Without question, orcas are some of the Pacific Northwest's most magnificent animals. They are adored for their beauty, intelligence, and power, capturing the hearts of both locals and tourists.
Though orcas are found in oceans all over the world, the orcas of the PNW are special; the Southern Resident Killer Whales only eat fish. Unlike transient and offshore orcas, who hunt marine mammals, the Southern Residents rely on a diet of fish, like Chinook salmon.
Unfortunately, Chinook salmon numbers have been declining due to four dams located on the Snake River. The dams present a number of risks to the salmon population, including raising water temperatures and blocking more than 55% of their spawning habitat. Fewer salmon are making it to the Pacific Ocean, providing less food for the orcas.
Not only are the orcas starving, but they face an increasing number of risks due to human interference with their natural habitat. Ships can strike them, and produce noise pollution that interferes with their echolocation. Other threats, like climate change and live capture for places like Sea World, have also put orcas in danger.
Southern Resident orca populations have declined; as of January 2019, there are 75 orcas, a number that hasn't been seen since the early 1980s. There have been two calves born since then, but scientists don't count them until they're at least one year old. Survival rates for orca calves are about 50 percent, and the Southern Residents haven't successfully reproduced in years.
In July 2018, one of the Southern Resident orcas, J-35, drew attention after she pushed her calf around for 17 days. The calf lived only 30 minutes before dying, and J-35's grief touched hearts around the globe.
Perhaps the reason we love the Southern Residents is that they're like us: they're intelligent, they feel love and grief, and they're highly social. Sadly, these orcas are considered critically endangered, and we could lose them.
We aren't just at risk of losing a species — we're at risk of losing our humanity. If we don't protect the creatures that live on this planet, then what right do we have to live here?
For further information on how you can help, visit these sites: