Human Population Growth Threatens Endangered Whales

An adult female Southern Resident killer whale known as J16 swims with her calf (J50) in September 2015. (NOAA Fisheries/Vancouver Aquarium via AP, File)

PUYALLUP, WASH. (CN) – Population growth is threatening efforts to save Southern Resident killer whales, whose decline is not being treated with the urgency the crisis demands, officials said in a task force meeting in Washington state Monday.

The Puget Sound area surrounding the Salish Sea is expected to be home to almost 6 million more people by 2050, which would add between 33 and 150 square miles of paved area, according to the Washington Department of Commerce.

“Population growth is the top challenge for conserving habitat,” Jeff Davis, assistant director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s habitat program, said Monday at the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force meeting.  

Governor Jay Inslee convened the task force last year, asking it to provide recommendations to prevent the endangered whales’ extinction.

Unlike most orca, Southern Residents exclusively eat fish – mostly Chinook salmon, which are also listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Dwindling food, an abundance of ship noise that interferes with the whales’ ability to hear and increasingly toxic waters are factors that have reduced their numbers from a high of 200 to the current low of 76 whales, which are divided into three extended families – also known as pods.

Human population growth leads to habitat loss, roads that divide wildlife corridors, toxic pesticides and invasive species. New research shows that pharmaceuticals in the water where young salmon swim make them rush out to the ocean, when they should be heading slowly downstream and resting in estuaries where the mixture of fresh and salt water helps them acclimate to their new home.

Task force member Mindy Roberts, an environmental engineer with the state’s Department of Ecology, called Monday’s discussion “sobering.”

“Business as usual really does mean extinction of salmon and orcas and that’s the challenge that we here in the task force have to meet,” Roberts said.

J.T. Austin, a natural resources policy advisor for Inslee, said Monday that the governor will send a letter to the Navy to weigh in on behalf of Southern Resident killer whales that are affected by the Navy’s use of sonar and explosives during military testing in Puget Sound. Members of the public can comment until June 12 on the Navy’s planned continuation of ongoing military readiness exercises.

Meanwhile, one of the whales is in serious trouble. J17, mother to a three-year-old calf, has been getting skinnier since 2015. New aerial photos taken in May show the “peanut head” syndrome that indicates she has lost the normal fat store at the base of her skull.

“The majority haven’t survived once they get to this state,” said Teresa Mongillo, a fishery biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at a meeting last month.

Two calves were born in recent months, and they are the first in three years to survive past birth. New research shows orca become pregnant more often than was previously thought, but it is rare for them to bring calves to term and for the calves to survive past birth. Sixty-eight percent of documented pregnancies do not produce a calf, according to Mongillo.

Washington state has passed a suite of legislation in an attempt to save the whales and enact the task force’s major recommendations. New laws address vessel noise, salmon habitat and hatchery production and toxic pollution from stormwater. The state will spend over $1 billion helping salmon and Southern Residents over the next two years.

Pacific Fishery Management Council, the agency that regulates west coast ocean fishing, is working to account for the dietary needs of Southern Residents when it decides each year how many fish it should let tribes and fishermen catch.

Canada has issued a range of recommendations including an increase of Chinook hatchery production by one million fish and voluntary measures, such as increased buffer zones for ships and refuge zones in important foraging areas where ships are not allowed.

Still, task force member G.I. James, who works with the Lummi Nation’s natural resources division, said Monday that the group was putting too little emphasis on what he repeatedly called a “crisis.”

“We’re worried about the population that’s going to be here in the next 25 years and we can’t even address the problems that are being created by the people who are here right now,” James said. “We think we can have it all. We can have the roads, we can have our cars, we can have our businesses and we can still have those natural resources that depend on the very same things all that destroys.”

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