The Orca – Fact Versus Political Hysteria

By Cindy Alia

January 27, 2019

As much as I would like to take credit for this article, a very savvy and critically thinking facebook follower often has very in depth and well thought out comments to articles posted there.  Grateful for this kind of response and the research behind it, I feel compelled in this case to share the thoughts and conclusions reached from the research the follower had done.

Seems like we need a frame of reference for the Save the Orcas conversation: It seems the impression is being given that Killer Whales at large are endangered, however looking through the materials online about killer whales in general and in specific locations is the distinction to make. In looking through the materials about orcas the hardest number to find was how many orcas are there worldwide? Almost every article that came up started out with how there are orcas all over the world, that they are an apex predator, but then the narrative would move to the pod of orcas that lives on the west coast and inland waters near Washington, and then go on at length about how they were endangered, leaving the general impression that orcas as a species are endangered when in fact they are not.

I am left with the impression that it is this local group of orcas that has been affected by the colonization and development of not just Washington – but remember – our northern neighbors in the Vancouver/Canada region likewise are party to whatever the situation is.

It appears that due to not just the whale watching industry, but also the non-profits and politicians that gain a tremendous amount of money and power by promoting certain agendas that this group of whales has come to the forefront and gives the impression that killer whales everywhere are about to become extinct.

One note I would make – considering that Seattle continues to promote and develop the heck out of the city – which by extension means that more and more sewage and runoff is going into Puget Sound and surrounds – even treated – can we blame any fish or mammals for either declining in numbers or declining to hang out in our area. The major contributing factor for their decline is being put on a lack of food sources – but it seems more obvious that Seattle and King County’s, perhaps even Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish’s growth activity is more the contributing factor than anything else.

And as for how many killer whales are there worldwide? Worldwide population estimates are uncertain, but recent consensus suggests a minimum of 50,000. Local estimates include roughly 25,000 in the Antarctic, 8,500 in the tropical Pacific, 2,250–2,700 off the cooler northeast Pacific and 500–1,500 off Norway. Japan's Fisheries Agency estimated 2,321 killer whales were in the seas around Japan.

So the question is – are we going to turn Washington’s economy, power grid, and affordability upside down, continue with unabated, uncontrolled growth – continue to pollute our inland waters, breach dams, and enact a slew of costly and unproven strategies to “save the orcas”? Seems we need some rational thinking instead of political and emotional hysterics around the situation.

Some general info:

The killer whale belongs to the Delphinidae family (making it the largest dolphin), but due to its size over 30 ft. it is also considered a whale. The killer whales are found in all oceans. These whales can adapt to almost any conditions, and appear to be at home in both open seas and coastal waters. Orcas are toothed whales, related to sperm and pilot whales, and are apex predators vulnerable only to large sharks. They have the most varied diet of all cetaceans, and can tackle prey of all shapes and sizes.

Due to their voracious appetites and their place at the top of the ocean food chain, orcas are very susceptible to pollution and chemicals and suffer from diseases and reproductive disorders accordingly. For this reason many scientists consider orcas an “indicator species” regarding the health of marine ecosystems in general. That is, if orcas are in decline, the rest of the ocean is likely in big trouble, too.

Orcas (Orcinus orca) are toothed whales (Suborder Odontoceti), also known as killer whales. They are found in all the world’s oceans, living in waters ranging from tropical to arctic, and both coastal and deep oceanic waters. Orcas sometimes enter estuaries, but never venture far from the sea.

There are three ecotypes of killer whales on the West Coast of North America:

Resident Killer Whales (Northern and Resident killer whales; salmon eaters);

Transient Killer Whales or also known as Bigg's killer whales (feed on marine mammals like seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins, and porpoise); and

Offshore Killer Whales (feed on fish, squid, and maybe sharks).

The Southern Residents are also among the most at-risk marine mammals in the world. Noise and crowding by boat traffic, chemical contaminants, as well as a scarcity of their preferred food—Chinook salmon—pose serious threats to this endangered population.

Orcas may not have a clear-cut conservation status internationally, but the U.S. government is concerned enough about the animals that ply the waters of Washington’s Puget Sound and San Juan Islands (known as the “southern residents”) to put them on the federal endangered species list.

On the other hand, as per another branch of NOAA:

There are no official killer whale worldwide population estimates. There are minimum counts in local areas. For example, approximately 1000 whales have been individually identified in Alaskan waters through photographs. Killer whales are at the top of the food chain and are not considered endangered.

There is also the matter of where their feeding grounds and sources of preferred salmon are – including that it is not just in the Waters off of NW Washington and Puget Sound, some of this local group’s food is up in the norther Vancouver Island region.

The orcas that return to Puget Sound every summer are genetically distinct from other killer whale populations around the world and differ from some of the others in eating primarily salmon, rather than seals or other marine mammals.

They were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005 after the center sued to get the status.

The following year, the fisheries service designated the inland waters of Washington state as critical habitat. The designation means federal agencies must ensure that activities they pay for, permit or carry out do not harm the habitat.

In closing, I will add my own conclusions on this research by thinking of the many the unintended consequences of the Growth Management Act and the tendency it has shown to cause more harm than good.  GMA has something to do with this problem. The fact is growth will have to be allowed to expand outside the Urban Growth Line, or sewage will have to be more intensely treated within the Urban Growth Line. The habit of Combined sewer overflow will need to stop, and stormwater will need to be more highly treated. 

The myth of the GMA protecting our environmental values is becoming more apparent.  It has become a tool for the power hungry and the serial litigators who seem to have little concern for the environment as we have seen with the mute response to the millions and millions of gallons of polluted discharges into our rivers and bays.

We cannot save Orcas with taxation or fearful predictions of climate change, we can focus the millions and millions of dollars our government has taken as “revenue” and fix the actual problems that “growth management” has caused.  If money will be spent, why not focus it on projects that make an actual difference in the health of our waters.

Polluted stormwater runoff is commonly transported through municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s), and then often discharged, untreated, into local water bodies.  This kind of discharge is extremely harmful to all species of aquatic life.  Stormwater runoff is generated from rain and snowmelt events that flow over land or impervious surfaces, such as paved streets, parking lots, and building rooftops, and does not soak into the ground. The runoff picks up pollutants like trash, chemicals, oils, and dirt/sediment that can harm our rivers, streams, lakes, and coastal waters. To protect these resources, communities, construction companies, industries, and others, use stormwater controls, known as best management practices (BMPs). These BMPs filter out pollutants and/or prevent pollution by controlling it at its source.  What is needed for Orcas and other aquatic life is an all-encompassing review of municipal storm water management and a prioritization of needed improvements.  This would be an important step in correcting environmental conditions that would be favorable to aquatic life. 

In addition, a focus on preventing Combined Sewer/Stormwater Overflows which dump into the Puget Sound and local waters untreated pollutants from both sewage and stormwater on a yearly basis in massive quantities should be a priority.  Agreements with Canada about abating water pollution should be part of the solution.  Innovative techniques for in house treatment for large developments could lessen the burden on aging and undersized infrastructure that is unable to handle the loads required to keep our waters clean.

Growth Management must become less political and more effective.  Political hysteria, virtue signaling policies, and sue and settle agreements will not clean our waters, prioritized and  effective reality based governmental plans and actions will get the job done.



January 27, 2019