Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) are considered to be the rarest orca population in the world. Logging and fish farms threaten their food supply and organic pollutants contaminate the waters of the only killer whales listed as endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Now researchers have found a new threat to the group: noise pollution. Everything from daily cargo ship traffic to intense naval operations inhibit the whales’ ability to communicate with one another through sound, which is how they find mates and sustain their lineage. While it may not seem that devastating, intense noise pollution can cause them to lose up to 97 percent of their communication abilities.

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The SRKW can be found in the Haro Strait between Victoria, British Columbia and Seattle, Washington. One clan of 85 individuals is divided into three pods, whose family systems are recorded and revered by conservationists. Dialects within their communities differ, likely as a way to avoid inbreeding. Rob Williams, a whale and dolphin researcher and cofounder of Vancouver-based Oceans Initiative, says, “Ship noise is reducing acoustic habitat for killer whales in exactly the same way that clear-cut logging is reducing habitat available to grizzly bears.”

Both US and Canadian governments have acknowledged the problem, but have yet to take action to reduce the impact of marine noise pollution. Unlike other forms of ocean pollution, however, “We can stop tomorrow,” says Williams. One strategy is designating biologically diverse sites with low human activity as marine protected areas. Even slowing down ship traffic through marine mammal-populated areas “just like we ask drivers to slow down through school zones” could provide some relief, yet some argue this may end up contaminating areas for longer periods of time.

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If there is anything on which researchers can agree it is the need to act quickly on this crucial matter. Currently, there are proposals in the works for building liquefied natural gas terminals, oil pipelines, and expanding the Port of Prince Rupert – all of which would mean increased marine traffic through the area.

The Port of Metro Vancouver has initiated research into how to address this pollution problem by installing a hydrophone to record incoming ships’ sound signatures. This data could help in updating the port’s EcoAction program, which incentivizes using low-sulfur fuels and electric outlets instead of diesel fuel when ships are docked, to include noise pollution solutions. It is clear there are many compassionate minds hard at work to address threats to our endangered mammalian brethren. As time goes on, we should see a bigger shift toward putting that compassion into action.

Via Take Part

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