CORRECTS: Orca population is now 10 fewer than when the group was first listed. It is 20 fewer than the known peak of 98 in 1995.
A decade after gaining federal protection, the Southern Resident orcas of Puget Sound aren’t making progress. With 78 whales, the population has 10 fewer than when the group was first listed under the Endangered Species Act.
A calf born in September offered a glimmer of hope, which was quickly snuffed out when the baby disappeared before the end of the month.
Much like the presumed death of calf L120, what exactly is hindering the species’ recovery remains a mystery.
A lack of food coupled with an abundance of toxins and boat traffic are thought to be contributors. But what could reverse the orca’s downward trend has yet to be pinpointed.
The public, local environment groups, regional research organizations and federal government agencies agree that something needs to be done to protect the whale. They all say orcas are an integral part of the Pacific Northwest’s coastal culture — a major piece of the quality of life for locals, as well as a tourism draw with the whale-watching industry.
“Orcas are almost synonymous with the Puget Sound region. They are embedded in the culture and the natural surroundings,” said Howard Garrett, co-director of Orca Network of Whidbey Island.
This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which enforces protection of the whales under the Endangered Species Act, released a 10-year report reviewing the status of the Southern Resident orca population since it was flagged as endangered. The message is drab.
“These striking black and white mammals are recognized for their cultural and spiritual importance to coastal tribes and communities, their vital role as a keystone species in the marine ecosystem, and their starring role in our region’s ecotourism industry,” the June 25 report says. “But the Southern Residents are also among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world. Noise and overcrowding from boat traffic, as well as a scarce supply of their preferred food — salmon — pose serious threats to this endangered population.”
Blaine-area filmmakers are calling attention to the orca’s plight, highlighting the issues NOAA lists as its biggest threats in a noncommercial documentary film, “Fragile Waters,” which debuted Nov. 7 at the Friday Harbor Film Festival. Rick Wood and Shari Macy say they hope the film, produced by the nonprofit Orca Network, will inform the public of the orca’s struggle and inspire efforts to help save them.
“The only hope this species has is if people start to care,” Wood said.
The Southern Resident clan has lost 10 whales since 2010, according to data from the state’s Puget Sound Partnership and the Orca Network. As of July 2013, 82 whales were accounted for, according to Puget Sound Partnership reports. Now there are 78, local researchers said.
“The population is not growing, which is obviously a problem for recovery,” NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein said. “The thing to be aware of is that these whales are fairly long-living, so the population can be stable for quite some time. But the idea is to grow the population, you need to have offspring.”
Orca Network’s Garrett says the loss of L120 is not a good sign. He worries the group of Southern Resident orcas in Puget Sound is not reproducing enough to even maintain its numbers.
The population would need to have two to three calves each year to hold steady. Until recently, the last calf was born in August 2012.
“The first one (since then) is L120, who dies in 17 days or so,” Garrett said. “That is kind of devastating to our hopes for the community to rebuild itself.”
The majestic black-and-white whales that are members of the Southern Resident clan are drawn close to Skagit County’s shoreline in pursuit of salmon and sheltered waters.
“We can sort of surmise that they enjoy the calmer, protected waters of the inland sea,” Garrett said. “But it’s still all about the salmon, the chinook, and the Skagit River is a major producer.”
The three pods of Southern Resident orcas are typically spotted in Puget Sound from July through September. But they also visit the area in October, in pursuit of chum, or what Garrett calls their second favorite kind of salmon.
Like them, their critical food source is also in trouble. Millions of dollars have been spent on salmon habitat restoration efforts throughout the region, but scientists say it’s hard to tell if the fish population is recovering.
Chinook account for about 80 percent of the orcas’ diet, Garrett said.
“There is a very close correlation between the number of salmon and the mortality rates of orcas,” he said.
Wood said while doing research for “Fragile Waters,” he discovered that Puget Sound’s wild chinook population is down to 10 percent of its historical numbers, and efforts to bring it back don’t seem to be working.
NOAA’s most recent report on the Southern Residents indicates more needs to be done.
“In the Pacific Northwest, many chinook salmon populations have declined substantially from historic levels of abundance and are listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA,” the report says. “Ensuring that salmon populations are healthy and sustainable is an important part of achieving recovery for the whales.”
To bring the fish back in higher numbers, more of the species’ natural spawning habitat will have to be reopened upstream, even if it means removing dams, Wood said. Drastic actions would be worth it, he said.
