00:08 GMT +325 September 2018
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    An orca whale swims with other whales in the Pacific Ocean near the mouth of the Columbia River near Ilwaco, Washington

    Ocean ‘Icon’ in Danger: US Pacific Northwest Orcas Facing Extinction

    © AP Photo / NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center
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    Killer whales, the signature species of North America’s Pacific Northwest, could soon become extinct as fossil fuel development disturbs their habitat and their primary food sources dwindle.

    In 2005, the southern resident killer whale, or orca, which is primarily found in the Salish Sea and the coasts of Washington and Oregon, was listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. 

    Now, the population of southern resident killer whales is in even more dire danger.

    In March, Washington Governor Jay Inslee's office released a press release stating that the population of the whales in Puget Sound, which is part of the Salish Sea adjacent to the northwestern portion of the US state of Washington, had declined from 98 in 1995 to 76 today. One of the reasons for this stark decline is the decline in salmon populations. Salmon are the whales' primary source of food.

    "The diets of southern resident orcas consist largely of Chinook salmon, but the Chinook are listed on federal and state endangered species list. If the Chinook population continues to decline, the southern resident orca population will follow," the March 24 press release states.

    In March, Inslee also issued an executive order titled, "Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force," urging state agencies to take action to protect the whales.

    "The order instructs state agencies to outline immediate steps and long-term solutions to recover these species. The order also assembles a task force to bring together state agencies, tribal leaders, local governments, federal partners and other stakeholders to make recommendations at the state, regional and federal levels," the press release states. 

    "The orca will not survive unless all of us in the state of Washington somehow make a commitment to their survival," Inslee said when signing the order, the New York Times reported Monday."The impacts of letting these two species [the whales and the Chinook salmon] disappear would be felt for generations," he added.

    According to a Monday report by the New York Times, the recent agreement between the Canadian government and infrastructure company Kinder Morgan to expand the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which carries crude and refined oil from Alberta to the west coast of British Columbia, Canada, would increase oil tanker traffic through the animal's habitat sevenfold, exposing them to noise and potential oil spills.

    According to researchers, ship traffic probably interferes with echolocation, the biological sonar used by animals like whales, dolphins and bats to locate objects by reflected sound, making it more challenging for whales to locate their prey. The additional noise may also cause whales' hearing to be damaged or lost.

    "The endangered southern resident killer whale is an icon of the Pacific Northwest. It inspires widespread public interest, curiosity, and awe around the globe. Unfortunately, their population level is the lowest we have seen it in several decades. We study how threats are affecting the whales. Our research informs conservation and management actions to address those threats," Lynne Barre, recovery coordinator for orcas at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries wrote in a February press release.

    "Just the presence of boats can cause the whales to spend less time feeding," Barre recently told the New York Times. "And it's harder to communicate. They have to call longer and louder when boats are nearby." 

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    Tags:
    pollution, salmon, endangered species, Orca, Pacific Northwest, Washington
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