Southern Resident Killer Whales
The Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) represent the smallest of four resident communities within the eastern North Pacific Ocean. It is the only Killer Whale population listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. It is currently protected under the Endangered Species Act as of 2005. They are commonly referred to as the "Orcas of the Salish Sea", "fish-eating orcas", or the "SRKW" population. Unlike other resident communities, the SRKW is only one clan (J) that consists of 3 pods (J, K, L) with several matrilines within each pod. There are approximately 89 individuals that make up this small population. In December 2011, a new baby orca was born to the J clan.
Photo identification over the last 30 years has allowed researchers to track the southern resident population quite accurately, such as the Orca ID site offered through the Center for Whale Research. Their population is built upon a matrilineal system where these strong hierarchical groups of individuals are connected by maternal descent. Each matriline consists of a female, her sons and daughters and the offspring of her daughters; averaging anywhere from one to seventeen individuals and one to five generations within each of these matrilines. Pods are groups of matrilines that share a maternal ancestor, in which the southern residents consist of three pods. The number of individuals changes due to birth and deaths.
The Orca Network provides a list (last updated November 12, 2009). The following is the basic social structure:
- Southern Resident
- J Pod (27 members)
- K Pod (19 members)
- L Pod (41 members)
- J2, J8, J9, J16
- K3, K4, K7, K18
- L2, L4, L9, L12, L21, L25, L26, L28, L32, L35, L37, L45
Similar dialects amongst pods create the social grouping called "clans". It is believed that the more similar their dialect is within the pods, the more closely related they are. The southern dialect is very different from other communities. For instance, northern residents use whistles as their main type of close-range communication and the southern residents use whistles for regular social interactions and long-range communications. Southern residents appear to be much more vocal but it could be due to their vocal usage during travel and the fact that they seem to travel more than the northern residents.
The southern residents have reportedly been seen off the coast of Oregon, Washington, and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Recently, they have been spotted as far south as the coast of central California and as far north as the coast of Queen Charlotte Islands. During the Spring, Summer, and Fall, the southern residents tend to travel around the inland waterways of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and southern Georgia Strait. Little is known about their range and movements during the winter months.
- Dorsal Fin: rounded at the tip (leading edge) and positioned over the rear insertion of the fin towards the back.
- Saddle Patch: typically seen as an "open" saddle patch; five different pigmentation patterns have been reported with similarities noted among clans within a community.
Southern residents are fish-eating orcas that appear to prefer the Chinook salmon to other fish species. From visual sources, necropsy, and feces collection, the following food preferences have been reported:
- Salmon 97%
- Chinook (78% in late spring and fall)
- Chum (11%, more so in Fall)
- Coho (5%)
- Steelhead (2%)
- Sockeye (1%)
- Other Fish 3%
- e.g., Pacific herring and Quillback rockfish
The major threats to this very small community have been listed as:
- Decreased prey availability
- Pollution and contaminants
- Effects from vessels traffic and vessel sound
Northwest killer whales are among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world, due to the high levels of toxic anthropogenic chemicals that accumulate in their tissues. Implicated in the decline of Orca populations in the Pacific Northwest, these widespread contaminants pose a large problem for conservation efforts. While many chemicals can be found in the tissues of Orca, the most common are DDT, an insecticide, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Each of these have detrimental physiological effects on Orca, and can be found in such high concentrations in dead individuals that those individuals must be disposed of in hazardous waste site.
Correlative evidence shows orca may be vulnerable to effects of PCBs on many levels. Research has identified PCBs as being linked to restricting development of the reproductive system in orcas and dolphins. High contamination levels leads to low pregnancy rates and high mortality in dolphins. Further effects include endocrine and immune system disruption, both systems being critical to mammalian health and survival. A study examining 35 Northwest orcas found key genetic alterations that caused changes to normal physiological functions. These genetic level interferences, combined with the varied effects of PCBs at other physiological levels, suggest these contaminants may be partially responsible for declines in Orca populations.
Decline in prey
The depletion of large quantities of fish in the marine environments, while personal fishing in the salmon’s upstream spawning grounds have further depleted stock replenishment.
Noise and crowding from tour boats and larger vessels interrupt foraging behavior, or scare away prey. Also, the sonar used by some ships and submarines is enough to cause hemorrhaging, and subsequently, death in some individuals
- "The Endangered Species Act - Protecting Marine Resources".
- "Orcas of the Salish Sea".
- "Center for Whale Research Whale ID".
- O'Neill, S, and J West. "Marine Distribution, Life History Traits, and the Accumulation of Polychlorinated Biphenyls in Chinook Salmon from Puget Sound,Washington." Transactions of the American Fisheries Societies. 138.3 (2009): 616-32.
- [<http://conservationbiology.net/research-programs/killer-whales-2/> "Causes of Decline among Southern Resident Killer Whales." Center for Conservation Biology. University of Washington]
- [Ross, P.S, G.M Ellis, et al. "High PCB Concentrations in Free- Ranging Pacific Killer Whales, Orcinus orca: Effects of Age, Sex and Dietary Preference." Marine Pollution Bulletin. 40.6 (2000): 504-515]
- [<http://www4.nau.edu/tribalclimatechange/tribes/northwest.asp> "Fisheries Impact" by Tribes and Climate Change]
- [<http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/the-dolphin-defender/the-effects-of-pcbs/806/> "The Dolphin Defender: The effects of PCBs." Nature]
- [Ross, P.S, G.M Ellis, et al. "High PCB Concentrations in Free- Ranging Pacific Killer Whales, Orcinus orca: Effects of Age, Sex and Dietary Preference." Marine Pollution Bulletin. 40.6 (2000): 504-515.]
- [Buckman, AH, N Veldhoen, et al. "PCB-Associated Changes in mRNA Expression in Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) from the NE Pacific Ocean."ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY. 40.23 (2011): 10194-10202]
- [Noakes, Donald J, Richard J Beamish, and Michael J Kent. "On the decline of Pacific salmon and speculative links to salmon farming in British Columbia."Aquaculture. 183.3-4 (363): 386.]
- [<http://wildwhales.org/conservation/threats/boat-disturbance/> "Boat Disturbance." Wild Whales]
- [<http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/magazine/dec11/orcas_sound_pollution.asp> "Sound Pollution." Canadian Geographic]
- NOAA Fisheries Service http://www.nwfsc.noaa.gov/features/kwsightings.cfm
- BC cetacean sightings network http://wildwhales.org/sightings/
- Cascadia Research http://www.cascadiaresearch.org/reporting_marine_mammal_sighting.htm