Southern Residents @ Stewart Macintryre/CWR

Fossil fuels are front-page news for all the wrong reasons, as energy security again dominates the narrative. In the midst of a climate crisis and sixth mass extinction event, continued oil extraction not only puts the Southern Resident killer whales—and all other marine life—at risk of future climatic events, but maintains a present danger as oil is transported right through the Salish Sea—one of the most important foraging areas in their home range.

The chemicals that naturally occur in crude and refined oil—known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, make the CDC’s top 10 list of hazardous substances. According to the University of Washington (UW), “Marine mammals’ exposure following a spill can initially occur through inhalation, contact, and ingestion as volatile components of the oil slick evaporate.” The danger continues as oil sinks into the water column and eventually persists in seafloor sediment.

Marine mammals exposed to oil have been shown to have reduced reproductive success, immune system impairment, and disease; culminating in population decline, the effects can last for decades.

The Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska in 1989. Two pods of killer whales were witnessed swimming through the spill in Prince William Sound. A 2008 research study found that the fish-eating resident pod declined by one third, with the impact on the mammal-hunters being slightly greater. Both pods have yet to recover.

Southern Residents © Suzanne Huot

As the chemical signatures from hydrocarbons (PAHs) can be detected in killer whale feces, it is possible to test Southern Resident fecal samples for “pre-spill” contaminant exposure levels. Such information was not available for Alaska’s killer whale populations and so hindered post-spill monitoring studies.

To fill this knowledge gap, Wild Orca’s Dr. Giles and the UW team—assisted by scent detection dogs—collected samples from 2010-2013 to test for exposure to environmental contaminants, including PAH.

Their analysis showed that although PAH could be detected in the Southern Residents’ feces, it was at a level regarded as “negligible exposure” indicating they had not been exposed to a recent oil spill event. They could make this determination as PAHs are more easily eliminated from the body after exposure, unlike PCBs that accumulate over time in the blubber of killer whales.

These pre-spill baseline data will assist federal and state agencies in assessing real-time impacts to the whales in the event of a spill. Comparing these legacy samples, according to UW, “will provide vital information on recent exposure indicating the extent of the spill and the effectiveness of the cleanup efforts.”

Wild Orca’s health monitoring program will also test samples we collect for PAHs to keep this baseline up-to-date, but in the hope that a spill does not occur.

Spill. Such a small word for such a catastrophic event capable of decimating the entire population of Southern Resident killer whales. Prior to the Exxon Valdez disaster, it was assumed that killer whales would avoid oil slicks; sadly this proved untrue and so NOAA Fisheries’ oil spill response plan aims to create a “wall of sound” to deter them away from oil slick areas, with “helicopter hazing, banging pipes and underwater firecrackers on the short list of options.”

If these are our ‘best’ options, then clearly prevention is essential. De-carbonizing is the best way we can prevent local, regional and global environmental disaster.

You can let your lawmakers know that you support an urgent transition to oil-free alternatives for a healthy future for the Southern Residents, and for us all.

Take Action for

Endangered Killer Whales

"Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul."-Edward Abbey

Tell NW Leaders to move on from Deadbeat Dams

The four lower Snake River dams choke off hundreds of miles of wild salmon spawning habitat, important to endangered Chinook. Dam breaching can help restore these wild salmon populations, and feed endangered orcas.

Act Now

Tell NW Leaders to move on from Deadbeat Dams

The four lower Snake River dams choke off hundreds of miles of wild salmon spawning habitat, important to endangered Chinook. Dam breaching can help restore these wild salmon populations, and feed endangered orcas.

Act Now

Action Guide

We need your help.