by Valerie Shore, naturalist
While killer whale watching with Eagle Wing Tours, our guests often ask us whether there’s any hope for the critically endangered southern resident killer whales, and what they can do to help.
The answer is yes! There’s always hope, and there are a number of things every one of us can do to help (more on that later).
As our neighbours in the US celebrate Endangered Species Day, this is a good time for people of all ages to pause and reflect on the importance of protecting ecosystems and the plants and animals—including humans—that depend on them.
It’s an especially urgent message following the recent release of a landmark UN report on global biodiversity, which warns that extinction is looming for more than one million species of plants and animals worldwide—unless humans change their ways.
“Ecosystems, species, wild populations and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing,” says a report co-chair. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”
On the marine front alone, two-thirds of the marine environment has been significantly altered by human actions. One-third of fish stocks are being harvested at unsustainable levels. Fifty-five percent of ocean area is covered by industrial fishing. Almost a third of reef-forming corals and more than a third of the world’s marine mammals are threatened. The list goes on.
On top of this, there’s the ever-expanding global human population (from 3.7 to 7.6 billion since 1970) and climate change, which continues unabated and is affecting ecosystems around the world.
In a way, the 72 remaining southern resident killer whales (updated as of April 2020) are a poster child for this global biodiversity crisis. They’re surrounded by more than seven million people; depend on the same salmon we like to fish and eat; live in waters polluted by contaminants from industry, agriculture and cities; and share one of the busiest shipping waterways in the world.
Can we turn this around? Yes, we can. Just take a look at the history of five other wildlife favourites of the Salish Sea. You’ll be surprised, and encouraged. After humans changed their behaviour, all of these animals came back from the brink.
Humpback breach. BRENDON BISSONNETTE PHOTO / EAGLE WING TOURS
- Humpback whale
Imagine something the size of a school bus launching itself out of the water and landing with a spectacular splash. It’s an unforgettable sight, but one that was noticeably absent from the BC coast for decades. By the middle of the 20th-century commercial whalers had ravaged the global humpback whale population. There may have been as few as 1,200 left in the entire North Pacific.
Before commercial whaling began, up to 200 humpbacks spent their summers feeding in the Salish Sea. But by 1908 every single one of them had been killed by whalers. As a result, no humpbacks were seen in the Salish Sea for nearly 100 years.
Since protection in 1966, humpbacks in the North Pacific have rebounded to more than 22,000, with more and more individuals coming into the Salish Sea every year.
Pacific grey whale. KARAC LINDSAY PHOTO / EAGLE WING TOURS
- Pacific grey whale
If the humpbacks thought they had a rough ride, grey whales take the prize. Over a 150-year span, the eastern Pacific version of this 40-ton leviathan came close to extinction not once, but twice! Commercial whalers slaughtered them by the thousands on their migration route and—absurdly—in their breeding lagoons in Baja Mexico.
By the early 20th century there were only 2,000 or so grey whales left, roughly one-tenth of their original numbers. They were protected in 1946 and their numbers have since climbed to about 20,000.
On a side note, salvation didn’t come in time for the Atlantic grey whale population. It was exterminated by whalers by the early 1700s.
Male elephant seal. CLINT RIVERS PHOTO / EAGLE WING TOURS
- Northern elephant seal
These 6,000-lb. giants of the seal world came within a whisker of extinction. In fact, they seemed to come back from the dead. After they were relentlessly hunted for their blubber at their breeding rookeries off Mexico and California, they were thought to be extinct by the 1880s.
But were they? In 1892, a Smithsonian expedition found a group of nine elephant seals on an old rookery off Baja Mexico. What did they do with this promising discovery? They killed seven of them “for collection purposes.”
Fortunately, a remnant population of up to 100 animals survived the carnage. They were protected by Mexico in 1922 and later by the US. All northern elephant seals today—and there are more than 170,000 of them—are descendants of these survivors.
“Ollie” the sea otter in the bull kelp at Race Rocks. VALERIE SHORE PHOTO / EAGLE WING TOURS
- Sea otter
Sea otters are skeletons in a very plush, baggy fur coat. A typical otter has up to 100,000 hairs per square centimetre—the same number most of us have on our entire heads. This furry luxuriance did not escape the notice of 18th and 19th-century hunters who slaughtered them for their pelts throughout their coastal range from Japan to Baja Mexico.
By the time sea otters were protected in most places in 1911, they’d been eliminated from southeast Alaska to northern California. There were still a few remaining in BC, but not for long. A hunter killed the last one in 1931.
So how is this a comeback story? Biologists soon realized that sea otters are a “keystone species,” one that helps define an entire ecosystem. Remove it, and the ecosystem collapses. In this case, sea urchins—which otters love to munch on—devoured the kelp beds. No kelp forests equals less productive rocky reef ecosystems and diminished fish stocks.
This new wisdom led to the translocation of 89 sea otters from Alaska to the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1969-72. The otters have thrived ever since, expanding their range to various pockets along the coast while increasing at about eight percent a year. Ollie, the sea otter at Race Rocks, is a descendant of those Alaskan otters!
Adult bald eagle. BRENDON BISSONNETTE PHOTO / EAGLE WING TOURS
- Bald eagle
Although the bald eagle has never been in serious trouble on the BC coast, we’re including it here because it teetered on the brink in many other parts of North America. When the US adopted the bald eagle as its national symbol in 1782, there were an estimated 100,000 in the lower 48 states. That soon changed.
The first decline began in the mid- to late 1800s as waterfowl, shorebirds and other prey species disappeared from over-hunting and habitat loss. Eagles were also heavily persecuted as competitors for fish, and bounties were common. The second big hit came with the introduction of the pesticide DDT, which limited the ability of eagles and other birds to reproduce.
By 1963, with only 487 nesting pairs remaining in the US, the bird was listed for protection under the US Endangered Species Act and DDT was banned. There are now more than 11,000 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states. The bird was taken off the list in 2007.
Although habitat loss due to urban sprawl and forestry continues to be an issue for BC’s bald eagles, they’re still doing well with an estimated population of about 20,000, second only to Alaska.
How you can help
What are the common threads in all these stories? All of these animals were spiralling toward extinction due to human activity. They needed us to change, to stop thinking solely about our own needs, and to better understand ecological sustainability and co-existence.
These animals also needed our help to recover and thrive. And so do the southern resident killer whales—and the chinook salmon they depend on. Many chinook runs are critically endangered due to habitat loss, overfishing, damming of rivers, climate change and so on.
The plight of the southern resident killer whales and the salmon is urgent. Take action. Be their voice. Challenge the status quo. Speak up for change. Live sustainably. Get involved! Learn about the many ways you can help at Eagle Wing Tours and the Center for Whale Research.
Remember, extinction is forever!