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With Only 74 Southern Resident Orcas Left, New Protections Announced For Iconic Killer Whales

Animals
Southern resident killer whales suffered a significant population decline in the late 1990s and are now listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. NOAA

With only 74 remaining in the wild, time is running out to save southern resident killer whales, especially after two died this summer.

This week, the Canadian government announced a slew of measures to save the critically endangered species. The $61.5 million (US$50 million) initiative will address three key threats to the orcas: a lack of chinook salmon, the whales' favored prey; contaminants in the water; and vessel traffic and noise that interferes with their hunting abilities, according to a news release from the Fisheries and Oceans department.


The Canadian government is also looking to create new areas of critical habitat off the west coast of Vancouver Island for the killer whales, fisheries minister Jonathan Wilkinson told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. The Swiftsure in the Juan de Fuca Strait between Vancouver Island and Washington state, and La Perouse Bank off Tofino will be areas that the marine animals can call home, he said.

"We are in the process of consulting on those new critical habitat areas and expect to be able to move forward on them in the next couple of months," Wilkinson explained. "We are also talking about creation of killer whale sanctuaries, which essentially are within the areas of critical habitat ... which means that we can prohibit a range of different activities, not simply fisheries, where you can regulate that ships cannot go."

These efforts are part of a previously announced $167.4 million Whales Initiative to save the southern residents, whose population has dipped to only 74 individuals, down from 98 in 1995.

Their plight was underscored this summer when a mother whale Tahlequah, or J35, carried her dead calf for at least seventeen days and 1,000 miles in her heartbreaking "tour of grief" this August, according to the Center for Whale Research.

The next month, the ailing J50, another member of Tahlequah's pod, was declared missing and presumed dead after a three-day search in the waters between Washington state and Canada.

Governments in Canada and the U.S. have made efforts to revive the iconic species. Earlier this year, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order to aid their recovery and the Chinook salmon they eat.

But will these efforts be enough to save the imperiled orcas? The majority of 74 southern residents left in the wild are not reproducing, meaning the opportunity to have more births than deaths is dwindling, Seattle's King 5 reported in September. Only two males are fathering all of the calves and only a few females are reproducing.

"There's only about four females having babies in the last decade," Center for Whale Research founder Ken Balcomb told the news station.

What's more, 75 percent of newborns in the recent two have not survived, and 100 percent of the pregnancies in the past three years have failed to produce viable offspring, the center notes.

"Without reproduction, there is no chance of survival," Balcomb said. "This is what extinction looks like in slow motion."

Correction: The headline of this article has been updated to provide greater clarity.


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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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