Even though scientists have learned a lot about the Southern Resident orcas since they were listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2005, a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows their population still isn’t growing and has raised more questions about their future survival.
In the 1960s, the Southern Residents, which include three distinct pods ( J, K and L pods) numbered at about 140, but captures for public display caused their numbers to drop drastically. By the early 1970s there were only an estimated 71 left. As of last year there were still only 82.
Even with live captures being banned, federal protection and millions spent on research and recovery efforts, they’ve yet to make a comeback.
Recent news about them keeps going from bad to good and back again: from worries that they would have federal protection removed to the sightings of Springer, who was the first orca to be rescued and successfully released and who was spotted with a calf, and of 103-year-old Granny, who is believed to be the world’s oldest orca, to NOAA’s latest findings and the surrounding questions about whether and how we can help them thrive.
Scientists have answered a few questions about these orcas — including discovering where they go in the winter, how they identify and choose their preferred food and how noise from boats is changing their behavior, among other things — but still aren’t sure why their numbers haven’t increased more.
The Seattle Times notes that they have found that it’s not so much a single issue that can be addressed, as it is a battle against multiple, overlapping threats. The three main problems now are a lack of food, disturbance from boats and a buildup of pollutants in their bodies.
Their favorite food, chinook salmon is also endangered. Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, believes that addressing their food source is what matters most now and that if we want to help orcas recover the focus needs to be on recovering species of salmon they rely on.
Boats are also believed to cause them to hunt less, speed up and burn more energy than they would otherwise, which leaves them using more energy when there’s less food available. Even with rules that prevent boats from coming into 200 yards of them or designated critical habitat, they’re still struggling.
According to NOAA, these orcas are also the most contaminated marine mammals in the world and have been found to have DDT, PCBs and flame retardants in their systems, which have been linked to disease and reproductive problems.
Now, scientists will be working to address these three main issues, while enforcing current regulations, along with taking additional measures to protect them – adding steps that range from making sure we’re ready to deal with a catastrophic event like an oil spill and coordinating response efforts to help stranded orcas to working to raise public awareness through education and outreach programs.
Meanwhile, rumors of a potential pregnancy are swirling around Rhapsody, a member of the J pod, leaving orca enthusiasts cautiously optimistic and hopeful that a new addition might be on the way. Howard Garret, founder of the Orca Network, wouldn’t substantiate the rumor, telling the South Whidbey Record that there’s no way to tell short of a physical exam, but he did say she’s the right age and looks a little large.
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