Monday, March 19, 2012

Rozalia Project Intern Blog: Hope for the Orcas of Puget Sound

This is second in our series of blog posts from our 2012 interns. The assignment was to write about marine debris from a personal angle. The following is from Andrew Randazzo (Environmental Studies, Niagara County Comm. College 2011).

Hope for the Orcas of Puget Sound

Greetings Rozalia Project readers, my name is Andrew Randazzo.  I am one of The Rozalia Project's 2012 interns. In 1995 when I was a young boy, my mother, sister and I lived in Seattle, Washington.  Seattle is home to the Puget Sound, an estuary known as the “gateway to the Pacific.”  In that sound resides a clan of Orcas known as the Southern Residents or The Puget Sound Orcas. The clan consists of pods J, K and L that are now listed as endangered species by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (N.O.A.A.).

While living in Seattle, my family took us on a whale watching expedition on which we saw no whales at all, yet managed to have a good time.  However, even at a young age I was always a kid who asked questions - and it worried me that the whales didn’t come to see us. I wondered if there was something wrong with the whales and, if so, what was causing it.

Ever since I’ve held an interest in the Puget Sound Orcas, and it turns out that there’s a lot wrong with the Southern Residents.  According to the Center for Whale Research, an organization dedicated to studying the Southern Residents Orca, the clan was subject to devastation between 1965 and 1975. During this time, marine parks across the country came to Puget Sound to capture the Orcas in order to put them on display.  Forty-five of these Orcas were delivered to the parks and at least 13 additional whales were killed in the process.  Little did I know that, even though we didn’t see a single Orca on our whale watching trip, just a year later in 1996 the Southern Residents Population would reach it’s post-devastation peak of ‘97 (N.O.A.A., pg 1).

Only 4 years after the whale populations peak, the N.O.A.A. launched an Endangered Species Act review.  In November of 2005, they determined the Southern Residents where in fact endangered.  Since then, many hypotheses have been given for the decline of the species, including disease as well as overfishing.  Though this is terrible, arguably the most disturbing cause is the build up of toxins in the blubber of the Orcas.  When food shortages occur the Orcas digest their blubber, which releases these toxins into their bloodstream. 

“Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) were used in the electrical and plastics industries from the late 1920s until the late 1970s” (Washington Toxics Coalition, PG1).  “Researchers with the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Charleston, South Carolina, say that dolphin blubber carries some of the highest PCB concentrations found in any wild animal.”  PCB’s are linked to a lower rate of pregnancy in female whales and a lack of sexual maturation in the males.  (PBS, PG1)  Similar effects are caused by a still-used toxin known as “polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), found in everything from building materials to T-shirts.” (Sierra Club,PG1).  The presence of these toxins continues to increase in our nations’ waterways from runoff as well as litter.  

The process of Biomagnification is what keeps PCBs in our ecosystem even after its discontinuation.  It also exacerbates the effects of PBDE as it continues to leech into aquatic biomes.  Biomagnification is the increase of a chemicals’ concentration as the food chain progresses, which is what makes it important to eliminate the contamination before it happens.  

Right: Red dots indicate the increasing concentration in P.P.M. as the food chain progresses

We can protect the Orcas and the waterways from the 143,000 pounds of toxic chemicals that flow into the sound everyday!  From cigarette butts to plastic bags, disposing of trash in the proper manner is crucial to protecting the ocean ecosystems and especially species at the top of the food chain like the Southern Residents Orca.  

Right: Orca savers: Seattle schoolkids build a rain garden to filter runoff before it reaches Puget Sound.  [Via: Sierra Club online magazine])

The issue of runoff can be curbed via efforts to conserve water and with innovative projects to design our urban environments in a more ecologically sound manner.  Rain gardens, like the ones being created by Seattle School kids. do just that.  This group, The Water Sentinels, is taking the need to protect the Orcas from runoff to heart by planting gardens with numerous layers of soil so that runoff is naturally filtered and kept from polluting the sound and other waterways.  With smarter design and an emphasis on prevention the Orcas may still have a chance.  
Works Cited 
Center for Whale Research. Web. 09 Mar. 2012.
"ESA Status." Redirecting to New Site. Web. 09 Mar. 2012.

"Like An Unwelcome Guest, PCBs Just Won't Go Away." Washington Toxics Coalition. Web. 09 Mar. 2012.

PBS. PBS. Web. 13 Mar. 2012.

Walker, Thayer. "Empty Sound." - November/December 2009. Web. 09 Mar. 2012. .

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