Southern Resident orcas are hungry for change. The lack of their primary prey, Chinook salmon, is leading to a high rate of mortality and miscarriages and changes in their social structure and pod cohesion. While shortage of prey is their primary threat, Southern Resident orcas are also endangered by toxic pollution, from persistent chemicals such as PCBs, DDT, and flame retardants, and noise disturbance from shipping boats in the Salish Sea.
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The Southern Resident Orca Community
The three Southern Resident pods, known as J, K, and L pods, usually travel, forage and socialize throughout the inland waters of the Salish Sea from late spring through late summer seeking chinook salmon. This community of whales are distinct from the orca communities found in Northern BC and Alaskan waters.
Each individual can be identified by its unique fin shape, markings and color patterns and can be identified by sight or photograph. Using photo-identification methods, each has been identified by the Center for Whale Research with a specific alphanumeric designation, such as J2 or L12, and the movements and behavior of each member and group can be studied over many decades. After each newborn has survived its first winter they are also given more familiar-sounding names by The Whale Museum, such as “Luna” or “Samish.”
Social Structure and Behavior
The Southern Resident community is an extended family, or clan, that is distinct and separate from all other orca populations. When Southern resident pods join together after a separation of a few days or a few months, they often engage in “greeting” behavior. Ritualized formations of each pod face one another for several minutes, then gradually merge into active groups, each existing of members of different pods, accompanied by intense underwater vocalizations and spectacular “play” behavior.
From October through June, K and L pods tend to disappear to coastal waters over the continental shelf between northern California and SE Alaska, while J pod often reappears in the inland waters. All three pods visit lower Puget Sound during fall months in search of chum salmon. They are capable of swimming at speeds of 30 mph and usually swim from 75 to 100 miles every 24 hours.
Southern Resident orcas were listed as endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act in 2004 and under the United States Endangered Species Act in 2005. This came after an almost 20% decline in the population between 1995 and 2001. The historical practices of shooting and capturing the Southern Residents initially decimated the population.
Current threats include potential disturbance from vessel noise, especially large ships; toxic industrial chemicals such as DDT, PCBs, and flame retardants; and the decline of their primary prey Chinook salmon. Lack of food causes whales to draw from the energy contained in their insulating blubber to survive. The bioaccumulated toxic chemicals in the blubber are flushed into the whales’ bloodstreams, reducing the body’s immunity to infection and disease and disrupting reproductive and neurological systems. Because of this, females experience a high rate of late-term miscarriage most likely due to lack of food and toxins.
The fate of our local orcas, and all other killer whales around the globe, is inextricably linked to the health of marine ecosystems. These intelligent and resourceful creatures will do well as long as the basic food supply on which they depend is available. Orcas are at the top of the food chain so all the other sea creatures from krill to sea lions must prosper if the orcas are to survive. Here in Washington State and British Columbia, our marine water quality and healthy salmon runs are crucial to the presence and survival of the Southern Residents as well as the transients.