A call for real action – what you can do to save the southern resident orcas

For over a week, a young orca mother’s unprecedented grief has reminded all of us about what southern resident orcas face. Heart-wrenching photos of Tahlequah (J35) carrying her dead calf on her head have flooded social media and touched people deeply. As Tahlequah periodically dives for her sinking dead calf, she expends precious energy that slowly consumes her own shrinking blubber reserves. Her pod swims alongside, unable to break the bonds of family even in the face of desperate hunger themselves.

Our southern resident orcas are starving to death, approaching such low population numbers that extinction is no longer hyperbole. We face a generational obligation to act. Now.

When orcas go hungry, their bodies release toxics that have accumulated in their blubber, further damaging their health and the health of their calves. Noise and disruption from vessels interferes with their abilities to forage using echolocation for the dwindling chinook salmon that have sustained them for thousands of years. And one oil spill in the Salish Sea could deal the final blow to the population.

Orcas are an indicator of Puget Sound’s overall health, especially because the problems plaguing our beloved Sound cannot be seen. Many of us rely on healthy waterways for fishing, recreation, and livelihoods.

WEC’s actions to support orca recovery

WEC and our partners have been pushing for orca protection and recovery since 1972. Today, WEC is working with a variety of people and organizations to craft solutions that will stop the desperate decline.  Together, we can make this a priority for decision makers and begin the long path to change how each one of us impacts orcas.

  • Orca Recovery Task Force – Governor Inslee appointed WEC to serve on the Orca Task Force, a group of organizations that will make two sets of recommendation for action. The task force has met twice and has two meetings this August – a short time frame to develop nuanced and effective policy recommendations but we simply have to succeed. In October 2018, the task force will release the first set, which will be available for public review and comment. We will need your help in October to push for the strongest recommendations from the task force. In fall of 2019, a second set of recommendations will focus on 2020 and beyond. Again, we will need the public to amplify the value of orcas to our region.
  • 2019 Legislative Session – We are working diligently to identify policy and funding actions that will increase prey availability, reduce toxics, reduce noise and harassment, and reduce threats from oil spills. WEC and many partners will be pursuing actions that implement and strengthen recommendations from the Orca Recovery Task Force.
  • Contaminants Work Group – WEC also serves on the Orca Recovery Task Force work group identifying actions needed to reduce the levels of toxics in fish. Toxics such as PCBs, flame retardants, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and more accumulate in the fatty tissue of fish that then impact the health of orcas. The same chemicals are also toxic to people, which is why sensitive people like pregnant women and communities that consume more fish than others must limit the fish they eat. And we are now learning that these toxics can kill juvenile salmon, limiting the orcas’ food supply, as well as herring that then feed the salmon. We continue our long-term commitment to reduce stormwater pollution and clean up toxic pollution by pushing for strong policy and adequately funding effective programs.
  • Orca Salmon Alliance – We partner with 13 organizations to prevent the extinction of southern resident orcas by recovering chinook populations. OSA hosts Orca Awareness Month every June to raise awareness. In 2016 we celebrated the birth of 6 calves, only to mourn their deaths and the lack of any successful pregnancies among the J, K, and L pods since that time. OSA has been a constant voice on behalf of the orcas and will continue to remind the task force and our leaders that we simply cannot allow the extinction of southern resident orcas.

What you can do to help Tahlequah and future generations of southern resident orcas

There is no one silver bullet solution that will reverse the decline in the next year. However, the fate of the orcas is too important to you and to us here at WEC.

With that in mind, we can all get started on these actions today:

  1. Sign this statement of support urging Governor Inslee and the Orca Recovery Task Force to take bold, creative, and meaningful measures now.
  2. Make your voice heard by voting in the current primary election.
  3. Call your state legislators at 1-800-562-6000. Tell them that you expect bold actions that increase the amount of prey available for orcas, decrease toxic pollution, reduce noise and harassment from vessels, and decrease the threat of oil spills. (Stay tuned for more during the 2019 legislative session.)
  4. Engage with your community on the importance of orcas to you. You have the most influence on people you know personally, and now is the time to grow the chorus of voices for orca recovery and build awareness of the desperate plight of the orcas.
  5. Support farmers, businesses, and local food providers that invest in salmon-safe practices. The lack of salmon is a statewide issue, so wherever you live, please seek out local food opportunities that respect salmon.
  6. Make 3 changes to your own personal practices that damage habitat and contribute pollution. Reduce single-occupancy vehicle travel, decrease water consumption, eliminate pesticides where you live, and switch to non-toxic personal care products. See this infographic for more information.

Tahlequah’s dead calf is a stark reminder that if we fail these whales now, that’s on all of us. The choices we as a region make in the coming months will determine the fate of southern resident orcas. Stabilizing and recovering their population requires an unprecedented cooperative effort, and we need your help to succeed.

The best time to save the southern resident orcas and the salmon they depend on was 30 years ago. The next best is now.