Southern resident killer whales face grim future according to study

Southern resident killer whales face grim future according to study
File photo

They are the most studied whales in the world, and their future is in peril according to a new study published in the science journal, Nature.

There are 74 remaining members of the endangered southern resident killer whales.

Dr. Peter Ross, director of Healthy Waters, Raincoast Conservation Foundation, and one of the authors of the study said the whales’ future is in doubt.

“The worst case scenario would have the southern residents disappear within 40 years. That’s the worst case scenario,” he said.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the southern residents’ population peaked at about 125 individuals until a live capture program in the 1960’s removed 47-whales for marine parks.

By the early 1990’s they made a slight recovery to around 100, then an unexplained 20 per cent drop occurred.

There are now just 74 southern residents remaining.

Ross says there are three main factors affecting the whales’ longevity. “When we put harmful pollutants on top of diminishing prey, on top of noise and disturbance, and we do not do anything further to mitigate those three pressures, then we are headed clearly in the direction of extinction for the southern residents killer whales.”

According to the study, modelling has a number of possible outcomes for the southern resident population over the next 100 years.

The most optimistic details shows the orcas’ population rising from 74 in 2024 to over 200 in the next century.

But the worst case would mean the extinction of the southern resident population as soon as 40 years.

Whale watchers heading back to Victoria’s Inner Harbour on Thursday saw humpbacks on their outing, but no southern residents.

The Island’s whale watching industry started in earnest in the 1990s due to the interest in the southern residents.

Mark Malleson started with Prince of Whales almost 30 years ago.

“This industry was really built on the presence of the resident, southern resident killer whales. They were around reliably between May and October. Population was doing really well,” he said.

The authors of the study say it may be time for drastic interventions, like vaccinating orcas, mandatory ocean noise limits, and changing fishery regulations.

READ MORE: ‘Genuinely excited’: Bigg’s killer whale delights onlookers in Victoria

Mary GriffinMary Griffin

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