At the June 26 General Meeting David Bain, Killer Whale expert and conservationist, talked to us about Killer Whales, the threats they face, and protection and recovery issues. Killer Whales are threatened by loss of habitat, declining prey, pollution, and disturbances from whale watchers and military activity. Why should we care? As mammals we too are impacted by disruptions of marine ecosystems and nutrient cycles. In addition, Killer Whales are fascinating and share many traits with us. They are highly intelligent animals with a sophisticated social structure. They live and travel together in groups called pods and communicate with clicks, whistles, and pulses that vary from pod to pod just like human accents.
In the Pacific Northwest, the toxins impacting whales and other marine animals are mostly PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) - in California also DDT – both toxins take 30 to 40 years to peak in marine mammals. In the last twenty years survival of Killer Whale calves dropped by 50% due to maternal toxin loads, which get transferred to calves. The mortality rate is highest among first-born calves. Unfortunately most chemicals are put on the market first and regulated only after adverse reactions are observed. In Washington State regulation of pollutants is partly based on estimated fish consumption levels. The state currently assumes one seafood meal per person per month based on an outdated study performed in 1973. Governor Inslee’s administration will soon come out with a new policy for regulating pollutants. While industry representatives are lobbying against basing regulations on more realistic estimates, First Nations, who consume on average more seafood, have a stake in stricter rules. To learn more about this issue go to http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/News.
The prey base of Killer Whales dropped by ~ 95% since the early 1800s. The gold rush first exerted pressure on salmon populations, followed by practices like salmon canning, dam building (no fish ladders in early dams), and more recently by urban development and anthropogenic climate change. Increased concentrations of green house gases in the atmosphere are causing the mean world temperature to rise. The oceans have absorbed much of that warming and as a result thermo sensitive fish populations – already under pressure from overfishing - are in decline.
The design of hydraulic projects is important. In 2001 local tribes went to court to force the state to replace all salmon-blocking culverts. In 2013 a federal judge ruled in favor of the tribes but since the state filed an appeal with the 9th circuit court, the case’s final outcome is not yet clear. http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/NR/rdonlyres/11D6A32A-E036-4FF1-9501-8535DFFEA769/0/Folio_FishPassage.pdf
Cars also pose a threat to Killer Whales. As carbon dioxide emitters they contribute to climate change. As transport vehicles they are driven on roads typically composed of impervious pavement from which water runs directly into the sound carrying toxins in form of heavy metals and combustion byproducts with it.
Diseases pose another problem that threatens the health of Killer Whales, in particular exposure to unfamiliar pathogens. Moreover, the Puget Sound is currently not well equipped for treating sick Killer Whales, especially since Republicans killed funding for the Prescott Marine Mammals Stranding Grant.
Finally, whale conservation efforts in Washington are currently limited by policies favoring big agriculture – for instance with respect to water rights - and lack of adequate funding. What can we do? Endorse candidates that support implementing better conservation measures, and improving public transportation. Writing letters to politicians and newspapers helps; long term US senators, like Patty Murray, have the most clout to effect changes, if they chose to do so.