Sound in the Ocean

There are many terrestrial species with a strong reliance on sound, but only the bat comes close to the complete reliance seen in many marine and aquatic species. Just as the bat needs sound to find prey and navigate its nocturnal world, species that inhabit water use sound to overcome the rapid loss of light at depth. The use of sound to locate prey and mates, navigate along migration routes, communicate with conspecifics and defend against predators is seen in a diversity of forms in the ocean. With increasing ocean noise threatening more well-known top predators, like the southern resident killer whales, understanding the impacts further down the food web has never been more important.

While most people know about the songs and sounds made by whales, few people know that other animals in the ocean make sound too! Here’s a look at some of the more interesting examples from shrimp to fish.


In crustaceans, like crabs and shrimp, sound is mainly used to deter predators or stun prey. The snapping shrimp (Alpheus heterochaelis) takes things to another level. These little guys can close their claws so quickly that they produce cavitation bubbles, and when these bubbles collapse they produce sound and light, which was named “shrimpoluminescence” by the researchers who discovered it. In the tropics and subtropics, the snapping noises they produce dominate the soundscape both day and night, interfering with active and passive acoustic efforts and likely shaping the way that other animals in the ecosystem use sound. The displacement of water that the snapping motion creates can be sensed by hairs on the snapping-claws of other snapping shrimp, making it an important mode of communication as well.


When approached by predators, spiny lobsters (Pallinuridae) produce a loud rasping sound as a startling deterrent (Sound 1). While most arthropods use friction between hard surfaces to create rasping sounds, lobsters use a different ‘stick and slip’ mechanisms that allows them to produce sound even when they have a soft shell following molting. This reduces their vulnerability to predation because they are still able to deter predators when their exoskeleton has not yet hardened. The movement spiny lobsters use to produce sound is similar to the motion of a bow across the strings of a stringed instrument; the bow sticks and slips in rapid succession, creating vibrations from the unstable movement. This type of sound production is called stridulation.

Catfish are also known to produce sound through stridulation. An interlocking mechanism at the base of the pectoral fins produces sound through the same ‘stick and slip’ mechanism used by the spiny lobster.

Seahorses also use this mechanism between bones in the cranium to produce a wide variety of sounds, like clicks and growls. For seahorses, sound is mainly used during competition between males, in stressful situations, and during feeding.

Tendon Plucking

Croaking gouramis from the genus Trichopsis produce croaking noises as part of breeding displays and to assert dominance over other gouramis. To produce sound, the fish stretches their pectoral fin tendons and then “plucks” them with the cartilage that supports the fin structure. On the outside, the fish looks like they are just beating their fins back and forth. These sounds are used mostly by male gouramis to maintain their dominance over other males. Interestingly, females use a separate purring sound to entice males and synchronize mating, one of the only instances of this behavior among fishes.


The heart-shaped swimbladder of a toadfish.

While swimbladders mainly help fish maintain their neutral buoyancy, for some species they are also important for sound production and amplification. The most famous fish that produces sound using the swimbladder is the Oyster toadfish (Opsanus tau). Male toadfish produce courtship boatwhistle calls for hours at a time that are used to attract females to their nests. To produce boatwhistles, the toadfish uses the fastest known vertebrate muscles. Two muscle positioned on either side of the heart-shaped swimbladder are contracted at the same time, producing sound waves in the air-filled swimbladder. Another closely-related species that uses the same mechanism is the Plainfin midshipman (Porichthys notatus). In parts of California these species make the local news for keeping residents awake with their loud and disturbing humming!

In some places, these sounds are drowned out by ship noise and other man-made sound, disrupting the important communication that is occurring. One listen to a hydrophone makes it obvious just how loud the sea can be. While traditional pollution is still a hazard for many ecosystems, scientists are only beginning to understand the impact of noise pollution on sensitive ecosystems around the globe. For many animals, like most species of sea turtle, there is almost no research about their sounds, so judging the potential negative impact we might be having is extremely difficult. Next time you dip your head under the waves, take a closer listen and see who else is sharing the sea with you. You might be surprised at just how much is happening without us even knowing.


