The Southern Resident Orca Population Crashes In 2008: Starvation

From the Island Guardian
Published 12/16/2008
By Mark Anderson

The plight of our resident killer whales has become as simple to understand as is the most likely means of saving them. After years of argument driven as much by money as by science, we have suddenly, unfortunately, reached a moment when the causes and remedial actions are relatively clear.

I am writing this in the aftermath of a rather successful meeting organized by Puget Sound Partnership on the subject of “What is killing the whales, and what can be done about it?” This Friday Harbor Labs gathering inluded William Ruckelshaus, chair of the government-mandated study group, and representatives from National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, other scientists, and interested NGOs such as The Whale Museum and Orca Relief. Joe Gaydos, head of SeaDoc Society, moderated.

The meeting was called in the wake of the loss of seven orca during the 2008 season, including two breeding females. The primary question of the meeting, reconciled rather quickly, was answered by general agreement that the proximal cause of the orca deaths was starvation.

So, here is the first of three key points that local residents will want to understand:

1. Our local whales are starving to death.
These whales have a diet composed of about 70% chinook (king) salmon; when that population crashes, as it did this year off the California coast and locally, the whales pay.

The second point is just as clear: when the whales are starving, there are human behaviors which accelerate that starvation. Powered boats running to, from and with the whales from dawn to dusk are now known to cause several major problems related to starvation: a) whale metabolic rates, measured by respiration, increase dramatically with boat presence, necessitating more food; b) whales swim faster, dive longer, and travel longer, less direct paths, when boats are present, also increasing food requirements; c) whale sonar, their primary tool for hunting, is impaired by up to 97% by the presence of a single motorized boat.

Add in the obvious question of whether fish are dispersed by the ongoing presence of multiple powered craft, and you likely have a further decline in survival conditions.

The sum of these impacts on a starving population is obvious: needing more food per day, and getting much less, at a time when food is already extremely scarce; i.e., death by starvation.

So, here is the second important point in understanding the orca population crash:

2. Powered boat presence accelerates whale starvation.
I will add, for those who don’t follow the science closely, that many, many papers on the questions of boat / whale interactions have been published in the last decade, and virtually all of them show a negative result.

Not surprisingly, it is against the law for humans to harass animals categorized as endangered, as our local orca now are. But here is something you may not know: the simple “pursuit” of our local whales violates federal law. Both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act specifically state that “pursuit” is illegal.

This makes sense. Can you imagine an endangered wolf population, being chased all day every day by tourists on All Terrain Vehicles? The situation with our orca is not much different.

In a recent federal hearing in Friday Harbor, the top administrator and attorney for NMFS both told attendees that the simple pursuit of our whales was against the law, a point they repeated on questioning, and which was highlighted in the first line of their chief biologist’s first slide.

This brings us to the third important point worth knowing. Despite a lack of enforcement of this federal requirement to date,

3. It is strictly illegal to pursue our local orca.

While some commercial whale watch operators will no doubt try to make some case for defining “pursuit,” I am comfortable making the argument that any commercial entity advertising certainty of finding and seeing whales for paying customers is indeed engaging in constant pursuit.
The current population crash is almost twice as steep as the last (in 1997-2001); it is the worst “natural” population catastrophe this population has experienced of record, although if it is caused by “loving the whales to death,” the cause will not have been natural at all.

Many other causes have also been dreamed up for what is killing our whales, with this dreaming mostly being done by those making money pursuing the whales. The most common among these are pesticides. There are two big problems most scientists have with pesticides as a primary cause of death: first, their concentration, in any terms, does not correlate with whale mortality. In fact, concentrations of PCBs, the most often-discussed pesticide, anti-correlate. That means that the chemical concentration has been declining, even in bio-accumulation terms, while whale mortality has been going up.

Yes, whales have way too many pesticides in their blubber; and yes, it is easy to give presentations on why pesticides are generally bad. But it is important to point out that no one has shown any correlation between this and their death rates. I asked this question of a Northwest expert at a Friday Harbor meeting just a few weeks ago, and the answer remains negative. A few years ago, Douglas Demaster, then head of the NMFS Marine Mammal labs, specifically stated in a Friday Harbor meeting, “Pesticides are not the cause of whale deaths.” Since then, research conducted by Glenn von Blaricom and Carlos Alvarez at the University of Washington found “no time correlation” between pesticides and orca mortality.

Is there no connection at all between pollution and whale death? There may be two, although both are indirect. First, it is likely that, in the last stages of starvation, as the whales draw down their blubber reserves, they are suddenly exposed to these stored toxins: something that would not happen if they were not starved.

If the combination of low salmon count and boat presence were not starving them, they would not face this final chemical insult. In that sense, pesticides may contribute to, but are not the primary cause of, death.

Second, pollutants may be contributing to fewer salmon, a problem for orca and the rest of us higher in the food chain.

