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Southern Residents: turning talk into action

Even while we were busy absorbing information and networking at last month’s Society for Marine Mammalogy Biennial Conference, the world went on without us (shocking!) and a couple important news stories broke about the Southern Resident orcas.  I did a quick read-through while we were at the conference, and have had more time this week to review more thoroughly and share an update on what this news means for the Southern Residents.

The first story came out of a recent Southern Resident Symposium hosted by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in Vancouver, British Columbia at the beginning of October.  The three-day workshop was intended to solicit input from scientists, policy managers, NGOs, and legislators on what actions Canada can take to ensure the recovery of the Southern Resident orcas.  It was a good opportunity to build bridges across the border and talk about the transboundary efforts that will be needed to help the Southern Residents and salmon, their primary prey (after all, the whales don’t pay attention to borders), but feelings were mixed on the outcome of the Symposium.

I’ll share more news from the Symposium later, but it left me feeling cautiously optimistic.  A lot of productive conversation and discussion occurred, and we left with some real, concrete recommendations for what DFO and other Canadian agencies can do to recover Southern Residents and salmon.  One of the questions raised (by a few people, including myself) asked DFO if and when they were going to implement vessel regulations for orcas that match those the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has implemented in U.S. waters. 

In the U.S., boaters cannot approach orcas closer than 200m, must limit their speed, and avoid “parking in the path” of traveling whales.  These regulations were put into place in 2011 as an effort to address vessel noise and harassment for the orcas.  New studies on the effectiveness of these measures show that the results are mixed (Holt et al. 2017, Houghton et al. 2015).  But the lack of corresponding regulations on the Canadian side caused confusion for recreational boaters and commercial whale watch vessels, and a lack of adequate protection for the orcas.

Since the Symposium, DFO has announced that they will move to match the U.S. vessel regulations for orcas, and have asked boaters to voluntarily comply until the regulations can be made official in the spring.  This is encouraging news, as DFO has been working on an official law regarding disturbance for marine mammals since 2004 but so far has failed to make anything official.  Matching the U.S. regulations is a fairly simple and easy step that DFO can take, and we are heartened to see them taking action so quickly – but this cannot be the only action to come from the Symposium. 

While several people raised the issue of vessel disturbance, far more questions were raised about what actions DFO will take to ensure Chinook salmon recovery, the primary prey of Southern Resident orcas during the summer months when they’re in the transboundary waters of the Salish Sea.  Again, while initial announcements were encouraging (including $1.2 million to restore BC salmon), we hope to hear from DFO soon about plans to implement some of the recommendations that came from the Symposium.

Reducing vessel noise and increasing Chinook availability was also the focus of a new publication examining the impact of different threats to the Southern Residents (Lacy et al. 2017).  By modeling different future scenarios, the authors found that a combination of mitigation efforts offered the Southern Residents their best chance at recovery: more Chinook and quieter waters.

Under status quo conditions, the Southern Residents will continue their slow decline, but with even a slight increase in anthropogenic impacts, their chance of extinction goes up.  The study found that, if threats continue to develop as expected, the orcas have a 25% chance of going extinct within 100 years.  That’s a scary statistic, especially given the planned port development projects that would increase vessel traffic through critical habitat and the expected continued decline of Chinook due to climate change, but the good news is that this study also provides a path forward for recovery.

We know what we have to do to save the Southern Residents: reduce toxins entering their habitat, restore rivers and salmon habitat to increase prey availability, and give them protection from vessels so they have acoustic and physical space to forage.  But the agencies must turn this knowledge into action. 

The State of Washington is stepping up to lead the local charge to help Southern Residents.  The Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency leading the region’s effort to restore and protect Puget Sound, passed a resolution to accelerate Chinook salmon recovery for the Southern Resident orcas.  However, the Partnership also released their 2017 “State of the Sound” report, in which they announced they would not meet their goal of restoring Puget Sound by 2020.  This is concerning, but also seems to have resulted in a new resolve to save the Southern Residents, including increased efforts to protect and restore Puget Sound.

You can help WDC push the policy makers to save the Southern Residents and salmon.  Adopt an Orca to support our work, subscribe to our blogs and newsletters, support while you shop, or make a donation.

References:

Holt et al. 2017. Noise levels received by endangered killer whales Orcinus orca before and after implementation of vessel regulations.  Endangered Species Research 34:15-26. https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00841  

Houghton et al. 2015. The relationship between vessel traffic and noise levels received by killer whales (Orcinus orca). PLoSONE 10(12): e0140119 https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0140119

Lacy et al. 2017. Evaluating anthropogenic threats to endangered killer whales to inform effective recovery plans.  Scientific Reports 7:14119. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-14471-0