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MAYDAY Monday

Whale and Dolphin Conservation is currently working to expand critical habitat for Southern Resident Orcas.

From January 18th through March 14th, WDC posted information about the many threats preventing recovery of the unique population of Southern Resident orcas, and all the reasons why the current extent of critical habitat has not been enough to be an effective tool for conservation.

Monday, March 14, 2016

What have we learned? New information since the 2005 listing.

We've answered these questions, but the population continues to struggle. So, we need to look at what we have learned in the past decade, and adapt our conservation measures to include this valuable information before it's too late.  NOAA has the information required to expand critical habitat now, using the best science available – as required by the Endangered Species Act, and orca scientists argue that there is more than enough information on the Southern Residents’ winter distribution to act on an expansion now.  We know more than we did ten years ago, and instead of debating uncertainties and insisting on further research, we need more management action and forward movement. We can't afford to treat conservation like a precise science when we know that flexibility is key to adaptive management, which itself is central to successful conservation, especially for a critically endangered population like the Southern Resident orcas.

Despite volumes of research published about these whales in the past decade, NOAA has made little actual progress to protect their basic needs. Rebuilding salmon populations, especially Chinook, is the most important thing we can do to kickstart recovery for these endangered orcas.  Continuing to collect data, when NOAA has yet to analyze and make publically available prey samples collected from the last three years, is an important part of adaptive management, but should not be a barrier to making management decisions.

There is already some political momentum in favor of more critical habitat, but the current time frame is unacceptable.   The Southern Residents’ ESA listing is critical to the population's recovery, but will only work if the legal tools provided by the listing are used to the fullest extent possible. Expansion of critical habitat will augment the legal protection, to make the fact that they are listed as endangered actually effective in doing what it is meant to do in the first place: prevent extinction. NOAA's selection of the Southern Resident orcas for the “Species in the Spotlight” campaign has yet to stimulate any meaningful action on their part, despite noting that habitat destruction is a major concern for their spotlighted species. NOAA is in charge of designating and expanding critical habitat, and they need to act on every power they have to protect the Southern Residents while these orcas still have a fighting chance.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) submitted a petition in 2014 asking for expanded critical habitat and the addition of sound as an essential feature of their habitat. Early in 2015, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) found that petition to be warranted, and while they plan to revise critical habitat, they also will delay proposing a rule until 2017 to "gather more information." At the time that critical habitat was first designated for Southern Residents, there was limited information about winter ranges and coastal distribution, and uncertainty regarding important habitat features that would be essential to protect. Here we are ten years later, with considerably more knowledge, but no adjustments to the preliminary critical habitat decisions. NMFS's 2008 Recovery Plan for the population calls for research and monitoring for adaptive management: the research and monitoring part is ongoing, with plenty of new data, but the adaptive management aspect has yet to be acted on. Adaptive management means making decisions even in the face of uncertainty, and we are now far from uncertain about what the Southern Residents need to recover.

For example, satellite tagging efforts since 2013 have shown that Southern Residents travel as far south as San Francisco during the winter months and spend time near river mouths, especially around the Columbia River, likely following migrating salmon. Similar information was gathered by visual sightings data and passive acoustic monitoring (listening for whales when we can't see them). Much more is understood now about key issues central to conservation, such as seasonal changes in salmon stocks, the connection between the Southern Residents and Chinook salmon, the role of chemical contaminants in health, and the threats posed by boat noise and traffic.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Connectedness and synergistic interactions between different threats

In December 2014, the Southern Resident orca Rhapsody (J32) was found dead carrying a near full-term fetus. The loss of a reproductive female and her calf was a hard hit to the Southern Resident population. Preliminary results from her necropsy showed that she was malnourished and had a very thin blubber layer - essentially, she and her calf were starving, but the problem was even worse than that. When a whale is not eating enough, they start to metabolize their blubber layer and those human-caused chemical toxins that had been stored in their blubber are then released into the blood stream. Pregnant and nursing mothers, and new babies, are especially vulnerable to these effects. Toxins that had been accumulated in the mother's body up to that point are transferred to the calf. This may have been a contributing factor in the death of Rhapsody and her calf, and this toxin offloading process is especially problematic for first-time or young mothers, like J32.

