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Humpback whale © Christopher Swann

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News from the orca world

Big things are happening for Pacific Northwest orcas!  Here’s an overview of the 2015 news so far:

Lolita is Now Officially a Southern Resident!

On February 4, Lolita (also known as Tokitae) was officially included in the endangered listing of the Southern Resident orca Distinct Population Segment (DPS) by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).  The ruling will become official on May 11, 2015.  When this population was added to the Endangered Species List in 2005, all captive members of the community – essentially, just Lolita – were excluded from the listing and from the protections offered by an endangered listing under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Finally, after a lengthy battle to have her included, NMFS agreed that the best science available (her genetics, capture history, and acoustic repertoire – which matches that of her family) clearly indicated that Lolita was a member of the endangered Southern Resident population.

Held captive at the Miami Seaquarium for more than 44 years, Lolita’s inclusion under the ESA opens new avenues in the ongoing fight to bring her home and return her to Pacific Northwest waters of her birth.  Endangered status protects Lolita from harassment and unsuitable habitat conditions, and it is highly probable that the Miami Seaquarium will have to apply for an ESA permit to keep her.  She has been the lone orca at the Seaquarium for decades, kept in a tiny tank without the companionship of another orca.

A detailed retirement plan developed by the Orca Network is in place for Lolita, which begins with moving her to a sea pen in the San Juan Islands, an area frequented by the Southern Residents, and ends with the ultimate goal of releasing her and seeing her reunite with her family.

Critical Habitat – too little, too late?

In another encouraging step forward by NMFS for the critically endangered Southern Residents, they also announced their decision to review and revise current critical habitat for the population.  Following their 2005 ESA listing, a 2006 critical habitat designation (required for all listed populations) protected the inland waters of Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca – areas well-known as the summer home of the Southern Residents.

In the years since then, studies by the NMFS and years of reported sightings have confirmed that for the rest of the year, the Southern Residents frequent the coastal waters of Washington, Oregon, and California.  The continuing decline of this population indicates that more protection is needed for their recovery, particularly of this habitat; coastal waters are important for foraging, socializing, and raising young.

While NMFS’ decision to revise critical habitat is essential to the recovery of the Southern Residents, the agency unfortunately delayed making any revisions until 2017, citing the need for additional data collection and analysis.  In decades of study by the Center for Whale Research, the range and habitat use of the population has been well-established, and the recent 10-year report released by NMFS confirms the importance of this coastal habitat.  A two-year postponement of revising and establishing new critical habitat for the Southern Residents is not only unnecessary, but dangerous for a population that is teetering so close to the edge of extinction.  With only 77 members left and the increasing threat of prey depletion in their summer range, the Southern Residents are in need of additional protection now, not in two years.

A Step Forward for Ending Captivity

In more news for captive orcas, a bill was recently introduced in the Washington state legislature that is very similar in scope to 2014’s California Captive Orca Welfare and Safety Act (AB2140).  Both bills would prohibit keeping wild or captive-born orcas for entertainment or performance purposes and would ban the breeding of captive orcas.  The Washington bill (HB2115) expands these protections to all whales and dolphins (cetaceans), and is largely symbolic – none have been held captive in the state since 2009. But Washington is home to the critically endangered Southern Resident orca population, whose endangered status is due in no small part to their targeted capture and exploitation by the captivity industry in the 60s and 70s.  Having an official bill banning whale and dolphin captivity in Washington state is a tribute to the legacy of these remarkable orcas and protects other populations from the same fate.  Although the bill did not make it through the rules committee for this session, it received two hearings and generated a lot of discussion on the topic, and we are hopeful that it will be reintroduced in the next legislative session.

The California bill is currently in interim study (they’re seeking further information) and will hopefully be reintroduced in 2016.  It also calls for the rehabilitation and return to the ocean for orcas currently held for entertainment, or retirement to sea pens if rehabilitation and release is not possible.  While the Washington bill is important because of its relation to the Southern Resident population, the California one would have a huge impact on SeaWorld San Diego and the orcas they currently hold in captivity, requiring SeaWorld to take steps to rehabilitate them and return them to the wild where possible, finally giving them a chance for freedom.

In both states, holding orcas or other whales and dolphins for rescue, rehabilitation, and research would still be allowed, but only if they were ultimately returned to the wild or retired to a sea pen.

How to Help:

Contact the Assembly speaker to request an oversight hearing for the California bill – a hearing would allow a detailed discussion of the issue and provide transparency in the legislative process.  Be polite, but insist that a hearing on the Orca Welfare and Safety Act be scheduled!  Comments from all states and countries are encouraged – let California know that all eyes are watching the progress of this bill.

If you live in Washington State, contact your local representative and ask for support of the bill, and share  your reasons why it is important to you.

Baby Boom!

The Southern Residents have had a bit of a baby boom in the last few months, with three total new calves spotted in the population.  J50 was seen in late December 2014, J51 spotted shortly after, and the newest baby, L121, seen on February 25 during the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) annual winter survey cruise.  L121 was seen on the outer coast of Washington, within the proposed critical habitat expansion for the Southern Residents, and providing further support for the need to protect this area.

While three babies in such a short time period is a welcome sign of hope for the recovery of this critically endangered population, we must keep in mind that a normal year for these whales would have four surviving calves, and these young ones still face an uphill battle of survival.  Prey depletion, contamination, and noise and harassment are still major issues threatening the recovery of the Southern Residents, and every new baby born highlights the need to address these issues now, to ensure they grow up safe and sound.  They lost two known calves in 2014: L120, who disappeared after only a few short weeks, and the unborn baby of Rhapsody – it is vital that these three new babies are protected throughout their range and are ensured an adequate food source as they grow.

The West Coast population of Bigg’s orcas has also had an abundance of new births recently, with two new arrivals seen in 2015 so far – T100F and T085D.  Bigg’s orcas also tend to stay in family groups, though smaller than Resident groups.  They have been spending a lot of time in the inland waters of the Salish Sea this year, allowing researchers to get a great look at individuals and document the new calves.  Thanks to the Transient Killer Whale Research Project for sharing their photos and information!

Like the Resident populations, Bigg’s orcas are also at risk for high levels of biocontamination.  Toxins and pollutants build up through the food web, eventually ending up in the blubber of these orcas.  Biocontamination can disrupt the reproductive and immune systems of orcas and can intensify the effects of other threats.  

Help WDC protect orcas in the Pacific Northwest – sign our letter of support for removing the Klamath River dams.  Already signed? Make a personal connection with our Orca Adoption Project and support our conservation efforts!