If the whales spoke our language, the first thing they'd probably say
would be "Bring back the fish."
Orca Network's Quick Guide to Environmental Messaging
Or, How to most effectively speak up for the whales
Our neighbors, the Southern resident orcas, are getting hammered by a double-whammy assault on their very survival: Overall salmon runs are in deep and historic decline, and persistent contamination by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and other organic chemicals, like DDT, and persistent aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), in addition to heavy metals like mercury, continue to leach into the marine ecosystem and move through the food web. Over decades these contaminants have gradually become lodged in the whales' blubber layers in massive quantities, sometimes with lethal results. The only potential saving grace is that if the orcas have enough to eat year around, the high levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and trace residues of heavy metals such as mercury concentrated in their bodies remain embedded in their blubber and don't seem to do nearly as much damage.
But at this point they don't seem to have enough to eat year around. It's true that since 1999 Northeastern Pacific ocean temperatures have cooled, helping some salmon stocks rebound, possibly for several more years. But these are remnant runs, primarily hatchery fish for recreational and commercial fisheries, and not the hundreds of smaller runs of diverse subspecies, each superbly adapted to unique river and stream systems. A hundred years ago there were salmon aplenty for the orcas virtually 12 months a year. The orcas are certainly benefiting from current ocean conditions during peak runs, but even in these bounty years months go by with very slim pickings, causing the whales to range far and wide to find enough to eat.
The double whammy takes effect when they don't have enough to eat, forcing them to metabolize their blubber for the energy needed to keep going until their next meal. PCBs and other chemicals tend to attach themselves to fat molecules, where they remain relatively harmless as long as they don't get into the blood. But when the blubber, made up of fat, is rendered by the whales for energy, those microscopic PCB molecules flood into the bloodstream, and the chance jumps dramatically that one or several of them will find a gland or some sensitive trigger in the whales' endocrine systems.
Therein lies the real danger. PCBs take the place of hormones, which operate on a delicate molecular level, but PCBs don't send the same messages as real hormones. Instead they block normal healthy hormonal responses, or they send false messages, telling the whales' bodies to shut down their immune systems, or quit producing estrogen, which can be lethal over time. When the whales are hungry, the PCBs REALLY do their dirty work.
Work by the Canadian Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans tells us the Southern residents are loaded with PCBs and other persistent organic chemicals. They are found throughout the marine habitat, and are especially concentrated in lower Puget Sound sediments, where the orcas often travel in search of food. With the sole exception of transient orcas, Southern residents carry the highest PCB levels of any marine mammal in the world, almost 150 parts per million on average. Amounts of less than ten ppm are known to cause immune problems in seals. PCBs build up over the years and are passed down the generations through mother's milk and even across the placental barrier to developing fetuses. Young growing bodies are especially susceptible to hormone disruption that damages development of vital organs and compromises immune, reproductive and nervous systems, and may cause physical deformities.
Although the background count of PCBs has declined in Puget Sound over the past decade or so, the present generation of orcas and many generations to come will inevitably be packed with PCBs that move inexorably up the food web into the fatty bodies of long-lived fish and mammals. PCBs also continue to float in with the air and sea currents from Asia. Almost 20% of the Southern resident orca community died between 1995 and 2000. Many females who should be in their reproductive years have not produced viable young for over a dozen years. Young males are dying at an alarming rate, and now there are only four adult males in the entire community. J18, Everett, who washed up near Tswassen, BC in 2000, and L51, Nootka, who washed up on Race Rocks in 1999, were both riddled with PCBs and both died of causes highly correlated with PCB contamination. If their bellies had been full of fish, they might not have died. Without a doubt we have to bring back the fish.
The declining orca population is telling us that far more aggressive political leadership is needed to accelerate salmon recovery, marine habitat protection and other restoration efforts throughout our marine waters. But none of this has yet sufficiently galvanized public opinion, nor emboldened political leaders to shake us out of comfortable patterns of business-as-usual. Bottom line: We cannot expect the orcas to survive, let alone thrive, in an ecosystem as battered and as tenuous as Puget Sound, the Northwest Straits and the Strait of Georgia are today.
The primary environmental organizations working to restore salmon habitat are People for Puget Sound in Washington, and Georgia Strait Alliance in British Columbia.
For more background on PCBs, see Ohio State University's PCB fact sheet.
To review a vast array of salmon restoration organizations and projects, and find out how you can get involved, go to the Orca Network Habitat page.