An 18-year old male southern resident killer whale, J34, is stranded near Sechelt in 2016. A postmortem examination suggests he died from trauma consistent with a vessel strike. (Photo supplied by Paul Cottrell, Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

An 18-year old male southern resident killer whale, J34, is stranded near Sechelt in 2016. A postmortem examination suggests he died from trauma consistent with a vessel strike. (Photo supplied by Paul Cottrell, Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

“We can do better” — humans the leading cause of orca deaths: study

B.C. research reveals multitude of human and environmental threats affecting killer whales

Human interactions are the leading cause of untimely death among B.C.’s killer whales, a new study suggests.

A team of marine mammal and orca specialists analyzed pathology reports of 52 killer whales stranded in Hawaii and the northeast Pacific, including the southern resident killer whales regularly spotted off the B.C. coast, finding the animals face a variety of threats, but the reemerging theme was human-caused in every age class.

“In British Columbia, we lost nine southern resident killer whales — two adults, two subadults and one calf died from trauma. One was a confirmed propeller strike, with one adult and two subadults from suspected ship strikes,” said lead author Stephen Raverty, a veterinarian pathologist with the BC Ministry of Agriculture and adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia stated in a press release. “One of these iconic species passed away from an infection secondary to satellite tagging. Another death was due to natural causes and the other two undetermined. Half of the southern killer whale deaths identified in this study were caused by human interactions.”

READ MORE: What’s going on with marine mammals in Vancouver waterways?

The study was based on orca deaths between 2004 and 2013, led by the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture, and coordinated through the SeaDoc Society, a Washington-based program of the University of California. Raverty and coauthor Dr John Ford are adjunct professions at UBC’s Institute of Oceans and Fisheries and Department of Zoology, respectively.

The report may offer one of the most comprehensive looks yet at the multitude of human and environmental threats affecting killer whales, and help inform strategies to better protect them. While human interactions play a key role, the researchers cautioned the findings indicate an understanding of each threat is critical for conserving orca populations.

“The results from systematic necropsies of dead killer whales in this review is unique and will establish critical baseline information to assess future mitigation efforts,” Raverty said. “This work contributes to a better understanding of the impacts that ongoing human activities and environmental events have on killer whales.”

Overall, of the 52 whales studied, the cause of death was determined for 42 per cent. Other causes include sepsis following a halibut hook injury, starvation from a congenital facial deformity, infectious disease and nutritional deficiencies.

“Nobody likes to think we’re directly harming animals,” said co-author and SeaDoc Society Director Joe Gaydos. “But it’s important to realize that we’re not just indirectly hurting them from things like lack of salmon, vessel disturbance or legacy toxins. It’s also vessel strikes and fish hooks. That humans are directly killing killer whales across all age classes is significant; it says we can do a better job.”

READ MORE: Southern resident killer whale died of blunt trauma, likely from ship

READ MORE: Newborn southern resident killer whale spotted in B.C. waters



quinn.bender@blackpress.ca

ConservationKiller WhalesScience

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Nanaimo city council voted unanimously Monday to pass a bylaw establishing the foundation for a new downtown business improvement association. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
City of Nanaimo adopts bylaw to create new downtown business improvement association

Chamber of commerce says next steps will be a board of directors and five-year strategic plan

Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district teachers’ union, and its counterparts from Mount Arrowsmith district, seek stricter COVID-19 rules. (News Bulletin file)
Nanaimo-Ladysmith teachers’ union asks health authority for stricter COVID-19 measures

Teachers ask for vaccine, more online learning, mask mandate for primary students

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson outlines the province’s three-year budget in Victoria, April 20, 2021. (B.C. government video)
B.C. deficit to grow by $19 billion for COVID-19 recovery spending

Pandemic-year deficit $5 billion lower than forecast

Chakalaka Bar & Grill remains open in defiance of orders from Island Health to close. (Cole Schisler photo)
Island Health seeks injunction against restaurant defying COVID-19 orders

VIHA says Chakalaka Bar and Grill also violating water and sewer regulations with RV hook-ups

Nanaimo Fire Rescue investigator Mark Jonah probes the scene of a blaze that destroyed two apartments on Sunday, April 18. The cause of the blaze has not been determined. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
UPDATE: RCMP say Wakesiah Avenue fire was arson, suspect has been arrested

35-year-old man arrested for allegedly starting fire lived in the complex

A man pauses at a coffin after carrying it during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. announces historic half-billion-dollar funding for overdose crisis, mental health

Of it, $152 million will be used to address the opioid crisis and see the creation of 195 new substance use treatment beds

Children’s backpacks and shoes are seen at a CEFA (Core Education and Fine Arts) Early Learning daycare franchise, in Langley, B.C., on Tuesday May 29, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. budget to expand $10-a-day child care, but misses the mark on ‘truly universal’ system

$111 million will be used to fund 3,750 new $10-a-day spaces though 75 additional ChildCareBC universal prototype sites over the next three years.

The City of Nanaimo will further investigate an initiative to set up two 12-cabin sites to create transitional emergency housing for people experiencing homelessness. (Black Press file photo)
City of Nanaimo will ask for expressions of interest to operate tiny cabin sites

Staff expresses concern about workload, councillor says sheltering people must take priority

Ambulance paramedic in full protective gear works outside Lion’s Gate Hospital, March 23, 2020. Hospitals are seeing record numbers of COVID-19 patients more than a year into the pandemic. (The Canadian Press)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate declines, 849 cases Tuesday

Up to 456 people now in hospital, 148 in intensive care

Christy Clark, who was premier from 2011 to 2017, is the first of several present and past politicians to appear this month before the Cullen Commission, which is investigating the causes and impact of B.C.’s money-laundering problem over the past decade. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
Christy Clark says she first learned of money-laundering spike in 2015

The former B.C. premier testified Tuesday she was concerned the problem was ‘apparently at an all-time high’

Police executed a search warrant at the Devils Army Clubhouse on Petersen road in Campbell River on August 10, 2017.
Murder trial into 2016 Campbell River killing underway in Victoria

Ricky Alexander is charged with the first-degree murder of John Dillon Brown

Most Read