From the streets of Seattle, you can sometimes see the unmistakable black-and-white pattern of an orca whale far off in the Pacific Ocean.
It’s a beloved urban quirk — a sign of nature’s vibrant proximity — but it’s an experience that’s in jeopardy.
The local orca population in the Pacific Northwest seems to be entering an irreversible decline, according to The New York Times, a possibility that has galvanized the region’s conservationists, scientists, and political leaders to make sure the species doesn’t disappear.
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There are now 75 whales in the region, the lowest amount recorded in more than 30 years, when hunting and whale capture was more common, the Times notes.
In response to the shrinking population, Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee issued an executive order in March ordering agencies to protect the whales, and established a task force of state, tribal, local, and federal officials to investigate the problem.
The whales, the team has learned, are threatened by a range of factors, detailed by the Times, and their plight is emblematic of a much larger ecological decline happening all around the world.
Industrial pollution from wastewater facilities, agriculture, oil expeditions, and more are contaminating the whales with toxic chemicals and infecting them with diseases.
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The now-banned pesticide DDT, for instance, has been found in high levels in the whales. DDT, among other things, disrupts hormones and could be behind the seeming inability of the whales to reproduce.
Noise pollution from growing sea traffic and underwater oil construction, meanwhile, is disrupting echolocation, causing hearing loss and harming immune systems.
The whales’ chief source of food, king salmon, are disappearing, causing them to starve. And the extreme pollution of the water fills the remaining salmon with contaminants, which are then absorbed by the orcas. Conservation teams are now raising salmon in hatcheries to bolster the marine population.
Potentially harmful diseases from other species, like humans and dogs, have been found in the whales.
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“I’ve had dreams about it at night,” said Joseph K. Gaydos, a veterinarian with the SeaDoc Society in Washington, told the Times. “Disease smolders in the environment but can break out. If there were a highly virulent virus to come through here it would take out a large part of the population and totally stop recovery efforts.”
And warming and acidifying waters are changing the makeup of their ecosystems.
Taken together, the orcas now live in an essentially hostile environment, experiencing in their own way what species around the world are encountering.
The average whale population around the world is endangered, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Marine life more broadly — from coral reefs to krill — is declining as the same factors play out elsewhere.
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And terrestrial organic life is also being lost. In fact, humans have caused the annihilation of 83% of all wild mammals and half of all plants, the authors of a recent report found.
The Earth has been described as experiencing its sixth mass wave of extinction, with billions of local animal populations endangered around the world.
The situation of the Pacific Northwest orcas has become a test of whether humans can successfully intervene to reverse this decline.
“There would be a great sense of loss [if the effort fails],” Linda D. Rhodes, a research biologist involved in the study, told The Times. “They are such a part of our identity here. It would be a real sense of failure.”