Although the release of “Blackfish” in 2013 spurred some public concern for orcas in captivity, wild orcas remain threatened by human encroachment. Off the coast of Seattle, wild orca populations are shrinking as a perfect storm of ecosystem collapse, pollution, and new commercial projects push these whales toward extinction.
Over the years, orcas have been condemned as predators plaguing the whaling business, applauded as SeaWorld attractions, and sympathized with as victims of human-caused environmental threats. However, the current fascination with these sleek apex predators stems from how surprisingly relatable their behavior is to ours.
Orcas are naturally social, commonly migrating and hunting cooperatively in sizable matrilineal pods. Orcas also exhibit a broad range of emotion — from joy when greeting a pod member to grief at the loss of a companion — that further humanizes a complex species formerly branded as killer whales.
Recreational performances also fueled awe for orcas until indicting films and media coverage ignited public outrage for the mistreatment of captive orcas. Public concern tanked SeaWorld’s profits and stock.
Though SeaWorld ended its breeding program in 2016, Tilikum (SeaWorld’s male bull whale involved in several deaths of SeaWorld trainers) suffered from significant health problems and psychological trauma resulting from his years in captivity until his death in 2017. The tragedy of Tilikum’s story fueled the movement to end orca captivity and “retire whales to ocean sanctuary.”
Though wild orcas garner significantly less media coverage, they are also seriously threatened by human activity. The southern resident orcas in the Pacific Northwest, classified as “endangered” since 2005, have dwindled from a healthy count of over 100 in the 1990s to a 30-year low of 75 whales today.
The primary threat facing these whales is the loss of their primary food source, the Chinook salmon, due to overfishing and habitat destruction. As apex predators, orcas are also afflicted with the highest pollutant levels of any marine creatures. The higher concentration of toxins in apex predators’ tissue is a result of exposure to environmental pollutants in their habitats, as well as toxins present in the tissues of their prey.
Human activity, including everything from industrial-scale fishing to recreational boating, is also responsible for acoustic pollution. Since orcas “speak” using a range of vocalizations and track their prey using echolocation, acoustic pollution impedes pods’ communications and therefore, their survival.
Another threat facing southern resident orcas looms on the horizon — the construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline is scheduled to begin this August. The expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline is expected to increase oil tanker traffic in their environment by a factor of 7, increasing the orcas’ exposure to surface collisions, exhaust fumes, and excessive acoustic smog.
While orca populations outside of the Pacific Northwest are thriving, the deadly combination of human-created threats and weak population numbers make the survival of the southern residents untenable. Signs of inbreeding and a lack of new calves also limit the endangered population’s ability to recover their numbers.
The potential extinction of the beloved southern resident orcas exacts a heavy toll on the identity of the Pacific Northwest. However, some hope remains. Just as “Blackfish” inspired reform in the treatment of captive orcas, the plight of the southern resident orcas is being used to spearhead a movement to protect endangered marine species from commercial exploitation and human pollution in their natural habitats.
Protestors have already taken up the banner for the southern resident whales, condemning the Trans Mountain Pipeline for the negative effects it will have on endangered species and for sidestepping the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Unfortunately, only time will tell whether the southern resident whales will recover or fade away for good.