Liz Allyn

Conservation Made Simple


For the especially curious…

Here’s the link to the hydrophone located at Lime Kiln State Park, on San Juan Island, WA. Take a listen and a see which sounds you can identify. Scientists mainly use this hydrophone to keep track of southern resident killer whales, but it also illustrates the impact of ship noise really well. Orcasound has a network of hydrophones around the Salish Sea, and most of them have live streams that you can access on their site.



Bouwma PE, Herrnkind WF. 2009. Sound production in Caribbean spiny lobster Panulirus argus and its role in escape during predatory attack by Octopus briareus. N Z J Mar Freshw Res. 43:3–13.

California Academy of Sciences. Spiny Lobster Sound File | California Academy of Sciences [Internet]. [place unknown]. Available from:

Fine ML, Friel JP, McElroy D, King CB, Loesser KE, Newton S. 1997. Pectoral Spine Locking and Sound Production in the Channel Catfish Ictalurus punctatus. Copeia. 1997:777–790.

Gray G-A, Winn HE. 1961. Reproductive Ecology and Sound Production of the Toadfish, Opsanus Tau. Ecology. 42:274–282.

hudsonempire. Catfish croaks [Internet]. [place unknown]. Available from:

Knowlton C. 2017. How do fish produce sounds? Discov Sound Sea [Internet]. [cited 2018 Mar 28]. Available from:

Ladich F, Brittinger W, Kratochvil H. 1992. Significance of Agonistic Vocalization in the Croaking Gourami (Trichopsis vittatus, Teleostei). Ethology. 90:307–314.

Lim ACO, Chong VC, Chew WX, Muniandy SV, Wong CS, Ong ZC. 2015. Sound production in the tiger-tail seahorse Hippocampus comes: Insights into the sound producing mechanisms. J Acoust Soc Am. 138:404–412.

LiveScience. Seahorses Click When “Horny” – Growl In Distress | Video [Internet]. [place unknown]. Available from:

Lohse D, Schmitz B, Versluis M. 2001. Snapping shrimp make flashing bubbles. Nature. 413:477–478.

Masky. Sparkling gourami croaking [Internet]. [place unknown]. Available from:

Michel Versluis. On the Sound of Snapping Shrimp [Internet]. [place unknown]. Available from:

Mohajer Y, Ghahramani Z, Fine ML. 2015. Pectoral sound generation in the blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus). J Comp Physiol A. 201:305–315.

Patek SN. 2001. Spiny lobsters stick and slip to make sound. Nat Lond. 411:153–4.

Versluis M, Schmitz B, von der Heydt A, Lohse D. 2000. How snapping shrimp snap: Through cavitating bubbles. Sci Wash. 289:2114–7.


Unique Shark Species

Sharks have been around for over 400 million years, longer than we have been walking the earth! What makes these apex predators so fascinating? Here, you can learn more about different shark species and what makes each of them one of a kind!

Tiger Shark

tiger shark

Photo by David Snyder / Florida Museum

COMMON NAME: Tiger Shark
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Galeocerdo cuvier
SIZE: 10 to 14 ft
WEIGHT: 850 to 1,400 lbs

The tiger shark can be found in tropical and moderate coastal regions, usually swimming in murky waters. It gets its name from the dark vertical stripes on its body, however, when it ages, the stripes fade. The tiger shark is the fourth largest shark, behind the whale shark, basking shark, and great white shark. Although it can swim to up to 20 mph, the tiger shark usually swims slowly, making it difficult for their prey to detect them. These fish tends to live in deep waters, but swims in shallow waters to hunt. The tiger shark has the ability to crack the shells of sea turtles and due to its aggressive and indiscriminate feeding style, they often eat inedible objects, such as oil cans, tires, baseballs, and plastic. Found to be near threatened, this shark is heavily hunted for skin, teeth, fins, and liver which contain high levels of vitamin A. The tiger shark is considered to be sacred by some native Hawaiians, who believe the eye of the tiger shark have special seeing powers. Legend suggest that many kings living in historical Hawaiian environment acquired their future decisions by consuming the eye of the tiger shark. It is said that the mother of the most famous king of Hawaii, king Kamehameha asked for the eyes of the tiger shark during her pregnancy because they wanted to enhance the leadership qualities of the future king she carried.

