Southern Resident Orcas endangered for 19 years now

Submitted by Orca Network

When the Southern Resident orcas were listed as an endangered species in 2005, there were 88 individuals in the population. The following year, the Endangered Species Coalition established Endangered Species Day to celebrate success stories of recovered species and be a call to action for those still struggling. Today,on the 18th annual Endangered Species Day, only 74 Southern Resident orcas remain.

“We know that Chinook salmon recovery is essential to Southern Resident orca recovery, and there has been a lot of time and effort spent on reducing vessel noise to make it easier for them to hunt,” said Orca Network Program Manager Stephanie Raymond. “But there’s another key threat to these whales that doesn’t seem to be talked about as much, and that is toxicants.”

A toxicant is a toxic substance that is released into the environment as a result of human activity. Toxicants, also known as toxics, accumulate in animals’ bodies, and the higher up the food chain an animal eats, the more they accumulate. As apex predators, orcas carry high levels of toxics, which remain in their blubber.

Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals,” are a class of toxicants that come from household items like stain resistant clothing and nonstick cookware. They enter our waterways mainly through stormwater and then make their way up the food chain. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), another example of dangerous toxicants, have been banned in the United States since 1979, but high concentrations of them remain in contaminated sediment in Puget Sound estuaries, where juvenile salmon are exposed to them as they travel from freshwater to saltwater. Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) are flame retardant chemicals added to many consumer products. They have also been found in the sediment and in the tissues of many marine animals, including both Southern Resident and Bigg’s orcas.

“I am very concerned about the impacts of fire retardants that go into creeks and rivers from stormwater, and impact salmon and orcas directly and indirectly as they make their way through the food chain,” said Orca Network Executive Director Susan Berta.

PBDEs, PFAS and PCBS are particularly troublesome because they do not break down in the environment. Once they are in the body of a salmon, a seal, an orca, or a human, they remain stored in fat. In the case of Southern Resident orcas, if there aren’t enough salmon to eat and the whale needs to burn some of its stored fat to survive, these concentrated chemicals are released into their systems and can impair fertility and interfere with the immune system. High toxicant levels are a factor in the high miscarriage rates among Southern Resident orcas.

Each year, June is declared Orca Action Month through a proclamation from the Governor of Washington State, and is celebrated in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. This June, Orca Network and the Orca Salmon Alliance will be focusing on toxicants with the theme “Clean Water, Healthy Futures.” Participants will have the opportunity to learn about toxic substances threatening orcas, salmon, and people alike and will learn how to take action. There will be many events throughout the month and we encourage you to check the Orca Month calendar and find a way to get involved. By doing our part as individuals to reduce toxicants in the marine environment we can help ensure a healthy future for all.