Oil and Orcas Don't Mix

The Southern Resident orca whale faces a new—and existential—threat.

Today, only 76 of these orcas swim the waters off the Pacific Northwest shoreline.  If Secretary Ryan Zinke and the Trump Administration succeed in opening the U.S. coastline to oil and gas drilling, we could lose these magnificent whales—forever.

Center for Whale Research, Photos taken under Federal Permits NMFS 15569 / DFO SARA 388

The Orca Salmon Alliance, of which NRDC is a founding member, denounced the Administration’s oil and gas industry attack on our coasts. As it points out, any drilling or exploration off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, or northern California would directly impact these highly endangered animals.

While the Trump Administration bulldozes ahead with plans to allow oil and gas companies to drill near most of the US’s coastal communities, Congress is moving to gut the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a law that has helped protect our dolphins and whales for 40 years.

Now is not the time to abandon reason, science, and our long-standing dedication to protect species struggling for survival.

The Southern Resident orcas are already besieged by a dangerous shortage of Chinook salmon, their preferred prey, ocean vessel traffic and noise, and high toxic loads. And things are only getting worse as climate change causes the region’s waters to deteriorate. This family of orcas simply cannot withstand another threat.

When the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska, it killed thousands of marine mammals. Of the marine mammals killed, 22 were Chugach Transient orcas. Nine disappeared immediately after the spill, and six more disappeared shortly after. Today, the Chugach Transient orcas are functionally extinct.

Another Alaskan orca pod lost 14 of its 36 members after the Exxon spill. They are very similar to the Southern Resident orcas, and thirty-four years later, their population still hasn’t fully recovered.

Craig Matkin, founding member and director of the North Gulf Oceanic Society, has been studying orca in Alaska for decades. He remembers Exxon:

"The spill potential and other dangers of oil development and transport on our oceans can seem a remote possibility. Until the unthinkable happens. I lived, worked, and conducted research in Prince William Sound, ground zero for the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It was unthinkable that we would lose 14 out of 35 whales in our most frequently seen resident pod of killer whales. It was unthinkable that an entire transient population would be sent on a path toward inevitable extinction by a single mistake on an oil tanker. But it’s what happened and I have spent years before and after the spill documenting this tragic event. A similar fate can befall these unique, endangered resident orcas in Puget Sound and the more oil development and transport, the more likely the chance of it occurring."

Exxon Valdez oil spill was the worst spill in North America—that is, until the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

During these two monster oil spills in U.S. waters, marine mammals struggled to swim, eat, and raise their babies in the oil and related contaminants. Ingesting and inhaling oil caused all sorts of health complications, which directly reduced reproductive rates, further harming the whales’ and dolphins’ recovery from the initial spills.

History shows us that that accidents happen, and it shows us the impact. We have witnessed how catastrophic oil development can be for our oceans. We have seen entire populations set on a path to extinction because of one single accident. 

NRDC and the Orca Salmon Alliance stand with the communities, local leaders, and elected officials who have opposed to the proposed Outer Continental Shelf 5 Year Plan. NRDC is committed to fighting the expansion of dirty oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters as well as the “SECURE American Energy Act” (HR 4239), which would wipe out key protections in the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Together, we must speak for those who cannot speak up for themselves—before it’s too late.

This blog was written together with my Marine Mammal Protection Project colleague, Dani Garcia.

About the Authors

Giulia C.S. Good Stefani

Staff Attorney, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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