the years 2007 to 2014 observed a nearly 70% miscarriage rate, linked primarily to lack of prey. Since 2015, the rate is 100%.

Until J35 and her daughter, that is. A boat captain was the only person known to see the calf alive during her brief life, but the rest of the saga was followed across the globe. The simple fact is that if nothing changes we’re observing a functionally extinct species – ghosts in the flesh.

“I can’t can’t even describe how difficult it is to observe this extinction taking place. It is beyond heartbreaking,” Hansen says. “There’s additional despair in knowing all of them as individuals. Whales that I have known since they were tiny babies and watched grow up and have formed a deep attachment to are disappearing before my eyes.”

J34 - Jill Hein
Southern Resident orcas                                                                                                                Image: Jill Hein

Will humans step up and do the right thing?

In March of this year Washington Governor Jay Inslee convened the Southern Resident Orca Task Force, a group of state, tribal, provincial, and federal officials charged with investigating ways to protect and restore this, in his words, “iconic and treasured species”. The executive order defines clear, relatively short-term deadlines for specific investigatory actions, and requires a final recommendation report by November 1 of this year. A second report regarding progress made, lessons learned, and outstanding needs is due by October 1, 2019.

Three working groups were formed, charged with providing potential actions – prey, vessels, and contaminants. Hansen is actively representing the public through her advocacy work. “I’ve attended all of the task force meetings and provided public comments, and have attended a number of the working group meetings,” she says. “In addition, Orca Network is part of the Orca Salmon Alliance, a coalition of 15 organizations working to restore salmon and recover Southern Resident orcas, and I’m on the steering committee of that. We have one member on the task force, and 3 others in working groups.”

The Alliance, whose tag line is ‘Bold Action Now’, has presented recommendations to the task force, appearing at meetings wearing black and white ribbons stating that message. At the most recent meeting they sponsored a press event where the task force was presented with 43,000 signatures in support of their work, and asking them to take, yes, bold action.

The task force’s work is a delicate balance between their orca and human constituents. For example, there are passionate public calls to remove some Snake River Dams in order to restore Chinook to the Columbia River system, with pushback from utilities that the dams provide reliable and inexpensive energy, as well as irrigation for several farms in Eastern Washington. Suggestions for more stringent Chinook harvest limitations are sensitive due to tribal fishing rights.

Even the Orca Salmon Alliance treads carefully due to its complex makeup, remaining neutral as a coalition on issues where not all member groups are able to speak out. “One of the beauties of this coalition is that there are still many issues we can and do comment on, and even if we can’t comment on things as a full coalition we can still work on whatever we want to, individually or in partnership with some of the other groups,” Hansen explains. (The OSA action list submitted to the task force this month can be read in full here.)

How difficult is it to go to work every day in compassionate service of these whales, having closely observed them for twenty years? I cede the floor to Ms. Hansen for some bittersweet closing thoughts.

“There have been times when I’ve been close to walking away from it all, but what keeps me going is knowing that I have to keep fighting for the ones that are left. And I have been very fortunate in the jobs I’ve had to be able to work with children. They love orcas and they totally get it; they want to make a difference.

“I also still have hope, as hard as that is at times. I know these whales have the ability to recover if we give them the chance and make the changes that are needed. But it isn’t going to be easy. Everyone, including politicians, fishermen, whale watching companies, corporations, utility companies, farmers, and many other interest groups, is going to have to make sacrifices and agree to actions that make them unhappy or uncomfortable, or may affect their livelihoods.

“That’s the only way these whales will be saved. I am placing a lot of faith in the Governor’s task force even though I know they have an enormous job and many seemingly insurmountable challenges, mainly because I have nothing else to put my faith into. It’s our last hope.”


Author: paulaonpoint

I live in Oakland, CA and am a native of Trenton, NJ. I love everything about the ocean, especially friendly whales. I'm a warrior in the fight to protect and restore Planet Earth. And I'm a cat person, as Ziggy and ZuZu can attest.

%d bloggers like this: