Resident or Transient…A Question of Belonging

It seems clear cut of course, resident orca live here, right? In whale terms “here” is a much broader word. For an animal that travels constantly and covers 100 miles in a day, “here” to them is the ocean coastal waters of the Northeast Pacific. They are home if they are anywhere from Monterey to Glacier Bay. So why then are they called “Residents”? When they first got that moniker, back in the 1960’s, scientists would reliably see orca eating fish in the Salish Sea from May to October. They seemed to live near our islands. But the truth we discovered is they were following an ancient food web driven by the natural cycle of salmon in the ocean and returning to the rivers.

Now lets talk about Transient Orca. They must just pass through and not really be “our whales” right? Wrong. Transients also got their name back in the 60’s. That population of whales eat marine mammals. Back in those days, humans were wiping out seal populations thinking the seals were eating our fish. Tens of thousands of seals were killed making them a rare sight. So the population of orca that relied on seals to sustain them struggled. Without a solid supply of food here, they investigated and then moved on.

Without looking at the ecosystem as a whole, Transient behavior at a glance made them appear uniterested in the area. Boy have things changed!

Today the tables have turned. Since the marine mammals protection act in 1972, we stopped hunting seals and now they have rebounded to a healthy population. Consequently the mammal-hunting orca population has family members in the Salish sea most any day of the year. Their numbers are growing at a record pace and they seem to be healthy animals having lots of babies. Some families we see very often, and others are appearing who we have never seen in these waters before. Word has gotten out; the San Juans have a really good seal buffet for orcas.

Unfortunately the same is not true of the “Resident” whales. Their prey, king salmon is doing very poorly in the Salish sea. Causes include, over-harvesting, habitat loss, pollution, silt run off, warming waters, and forage fish decline. The consequence is the Salmon-eating orca have been forced to look for food in other parts of their range, places they have always gone perhaps, but now they are staying there for longer since they aren’t finding enough fish here to make it worth their while. So who belongs here? Both types do. They each have evolved to fill an ecological niche that does not impact the other. Everyone has their place. Seals, salmon, herring, sharks, all the fish, and down to the plankton, it is all part of the web of life that makes the Salish Sea, the Emerald Sea. It all belongs. The greater question is… how can we?

Captain Alan Niles

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