Quiet Waters – Puget Sound Orcas Face Extinction

The Southern Resident orcas are hanging in a delicate balance. Their population is close to collapse. Without successful reproduction, the Puget Sound orca is doomed. It will be a quiet ocean. 

In 2005, the Puget Sound orcas were designated for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The whales are struggling. Other orca numbers are increasing, thriving and yet these are not. There are three pods identified by researchers in Puget Sound; J, K and L.

Puget Sound Orca

Puget Sound Orca

In the 1960s, the population stood at around 140. Numbers dropped when the orcas were captured and sold to marine parks for entertainment. In 1970, more than 90 orcas were caught and herded into a three-acre net by deafening explosives, speedboats and airplanes at Puget Sound. The boats delivered the orcas to a dock opposite of Captain Whibey Inn on the north side of Penn Cove. From there they were loaded onto flat bed trucks to be transported to the Seattle Aquarium. They faced a life of performing for human entertainment. It is no wonder that in captivity, orcas die at a young age, typically half that of their average lifespan of around 6o years. During the 15 years that orcas were captured in Washington and British Columbia, 275-307 whales were caught, 55 were sent to aquariums and 12-13 died due to the capture. As of February 2014, a total of 53 orcas are held in captivity.

Penn Cove capture - 1970

Penn Cove capture – 1970

Lolita trapped in a net in Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove in 1971.  She remains in a small tank at the Miami Seaquarium, where she has performed for the past 40 years. Photo by Dr. Terry Newb.

Lolita trapped in a net in Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove in 1971. She remains in a small tank at the Miami Seaquarium, where she has performed for the past 40 years. Photo by Dr. Terry Newb.

With protection from the ESA and the ban on catching orcas for marine parks, the population sprung back to around 100 individuals in the 1990s. Today, there are 79 Southern resident orcas in the wild.

The Puget Sound orcas are genetically different from other killer whales. The southern orcas have a unique language, will only breed within their group, eat mostly Chinook salmon and are socially unique. For the past two years, the orcas have not produced offspring that have survived for more than a month.

“We’ve got less than 20 reproductive age females at present and not many coming up through the ranks. We can’t have a population without reproduction,” said Balcomb.

Ken Balcomb, an expert on Southern resident orcas claims that the decline in Chinook salmon is the driving force for the population downward spiral of the killer whales. The Chinook salmon numbered 30 million once. It is thought that the damming of the Columbia-Snake Rivers, where the salmon swam up to spawn, has resulted in the decimation of the population to 1% of what it originally was.

Bonneville Dam. The Columbia and Snake Rivers.

Bonneville Dam. The Columbia and Snake Rivers.

The Southern resident orcas are hardy although. Balcomb’s research has shown that many of the orcas are decades old and there is one orca, nicknamed Granny in the J pod, that is believed to be 103 years old.

The whales are threatened by boats, noise and pollution, but the greatest concern is the food source. Without food, none of the whales will survive. Balcomb would rather see federal agents be more aggressive with salmon restoration than pushing back the whale watching fleet.

Are we prepared for an ocean filled with the sounds of engines and not the Puget Sound orcas?

“When we get to 70, I’m going to stop counting because nobody’s paying attention.” – Ken Balcomb 

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