The decline in the Southern Resident population is a product of many different interacting factors. Over the past three weeks we have looked at the major threats: low food availability, chemical contamination, and vessel impacts. Each of these alone is harmful to whales, but the synergistic interaction of multiple threats together spells disaster for the population, unless something changes very soon.

For example, boat noise drowns out echolocation and communication between individual whales, making foraging difficult in a situation where food is already scarce to begin with. This leads to malnutrition, which exacerbates the effects of chemical contamination depressing the immune system. Lots of boat traffic in urban areas disrupts their natural behavior, and sick or underfed whales don't have energy to spare for avoiding boats or making louder calls. Changing ocean chemistry (due to increased carbon emissions) makes sound travel farther, so boats farther away have more impact. Aside from these main threats, there are other significant concerns, like an already small population size, which carries its own inherent risks, or a potential oil spill in the Salish Sea where they would be incredibly vulnerable. Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) authorized an increased use of SONAR within the Navy’s Pacific Training and Testing range on the outer coast of Washington, nearly doubling the expected number of harassment incidents for marine mammals. And, of course, climate change is a growing threat to their food resources.

Demographics are not on their side, either. Live-take for marine parks removed about 50 whales from the population (favoring juveniles), effectively stealing an entire generation from the Southern Residents. There are some matrilines that have no living females of reproductive age, which are going to die out over time as their members age, to such an extent that the only viable Southern Resident pod that could potentially recover is J pod. The birth of nine new calves since December 2014 (eight surviving) has received significant media attention, and has been assumed by many to be a promising sign of recovery for the population. However, researchers who have spent their careers with the Southern Residents are not so confident. Their first concern is whether these calves will live to reproduce.  Before 2015, Scarlet (J50, born Dec. '14) was the only calf to survive since 2012. Beyond that, at least four of these new calves from 2015 are male. While their arrival is heartening, females contribute much more to long term recovery for the community.

While lack of food is the primary factor driving Southern Residents to extinction, external threats from every angle, plus internal demographic issues, only make it harder for the population to remain stable, let alone grow. In a 2014 interview, Howard Garrett, co-director of Orca Network put it this way: "The absence of any surviving calves for two and a half years is like watching an entire cultural community of orcas fall slowly off a cliff... It's past time for debating about uncertainty." **Later this week, we will share our "Ask an Expert" session with Howard, discussing the current plight of the Southern Residents and what they need to recover.

NOAA’s 2008 recovery plan aims to increase population size by 2% per year over 28 years, but so far we have not seen any sure signs of recovery, and present trends could eliminate all three pods in a matter of decades unless something changes soon. Huge shortages of salmon are the most urgent issue, and an increase in critical habitat can help address the issue of adequate prey levels, along with other measures. Toxin exposure depresses their immune system over time, and daily stress from low feeding success and boat noise also contributes to poor health. Critical habitat is a powerful leverage point to address multiple issues at once, by making their habitat more able to support maintenance and eventual growth of their population.

 

Southern Resident orca
Many large vessels travel through the Southern Residents' core summer habitat on a daily basis

The ability to communicate while foraging is important to feeding success. They hunt cooperatively, so call exchange is essential, but vessel noise can drown out those calls. Studies have shown that some whales make louder vocalizations to be heard over boat noise, but this increase in volume of calls in a loud environment comes with an energy cost. Scientists liken this to a "cocktail party" effect where whales become louder to be heard in a noisy environment. In US waters, boats are required to stay 200 meters away from orcas, but boat noise from motoring vessels up to 400 meters away can mask echolocation clicks and communication calls.  So, even if all boat operators respected this rule, there would still be a significant negative impact. A recent study has shown that vessel speed is the biggest factor influencing noise in the Southern Residents' habitat – small motorized boats traveling at high speeds can have a larger acoustic impact than larger, slow-moving vessels.  New research also indicates that large vessels produce high-frequency noisewithin the range of Southern Resident vocalizations and echolocations, and can potentially mask these important signals.  Also, an unexpected factor in this problem is climate change: changing ocean chemistry (due to increased CO2 emissions) causes sound to travel farther in water, so boats farther away are starting to have a greater impact on their acoustic environment.

