[Originally published June 2nd, 2017, on the NRDC Expert Blog]
June is Orca Awareness Month, a time to show appreciation for our beloved orcas and to encourage a culture of stewardship to protect these majestic animals and their fragile habitat.
Late last year, the Southern Resident orcas lost their long-time leader, Granny, who lived to be 105 years old. Six other family members were also lost in 2016. With only 78 individuals left in the wild, the survival of each orca is vital for this critically endangered population’s future.
These majestic animals are a beloved icon of the Pacific Northwest and hold particular cultural and spiritual significance for Northwest tribes. Southern residents are highly intelligent, social creatures that live and hunt in complex family-oriented communities. They teach the younger members of their families special skills they need to survive, and demonstrate a culture of cooperation and sharing.
Yet, despite our love for and understanding of our orcas, they continue decline at an alarming rate. In 2015, the Southern Residents were named by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as one of eight species most likely to go extinct in the near future unless immediate action is taken.
A goal of this year’s Orca Month is to raise awareness of how the very waters that the orcas call home are posing a serious threat to their survival. This unique population faces a barrage of pressures in these troubled waters including toxic pollution, underwater noise disturbance, oil spills, and above all, a lack of their main prey: Chinook salmon.
Also a highly endangered species, Chinook are the biggest and fattiest of Pacific salmon, and comprise 80-85% of a Southern Resident orca’s diet. Today, habitat loss and barriers to migration have decimated the Chinook salmon in the Northwest to a mere 10% of their historic numbers; in some basins they are holding on by a thread at 1%.
Southern Resident orcas will not survive without the restoration of their primary food source. Their fates are intertwined. No fish: no Blackfish.
But there is hope! There is still time to recover our Southern Resident orcas, but we need to restore salmon, reduce toxic runoff into Puget Sound, mitigate underwater noise disturbance, and prevent catastrophic oil spills, including halting the development of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline.
On the federal level, critical funding for NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other agencies is vital to addressing each of these threats. President Trump’s budget proposal would eliminate the very funding that is needed to save our orcas.
At the state level, we can help orcas survive by allowing more Columbia-Snake River salmon to migrate safely past dams to the ocean, including by increasing water releases (“spill”) over federal dams. More spill can help increase salmon populations in the Columbia basin, providing more prey for orcas.
Please help us spread the word that that June is Orca Awareness Month! Check out https://orcamonth.wordpress.com to learn more about Orca Awareness Month and upcoming events, and visit www.orcasalmonalliance.org to learn more about the Southern Residents and how you can get involved!
About Orca Month and the Orca Salmon Alliance
Orca Month was created a decade ago by Orca Network, a member of the Orca Salmon Alliance, and has since been officially declared by Washington State, and was also unofficially observed by Oregon and British Columbia last year.
The Orca Salmon Alliance is working to restore the orca’s salmon food supply in the orca’s core summer range in the Salish Sea, and along the Washington, Oregon and Northern California coasts. The overarching goal is to mobilize support and resources to stop and reverse the decline of southern resident orca and wild salmon populations.
The Alliance today includes the Center for Whale Research, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Endangered Species Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Oceana, Orca Network, Save Our wild Salmon, Seattle Aquarium, Southern Resident Killer Whale – Chinook Salmon Initiative, Washington Environmental Council, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation.