Orcas on the Edge: A quest to film the critically endangered southern residents
The southern resident killer whales (SRKW) represent the smallest of four groups of orca found in the northwest region of the Pacific Ocean. In the spring and summer months they are frequently sighted in and around the Salish Sea, where they are of extreme cultural, spiritual and historical importance to the communities inhabiting surrounding islands. Their presence also contributes significantly to ecotourism in the area, with people coming from all over the world to see these majestic animals in their natural habitat. When the first population census was conducted in the 1970s, the total number of southern residents stood at 66 (Environmental Protection Agency, 2018). Despite a lack of previous records, this figure reflected a significant loss of individuals following mass capture in the 1960s for the captive orca industry. By the mid 1990’s the population had somewhat regenerated, reaching a high of 98 individuals in 1995. This rate of growth was not to last however, and the population has since decreased to just 76 individuals split across three pods, J,K and L. The rapid decline in southern residents has been cause for them to obtain endangered species status in both Canada and the US in 2003 and 2005 respectively. Whilst the threat of capture for exhibition at marine parks was no longer a threat in the late nineties and early 21st century, other threats were coming to the forefront including pollution and boat noise. It has been established that boat noise is problematic for marine mammals that rely on echolocation to navigate and find prey, whilst pollution is a particular problem for killer whales who lie at the top of the food chain and accumulate dangerous levels of toxins in their blubber. The biggest threat to this group of whales however comes in the form of prey availability. Unlike other types of killer whale, the southern residents are specialist fish feeders who rely primarily on one species of fish, chinook salmon. Due to a combination of factors including overfishing, the spread of disease from fish farms and the creation of dams blocking migration routes into the Salish Sea, chinook salmon have been declining in these waters and are also listed as endangered.
Without their primary food source which comprises approximately 80% of their diet, the southern resident killer whales are effectively starving. This is compounded by the issue of pollution, as starving individuals begin to break down their heavily contaminated blubber, causing toxins such as PCB to be released into the bloodstream. The effects of this have been clearly observed by locals and researchers, with a particularly concerning aspect being the impaired reproductive rates of affected individuals. A recent study suggested that a staggering two thirds of pregnancies are failing due to malnutrition, and even calves surviving to birth are dying shortly after. This has been devastating to watch, with local researchers and whale watchers reporting the desperate attempts of individuals trying to save their young. This includes dragging babies up to the surface when they are too weak and malnourished to do so themselves. If nothing changes, these whales are very likely to extinct in the next few hundred years, if not sooner.
A quest for hope
Under be wise whale watch guidance, in the spring of this year I’ll be embarking on a mission to film the critically endangered southern residents and learn more about their struggles and their significance to the local communities. By working with local boat captains and researchers, I’m going to document some of the aspects of their plight, and gain insight into their remarkable relationship with the local community, whom they’ve shared a habitat with for hundreds of years. This will involve working with passionate conservationists who are dedicating their lives to helping these whales and who are pioneering research into their conservation.
The overall aim of this film is to raise awareness for the southern residents through exploring their relationship with the local community.
In order to support the film please visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-final-breach-film/x/18144174#/
and follow the page on social media: https://www.facebook.com/thefinalbreach/
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