Southern Resident Killer Whales, An Endangered Species

by Gigi G.

Orcas in our own backyardIn the unique waters of the Salish Sea, which includes Puget Sound, The Strait of Georgia and The Strait of Juan de Fuca, killer whales can be found year round. Three main pods of killer whales, or orcas, are seen swimming regularly and are referred to as the southern resident killer whale population. The J, K and L pod are considered the most studied population of orcas in the world. This largest species of dolphins are recognized for their contrasting black and white body, and large dorsal fins which glide through the surface of water as they come up to breathe. Although orcas attract people from all over to enjoy their beauty, our Southern resident population was listed as Federally endangered in 2005. The population number of our orcas have been declining in recent years and and reached drastically low numbers. Due to resource depletion, vessel activity in the waters and high exposure to pollution, orcas are in need of our help to stand up for their safety.

Southern resident killer whales feed primarily on chinook salmon, making up 98% of their diet. Unfortunately, chinook salmon are also listed as species of concern and Federally threatened from pollution. As these salmon are taking in toxins, such as PCBs, from the water, the toxins accumulate into the orcas body as the salmon are being eaten. These toxins have a huge affect on our population number growing because as a female orca gives live birth, the toxins get passed on to the young through nursing. In the southern resident community, a calf has not lived longer than a year since 2012. As we work together to prevent waste being tossed into our waters, we can protect the home of these animals and help the population and health for future calves. In early 2015, four calves were born, rising our numbers to 81 southern resident killer whales. Lets keep a bright future for these young and conserve our marine environment.

orca jumpVessel and boat activity throughout the Salish Seas has grown exponentially throughout the years, causing a risk for orcas. As exciting as it can be to see an orca, maybe for the first time, and to get as close as we can for that perfect picture, there are regulations for boating near these animals. Killer whales need space to hunt and socialize, and we must keep a 200 yard distance to prevent stress for them. Since sound carries much farther under water, the closer we get, the louder the boats are. Orcas communicate through echo location, which is a series of clicks and whistles shooting through the water to other orcas. Studies have shown that as boats are extremely loud near the killer whale, it is much more difficult for them to communicate with each other. We can keep a safer and more natural environment for them if we keep the right distance away and stay out of their path of travel. The more educated we are, the less risk these orcas have of being stressed from our presence.

The southern resident killer whales are a special population in our local Salish Seas waters, but they are also a population that must be protected. Many steps have been taken to insure the health improvement for these animals. Salmon hatcheries have provided salmon restoration efforts to increase the amount of food available, as well as work to clean up contaminated sites to avoid toxins disturbing the killer whales. Along with these steps, vessels are now out on the water to help regulate boat activity and teach boaters about the distance rules for killer whales. The more we educate others and work together, we can make a big difference in benefiting the marine environment and the animals that live there. Visit the Seattle Aquarium’s Family Activity Center to learn more about the southern resident killer whales and what you can do to help their population.

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Categories Science

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