Words and photographs by Brendon Bissonnette
On January 17th, members of the Eagle Wing Tours team accompanied co-owner Brett Soberg to a town hall meeting. In partnership with the Vancouver Island Angler’s Coalition (SVIAC), they discussed salmon scarcity and the dire repercussions that government inaction will have on marine megafauna – namely endangered southern resident killer whales. The evening’s discussions ranged from Sooke hatcheries to the pressure on wild salmon from mounting pinniped (seal and sea lion) populations.
It was inspiring to see the sheer amount of people in attendance, each present to express their overall support of salmon recovery. Both whale-watching and fishing industries put aside their differences to make forward-progress and commit themselves to one cause. The SVIAC and PWWA presented a unified front on salmon, especially after the federal government announced last May that the Pacific Salmon Foundation would only receive $1.2M out of a $1.5B Oceans Protection Plan budget.
Witnessing the decline of the iconic southern resident salmon-eating killer whales demonstrates that there is an imbalance in the ecosystem. In 2017, the Pacific Whale Watching Association (PWWA) adopted a 200-metre viewing distance from resident killer whales in response to growing public concern regarding underwater acoustics. Eagle Wing Tours worked alongside the ECHO program this summer in Haro Strait to test engine noise for each of our vessels. The data received from this research helps to better understand the acoustic range of our vessels in the marine environment, as well as what can be done to further minimize impact.
At the same time these discussions are taking place, the mammal-eating population of killer whales is skyrocketing. A record number of individuals have been identified in the Salish Sea this past season and the transients are certainly making a dent in the healthy seal and sea lion populations. Furthermore, despite subjection to the same environmental challenges, transients are showing greater overall body condition – a stark contrast to their fish-eating cousins who were notably absent for most of 2017.
It is not a coincidence that the poorest salmon runs on record line up with the least recorded sightings of the southern residents, nor is it coincidental that countless transient sightings correlate with a high density of pinnipeds. Studies completed by the Centre for Whale Research highlight that the rise and fall of resident killer whale mortality rates coincide with years of high and low salmon runs in the Fraser and Columbia River systems. Poor years equate to higher mortality rates and pregnancy failures. In recent years, 69% of pregnancies failed where salmon availability was scarce. To feed 76 resident whales, a yearly requirement of 550,000 salmon of 20lbs or greater are required. This year, the Fraser River provided only around 36,000 Chinook.
Another point of notice is the difference in hunting techniques elicited by the various ecotypes of killer whales. Transients depend on passive hearing, whereas residents are dependent entirely on echolocation (the use of biological sound waves to determine prey type and location). Both ecotypes share sensitivity to an overwhelming acoustic environment and prey availability. So, why are residents in such a dire situation if the transient population is booming?
It’s simple: one has food, the other does not.
For the southern residents, the take-away message was clear: extinction is not zero. If the residents experience another year like 2016 – when the population lost eight individuals – their fate may well be sealed. If action is not taken soon to remedy the chronic food scarcity, it will not be a question of if they will go extinct, but rather a question of when.
The Center for Whale Research, an organization that has been studying the southern resident population for 43 years has this to say: “If the lower Snake River dams were breached, it would double or triple survival rates, restoring many millions of fish to the Columbia Basin. Nothing else, not more spill across the dams, not more hatchery fish, not less boat traffic, not more studies and a new EIS can achieve this in time to save wild salmon or southern resident orcas.”
We know for a fact that there are many issues affecting these whales. It is the accumulation of these effects that has jeopardized the future of the southern residents. Lack of food supply, however, is without a doubt the most fundamental issue. We have to tackle the fish problem first before we can look to other solutions if we are to have any hope of saving the southern residents.
Follow these links to learn more and to see what you can do to help: