'Fragile Waters': we must stop starving Southern Resident Orcas to extinction

Southern Resident Orca near East Point, Saturna Island, 12th July 2011. Photo: Miles Ritter via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Southern Resident Orca near East Point, Saturna Island, 12th July 2011. Photo: Miles Ritter via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
The Southern Resident Orcas of Puget Sound have plenty of problems, writes Kathleen Haase. But as the film 'Fragile Waters' makes clear, there's a common thread: us. Whether it's over-fishing Chinook salmon or polluting the ocean with toxic chemicals, we are driving them to extinction - and if we don't soon mend our ways, it will be too late.
The question is this: are we up for the challenge? Or will we put our heads into the sand just like the politicians and corporations we keep complaining about, until it's too late?

With a strong environmental and political message at its heart, Fragile Waters challenges us to rethink our current relationship with Mother Nature, start leading more sustainable lifestyles, and become vocal advocates for the environment by demanding political change from our leaders and those who are supposed to represent our voices.

The film tells the tragic story of the Southern Resident Killer Whales living near Puget Sound. And it takes us straight to the root of the problem. The Southern Residents are heading for extinction.

While Fragile Waters analyzes a variety of problems - and believe me there are plenty - a single issue emerges as the main 'orca killer': the Southern Residents do not have enough Chinook salmon to feed on - and this is the species that makes up more than 75% of their summer diet.

On top of that comes stress from boat noises and high levels of pollution from DDTs, PCBs and PBDEs washing into the environment from local industries. Consuming their fat reserves when orcas starve, toxins accumulated in the blubber are released which can be fatal, especially for newborn calves who get an offload of toxins through the mothers' milk. This might be one of the reasons why newborn orca calves have a 37-50% mortality rate during their first year of age.

Fragile Waters sends us back to the tragic events of 2014 when the newborn calf L-120 and an 18-year-old pregnant female J-32 Rhapsody both suddenly passed away. The music in this scene is truly heart-breaking as both L-120's birth and Rhapsody's pregnancy brought hope to so many people that the Southern Residents are finally recovering but that hope was instantly crushed.

Southern Resident conservation status

Ken Balcomb, an orca researcher from the Center for Whale Research, informs us that "there were 87 whales when the population was declared endangered in 2005 and their numbers have gone down since then so they are [clearly] not recovering." The tone of the documentary suddenly becomes much more sombre to emphasise the severity of the situation.

"The future looks bleak for Southern Residents, unless and until we humans become motivated to dramatically shift our lifestyles and priorities to reduce our consumption rates and our birth rates, and improve our appreciation for functioning natural habitats and their inhabitants", says Howard Garrett, Co-Founder of the non-profit organisation Orca Network.

The question is this: are we up for the challenge? Or will we put our heads into the sand just like the politicians and corporations we keep complaining about, until it's too late?

Howard's thought is backed up by observations of Dr. Sam Wasser, director at the Centre for Conservation Biology, who found that "a large number of pregnant females followed a reliable pattern of progesterone and testosterone rise during gestation but then never gave birth."

Guess what? Those females were so malnourished that they had to abort their calves. Without future generations surviving, the Southern Residents are truly doomed.

To save the Southern Residents societal change is inevitable

Underlying these environmental problems are much more complex political and societal issues. Fragile Waters does a magnificent job weaving these issues together. Co-filmmaker Rick Wood feels that the real obstacle of creating Fragile Waters was the scope of its story.

"It's easy to act like it condenses down into hungry orca whales looking for salmon, but that's only the end result of a story with a thousand moving parts", he says.

Wild salmon are in decline largely because their habitat is destroyed by massive dams that block their passage through the local rivers thus reducing their spawning grounds. Politicians and local businesses have refused to do anything about the dams so far but breaching the Snake River dams could drastically increase the Chinook salmon numbers these majestic orcas rely on so badly.

Whether it is pollution or habitat destruction, our current lifestyles are clearly linked to these events. Jewell James, Master Carver of the native tribe Lummi Nation, teaches us westerners a vital lesson in scientific conservation through his tribe's mythological legends.

"When you over-harvest or destroy the environment, you're not going to have anything to feed your children with", Jewell says. Pretty self-explanatory, right? Oh no, not if you're a corporation!

"Show us the facts. Give us the science", they tell the native tribes who have a deeply spiritual understanding of how to preserve the Earth. Common sense often goes out of the window when it comes to profit maximisation.

Heading for an environmental catastrophe

Unfortunately, corporate greed rarely cares about the state of the natural environment. There are plans to expand the shipping lanes right through the Southern Resident habitat.

Eva Saulitis, an Alaskan Transient Orca Researcher, recalls the disaster that happened to the local Chugach transient orca population. Eleven of their 22 members were killed due to the 1989 Exxon Valdey Oil Spill thus sending the Chugach orcas down the path of certain extinction.

This comparison is not a suggestion that the Southern Residents will head for the same path just yet but it is a warning that a similar disaster is possible in the Salish Sea if business as usual continues.

However, there is no point in blaming all environmental disasters on big oil tankers, uncaring politicians or greedy businessmen. We, as consumers, have responsibility as well. It's a simple matter of supply and demand. If we keep buying unsustainable products, businesses will keep supplying them. We blindly trust manufacturers to bring us ethical products but we really should stop doing that.

A glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel

Not all is lost for the Southern Residents if we change our lifestyles. I had a conversation with a local fishmonger working in a local supermarket a few months ago and even he admitted that the majority of supermarket products are unsustainable but since consumers keep buying them and do not ask questions, he does not see the situation change anytime soon.

That conversation was part of what led me to giving up salmon altogether. The thought of our beloved J-2 Granny, the oldest orca known to mankind with an estimated age of 104 years, dying because she was starving and my purchase of unsustainable farmed salmon having led to Granny's death, made me feel physically sick.

After reading a scientific study, published in 2006 in the journal Science, that estimates a global collapse of all seafood stocks currently harvested by 2048 if things do not change soon, I could no longer justify buying fish at all and trust me, I love fish! It felt like a moral duty to stop eating fish, especially salmon.

However, total abstention is not the only answer to this problem and Fragile Waters does not promote vegetarianism or veganism as a solution. Instead, the documentary asks us to try and live in harmony with nature, lead more sustainable lifestyles, and pressure those idle politicians into taking those damn dams down.

Fragile Waters is a definite must see for anyone who is interested in orcas and salmon, topics of sustainable fish management and how to tackle the biggest problem underlying these environmental issues - an unsustainable human population leading primarily unsustainable lifestyles.

As Shari Macy, who made the film with Rick Wood, puts it, the aim of Fragile Waters is to "inspire people of all ages and walks of life to make the planet a better place for future generations of mankind and all kinds by working towards a more sustainable way of life on Earth."

This is what Fragile Waters is challenging us to do. This is what is required to save the Southern Residents from heading for certain extinction.

The question is this: are we up for the challenge? Or will we put our heads into the sand just like the politicians and corporations we keep complaining about, until it's too late?



The film: Fragile Waters is a thought-provoking and inspirational documentary by Rick Wood and Shari Macy, starring Ken Balcomb and Howard Garrett.

Kathleen Haase is a Philosophy graduate from the University of York. She is currently volunteering at Whale and Dolphin Conservation running a petition that asks British Airways to stop selling trips to SeaWorld. She is pursuing a career in the field 'non-human personhood' and wants to establish non-human personhood status for orcas and other cetaceans.

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