Orcas (Killer Whales)
- The Namgis word for orcas, “Max’inuxw”. In the Kwak’wala language it means the ones who hunt.
- There are four ecoyypes of Orcas in B.C. waters. Northern Resident Killer Whales, Southern Resident Killer Whales, Transient Killer Whales (also recently referred to as Bigg’s Orcas after whale researcher Michael Bigg) and offshore orcas.
- Although their territories often overlap, Northern and Southern Residents and Transient orcas have never been seen spending time with one another.
- Resident orcas travel in close-knit family units and live off a very specific fish diet, relying predominantly on chinook salmon, but they also eat chum and coho. More aggressive, quieter transients hunt in small packs and have a more diverse diet including mammals like sea lions, seals, walruses, porpoises and even humpback whales.
- Resident orcas consume 10 percent of their weight in fish each day (up to 1500 lbs of salmon a day).
- The Northern and Southern Resident orca whales around British Columbia, Canada are known to live with their mother for their entire lifetime.
- Southern Resident orcas are an endangered species. As of January 2, 2017, the Southern Resident Killer Whale population was comprised of 78 individuals. There is a chance the Southern Resident Orcas will go extinct if reproduction rates do not improve.
- Northern Resident Orcas are a threatened species (a lower level of risk of extinction, but still significantly impacted by human action and environmental change). In 2014 there were 290 Northern Resident orca whales in 34 matrilines. Since orcas stay with their mother from birth, there are 34 matriarchs and their offspring in the North Vancouver island area.
- Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) is the predominant prey species taken by both northern and southern resident communities during May-August, but chum salmon (O. keta) is more prevalent in September-October. Coho salmon (O. kisutch) are taken in low numbers in June-October, but sockeye (O. nerka) and pink (O. gorbuscha) salmon are not significant prey species despite their high seasonal abundance.
- Around boats, Orca feeding activity is reduced by 25% the presence of vessels inhibits foraging behavior.
- Resident orca calves suffer up to 50% mortality in the first year, largely due to lack of food. Picky eaters, residents eat salmon. When wild salmon stocks are under threat as they currently are, so are orca whales.
- Orcas have a gestation period of 15 to 18 months, which means mothers can give birth only every three to five years. According to researchers, over the past two decades, about 75 percent of newborns have not survived. Since 2015, no pregnancies have produced viable offspring.
- Highly publicized images of Southern Resident orca J35 greiving; pushing her dead baby through the ocean for over a week in August 2018 have raised awareness of the high mortality rate being faced in young and newborn Southern Resident orcas.
- Killer whales have no recorded predators, other than humans.
Orcas in Captivity
- 1 in 4 killer whales that were captured in the 1960s and 1970s showed evidence of having been previously shot and wounded.
- Between 1962 and 1974, 68 killer whales were taken into captivity from BC Coastal waters. 47 Southern Resident Killer Whales have been captured for marine exhibition.
- Currently there are 62 orcas in captivity worldwide; roughly 25 in North America. There is only one captive orca currently on display in Canada. Government policy in Canada does not allow for public display of new killer whales.
- Moby Doll was in captivity for 86 days including the date of harpooning (July 16, 1964) and the day the whale died (Oct 9, 1964).
- In the book, The Killer Whale Who Changed the World by Mark Leiren-Young there is a small note that lends doubt to the story of Moby Doll only eating after ‘finally’ being offered a ling cod after 55 days. However, in his Ideas CBC radio documentary of the same name, the principal protagonist in the story, Dr. Murray Newman of Vancouver Aquarium, admits having no clue about what killer whales ate and that they tried to feed it many things it had no interest in. The handlers of the whale may have tried to feed the orca fish early on in captivity, and trauma or illness might have played a role in Moby Dolls refusal to eat it at that time. Thereafter, they tried in vain to feed it a wide variety of food including blubber and whale tongue, seal carcass, and octopus. Even Michael Bigg who was to become a renowned orca researcher brought seal meat to feed Moby Doll. Finally after 55 days Moby Doll was fed a fish, and many more after that!