Great White Shark

great white

Photo by Jim Abernethy

COMMON NAME: Great White Shark
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Carcharodon carcharias
SIZE: 15 ft to more than 20 ft
WEIGHT: 4,000 to 5,000 lbs, liver makes up to 25% of weight

The great white shark, also known as the white death, white pointer, white shark, and even man eater, migrates all coastal areas except for Antarctica. With a mouth measuring 1.2 m wide and containing extremely sharp teeth, these animals feed on fish, seabirds, sea lions, dolphins, and even other sharks. The great white shark does not chew its food and even has the ability to eat a sea lion in whole. It can even reach speeds up to 15 mph and can jump 10 ft in the air. Being the largest predatory fish, this animal does not have very many predators of its own – only orcas and other great whites. The great white normally breeds late in life, sometimes up to 25 years old, and live till they are around 20 years old. They are curious by nature and are believed to be very intelligent.

Hammerhead Shark


Photo by David Clode

COMMON NAME: Hammerhead Sharks
SIZE: 13 to 20 ft
WEIGHT: 500 to 1,000 lbs

The hammerhead shark can be found throughout the world in warm water. There are 9 species of hammerhead, all that have heads that are laterally flat and extend to form a cephalofoil, giving it a hammer shape. Although the sharks hunt together during the day, at night they can be found hunting alone. Their diet consists of octopus, small fish, crustaceans, and squid and are not known to attack humans. A food favorite for the hammerhead shark are stingrays! When needed, the hammerhead shark will swim up to 15 mph. Additionally, these sharks can give birth to up to 40 pups at a time.

Whale Shark

whale shark 1

Photo by Sebastian Lambarri

COMMON NAME: Whale Shark
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Rhincodon typus
SIZE: 18 to 32.8 ft
WEIGHT: 40,000 lbs

The massive whale shark inhabits all warm and tropic seas. Biologically, the whale shark’s correct name is Rhincodon typus, which means rasp teeth. This shark has 300 rows of 4,000 small, rasp-like teeth allowing it to feed on plankton and small fish. It’s mouth is very large, about 6.5 feet wide, which the shark leaves wide open while swimming. The whale shark tends to swim and feed in groups, with up to 400 whale sharks together at one. Despite their size, the whale shark is known to be very gentle and can often be found with human divers and photographers by their side. The whale shark is the largest fish on earth, giving birth to 2 foot long babies, although no man has ever witnessed a whale shark mating or giving birth. These unique sharks do not attain sexual maturity until age of 30 years and can carry up to 300 eggs, some of which don’t fully mature. Additionally, the spots on these massive fish are just as unique as fingerprints on a human!

Basking Shark

basking shark

Photo by Lawson Wood

COMMON NAME: Basking Shark
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Cetorhinus maximus
AVERAGE LIFE SPAN IN THE WILD: unknown, estimated to be 50 yrs,
SIZE: 20 – 26 feet, some found to be around 40 feet
WEIGHT: 10,400 lbs

Basking sharks have shown to be very social creatures, sometimes swimming in sex-segregated schools of over 100 sharks and have been thought to follow visual cues. They have the smallest weight-for-weight brain size of any shark, reflective of its relatively passive lifestyle. The basking shark only swims at a 2.5 mph speed and much like the whale shark, it will funnel plankton into its large mouth, which will then get trapped in its gill rakers. While feeding, the basking shark can be found to have its entire dorsal fin out of the water. It is the 2nd largest fish in the world, behind its plankton-eating look-alike, the whale shark. The basking shark does not yet have a territory map, as it has been found everywhere it was previously determined not to inhabit. Furthermore, the basking shark is the most vulnerable shark to threats and is hunted for its sweet meat and liver oil, which is then used for food and cosmetics. In response, their numbers have been reduced by 80% since 1950.

