by Janet Thomas
Yet another loss. J28 is dead and so is her current offspring. There is a rising tide of tragedy in the Southern Salish Sea: the resident orca whales are now facing extinction.
According to Orca Network research, since 1998, 42 orcas were born and survived; 65 have died or gone missing. Statistically, more females are dying and more males are being born. Overall, the outlook for the survival of the Southern Residents is grim and this year they were put on NOAA’s “Species in the Spotlight” list that includes eight species most at risk of extinction in the near future. The Southern Resident orca whales live and travel together as family units led by the females—they are matriarchal in nature and the mothers remain with their offspring for life. They are social animals in every way—feeding, playing, sleeping and traveling—and they have lifespans similar to humans. Granny, the oldest of the females and leader of the pack, is estimated to be over one hundred years old. But many females die too soon; and the loss of a female can mean the loss of a breeder as well as the loss of a family member. With their diminishing population, the future of these very special animals raises sadness and alarm as well as a big question: how can we help them to survive? The life of the Southern Residents in these waters goes back thousands of years before the arrival of colonial culture and they have long been deeply honored and held sacred by Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest Coast. As late as the 1890s, their estimated population was in the hundred’s. As an important medicine animal, they were viewed by some tribes as a protector of humankind. It is tragic and ironic that humankind is now responsible for their impending demise. There are three basic reasons for their struggle to survive: starvation from an ongoing shortage of salmon which is their primary food; compromised immune systems from the PCBs and other pollutants the orca whales ingest, store in their fat, and then absorb into their bodies when they do not have enough to eat; and the ongoing noise, pollution, and interference from boats in their waters. It is interesting to note here that the Northern Resident orca whales inhabiting the waters off the central coast of British Columbia are not facing the same dramatic decline. The wild salmon they feed on are threatened by disease from the salmon farming operations along the B.C. coast but are less PCB contaminated and fattier. Significantly, the home waters of the Northern Residents orcas are far less congested with whale-watching boats and their followers. There is a lot of attention being paid to removing the four Lower Snake dams in order to restore salmon in the Columbia-Snake river basin. But it will take many years. The quickest way to help the Southern Resident orcas is to preserve their access to the salmon that are now available. This means quiet waters so they can echolocate their food and communicate effectively, and limited interference from boats so they can get to their food as easily as possible in their primary foraging areas. They need a protection zone. This presents a potential dilemma for the whale-watching industry that depends upon access to the whales for business, and also to the tourism industry in the San Juan Islands that benefits from this industry. But is there another way to look at this dilemma? Could “whale-watching” become a “Save the Whales” movement initiated by the industry itself? Could they focus instead on quiet, nature-based, reflective tours that don’t intrude into orca whale territory? Could they educate about the orcas without negatively affecting them? Is there another way to preserve jobs and to preserve our Southern Resident neighbors? The San Juan Islands are environmentally sensitive in the way of all islands. What we do—right here and right now—regarding everything from using Round-Up on our lawns and in our parks to interfering with the orca whales’ ability to eat has immediate and long-lasting impacts. We, too, are in the spotlight. Precisely how we love this place matters—to us individually and personally and also to future generations and the future of life itself in and around these islands. For many years the emphasis was on keeping the San Juan Islands from becoming “Aspen-ized.” Lack of affordable housing for locals and the environmental impact was of paramount concern. Against all odds, we banned Jet-ski whale-watching and Jet-skis in the waters. This established a precedent that protected waters in parks across the country. We were “the little county that could.” What will it take for us once again to become the “little county that can”—save our whales?