Aside from the noise, high boat traffic is disruptive to natural behaviours. There have been documented differences in foraging and travelling patterns near boats compared to when no boats are present. Boats, especially the smaller, faster moving vessels, interrupt the whales' normal behaviors, and may drive them away from areas necessary to their survival. They modify their surface behavior, with less directional travelling, which means that more energy is used to move. Avoidance takes energy away from feeding, resting, socializing and other necessary activities. Close boat traffic at best disturbs their activities and at worst carries the risk of vessel strikes if boat operators are unaware of whales in the area.

Southern Resident orca
recreational vessels have the potential to disturb or change behavior

Both the Northern and Southern Residents are protected by Canada's Species at Risk Act, where the acoustic environment is considered a part of their critical habitat. In the US, for Southern Residents, this is not the case. The Center for Biological Diversity included this in their petition to extend critical habitat, and we are supporting the inclusion of sound in the proposed revision, making it officially a habitat feature essential to their survival.

By supporting this effort, you can help us protect their home and all the elements of it that they need to survive and recover. 


Monday, February 22, 2016

Primary Threat #2: Legacy Toxins and Bioaccumulation

Chemical pollution is another major threat to the orcas: the Southern Resident orcas are one of the most contaminated marine mammal populations in the world. They are a long-lived top predator, which makes them incredibly vulnerable to pollutants that accumulate up the food chain. Their home in Puget Sound is very urban, and toxins that originate on land make their way to the rivers and coastal habitats where they are absorbed by tiny plankton - these plankton are eaten by small baitfish and work their way up the food web to the salmon that orcas eat. At every step in the food chain, the concentration of contamination is compounded, a process called biomagnification. 

Toxins of greatest concern are the "persistent organic pollutants" or POPs, such as the pesticide DDT, PCBs (a known carcinogen) and PBDEs, (flame retardants). Exposure to these chemicals is linked to disease in orcas because they depress the immune system and act as endocrine disrupters that cause reproductive problems. These chemicals are known as "legacy toxins" because of their tendency to persist in the environment. Both DDT and PCBs have been banned in the US, but are still present in alarming concentrations in whales' blubber layer. Because these toxins are found in reproducing females, calves will continue to be exposed to - and accumulate - these same "legacy toxins" for generations to come. Young whales have particularly high toxin levels that they acquire from their mothers, who use their fat stores to help the growth and development of their calves. The health of new babies is compromised from the beginning because of this toxin offloading between mother and calf. The level of PCBs found in the blubber of Southern Residents greatly exceeds the level we know to be detrimental to other marine mammals. High levels of toxins play a prominent role in preventing them from increasing at the rate needed for recovery.

Southern Residents and legacy contaminants
Southern Residents are among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world

The three pods differ in their levels of each specific toxin: L and K have higher levels than J pod of DDT, which is more likely to occur off the California coast, indicating that these two pods spend more time feeding on prey there - an area not included in critical habitat but part of the proposed expansion. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has collected fecal samples from the Southern Residents as they travel the outer coast, which could provide new information about their contaminant levels, but samples from the past three years have yet to be analyzed and the results made public.

While DDT and PCBs are banned in the US, chemical pollution is still an issue because of historic use, retention in blubber, and their use in developing countries where they still enter the ocean and circulate to west coast waters. Critical habitat will not directly help to remove threats associated with toxin exposure and accumulation, but will help manage the ongoing harmful human actions that affect the Southern Residents, and adds protection from any future activities that may result in more toxins entering their habitat. The severity and persistence of these toxins makes it all the more important that we take what actions we can to lessen other stressors.


