Hey, ecoSPEARS readers! This week, in lieu of our normal “In The News” segment where we usually cover a handful of separate articles and topics, this week we’re going to instead focus on one major topic instead, due to the important subject matter and the traction the news has gotten since being published last week.
On September 27th, National Geographic reporter Craig Welch published an online article with an alarming headline. Welch, whose article comes on the heels of findings in a Science Mag posting, declares that half of the world’s Orca populations “could face complete collapse in 30to 50 years.” Not from fishing, poaching, or tourism – but from PCBs. Even though PCBs were outlawed nearly four decades ago, their ability to persist in the environment and organisms that ingest them has led to Orcas living in the northern waters of the world to be “among the most heavily contaminated animals on Earth.” It also doesn’t help that roughly 80% of the world’s legacy PCB contaminated stockpiles have yet to be destroyed.
The findings come from a study of some 19 Orca populations in the Northern Hemisphere, where researchers found 10 of the 19 populations to already be in decline. Orcas who make their home in waters around the United Kingdom, Japan, Hawaii, and the Pacific are at greatest risk due to higher concentrations of PCBs in their prey in these regions. Thankfully, Orca populations at higher latitudes in and around the Arctic region seem to face less risk than others.
The Science Mag publishing, coupled with Welch’s article, quickly saw the news go viral across the internet prompting a variety of responses from activists, scientists, and environmental NGOs. Paul Jepsen at the Zoological Society of London told The Guardian that the news was particularly alarming because, “even in pristine condition they are very slow to reproduce,” with healthy killer whales taking 20 years to reach prime sexual maturity with an 18-month gestation period. Lucy Babey, the Deputy Director for Conservation Group Orca, said humanity’s failure to control chemical population will cause a “catastrophe” for Orca populations unless safe PCB disposal methods are signed into law at the next meeting for the Stockholm Convention in May of 2019.
Jim Robbins at The New York Times also picked up the story, reporting on how chemical contamination and noise from offshore drilling in the Pacific Northwest aided in the disappearance of King Salmon in the region, locally known as “Chinook” which were listed as endangered in the early 2000s. Orcas in the Pacific Northwest follow the migratory patterns of these fish, but as Chinook become increasingly scare in the region, so do the Orcas who must then migrate to other cold-water aquatic regions of the world in search of food.
Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, who established The Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, has stressed the importance of Orca populations’ survival to the ecosystem of Puget Sound, Washington, and the surrounding region. The task force has openly stated while there is “no silver bullet” for the Orcas’ plight, a very real risk of population collapse could lead to a marine catastrophe marking it time to start finding better solutions, sooner. The task force, in tandem with the US Army Corps of Engineers, is reviewing several possible options including local dam removal and Chinook hatcheries to help Orca populations along the Pacific Northwest coastline retain enough food intake to stave off malnutrition and starvation. Chinook and Orca habitat recovery is likewise included in these options.
The news is shocking, to say the least. The plight of PCBs has caused environmental damage on a global scale. Inaction on the problem by simply ignoring them and hoping for the best is arguably the worst option to take as that very same inaction is what is now threatening Orca populations. So long as PCBs continue to pollute our environments and our oceans, the problem will not disappear; it is up to us to solve the problem in a better way so that we may continue to be better moving forward.