Dawn Noren is a federal research biologist with NOAA. She studies the physiology of the Southern Resident killer whales, specifically focused on blubber and body condition. She has worked on several high profile cases, including the historic intervention staged to save the young ailing J50, who eventually disappeared and is presumed dead. Recovery conversations have mostly focused on food, as the Southern Resident orcas only eat fish and their preferred diet, Chinook salmon, are also declining. While Noren does not disagree with the need to recovery salmon runs, her research shows that the whales are likely facing a much more complicated battle to survive. At the time of this recording, there are just 73 Southern resident killer whales left alive in the wild.
Snohomish County and the Tulalip Tribes survey fish four times a month around the Snohomish River estuary by setting a net and counting the fish it catches. They measure size, record species, and look to see if Chinook salmon are recovering in light of habitat restoration projects. Chinook salmon are the preferred food of the Southern Resident killer whales, the 76 orcas on the brink of extinction. Since the fish aren't doing well, the whales are starving. Scientists have focused much of their effort on restoring salmon habitat which has been lost to development, agriculture and other issues, but they say the projects are way behind and need to speed up if we want the orcas and their favorite prey to survive.
Linda Rhodes is a microbiologist with NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Science Center who studies how parasites in human sewage and animal waste may be hurting the Southern Resident killer whales. The amount of human sewage that ends up in the Salish Sea will shock you. It creates parasites that can enter the whales through their blow holes when they come up for air. Remnants of sewage have also been detected deep within the water column. It's possible these microbes could be causing the orcas to feel sick enough they don't want to eat, which may contribute to their health risks. Often experts point to a lack of food for the whales, who prefer Chinook salmon, which are also dwindling in number. But what if in addition to a lack of food, the Southern Residents just aren't hungry because they're sick?
Tim Ragen spent 15 years as a research biologist for NOAA, coordinated stellar sea lion recovery efforts, and then worked for 13 years with the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission. He has invaluable insight into what it takes to recover a species on the brink of extinction like the Southern Resident killer whales. Interestingly, Ragen supports a cull of seals and sea lions as a drastic measure to save decreasing Chinook salmon stocks, the preferred prey of the Southern Resident orcas, who do not eat marine mammals or sharks like other killer whales. Ragen asks all of us, what kind of world do we want to live in and are we doing all we can to protect that future?
For thousands of years, the Lummi Nation has been performing ceremonial feedings for killer whales, and continue that tradition today with the Southern Resident killer whales, who are now facing the real possibility of extinction. The Lummi believe the orcas are their ancestors. They recently assisted in a historic intervention to save the ailing calf, J50, who eventually died. Kurt Russo is with the Lummi Nation's Sovereignty and Treaty Protection office.
Lanni Johnson is a 71-year old grandmother from Snohomish, Washington who starved herself for 17 days to raise awareness of the plight of the 75 Southern Resident killer whales who are on the brink of extinction. In this episode, she talks about what it was like to go 17 days without eating and why she says she had to do it.
Brad Hanson is a wildlife biologist with NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center and one of the scientists most intimately acquainted with the decline of the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW). After 15 years of studying them using satellite tags among other techniques, Hanson believes the SRKW are likely dying from disease not starvation, as has been widely publicized. He says they're likely more susceptible to pathogens because they don't have enough food to eat. The SRKW are not like other orcas who eat mammals and sharks. They only eat fish and they prefer Chinook salmon. Unfortunately, those fish are also disappearing. At the time of this recording, there are 75 SRKW left alive in the wild.
Josh McInnes is Research Coordinator for Marine Life Studies and an expert on transient killer whales. He recently had a surprise encounter with L124 or "Lucky", the newest calf born to the Southern Resident Killer Whales on the brink of extinction.
Greg Ruggerone and his team recently published research they believe shows a connection between pink salmon and the decline of Southern Resident killer whales. The endangered orcas primarily eat Chinook salmon and Ruggerone believes pink salmon are somehow interfering with the whales' ability to forage.
Josh McInnes studies transient killer whales, a group of orcas that has rebounded from dwindling numbers. They differ from the fish-eating Southern Resident killer whales because they eat marine mammals. McInnes discusses reasons for their comeback and why he still has hope for the Southern Residents.
Jeff Hogan is the Founder of Killer Whale Tales, a program that visits schools to teach kids about the plight of killer whales and what we can do to help them. Hogan hopes the kids will not only change their own behavior to be better stewards of the environment, but also change the behavior of their parents.
David Bain is Chief Scientist with the Orca Conservancy and a leading expert on how vessel noise affects the behavior of the Southern Resident killer whales. He is a critic of the proposed ban on whale watching of the SRKW, arguing it may not only be unnecessary but also harmful.
Jim Waddell is a former engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He has become an outspoken advocate for breaching the 4 lower Snake River dams in order to restore Chinook salmon runs for the Southern Resident killer whales.
Mike Ford is the Director of Conservation Biology at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. He and his team about about to start sequencing the genomes of the Southern Resident killer whales. Could their affinity for salmon and distaste for other food be linked to their genes?
Dr. Holly Fearnbach with SR3 (Sealife Response, Rehabilitation & Research) uses aerial photogrammetry to document the health trends of the Southern Resident killer whales. Her photos recently diagnoses another orca, K25, as declining in condition. They have also shown at least three new pregnancies, one in each of the J, K and L Pods.
Sam Wasser is the Director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. He is a poop expert. His studies of Southern Resident killer whale scat has given scientists unprecedented knowledge of their health, such as how stress hormones affect miscarriages. He's using the same focus on poop to help curb the illegal trafficking of ivory.
Dr. Joe Gaydos is a veterinarian and scientist with SeaDoc Society. He worked closely on an intervention to save J50, the sickly and starving young Southern Resident killer whale who recently died. Dr. Gaydos is currently compiling a health database for the Southern Resident orcas in order to inform both policy surrounding the whales as well as any future efforts focused on individual survival. Dr. Gaydos also sits on Governor Inslee's Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force.
Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas Island) sits on the task force created by Governor Inslee to save the Southern Resident killer whales from extinction. He says the whales have faced the same challenges for decades while those in charge did nothing, but he's more hopeful these days thanks to public outcry. He says "extinction is not an option."
Ken Balcomb has been identifying and studying the Southern Resident killer whales for decades with the Center for Whale Research. After J50's death, he says it's past time that action takes the place of politics. The orcas are down to just 75 with very few reproducing. He hopes he does not see the end of them in his lifetime, but believes it's a real possibility.
The last orca calf to be live captured in Puget Sound in a rescue effort to save her life was Springer, an orphan who liked to swim near boats. She was captured and returned to her family group. The same equipment used in that intervention will be used if officials capture the ailing J50 for rehabilitation. Also called "Scarlet", the near-death Southern Resident orca calf continues to decline despite efforts to dart her with antibiotics. If captured, the plan is to diagnose and treat her with the hope of returning her to the JPod.
Dr. Martin Haulena is at the center of a historic effort to save a sickly killer whale. He is the head veterinarian at the Vancouver Aquarium who shot ailing Southern Resident orca calf J50 "Scarlet" with antibiotics on two occasions. Dr. Haulena talks about his worry for her survival and how she might forever change the way humans intervene in the future of wildlife.