An uneasy time for orcas – March 16th 2009

An uneasy time for orcas

The “resident” orcas of the Pacific Northwest have evolved their lifestyle and organized their communities around the easy availability and predictable habits of the salmon they rely on for food.  For thousands of years, 5 species of salmon spawned in coastal rivers and streams, the progeny making their way out to sea to grow, and then returning to places of origin to renew the cycle and die.  Once the orcas understood salmon habits, life became very easy for them.  Given a huge excess of supply over need, they had the luxury of picking and choosing the fish they ate.  In doing so, they developed clear preferences.  The biggest, fattiest salmon – spring and chum – became the orcas’ favourite foods.  Sharing became a commonplace bridge between family members, so individuals seldom if ever went hungry.  Paralleling the orcas’ easy existence were the lives of coastal First Nations, whose communities survived for thousands of years with cultures and traditions that thrived on salmon.  More recently, for over a century, commercial fisheries developed and flourished.    

Now, suddenly in what seems like the mere blink of an eye, everything has changed.  The orcas, whose designation “resident” reflects their annual appearance in major salmon routes and habitats, are changing their ways, spreading and diversifying their efforts as they seek food.  In doing so, they are becoming far less predictable.  The changes in seasonal movements and patterns of use, including the rich social interactions we are accustomed to observing with joy, are worrying.  Orcas need food, and they need each other.  Signs of stress are clearly evident.  Northern residents now spent much of their energy traveling long distances from one traditional fishing spot to another, often on a daily basis.  Body changes, including a debilitative condition called “peanut head” are reported among members of the Southern Resident community.  Heightened mortality, including deaths of females in the prime of life as well as among the very young, is becoming a huge concern for this population, which is now officially recognised as endangered.  Though Northern Residents have yet to show such extreme symptoms, concerns for their future are growing, and real.  On the human side, there is now virtually no commercial fishery for salmon of any kind in British Columbia.  First Nations, whose communal food gathering and sharing traditions are increasingly compromised, face a diminished and uncertain future.  Even the lucrative sports fishery, which targets the orcas’ favourite fish, is threatened.

It is difficult to find good news or even a hint of daylight for fish eating orcas in Northwest Pacific coastal waters.  Governments continue to ignore threats from fish farms which produce swarms of sea lice that kill salmon fry; toxins continue to pour into rivers and oceans; logging operations continue to degrade salmon spawning habitat; sports fishers continue to target spring salmon; oil exploration and development remains on the horizon; and impacts from global warming loom ever closer.  The future indeed seems bleak for these best known and most beloved orcas, though their ultimate fate is not yet set.  Yes we can see a glimmer of hope, but turning the surrounding gloom into the light of a new day is going to require concerted action on multiple fronts.  Whether “we” are capable of such a collective effort is an open question, the answer to which will determine much more than the fate of orcas.

by Paul Spong & Helena Symonds
OrcaLab, Hanson Island, B.C.

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