Southern Resident orca San Juan Island
Southern Residents swim past San Juan Island

Monday, February 15, 2016

Primary Threat #1: Depleted Salmon Stocks

The fates of Resident orcas and their salmon prey are one and the same. The extent of this relationship is reflected in an old tribal adage, "no fish, no Blackfish." The availability and abundance of salmon is the most influential threat to the Southern Residents' recovery. Unless salmon stocks become more abundant, and available, the whales will not recover.


Southern Resident orcas and Chinook salmon
the decline of Salish Sea salmon is one example of how reduced Chinook abundance can impact the Southern Resident orcas

Resident orcas' diet is highly specialized - they rely almost exclusively on salmon, and of that, at least 80% is Chinook.  A recent studyanalyzing the DNA remains of prey in the Southern Residents’ fecal remains confirmed that in the summer months, more than 98% of their diet is salmon – and about 80% is Chinook.  This level of specialization indicates that Chinook salmon were at one point much more abundant than now, and may have been the singular supporting resource for a once larger thriving population of whales. Current salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest are approximately 2% of historic levels. This dramatic decline is largely due to human activities related to hydro-electric dams, habitat degradation, overfishing, and hatchery impacts. Birth and survival rates of orcas are clearly related to coast-wide abundance of Chinook salmon. In years of higher Chinook runs, new calves are a source of hope. But, the fact that young Scarlet (J50) is the only calf since 2012 to definitely reach the one-year mark shows that sudden baby booms are short-term trends and that salmon runs may not be stable or large enough to support the whole population the next year. Drops in salmon stocks can have about a year or two of lag time to affect the size of the Southern Resident population. Recovery of both salmon and orcas will take decades. While it's greatly encouraging to see seven new calves added to the population in 2015, we will have to wait and see if they survive the crucial first year, and then live to reproduce and help population growth - an uncertainty largely dependent on how salmon fare in the near future.

The Southern Residents spend their summers in inland Washington and Canadian waters, and travel extensively along the West Coast of the US during the winter and early spring. When prey availability is especially limited, orca families travel over greater distances with more complex movement patterns, spending precious energy foraging for scarce resources. Since winter of 2000, K and L pods have been spending more time inland, later than normal, which is likely related to decreased salmon availability in their normal winter ranges along the outer coast. Expanding critical habitat can help to restore the coastal ecosystem and re-establish the traditional ranges of the Southern Residents.

Center for Whale Research Chinook abundance and Southern Resident mortality
Southern Resident mortality is closely correlated with coastwide Chinook abundance

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) oversees the legal protection of both the Southern Residents and endangered salmon species, but not nearly enough has been done to restore salmon and the conditions are quickly getting worse for wild populations. Climate change is expected to exacerbate an already serious situation - salmon are known to be sensitive to warm water temperatures, and the El Niño of 2016 is expected to severely impact the ocean food web. Protecting orcas will require protecting salmon, and to make those prey resources available, protecting the Southern Residents' foraging habitat along the West Coast will be essential to their recovery.

Read more about WDC’s ecosystem recovery efforts to help imperiled salmon populations and the Southern Residents.


Monday, February 8, 2016

Last week we explained that despite protection as an endangered species for the past ten years, the Southern Resident orcapopulation has failed to show signs of long term recovery.

The current amount of federally designated critical habitat only covers the summer home of the Southern Residents, which is why WDC supports expanding their critical habitat to include their coastal range as well. At the time the original (current) critical habitat was set, it was understood that multiple factors contribute to their decline, but it was not entirely clear which threats had the greatest impact preventing recovery. Their exceptionally low population is a result of many factors, starting with the capture industryof the 1960s and 70s, which removed more than a third of their population.

