There are only 74 Southern Resident Orcas left in existence, and they’re teetering on the brink of extinction. If Trans Mountain goes through, it could spell the end for this iconic species.
This summer many of us watched heartbroken as the Salish Sea orca known as Tahlequah, or J35, carried her dead calf for an unprecedented 16 days. Since then her pod has also lost 4 year-old Scarlet (also named J50) to starvation and an infection. When Scarlet was born biologists took this, the first live birth in more than two years, as a sign that there was hope for Southern Resident Orcas. With her death there are as few as 74 whales left and that hope has faded.
Orcas face three major threats in the Salish Sea: declining salmon stocks (which form 93% of their diet), toxins in their food and environment, and noise from shipping traffic. Orcas rely on echolocation to find food and communicate, but due to existing shipping traffic those abilities have been reduced by as much as 60-90% in their key habitat.
As their main source of food becomes harder to find, increases in shipping noise have made the remaining salmon harder and harder for the orcas to find. This means that the whales have begun to metabolize their fat stores, which is where they store the toxins they have bio-accumulated over their lifetimes. Marine biologists tell us that this triple threat will lead to infections, stillbirths, and declining birth rates.
That is why scientists have concluded that, even without an oil spill, the increase in shipping traffic from the Trans Mountain pipeline may be enough of a strain on the Southern Resident Orcas to push them over edge of extinction.
Despite this crisis, the Government of Canada is considering a 700% increasing in oil tanker traffic, which also works out to a 9% increase in overall shipping traffic, through the very waters that make up the critical habitat of these iconic whales by approving the Trans Mountain pipeline.