- Species at Risk Act: Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada
- The Killer Whale Who Changed The World – Mark Leiren-Young
- Interview with Mark Leiren-Young (The Tyee)
- Ideas Radio Documentary: Moby Doll
- Raincoast Conservation Foundation
Orcas – The Toxic Mammal
- There are likely thousands of chemicals to be found in the killer whales of BC. Recent studies of environmental contaminants in resident and transient killer whales in BC and Washington have revealed that they are among the most contaminated mammals in the world (Ross et al. 2000, 2002).
- Environmental contaminants are a serious concern for Killer Whales. The main environmental toxins that are of current concern are known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and include PCBs, PBDE’s and dioxins and furans. These human produced chemicals are bioaccumulated, meaning organisms absorb these chemicals at a rate faster than they are lost. POPs are persistent, they bioaccumulate in fatty tissues, and are toxic. Predatory animals such as killer whales acquire POP’s accumulated over a lifetime of all the animals they eat. This biomagnification of POPs, increases the concentration of toxins at every step in the food chain, and top predators, such as killer whales, end up with extremely high levels.
- Sources of these chemicals include by-products of incomplete combustion, of pesticide manufacture, flame retardants, and of pulp and paper bleaching and wood treatment processes, municipal effluent outfalls, petrochemical facilities, and mines. Indirect sources include: sewer overflows (e.g. organic wastes, household products, pharmaceuticals and personal
care products), urban runoff and storm-water drainage (e.g. pesticides, metals, hydrocarbons, herbicides, and animal wastes), agriculture (e.g. pesticides, herbicides, animal wastes and antibiotics), forestry (e.g. pesticides, herbicides, fire-control chemicals, log booms and storage areas), and aquaculture (e.g. organic wastes , chemical contaminants [antibiotics, feed additives,
pharmaceuticals, pesticides and antifouling on nets]).
- POP’s are not only acquired by consuming contaminant-laden salmon, but are also passed from female to calf during gestation and nursing. They are mainly transferred via the rich, fatty milk produced by the mother.
- Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada
Wild salmon are a nitrogen pump in B.C. The wild salmon transport ocean-based nitrogen up rivers and fertilize the growth of ancient temperate rainforests. Salmon are a key stone species, which means entire ecosystems are dependent on their health. Seals, whales, bears, eagles and other species also rely on wild salmon for sustenance.
- The wild-salmon economy is eight times bigger than salmon farming. Wild salmon support indigenous, commercial, recreational and sports fisheries, as well as a $1.4-billion ecotourism industry.
- The farmed salmon industry is composed of large floating cages anchored in the seawater near the inshore bays and relatively sheltered areas. Open net-cage salmon farming is a harmful aquaculture production system that has posed environmental threats in all regions it has been practiced.
- Norway has the world’s largest salmon farming industry and Norwegian industries are responsible for 98% of farmed salmon in BC.
- Fish farming corporations in BC raise mostly Atlantic salmon – a nonnative species in British Columbia’s waters. 91% of the salmon currently raised today in BC’s salmon farms are Atlantic salmon. The other 9% consists of Pacific species, Chinook and Coho.
- A typical BC open-net salmon farm holds 720,000 fish with an average weight of 5 kg when they reach market size. The waste from all of these fish can smother portions of the ocean bottom under the pens, contaminating the marine ecosystem and depriving species of oxygen.
- Pollution from large and concentrated volumes of fish manure feed algae blooms that can become toxic. This waste can lead to hyper eutrophication and make waters uninhabitable for other marine creatures. All of this happens in wild salmon habitat.
- Salmon farms cause pathogens to become more lethal because there are no predators to remove the sick fish and because the animals are so crowded together, pathogens multiply and mutate – spilling into the surrounding ocean and threatening wild salmon.
- Sea lice from salmon farms are one of the most significant threats facing wild salmon in British Columbia. Fish farms are ideal, unnatural breeding grounds for lice. Infestations on farms increase the number of lice in surrounding waters far beyond what would occur naturally. These sea lice attach themselves to juvenile wild salmon migrating past salmon farms in waterways clouded with sea lice . Research has shown that as few as one to three sea lice are enough to kill a juvenile pink salmon newly arrived in saltwater.
- Major infectious diseases affect salmon in industrial farming operations. One diseases is Infectious Salmon Anaemia (ISA). ISA was first detected in Norway in 1984. Since then, it has spread Scotland, eastern Canada and the USA. In 2007 an outbreak in Chile’s salmon farms became an epidemic leading to the destruction of 70% of the country’s farmed salmon.
