Orca update: A new year and lots of work to do

Orcas spyhopping out of grey water

UPDATE: There is breaking news that a new orca calf has been born to L pod and was spotted in Admiralty Inlet. The infant is estimated to be a few weeks old and is the offspring of Matia (L77). This is incredibly heartening news but researchers caution that there is a high mortality rate among newborns. We will keep you posted as more news is reported.

Over the past year the Aquarium has been trying to keep our readers up to date on the challenges facing our local orca population. The southern residents, better known as the J, K and L pods, are down to just 74 family members and news recently broke that two more members of J and K pods are struggling to get the food they need to survive.

The news that orcas Princess Angeline, named for the daughter of Duwamish elder Chief Seattle (J17) and Scoter (K25) are starving because of a lack of Chinook salmon, a key food source, underscores the importance of taking bold action. New legislation and funding to help protect orcas and salmon will be under consideration by the state legislature in 2019 and the Aquarium will be taking an active role in advocating for these critical policy changes.

Recently the Aquarium hired our new Ocean Policy Manager, Nora Nickum, who previously worked with the Governor’s Orca Task Force. We asked Nora about what she learned working in that position and her thoughts on what we can all do to help our beloved orcas.

Question: Welcome to the Aquarium! What made you want to come to work here?

Nora: I’m incredibly excited to be joining the Seattle Aquarium team and am passionate about our mission. I grew up in the area, going tidepooling and watching orcas from shore, and I am thrilled to be working with the Aquarium and its members to help protect this amazing and sensitive ecosystem. Aquariums offer a unique window into an underwater world that is not visible to everyone and help us connect the challenges facing our ocean to the animals and ecosystems both here in the Salish Sea and around the world. Conservation is at the core of what we do as an organization and I am excited to help raise our voice when it comes to the public policy that directly impacts the ocean which is the life support system of our planet.

Question: You recently worked with the Governor’s Orca Task Force. Can you tell us about that experience and some of what you learned?

Nora: Working with the task force, which held meetings all around the state, was incredibly rewarding and a great way to get a much deeper understanding of the challenges facing our orcas and the science supporting potential actions to help them recover. As the task force discussions made clear, there is not one single answer and all of us, including community members, businesses, and elected leaders will all have to make sacrifices to save this iconic species. It starts with protecting food sources and habitat and taking immediate steps to reduce vessel noise, but measures to address many other issues such as stormwater pollution and fish barrier removal also need to be part of a comprehensive plan.

Question: What should we be watching for this upcoming legislative session when it comes to orca-related policy?

Nora: In December, Governor Inslee released his proposed budget with $1.1 billion in investments over the next two years aimed at taking bold actions to save the southern resident orcas from extinction. Some of the changes that will be considered include adding funds to restore and protect crucial habitat for salmon, decreasing noise and disturbance from vessels, preventing oil spills and reducing pollution. The need is critical and urgent, and the Governor’s budget is an important step in the right direction. It is imperative that we pass science-based policies that can make a real difference, and I am excited for the Aquarium to be a leading voice in the process.

Question: What is something individuals can do to help advance these important policies?

Nora: In the coming months, we will be sharing ideas of actions that everyone can take. With the legislative session about to start, you can get involved today by calling your state legislators at 1-800-562-6000. Tell them that you want to see strong support for the Governor’s investments in orca and salmon recovery, and that it needs to be a top priority this year. The orcas are ailing, but we can all help!

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