But if pesticides were the primary cause, we wouldn’t see the huge variations in population mortality we see today, nor would we likely have just lost two breeding females, the individuals with the lowest pesticide concentrations. The problem lies elsewhere.

What can we do?

There are few natural situations in which the stakes are so high, and the potential answer so cheap or easy. Removing the already-illegal commercial pursuit business is the simplest way of saving these animals. In biological terms, ceasing these whale watch activities will have the effect of increasing the “carrying capacity” of their environment. In other words, that action alone will have the effect of providing more fish for the whales, at a time when they are starving to death.

Since pursuit of the orca is already illegal, all this means is enforcing the existing Endangered Species law. One can hope that the upcoming change in administrations will also include a change in respect for knowledge and science, for the Endangered Species Act, and for law itself.

An Historic View

For those who have not followed the history of this situation, I will add a few notes that may be useful in framing NMFS’ lack of enforcement, and the whales’ exposure to these problems.

In the 1980s, when I co-founded the world’s first research “based whale museum in Friday Harbor, no researcher -much less any tourist- was allowed anywhere near the whales, without an express “Permit to Harass” granted yearly by NMFS. Only one such boat was on the water at that time. Scientists were deeply afraid for what NMFS would do to their careers if they violated this law.

At that time, The Whale Museum embargoed all data on whale locations for 24 hours, to make sure that no one without permits would know where the whales were.

Since then:

The original permitted researcher made a revenue stream of almost one hundred thousand dollars per year by taking tourists out to photograph whales, becoming one of the first two local commercial whale watch operators;

Whale watch operator numbers have climbed into the dozens, with most coming from Canada, others from Seattle and Anacortes. The actual number of registered operators in San Juan County is relatively small, probably under twenty, with perhaps as few as ten really practicing.

The efficiency of whale watch practices has increased dramatically, as revenues went up: first, through an internal radio net; then, through adding paid coastal observers; then, backed by an occasional pilot fly-over; then, increased by using the Net postings. Today, there is a website that reports all whale whereabouts, in real time, 24 x 7. What was unethical yesterday, is a money-making website today.

Average boat types have changed, from wooden or glass displacement mono hulls with slow-turning diesel engines, to the twin-400 Mercury outdrive rubber rafts used by some Canadian companies today. The sounds of outboards steps directly on the spectrum used in orca sonar.

Finally, private craft would sail right through orca pods in the 1980s without realizing whales were around them; today they simply follow the constant swarm of commercial craft, and are always aware of whales present. Even as the statistical likelihood of commercial craft finding whales has neared 100%, the same is true for private craft finding the commercial boats gathered around the whales.

For this reason, arguments blaming the (often larger) number of (often less-informed) private craft operators is deeply disingenuous. Without the commercial operators, the private problem would probably not exist, or be so much less as to have negligible impact -just as in the past.

And why publicize whale locations on the Net, when even the site owner has publicly stated that the whales are dying of starvation? It makes no sense at all. Rather, good practice would be to run the site the way the Museum used to handle the same data, offering information a day late, retaining the fascination and data acccuracy, but taking the real-time, constant pursuit pressure off the whales.

Will the whales survive, if the boats leave them alone? I think they will. They will need less fish, but much more important, they will have full use of their sonar, which is used to find fish, communicate, perhaps orchestrate the hunt, and, likely, to stun or kill as well. Returning use to them of what is likely the best sonar on the planet is a huge benefit.

It is worth noting, in work by both Von Blaricom and Alvarez, and by David Bain, that there is not a simple correlation between low chinook count and whale death; rather, the correlation is between both low chinook count accompanied by high boat count, and whale death. Low salmon alone is not deadly to the whales, but low salmon AND boats are.

Over 90% of local residents are against chasing the whales, based on a petition launched a few years ago by Orca Relief -a petition which became the most-signed petition in county history. Locals’ feelings are both strong and clear: they do not want “their” whales being pursued.

With our knowledge that the whales are starving, new science showing that boats accelerate that starvation, and a new endangered status that further protects the whales from any pursuit, the solution to this problem seems obvious. The real danger to tourist dollars is not if ten local people stop operating, with tourists channeled to land-based watching at the increasingly-popular Whale Watch Park. The real danger to tourist dollars is that the whales starve to death, and are all destroyed.

We should enforce the existing law, and stop pursuing the orca.

(Mark Anderson submitted a guest editorial in 2006 to the Island Guardian entitled “Impacts Of Whale-Watching Boats” . Mark is the Chairman of the Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance, and was a co-founder with Kennneth Balcomb of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. His day job is the CEO of Strategic News Service (SNS) and its consulting practice, Technology Alliance Partners (TAP), and is also the chairman of the Future in Review (FiRe) Conferences.)

Also read: Orca Whales and Old Growth – Case Studies in Market Failures by fellow blogger Monica Harrington at Social Innovation Perspectives