Today, the three primary threats are vessel traffic and boat noisechemical pollution, and reduced Chinook salmon stocks - their primary source of food. We will discuss each of these separately in the next three weeks, but looking at the big picture, each of these contributes to a cumulative impact. Beyond these main threats, their small population size also makes the Southern Residents incredibly vulnerable to unpredictable environmental events. For example, if an oil spill were to occur in the Salish Sea, these whales would be highly vulnerable to the effects. This is why critical habitat is such an important legal tool: federal agencies must ensure that actions they approve or carry out within critical habitat are unlikely to appreciably harm the species or habitat. Legally acknowledging more of their geographic range as critical habitat is a broad-scale approach to target many different sources of harm at once.


the cumulative nature of threats to the Southern Resident orcas
Threats to Southern Resident orcas


An important comparison can be made with the Northern Resident community in British Columbia to get a sense of the severity of the Southern Residents' situation. The main difference between the two habitats is human use of the environment. The whales have very similar ecological requirements in terms of diet and habitat, but annual birth and survival rates are depressed for the Southern whales. A Southern Resident female will likely have at least one calf less than her Northern counterpart during her lifetime, which adds up to a much slower population growth rate. Calf mortality is already quite high (about half don't make it) so additional sources of stress, especially lack of food, have a drastic negative effect on an already delicate balance. Orcas are long-living with low reproductive rates, and the Southern Residents in particular have a small number of reproductive females.

Southern Residents

SOUTHERN RESIDENT ORCAS SWIM IN FRONT OF MT. BAKER IN THE SALISH SEA. Copyright: COLLEEN WEILER/WDC

The Endangered Species Act mandates that NMFS assign critical habitat for listed species or populations. Critical habitat is a set of legally designated areas that are directly or indirectly necessary to conservation, based on the presence of certain biological or physical elements. These can be within or outside of the geographic range of the population in question. Critical habitat serves as a legal acknowledgement of environmental properties that are necessary to survival and long term recovery. NMFS can manage activities within these areas to prevent harm to the whales, or damage to the environmental features they depend on.

For the Southern Residents, NMFS identified water quality, availability of prey species, and conditions for travel, resting and foraging as key environmental features. The current critical habitat includes about 2,560 square miles around the San Juan Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. Combined with Canada's designated critical habitat, this covers the inland waters of the Salish Sea, where the Southern Residents are commonly seen from May to October. This does not include offshore areas, military sites or coastal waters less than 20ft deep.

In order to designate critical habitat, federal agencies must clearly identify the physical and biological features necessary for individual survival and population growth. By fully understanding what aspects of the environment are essential, the agency can better manage human activity in a way that does the least harm to these features.

Critical habitat is not the same as a marine protected area, but can be just as influential in long-term conservation. It is important to note that critical habitat designation does not directly safeguard a habitat as a whole the way a marine sanctuary does. It stands alone as an invaluable legal tool to prevent further damage to, and make a case for restoration of, essential environmental features. Its purpose is to create a legal means of protecting elements of the environment that are crucial to the day-to-day survival of individuals in order to first prevent further decline, and ultimately to promote population recovery over time.

Studies show that species with designated critical habitat are at least twice as likely to recover as those without it, but this is only going to be the case for Southern Residents if their critical habitat is actually based on their year-round needs. As it stands now, the Southern Residents' critical habitat covers only a fraction of their geographic range. During the winter months, they travel up and down the coast, as far as central California, using the coastal habitat and ecological resources. In addition to being exposed to pollution and boat traffic, they are threatened by a decrease in prey. Salmon numbers have declined throughout their entire range, all year long. Unfortunately, current critical habitat does not reflect this.

Southern Resident orca critical habitat
Current critical habitat and proposed expansion for Southern Resident orcas

Monday, January 25, 2016

Who are the Southern Residents?