- Chemicals and antibiotics used in farmed salmon production including a toxic copper coating used on nets and the pesticides used to treat sea lice all have impacts on the marine environment.
- Salmon farms are in an arms race against viruses, bacteria, and sea lice using increasingly toxic drugs to try to control outbreaks. These chemicals are pouring into the ocean threatening crabs, shrimps, and everything that makes a shell. Norway and Scotland have been unable to control sea lice infestations as the parasites become drug resistant and more toxic chemicals are used.
- Salmon escaping from cages interbreed with wild salmon; changing the genetics of the wild salmon making them less adapted to “their” rivers.
- Wild salmon get their colour from eating krill and shrimp. The flesh of farmed salmon is grey. These salmon get their nice pink colour by being dosed with astaxanthin, a manufactured copy of the pigment that wild salmon eat in nature.
- Sustainable seafood organizations, Sea Choice and Ocean Wise have “red-listed” Canadian farmed salmon for a number of reasons including its reliance on pesticides and antibiotics and its impact on wild salmon.
Plastics in the Ocean:
- By the year 2050 it is projected that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (according to a report presented at the 2016 World Economic Forum).
- The average person produces half a pound of plastic waste every day.
- In 2010, 215 million metric tons of plastic entered the sea from land (over 40% of it plastic from single-use packaging). Breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, it’s ingested by all kinds of species and sinking to the bottom of the sea. About 10 percent ends up in the Ocean, according to a Greenpeace report (Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans, 2006).
- Plastic acts like a toxic sponge, soaking up other toxins from outside sources before entering the ocean. These chemicals are ingested by animals in the ocean, and by humans who ingest contaminated fish and mammals.
- Over 90% of all sea birds have plastic in their stomachs.
- A Plymouth University study in the UK reported that plastic was found in 1/3 of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish.
- In Feb. 2017, Norwegian scientists discovered a Cuvier’s beaked whale had starved to death and beached itself after ingesting plastic. The whale’s stomach was full of 30 large pieces of plastic bags and packaging and it’s intestines were blocked.
- In April 2002 a dead Minke whale washed up on the Normandy coast in France. An investigation found that its stomach contained 800 kg of plastic bags (GECC, Groupe d’Etude des Cétacés du Cotentin, 2002)
- Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium recently calculated that shellfish lovers are eating up to 11,000 plastic fragments in their seafood each year. Humans absorb fewer than 1%, but the plastic will still accumulate in the body over time. Small bits of plastic have been shown to cross from the stomach of oysters into their tissue. When humans eat animals with plastic in their bodies, it can be integrated into human tissues.
- All sea creatures, from the largest to the microscopic organisms swallow the seawater soup instilled with toxic chemicals from plastic decomposition. The world population eats fish that have eaten other fish, which have eaten toxin-saturated plastics. In essence, humans are eating their own waste. Those at the top of the food chain, like Orcas end up with the highest concentrations of toxins.
- There are over 300,000 plastic beads in a tube of face wash. They go down the drain and into waterways, many of which ultimately end up in the oceans.
- The question is no longer ‘Are we eating plastic in our seafood?’ The question scientists must now consider is ‘How bad is eating plastic for us?’
- Two of the most common plastic additives are endocrine disruptors (bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates), which have been shown to link to cancer, diabetes, autism, attention deficit disorder, obesity and infertility.
- Degrading plastics are leaching potentially toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A into the seas, possibly threatening ocean animals, and us.
- The average North American uses about 500 plastic bags each year, for about twelve minutes each. Approximately 500 billion plastic bags are used worldwide each year. More than one million bags are used every minute.
- In 2006, the average American used 167 disposable water bottles, but only recycled 38 of them. 50 billion single use plastic water bottles were used in the US that year (23% recycled).
