Not just ourselves, but the nation and world have followed daily updates for longer than a week of a killer whale mother keeping the body of her dead infant calf afloat as it travels with its pod in the waters near San Juan Island.
For more than a week J35, or Tahlequah, as the orca is known, has pushed along the corpse of a calf that died shortly after its birth, the only birth of an orca among the Southern Resident killer whales in the last three years. At times, other members of the 23-whale J pod have taken over for the mother.
It’s hard not to see the behavior of the mother and her podmates as anything other than grief over the calf’s death. At the risk of attributing human emotions and motives to an animal — albeit an intelligent mammal — we can also wonder whether Tahlequah hasn’t kept up her vigil to send a desperate message to us about the health of the Pacific Ocean, the Salish Sea and its sealife.
The message isn’t a new one, but its consequences are becoming more dire: Environmental impacts on ocean, sea, rivers and streams threaten the health and populations of orcas, salmon and other sea life in our waters.
Scientists consider orcas as an “indicator species,” providing a general measurement of the overall health of marine ecosystems. Currently, there are believed to be 75 orcas among the Southern Resident J, K and L pods that travel the Salish Sea and the coastal Pacific waters along British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and Northern California.
Following a series of live-capture hunts to stock marine amusement parks, the three pods’ population dropped to as few as 66 whales in the early-1970s. Annual surveys since 1976 show it took until 1995 to rebuild to a level of 98 whales, matching populations prior to the live captures. Numbers have since dropped and have fluctuated between a high of 89 in 2006 and today’s count of 75.
The two largest factors weighing on the orcas’ ability to rebuild their ranks are pollution and dwindling stocks of chinook and other salmon, their main source of food, as presented in a 2017 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In winter months, the orcas rely on salmon from the Columbia, Snake and Klamath river basins. During the summer months, about 80 percent of the whales’ diet are chinook salmon from B.C.’s Fraser River Basin, which like Washington rivers have seen mostly declining numbers in salmon stocks. The blame is shared among declines in herring stocks on which salmon feed, loss of habitat, pollution and road culverts and dams that block salmon migration.
At the same time that killer whales face a decline in prey, the orcas’ ability to hunt has been limited by noise from marine vessels that make it difficult for whales to communicate with each other and use echo-location to hunt for prey.
And they are suffering from toxins they ingest in the fish they eat that weaken them, especially as they face periods of scarce prey.
Howard Garrett, a Langley, Whidbey Island, orca researcher, noted in a 2015 commentary in The Bellingham Herald that a necropsy of another J pod whale showed a thin layer of dry blubber that indicated chronic food scarcity. The whale, Rhapsody, died at 18, carrying a nearly full-term calf. Having to draw on reserves of blubber, where toxins such as PCBs and flame-retardants and other chemicals accumulate, Garrett wrote, meant that the toxins are absorbed into the whale’s bloodstream and can lead to sterility, impairment of the immune system and death.
PCBs were banned in 1976, but are persistent in the marine ecosystem, and other chemical toxins from a variety of sources remain a threat to the whales and the food web below them.
Solutions to the health of the Salish Sea and its inhabitants must be as diverse as the threats, and some have been in development for years.
The Legislature in 2007 created the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency that in 2010 set an action agenda for specific targets to address many of the threats. Among the leading targets for the agenda was a population of 95 Southern Resident orcas by 2020. We are 20 whales short of that goal and are missing the mark on most other targets for herring numbers, habitat restoration and more.
Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Inslee convened a task force to develop recommendations toward orca recovery and sustainability. A draft of the group’s report and recommendation is due by Oct. 1, but it’s understood that the report will detail actions on sustainable salmon stocks, toxins and marine noise.
Some solutions are already known to us.
The U.S. Supreme Court this spring let stand a lower court decision that requires the state to continue work to replace salmon-blocking culverts from beneath state highways and roads.
Cities and counties also must continue efforts to treat stormwater that carries contaminants from roads, including oils and metals, and pesticide- and fertilizer-laden runoff from agricultural land.
State lawmakers should take up legislation first proposed by the governor in 2014 that would have identified the most dangerous chemicals that find their way to the sea, tracking them to their source and developing “chemical action plans” to find alternatives or methods for limiting the pollutants. The legislation was considered in 2016 but so watered down to the point of uselessness in both House and Senate that Inslee pulled his support for the bill.
And individually, we have a responsibility to dispose of unused medicines and chemicals properly and not dump them into sewers and storm drains; use landscaping techniques, such as rain gardens and permeable paving that reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and weedkillers and limit runoff; maintain our vehicles to reduce oil leaks and dispose of oil and auto wastes properly; and give a wide berth to orcas when boating.
In mourning her lost calf, Tahlequah’s vigil serves as a warning of what will be lost if we ignore our responsibilities as stewards of the Salish Sea.