Recent killer whale news sinking boats can evoke Jaws or Moby Dick. But before deciding that orcas are sadistic jerks out of personal revenge, consider another possible explanation. The behavior could be symptomatic of environmental stresses, such as prey loss, that killer whales experience around the world. Orcas could also play. We should all know more about this charismatic megafauna. After all, the interests and activities of humans and orcs are more closely related than most people realize.
Dolphin family members, killer whales are also called killer whales because they are a apex predator. Like dolphins and whales, they communicate by vocalization. And like many land mammals, they live in extended matriarchal family groups. These pods hunt together, much like wolves and other terrestrial pack animals. They avoid competition with other groups by maintaining large territories, even specializing in different types of prey. Overall, killer whales are generalists, hunting a wide variety of species ranging from salmon to seabirds and even sharks and whales.
Clans are groups of groups that share a similar dialect or vocalizations. Orca communities, or ecotypes, are defined by patterns of association and may include multiple clans. There is 11 different types killer whales, distributed in all the oceans of the world. Before the sinkings of Iberian yachts stole the show, the resident communities of the Pacific Ocean were the most famous killer whales. These include residents of northern British Columbia with over 300 members and endangered southern residents with fewer than 75 individuals remaining.
In the United States, the Marine Mammal Protection Act protect all orcs. The southern resident ecotype is also listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Since its inscription in 2005, this population has continued to decline, with almost 70% of pregnancies ending in failure – a statistic that fluctuates depending on the availability of chinook salmon. This population depends on Chinook Salmon for almost 80% of its diet.
Other orca ecotypes aren’t as picky eaters, but they all face various threats. Like most marine species, killer whales can become by-catch caught in plastic pollution from abandoned fishing gear, which can lead to stress, starvation and even death. Other pollutants, including sewage, pesticide runoff and oil spills, also harm orcas. Noise pollution from ocean-going vessels can hamper the orca’s ability to hunt. Killer whales can be injured in collisions with boats. One theory behind the alleged vendetta in the Mediterranean is the trauma caused by a collision with a boat.
Killer whales in the Strait of Gibraltar are known to steal tuna right next to the fishermen’s lines. But framing orca survival as direct competition with human economies — and diners — is a mistake. Although food shortages threaten the survival of killer whales, especially for the southern resident population, the idea of competing with killer whales for fish diverts attention from the central environmental issue of maintaining healthy fish stocks.
Copper River king salmon costing up to $70/pound in 2023, salmon conservation is almost as essential for humans as it is for orcas. Some populations of sockeye salmon, coho salmon, chinook salmon (also called king salmon), and Atlantic salmon are listed as endangered.
In May, a Washington state judge issued an order in a controversial case trial to stop trolling for king salmon in Southeast Alaska this summer to protect food sources for endangered southern residents. The stop, which has been blocked sincewould no doubt have hurt the bottom line for Alaskan fishing and, by extension, state public funds. What is less certain is how much such measures would have benefited the salmon and orca that depend on them. Trolling is generally considered one of the most sustainable fishing methods, but if spring salmon runs are an indication, drastic measures may indeed be required.
Recreational fishing has been suspended in Washington State watersheds this year to protect chinook returning to spawn. In a generational echo of a disastrous spawning season in 2015, their numbers are at an all-time high.
Fishing pressure without a doubt contributes to the decline of wild salmon. But equally important is degraded and inaccessible spawning habitat. Many conservationists point the finger at dams, especially those along the Snake River as the main culprit for the decline of salmon and other anadromous fish. Dam deletion and the addition of fish ladders proved succeeded in restoring once-extinct salmon populations. But these strategies can clash with competing values: renewable electricity and the West water crisis.
Protecting coastal habitat is also important for killer whales. Since 2019, temporary restrictions require boats to keep a distance of 300 meters from killer whales in coastal waters. This year, Washington State supplemented this federal restriction with its own law that requires boats to keep 1,000 yards southern resident killer whales. However, vessels in Canadian waters will not be subject to the law, and a Port of Vancouver Expansion is likely to impact Fraser River sockeye populations.
As battles against overfishing regulations play out in court, individuals can support nonprofits such as Conservation of whales and dolphins, Wild Salmon Centerand local habitat conservation efforts. When visiting the coast, engaging in responsible whale watching. And choose more sustainable seafood at restaurants and grocery stores; consider arctic char or rainbow trout as substitutes for salmon.