The Orca Whale is a dynamic and highly complex animal. As some of the ocean’s brainiest creatures, humans have barely scratched the surface on learning what orcas are capable of. Also known as “Killer Whales”, these mammals are known for their highly organized hunting strategies.
They are deeply social animals, with complicated family hierarchies in every pod. Orcas also have regional dialects, just like humans, and the capability to pass culture generationally. These magnificent animals may seem invincible, but human activity has taken a toll on them.
Threats to Wild Orcas
There are currently an estimated 50,000 wild Orcas in the world’s oceans. Killer whales are found in all oceans, with different subpopulations varying in culture, diet, and behavior. The most abundant orca populations are found in colder waters: the coastlines of Antarctica, Canada, Alaska, and Norway. One of the most threatened populations is the Southern Resident Orcas, which range between Washington state and Vancouver, Canada. Only 75 whales remain in this fragmented population, which struggles to survive. In the 1960s, this population was fragmented by wild captures for marine park collections. While this practice has ended in the modern age, Orcas face new challenges.
Disturbance and noise pollution by marine vessels have become serious issues. For the fish-eating Southern Resident Orcas, overfishing salmon stocks takes a massive toll. Oceanic contamination, oil spills, and fishing gear entanglement are also harmful to these animals. Luckily, there is a role each of us can play in reducing these threats to Orcas and other ocean animals.
Changing your consumption of salmon can help
The demand for wild-caught salmon has skyrocketed in recent years. When people imagine fresh wild-caught salmon, the environmental impact might not come to mind immediately. However, these fish are far more vulnerable than some might think. Being salmon eaters, the Southern Resident Orcas directly rely on plentiful salmon.
In the Pacific Northwest, salmon don’t just feed orcas; they provide sustenance to land mammals and birds of prey and have been a cultural staple to indigenous people for thousands of years. In 2018, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) found that 50 percent of Chinook salmon populations in Southern British Columbia were at-risk. Chinook salmon in the Pacific Northwest region are considered endangered or threatened in many areas. Overfishing still takes place, and the Southern Resident Orcas are suffering because of it. Farmed salmon aren’t harmless, either- in fact, these fish farming operations are a source of disease and parasites that often spread to wild fish stocks. Decreasing your fish consumption and eliminating your salmon consumption can help save the lives of wild orcas.
Fishing gear entanglement harms orcas
Entanglement in commercial fishing, crabbing, or lobstering gear is a common cause of injury and death for cetaceans around the world. In fact, this issue seems to be on the rise. NOAA confirmed 28 entangled whales off the coasts of Oregon, Washington, and California in 2022, plus one each off the coasts of Alaska and Mexico that were entangled in West Coast commercial fishing gear. In fact, “ghost gear”, or lost commercial fishing gear, makes up an estimated 70% of macro plastics polluting our oceans.
So, what is the solution? Decreasing or eliminating your consumption of commercial fish is a helpful place to start. If fish is something you’d like to continue eating, rod-and-reel fishing causes significantly less harm to our oceans. This practice doesn’t produce bycatch, and while lost fishing lines still harm animals, they are far less deadly than massive trawling nets.
Be sure to choose whale-watching outfitters responsibly
Viewing Orcas in the wild can be a deeply moving experience. Responsible whale-watching outfitters can generate funds for conservation, create initiatives to protect whales, and serve as watchful eyes on the ocean, spotting and reporting whales who appear to be entangled or distressed.
But it’s important to make sure the whale-watching outfitter you choose is abiding by local laws and respecting animals’ privacy. Harassing whales has become a global problem in the tourist industry. This harmful behavior can disrupt Orca's natural behavior, such as hunting, feeding, mating, or caring for their young. It’s important to brush up on your research before choosing a whale-watching tour, no matter where you are in the world. This will ensure you have a guilt-free, positive, and impactful experience viewing Orcas and other whales in the wild!
Promote research and Orca advocacy
Like all wildlife, there are so many issues Orcas face in today’s changing climate. Luckily, there are many organizations funding research, conservation, and advocacy on behalf of these magnificent animals. If you can’t afford to donate, volunteering, staying up to date with conservation current events, signing petitions, and writing to your political representatives can all make a difference. Even simply following your favorite organizations on social media and spreading the word about their work can help raise awareness!
Orca Conservancy, Center for Whale Research, and Pacific Wild are just a few of these advocacy organizations working to create change. Being aware of the issues Orcas face is one of the many ways we can help them.