- The Ocean Cleanup
- Plastic Oceans
- Sky Ocean Rescue skyoceanrescue.com
- 5 Gyres
- Terracycle Inc. Recycling Tips Factsheet
- National Geographic
- Sky News Plastic Whale
- When the Mermaids Cry: The Great Plastic Tide
- Ocean acidification occurs when CO2 reacts with sea water to produce an acid. The faster the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, the faster the acidification of the ocean. Ocean acidification has resulted in the oceans becoming over 30% more acidic since the industrial revolution due to human activity adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Each year the ocean absorbs approximately 25% of all the CO2 emitted by human activities. Without the slowing of greenhouse gas emissions scientists project the oceans to be 170% more acidic than pre-industrial levels by the year 2100.
- When CO2 is absorbed by seawater, a series of chemical reactions occur resulting in the increased concentration of hydrogen ions which causes the seawater to become more acidic and causes carbonate ions to be less abundant.Carbonate ions are an important building block of structures such as sea shells and coral skeletons. So less carbonate ions can make building and maintaining shells and other calcium carbonate structures difficult for calcifying organisms such as oysters, clams, sea urchins, shallow water corals, deep sea corals, and calcareous plankton, particularly at young ages. When these organisms are at risk, the entire food web may also be at risk.
- What needs to be done? Significantly reduce global CO2 emissions. It may take thousands of years for the ocean pH to recover to normal levels if humans are able to change impacting activities and eliminate the production of CO2.
- Ocean Acidification and the warming of the oceans due to climate change together form the biggest environmental threat in modern time.
A Sonic Sea
- Killer whales depend heavily on underwater sound for orientation, feeding, and communication.
- Killer whales produce three categories of sounds: clicks, whistles, pulsed calls. Echolocation clicks are believed to be used primarily for navigation and discriminating prey and other objects in the surrounding environment, but are also heard during social interactions. Whistles and pulsed calls are believed to be used for communication and during social activities. Pulsed calls are the most common type of vocalization in killer whales and resemble squeaks, screams, and squawks to the human ear.
- Killer whales of different family groups have distinct calls and whistles. Each pod possesses a unique repertoire of calls; representing community dialects, which are learned and culturally transmitted among individuals in the pod. Calls serve as family identifiers and are used to maintain group cohesion.
- In instances with high levels of noise, killer whales are known to increase the volume of their calls.
- The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion poses a threat to the southern resident orcas. Based on evidence submitted by both Raincoast Conservation Foundation and Kinder Morgan the deafening noise from increased tanker traffic in the Salish Sea will place these orcas at a high risk of a population decline.
- Research shows whales reduce feeding activity by 25 per cent while near boats. For the Southern Resident orca population boats are nearby an estimated 85 per cent of the time.
- In November 2018 U.S. was considering on implementing a moratorium on whale watching tours to protect the Southern Resident Orca population.
- Research shows a 10 per cent decrease in prey available to southern resident orcas will result in a 73 per cent probability of the population declining below 30 animals. A 20 per cent reduction in prey combined with increased noise from increased industrial boat traffic would create near 100 per cent chance that the southern resident population would fall below 30 animals – the verge of extinction. (Raincoast Conservation Foundation)
- Sonic Sea
- Ocean Noise Report
- Whale Watching Guidelines for BC Tour Boat operations
Ocean Dead Zones:
Dead zones are near shore ocean regions where the water has unusually low dissolved oxygen content, and aquatic animals in the area quickly die. These regions can form naturally, but human activities lead to the formation of dead zones or make them worse. One way dead zones occur is when runoff from farms and cities drains into bodies of water and loads up the water with excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Those nutrients feed a bloom of algae. When the algae dies it sinks and decomposes. Decomposition uses up oxygen from the water, leaving little available for fish or other marine animals. Dead zones occur because of a process called eutrophication, which happens when a body of water gets loaded with too many nutrients, like phosphorus and nitrogen. At normal levels, these nutrients feed the growth of an organism called cyanobacteria (blue-green algae). With an excess of these nutrients, cyanobacteria grows out of control. Human activities are the main cause of these excess nutrients being washed into the ocean which is why dead zones are often located near inhabited coastlines.
Ocean and Film-related Websites
- Ocean Wise Literacy.Ocean.org hosts ocean education resources.
- David Suzuki Foundation
- Rob Stewart Films: Sharkwater, Revolution
- Salmon Coast Field Station
- Orca Research Trust
- Centre for Whale Research
- Northern Edge Algonquin