The Puget Sound—Although a relatively small crack cutting about halfway through the mainland of Washington State (USA), it has a diverse assortment of marine inhabitants, which includes creatures such as octipi, porpoises, seals, seagulls, salmon (often Chinook), other types of fish, crabs, and orcas, to name a few.
*A picture of Puget Sound [photo credit to USGS, via Encyclopedia of Puget Sound]
One of these animals Is the Orca Whale. Orcas commonly live longer lifespans, usually between 30–90 years. They are a type of dolphin that is carnivorous, feeding on many different types of prey—seals, smaller and bigger fish (even sharks), and more! The type of orca that will sometimes be seen in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea in the warmer parts of the year are called Southern Resident Orcas, but most of the time when they are in the area, they occupy the waters around the San Juan Islands. They have three pods (or social groups)—J, K, and L—and they commonly migrate from areas ranging from northern California to Southeast Alaska (the other subspecies occupying WA state territory are Transient Killer Whales and the Offshores). These orcas often feed on Chinook (sometimes Chum) salmon, and other fish.
A Southern Resident Orca dolphin-leaping. [Photo credit: Brandon Cole]
The Southern Resident Orcas are fascinating creatures that used to appear in abundance, but not anymore. In 1995, the population of Southern Resident Orcas was at 98. As of September 2020, it was only 74. Considering the fact that back in 1995, there was still a lot of pollution, this is bad news. You may be wondering, how did this happen? How could these Orcas possibly have such a depletion in population in just over 2 decades, which would normally stay the same or even increase in that time? Although we are far from eco-friendly, there have been many measures to improve the quality of the environment lately, specifically here in Washington state; so why are these orcas in more danger than their counterparts in other areas? Well, one cause is the toxic contamination of local watersheds, rivers, Puget Sound and other bodies of water. Human disturbance (human activities that may impact the orcas negatively, such as boating, noise, etc.) is also a factor, followed by lower amounts of Chinook salmon in the Sound lately (which is directly affected by toxic contamination, and more).
Human disturbance may affect these orcas by disturbing their natural way of life and daily activities (this includes things such as tree removal, road building and other construction, landfills and littering, and more). This may affect the Orcas by making it harder for them to find their food.
Toxic contamination is one of the more obvious causes; there is constant rainwater runoff that gets absorbed into the groundwater and goes through the drains, and there are plenty of polluted areas (such as the Duwamish river) in a place that seems as sustainable as the Seattle Metropolitan Area. Some of the toxic material that contaminates The Puget Sound includes pesticides, the pathogens from the waste of domesticated animals, dissolved metal, oils and grease, petroleum byproducts as car waste, and more. Although they have been outlawed, there are still PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, which are humanmade chemicals that most of us have been exposed to in small amounts at some point. They have not been in much use since the 1970’s, so there is slowly becoming less and less of it in the environment, but it is estimated that above 50% of PCBs created have been released into the environment, damaging it through leaks, spills, incorrect storage, and more. They are extremely resistant to hardships such as extreme temperatures, and stay in sediment/soil for long periods of time. They are tough, so it takes longer for them to leave the environment.
*there are plenty of PCBs found in the Duwamish river, which is a waterway that opens into Elliot bay; a part of Puget Sound. [photo credit to Paul Joseph Brown/Ecosystem Photo, via NRDC]
When the lower parts of the food chain are affected, it will have a ripple effect and impact the Southern Resident Orcas as well. One type of this toxic contamination is Ocean Acidification [see my article on that topic, and how it directly affects The Puget Sound]. This affects these orcas by harming much of their food, a lot of which includes Chinook salmon. Sometimes, it may affect adults who are about to have offspring, which can affect generations without a hope for end. Many of these fish die before they hatch, which presents a gigantic issue for Southern Resident Orcas whilst they are foraging for food. This eventually chains down to the orcas due to the fact that much of their diet is based on these unhealthy salmon; toxins are often found in these orca’s blubbers, and sometimes younglings can get ill and die through the contaminants found in their mother’s milk. It can also cause issues in the immune system, reproductive system, as well as developmental issues and crippling disabilities in orcas, which may seriously impact their survival. Although PCBs are not often found in Chinook salmon, they are in the fat of many Southern Resident Orcas, and when they are starved to extreme amounts (which have been compared to the Nazi torture of Jewish people during the holocaust in this article based around this study), they use this fat for metabolism, and the PCBs poison their blood.
This toxicity and acidity presents an environmental disaster upon the entire ecosystem, and us as humans as well. As I mentioned in my Ocean Acidification article, the seafood industry is heavily affected by the health and abundance of these marine creatures that we consume. As the food web is destroyed, so are the quality of the seafood that the locals eat. The Seattle area is home to many seafood restaurants, such as Ivar’s, and is the source of a large part of America’s seafood industry. This problem, along with the Southern Resident Orcas’ problem, are intertwined, and to help them may actually help us.
Thankfully, back in 2018, Governor Jay Inslee (WA state) made an executive order ordering state agencies and other organizations to do something about these endangered orcas. As of now, there is a task force working to improve conditions for these orcas, as well as boost their population up about 84 orcas throughout this decade. There are task force groups for each major topic (toxicity, salmon population, disturbance, etc.) and they also help to collect money, information, and accountability so that the Southern Resident Orcas can recover back to a healthy state. Some more specific ways that many state agencies and other organizations include oil spill prevention, protection of the habitat, cleanups, toxic chemical reduction, research, improving fish passage at dams, improving oil transportation, increasing support for aquatic quality, pharmaceuticals, streamflow restoration, grants and loans, opportunities, and more.
You may now be wondering how exactly you can help as an individual. Well, there are many ways! You can stop using pesticides, pick up your pet’s poop, use daily life products with less toxic ingredients, volunteer for cleanups, and yet again, more! (another link to dig deeper on how you can help is provided here). Volunteering is a way that may be extremely beneficial, and it is also direct! It helps the environment, and it can be fun working with others to help get a result you want. If you are in the Seattle metropolitan area and a teenager, volunteer hours look great on transcripts. If you are not looking to go to college, it is still a great way for you to spend your time, and is highly recommended!
Remember to make sustainable choices, and stay safe during the pandemic! Now go out there and help not just these orcas, but the rest of Puget Sound as well as the environment!
Sources (you can also look through these for more in-depth information!)