The Southern Resident orca community lives in the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest. This iconic, beloved fish-eating population of orca is in trouble: they have become one of the most endangered marine mammals on the planet. Their range overlaps with mammal-eating Bigg's orcas and the Northern Resident population, and although all orcas are still thought of as one species (Orcinus orca) the major differences between ecotypes makes orcas a "species complex," consisting of many different population subsets with remarkable differences from each other. Southern Residents are genetically, acoustically, culturally, morphologically and ecologically distinct both within the Northwest and globally, and have been for at least 100,000 years.

 These whales spend their lives with their families in social structures called matrilines, where a senior female, usually a mother or grandmother, acts as the family leader. Pods are made up of closely related matrilines that frequently associate. These social ties are highly stable; male Resident orcas stay with their mother as long as she is alive, and female offspring raising their own families stay close by.


Since 1974, an ongoing annual census has been monitoring the exact size of the Southern Resident population, made up of three pods: J, K and L. As they spend their summers in very urban water close to large human populations, it's possible to count each individual every year, establishing family connections and social structure of the population. The current population totals 84 individuals, including eight new calves born in the last year. No precise count exists before 1974, but the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) estimates the Southern Resident community may have had about 200 whales - more than twice today's population number - and some scientists suggest even higher. In 2003, after a steep (20%) decline over 5 years, NMFS found the Southern Resident community to be depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In 2005 they earned a spot on the Endangered Species List, as a Distinct Population Segment.

Southern Resident orca population chart

Although the Southern Residents have been listed as endangered for just over a decade, their current number is still fewer than when they were listed. Seven new calves in 2015 are a source of hope, but their likelihood of survival is not certain, and they will face many threats as they grow up. Since 1998, 43 whales have been born and survived while 61 have been lost. Their significant decrease is the result of many interacting factors. Over a third of the Southern Resident population was lost due to live-capture for marine parks before it was banned in Washington State waters in 1976. Chemical and noise pollution are serious concerns, but most significantly, salmon - their principle source of food - are now scarce.

In the following weeks, we will investigate in greater depth how each of these risk factors affect the Southern Residents, will explore what exactly critical habitat is, and why it is so important in a situation where they are dealing with many different kinds of human-caused threats.

NMFS chose this population as one of their eight "Species in the Spotlight: " marine species (under US jurisdiction) that they consider to be most at risk of extinction in the near future. The point of making such a distinction was to draw more attention and resources to the recovery of these species, but so far NMFS has yet to take any additional actions to improve conditions for the Southern Residents. In fact, parts of the Southern Resident recovery plan have been eliminated or scaled back due to budget constraints, including analysis of samples collected during the last three years of winter distribution surveys – samples which could indicate the importance of salmon and Chinook to the whales when they’re on the coast.

Even with nine new calves in the population, without adequate protection and a plentiful food source, extinction is a likely outcome for this unique community. Time is running out for these whales, and no single solution alone will save them. Critical habitat is a useful leverage point to address many threats at once, but the current designation protects only a small part of their range, and expansion is necessary to truly have a meaningful effect.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Whale and Dolphin Conservation is currently working to expand critical habitat for Southern Resident Orcas. We are asking the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to revise the current extent of designated critical habitat for the Southern Residents in the US to include their coastal wintering and foraging range NOW, instead of delaying until 2017 or later.

WDC supported a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity in 2014 to revise critical habitat to include the Southern Residents' coastal range, and include sound as an essential feature of protected habitat. NMFS found the petition to be warranted and acknowledged the need to protect this vital winter foraging range, but delayed beginning the revision process until 2017.  NMFS has enough information to expand critical habitat, anddelaying a revision takes time the Southern Residents simply don't have.  Their recovery needs to be a high priority, and while NMFS has recognized the urgency of the situation, they are still delaying action.  Protecting the habitat of these endangered whales will help to address the multiple threats facing this population, and should not be postponed when enough information is available to take action now.

Every week from now through March, we will be posting information about the many threats preventing recovery of this unique population, and all the reasons why the current extent of critical habitat has not been enough to be an effective tool for conservation.

Southern Residents