Isn’t it strange, the mammals which were considered vicious and hunted cruelly by fishermen, whalers, and even governments agencies are now one of the most valued animals in the whole world? We’re talking about orcas or killer whales here. But we have been a bit late in loving orcas as some factors are pushing them closer to extinction. So are killer whales or orcas endangered? If yes, then how threatened are killer whales or orcas in the wild? We’ll find out all that and more below. So stay tuned!
Orcas or killer whales, the largest member of the dolphin family, are a major attraction at marine parks and even wild because of their plump structure, wolf teeth, and distinct coloring. These black and white creatures weigh 6 tons and can grow up to 26 feet long. These highly intelligent and social mammals are the ambassadors of the marine ecosystem all over the world. They are appreciated for their complex societies and their ability to feel grief.
There was a time people were petrified of these magnanimous creatures, but despite the fear, there was a longing desire to know more about the orcas. There was something striking about this predator, besides its beautiful black and white body. And the more people got to know about it, the more they started appreciating this marvelous creature.
Orca’s family bonds, more specifically its matrilineal units transformed people’s perception of it. People started valuing it because it reminded them of fellow human beings and made them view it differently than just predators. Both in the wild and captivity, orcas appeared tender and complex. But even though we all love orcas, we have no idea how well they are faring these days. Their habitats are still a mystery and since they are extremely fast-moving, they become very difficult to track.
Are Killer Whales Or Orcas Endangered?
As mentioned above, these mammals are so difficult to track that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has given orcas the stats of ‘data deficient. It’s not that people are not trying to find about their well-being. Even today, IUCN is trying to assess the population of killer whales to determine what status should actually be given to them.
While IUCN is still unsure about its numbers, the United States government has put the animal on the federal endangered species list. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the southern side of the orca population, which is considered the best wild animal population in the world has gone down considerably ever since researchers began their study on them around three decades ago. In 1974, the group had 71 whales and then spiked to 97 in 1996. But since then, the population has gone down to 80 and has remained intact since then. Hence, the Endangered Species Act of 2005 granted federal protection to killer whales and designated their geographical as protected ‘critical habitat’.
Threats To Orcas Or Killer Whales:
There are two types of threats faced by killer whales- natural dangers and man-made dangers. Natural dangers are not an extreme danger to their population unless it’s an epidemic. For instance, bacterial or fungal infections or parasites can harm their quality of life, especially if they are sick and old. However, the threats to orcas from human activities are comprehensive. The chief threats to the population of killer whales or orcas are:
Loss Of Food Supply:
Lack of available prey is hurting the population of orcas the most. The salmon population of the West Coast of the United States is being destroyed by human encroachment and most importantly hydroelectric dams. The Sacramento and Columbia rivers have been dammed, which has led to a massive fall in Chinook salmon. In some places, the orcas are starving to death and we can do nothing about it.
An increase in water level and temperature is also altering the availability of their usual prey, which in turn is affecting their composition.
Collision With Boats And Vessels:
Collision with boats and other vessels causes mild to severe wounds and infection, which ultimately leads to their death. Some even get entangled in fishing nets and anchors.
In the early 1970s, the population of orcas was ravaged immensely by the captivity industry, which reduced their population from hundreds to tens.
Since orcas are on top of the food chain, they are also susceptible to chemical pollution and reproductive diseases and disorders that arise because of it. This is one of the main reasons scientists regard orcas as the ‘indicator species’ of marine ecosystem health in general. So if the orcas are declining, the other ocean animals are also likely to be in trouble. That’s not all, unfortunately. The Canadian government has taken over the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which also threatens salmon production and even access to that river.
Oil spills and other leaks in the water are also serious threats to killer whales. Contaminants in water also affect the ability of the orcas to reproduce. Most of the calves of orcas are unable to survive because the waters are too contaminated to thrive.
Noise pollution and harassment are also affecting the population of these majestic creatures. The loud noises from boats, ships, and vessels are harming them because they use echolocation for communication. CAT scans have shown that loud noises from shipping, drilling, and salmon farms cause hemorrhaging around their brains and ears.
Conflicts With Fisheries:
Conflicts with fisheries are another reason for the decline of Northwest’s orcas in the United States. Some fishermen see orcas as their competition because they steal the fish from them. Brazilian fishermen say that killer whales consume more than 50% of the swordfish. While some fishermen go for inoffensive or least harmful actions, some straight away shoot them.
Depression In Captivity:
Since orcas are highly intelligent mammals and can easily learn to perform aerobatics, they are captured in many countries for entertainment. Also, people presume that Orcas are safer in captivity than wild, where they are free from all populations. But in the tank, killer whales don’t get enough space and since they are very active, lively, and interactive, they become very limited in captivity. This depresses the orcas, which reduces their lifespan three times than average life expectancy in the wild. Several animal rights activities and organizations have started petitions to ensure that the waterparks do not allow the breeding of Orcas because this only worsens the problem, ultimately driving them to extinction.
Killer whales or orcas are often hunted for their skin, flesh, fat, and internal organs. These days, some tribes of the Arctic capture killer whales for their survival. The practice of hunting to sell their body parts has decreased greatly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not practiced. They are still hunted in Greenland, Indonesia, Japan, and some parts of the Caribbean.
How Can We Retain And Improve Orca Or Killer Whale’s Population?
There are a few steps we can take to increase the population of orcas. These include:
- Try to be as wise as possible when you are boating. Please be aware that the laws require people to boat a minimum of 200 yards away from them.
- Please ensure that you don’t throw pollutants and trash in the water. We cannot stress this enough. The seas and oceans are filled with trash, which is hurting the marine animals immensely.
- Please try to support the salmon restoration efforts. Spread the news through social media so that your friends and family are also aware of it. People have started several petitions to bring down dams and encourage salmon reproduction.
The fact that people are working so hard on the health of the marine ecosystem is good news for killer whales as they are dependent on a wide range of fish for sustenance. And not to mention the preponderance of protected stretches of both coasts and ocean, which will encourage killer whales to fight their extinction. If people and government continue in their efforts to maintain the health of the marine ecosystem, orcas will have a major chance to still be the icons of the sea.