The Southern Resident Orcas of the Salish Sea

WDCS's Rob Lott introduces us to the orca of the Salish Sea in the latest blog installment ... It’s 7am on a beautiful, still July morning in the Pacific Northwest. I’m standing on the balcony of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island looking across Haro Strait. In the distance I can see the snow-capped mountains of the Olympic peninsula and the southern tip of Vancouver Island……and right out front, just beyond the reef, a series of black dorsal fins break the surface in perfect synchrony heralding the arrival of J pod!

Orca in their natural environment ©CWR/Astrid van Ginneken

J Pod (together with K and L pod) form part of a large extended family or clan known as the Southern Residents and during the summer months they are frequently seen in the protected inshore waters around the southern part of Vancouver Island and the San Juan Islands - an area known as the Salish Sea. WDCS supporters, through our Adopt-An–Orca programme, will be familiar with the Northern Residents – a community of orcas totaling about 240 individuals found a few hundred miles north from here at the top end of Vancouver Island. The Southern Residents however, as of the start of 2010, number just 89 individuals. One member of this community not included in this figure is Lolita who currently resides in a tiny concrete tank at Miami Seaquarium - a ‘home’ she has endured for the last 40 years of her life! Lolita is the sole surviving reminder of the dark days during the late 60’s and early 70’s when 45 orcas were taken from this community for public display in marine parks all across North America……a further 13 orcas where killed during the capture process. Whilst the live capture of orcas for public display was outlawed in the US in the late 1970’s (leaving the insatiable appetite of the marine park owners to look further afield for new ‘baby Shamus’) the Southern Resident community has since struggled to recover to its historic level. Today they face new threats - both environmental and anthropogenic - and, in 2005, this population was placed on the Endangered Species List.

An orca spyhopping ©CWR/Ken Balcomb

While measures are currently in place to address some of the issues affecting this population e.g. regulating vessel traffic in the vicinity of orcas and the control of pollution, the overwhelming message is clear - these animals need abundant salmon. The equation is simple - if you save the salmon you’ll save the orca. The relevant environmental authorities must take drastic action in restoring wild salmon habitats to ensure this fragile population is not lost on their watch. Implementing a sustainable fisheries policy, the removal of key dam sites and the relocation of commercial fish farms from sea pens onto land are just some of the crucial measures that will aid recovery. But public pressure and the political will are also essential in driving this message forward. I am heartened by the energy of the researchers and conservationists, like Ken Balcomb, Executive Director of the Center for Whale Research, who has dedicated his life to protecting this fragile population. The work here reminds me of the Margaret Mead quote I first heard when I came out to the Pacific Northwest over 20 years ago.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has”

I started this blog stating 89 members of this community had been documented earlier in the year. It’s now July and for the past few days all talk has been about the disappearance of two L-pod males - L73 and L74 - both in their prime at just 24 years old and both, so far this season, missing from their pods for reasons unknown. Like polar bears and the issue of diminishing sea ice, the challenge now facing the Southern Residents, in a future without abundant salmon, is whether they’ll be able to adapt their feeding strategies fast enough to cope with accelerating environmental change. Only time will tell.

L74 and L73 ©CWR/David Ellifrit