Dwindling killer whale pod can be saved with swift action: experts
Published Tuesday, December 16, 2014 4:54PM PST
Last Updated Tuesday, December 16, 2014 7:22PM PST
The same dangers that likely led to Rhapsody the orca’s early death are threatening the rest of the dwindling southern resident pod, but scientists believe there’s still time to turn the tide.
Rhapsody, or J-32, was found floating off the B.C. coast on Dec. 3. The whale’s nearly full-term calf had been dead inside it for days, causing a bacterial infection that proved fatal.
Sadly, the calf’s death was hardly a surprise; The University of British Columbia’s Marine Mammal Research Centre said none of the pod’s calves have survived since 2012.
“The population is barely holding on,” centre director Dr. Andrew Trites said. “It almost makes you wonder if they’re doomed. What we need are more calves.”
Only 77 southern whales remain, and the pod is listed as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
Ongoing factors that potentially weakened Rhapsody and her calf include scarcity of food, persistent pollutants and disorienting noise from passing ships, all of which scientists believe can be remedied.
Helping orcas and fishermen alike
One issue is that southern orcas are fussy eaters, dining almost exclusively on Chinook salmon, and the salmon are finding fewer and fewer suitable places to spawn.
Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard of the Vancouver Aquarium said improving the health of B.C.’s river systems would also make for a healthier pod.
“If we put emphasis on restoring Chinook populations, that’s good for resident killer whales, and it’s also good for fishermen,” Barrett-Lennard said.
The Aquarium is also now tracking orcas using drones, letting them see how well each whale is doing, and even pinpointing frequent feeding areas – areas that could be protected through localized fishing restrictions.
Another challenge facing the pod is industrial metals and other contaminants in the water, which have given them a reputation for being the most toxic killer whales on Earth.
Those man-made poisons are stored in whales’ fatty layer, and then absorbed into their organs when food is scarce. They’re also transferred into growing calves, like Rhapsody’s.
Researchers say those dangers could be curbed by pressing government for stricter controls and stiffer penalties for polluters.
Another form of pollution
Finally, there’s noise pollution caused by heavy ship traffic, which interrupts orcas’ ability to find their increasingly scarce food supply.
“We know disturbance is a big issue. It may mean setting aside areas where boats can’t go, having different restrictions in terms of how close you can approach whales,” Barrett-Lennard said.
Scientists believe Canadians could reverse the fate of the iconic killer whales, but it will take determination and money. Without action, they warn the pod could blink out within a decade.
“I genuinely believe that these animals really are threatened. The events of the last year, all the mortality of the last year is indicative of that,” Barrett-Lennard said.
“The solutions are fairly simple, they really are, but they’re not cost-free.”
With a report from CTV Vancouver’s Peter Grainger