“If you think of a Washington state where you don’t see orcas and you can’t fish for chinook salmon … economically it would be very detrimental. Environmentally it would be very detrimental. They are not just iconic species — they have been linked to the area here for thousands of years,” Wood said.
Wood and Macy started their orca awareness film project with their lens on the status of Puget Sound chinook. But over a year of gathering data and film footage, they discovered pollution swirling around the whales.
They were alarmed by the amount of garbage floating in the ocean alongside the creatures they were trying to capture on video.
“I’m filming these wild animals, and it’s just so sad that there is that much garbage around them,” Macy said.
Although not as visible as a free-floating soda can or plastic bottle, toxins in the water are a huge issue.
As an apex predator at the top of the food chain, the orca accumulates a significant amount of toxins by eating hundreds of thousands of contaminated salmon during a year.
Chemicals like pesticides and PCBs affect the orca’s organs, immune system and reproductive system, according to NOAA. DDT, a pesticide used widely before it was banned four decades ago for its detrimental effect on birds, will remain in orcas for several generations because all reproductive females are currently contaminated.
It is also thought that boat traffic may disturb orcas’ communication patterns. According to NOAA’s 10-year report, the whales are less active in a noisy environment.
After a year of observation, Wood calls the number of vessels that traverse Puget Sound a “cacophony of movement and noise.”
“You can’t go 20 minutes with them (the orcas) swimming without there being boats around them,” he said.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, about 50 Southern Residents were captured for entertainment purposes. Prior to coming under federal protection, the whale was also culled because it was seen as a threat to the region’s salmon industry.
Orcas are found all over the world and are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits capture in U.S. waters, by U.S. citizens outside the country’s waters, and the importation of the animals and related products. The Southern Residents are one of two groups that receive additional protection.
“Between the years 1995 and 2001, the Southern Resident population dropped about 20 percent. It went from about 98 to 78, and that set off a whole lot of alarm bells and a lot of legal effort that finally resulted in the declaration in 2005,” Garrett said.
NOAA listed the Southern Resident orca as an endangered “distinct population segment” under the federal Endangered Species Act that year.
By this January, the federal agency expects to decide whether to grant the last remaining captive Southern Resident whale protection under the listing.
Lolita, the whale in question, was taken from Penn Cove in 1970. She currently lives at the Miami Seaquarium in Florida.
NOAA received a petition on Jan. 25, 2013, to release Lolita. Garrett and the Orca Network signed the petition with a handful of other proponents. The federal agency determined the petition was warranted and accepted public comment through March 2014.
Milstein said NOAA staff members are reviewing comments and looking for precedents adding captive animals to ESA listings for their species.
“It’s a complex question, and we’re looking at it from all sides,” Milstein said.
Wood and Macy would like to see Lolita released, whether to roam free or live enclosed in a pen in her home waters.
“Even having Lolita in a pen would be better than now because she could hear her family, see her family, have a chance to try to forage,” Wood said. “It’s a roll of the dice, for sure. No one can say if she’s going to thrive, but she’s not thriving now — that’s for sure.”
The filmmakers also say Lolita is a valuable member of her pod as a reproductive female.
“Her family needs her now more than ever, and that’s a fact,” Wood said. “Lolita is a reproductive female and obviously robust because she survived 44 years in captivity. She at least deserves the right to come home and retire.”
Macy said the oldest member of the Southern Residents, called Granny, is 103 years old.
While orcas have long lifespans, they tend to have a low number of reproductive members and low birth rates, according to NOAA.
Young whales face the same hardships as their kin.
Birth rates seem to correlate with the abundance of salmon, according to researchers.
“When L120 was born I was so excited, but I also knew everything that was against them from working on this film,” Macy said. “Not only are they facing lack of food and pollution, but they are being polluted before they are born.”
She and Wood say the loss of the calf is significant because the pod that bore the calf has the most reproductive females compared to the J and K pods — and the Southern Resident population is low enough that any loss is a big hit.
“There are only 78 of them now. You lose one, you lose more than 1 percent of their population,” Wood said.
The goal inked into NOAA’s Southern Resident Orca Recovery Plan when adopted in 2008 is aimed at having 95 whales in the “distinct population segment” by the end of 2020. That would equate to a 1 percent increase each year between 2010 and 2020.
NOAA representatives say the agency will keep that target for the next five years.
“It’s still the goal, but it’s obviously becoming more and more challenging to reach,” Milstein said.
Still, researchers and activists watching the region’s orca struggle are optimistic.
“There is hope,” Macy said. “There are a lot of neat people working on this. But there is an immediacy to it.”