Dangerously Shifting Baselines

Why we must not normalize deaths, births, absence or presence of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales

Friday Harbor, Wash. (Aug 13, 2021)

K 21 Cappuccino was last seen July 28 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, off the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Struggling against the incoming tide, severely emaciated, with a collapsed dorsal fin.

According to Wild Orca’s Science & Research Director, Dr. Giles, his condition was, “possibly the worst in which a living Southern Resident killer whale has ever been seen.” However, she noted that, “without fecal or breath samples collected in these final hours, or without his deceased body upon which to carry out a necropsy, we cannot say we know all the factors that led to his shocking condition, despite speculation to the contrary.”

She continues, “So, here’s what we can say: K21was just 35 when he died, yet J1 Ruffles and L41 Mega are known to have collectively fathered 13 calves after their 35th birthdays.”

In fact, J1’s last known calf was born the year he died, aged 59. The point is, that while the average lifespan for male resident killer whales is mid-30s—as J1, and 7 other males have shown—it is not only possible to live much longer, but these older males are also more likely to father calves.

As Dr. Giles notes, “this average lifespan is based on only 42 years’ history of the Southern Residents, and this period was likely during some of the hardest salmon fishing years this community of killer whales has ever experienced.”

We can’t therefore know what their lifespan was prior to industrial fishing, dams or deforestation; nor know what their true potential is, but as Dr. Giles insists, “we just can’t let dying aged 35 be considered the new normal for these important males, or just call it a natural ending of a long life. This death was neither.”

K21 disappeared in a waterway historically transited by the Southern Residents following Chinook into the Salish Sea. A route barely used in 2021—another record-setting year in progress, marked by their weekly absence, not daily presence. These “resident” inland summer fishing grounds—after which this population is named—can no longer supply the Chinook salmon they need.

“Their persistent absence” said Dr Giles, “is a signal that the Salish Sea ecosystem is out of balance, unable to support predators at the top of the food chain. This should trigger alarm and action, not just an acceptance that these endangered killer whales must now look for food elsewhere.”

It is well known that in fact all West Coast rivers are no longer able to support historic numbers of Chinook salmon; from BC to California, their populations have collapsed after decades of overfishing and habitat destruction—now even further imperiled by climate change. Eight populations of West Coast Chinook are on the Endangered Species list, with others set to follow. This is not a stable source of food to support a population of endangered killer whales,

Over the last decade, there has been an unsustainable loss of breeding-age animals, like K21, in addition to youngsters under five. When coupled with a known 69% pregnancy failure rate, and early death of newborns, both linked to malnutrition—as shown in Dr. Giles work with the University of Washington—this community simply cannot increase when their deaths far outpace births.

Bigg’s killer whales (transients) hunting marine mammals in these same waters, are living on average 10 years longer than their salmon-dependent cousins, and their populations are increasing likely due to their prey being more abundant.

“If well-fed” said Dr. Giles, “then the endangered Southern Residents would be more resilient, and less susceptible to disease, and the impacts from vessels—noise and disturbance—as well as the damaging effects from toxicants in their prey and their environment.”

Today the population totals just 74, with 6 known births, but 15 deaths in the last 5 years. Not all were seen in their last months, weeks or days, but six, like K21, showed signs of emaciation, including peanut-head, a condition that indicates malnutrition, usually preceding death.

The U.S. government must commit to reduce Chinook salmon fishing, and allow more foraging opportunities for killer whales immediately. A comprehensive plan comparable to Canada’s newly launched Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative is the only way forward to save Chinook salmon, killer whales, and a West Coast economy that relies on both.

Dr. Giles stresses, “we must not begin to normalize deaths, births, absence or presence of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. By constantly shifting our baselines this way, we are creating a new normal. The best way forward is to restore healthy ecosystems, shaped by healthy predators. This would be normal.”

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