Goblin Shark

goblin shark

Photo by National Geographic

COMMON NAME: Goblin Shark
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Mitsukurina owstoni
AVERAGE LIFE SPAN IN THE WILD: unknown, but estimated to be 36 years
SIZE: 12-15 ft
WEIGHT: 460 lbs

This rare, deep-sea shark is known as the prehistoric shark, with lineage reaching 125 million years old. It can be found 5,000 ft deep in the sea and is considered one of the oldest living creatures on earth. So far, there have been only 45 documented files of research on the goblin shark. Previously, a goblin shark was captured and kept at Tokai University, where it only survived a week. This unique shark has been found to practice ‘slingshot feeding’, where their ligaments release tension and the fish catapults its jaw forward at a speed of 3.1 m/s. Its diet consists of crabs, squid, and deep-sea fish like dragon fish and rattail. Goblin sharks have soft, flabby, blade-like bodies and long snouts, which tend to get smaller as they age. In the past, the Japanese have used the goblin shark for liver oil and production of fertilizer.


On the List: What it Means to be an Endangered Species

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was established in 1973 in response to a growing movement of citizens calling for the extinction of…well…extinction. The purpose of the ESA, as described by the US Supreme Court, is to “reverse and halt the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost.” This noble and lofty goal is upheld primarily by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The ESA requires that any action that is permitted, funded, or carried out by the federal government does not endanger the existence of any listed species, either directly or through the destruction of their critical habitat. The law also prohibits “taking” a listed species, or participating in commerce for a listed species. Before we go any deeper, here are some definitions you might need to know.

Take – taking a listed species doesn’t mean grabbing it and running away. The official definition is “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or attempt to engage in any such conduct.” This includes damaging the habitat of an animal in a way that causes harm or death by altering behavior or access to necessary resources.

Species – the definition for species includes subspecies, varieties, and distinct population segments (or DPS, which you can read more about here)

Listed – a species that has been designated as either Endangered or Threatened under the ESA

Critical Habitat – specific areas within or outside of a species range that contain physical or biological features necessary for recovery (more here)

Extinction – the termination of a species, after the death of the last individual

Extirpation – the termination of a species in one section of its range, though it still exists in other places

Gray wolves (Canis lupus) were extirpated from the western lower 48 by bounty hunting and prey decline, but began recolonizing the Rocky Mountains in the 1980’s. In 2006, the Rocky Mountain DPS was delisted! Photo from

The first law governing commerce in animals was enacted in 1900, but it wasn’t until the ESA that comprehensive protections for species in danger of extinction were made possible. In order to be protected under the ESA, a species must first be listed. Members of the public can submit a petition to consider a species, or the agencies can initiate the process all on their own. In order to be considered for listing, the species must meet one of the five criteria under section 4(a)(1). These criteria are:

  1. Its habitat or range are being or will be destroyed or changed
  2. It has been harvested too heavily, for any purpose
  3. It is declining due to disease or predation
  4. The existing regulations are not strong enough
  5. There are other factors affecting its continued existence

If the proposed species meets one of these criteria, a 90-day screening period begins. While candidate species are being considered for listing, economic factors are not allowed to be considered, and decisions must be “based solely on the best scientific and commercial data available”. This means that species should be listed based on the severity of their situation, not how many challenges to protection they face, how expensive it will be, or how many people may disagree. At the end of this screening period, the species is given one of three designations; “not warranted”, which means it does not qualify for listing, “warranted”, which means it continues on immediately, or “warranted but precluded”, which means it qualifies, but is of low priority so it will be tabled until action becomes necessary.

Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) were listed in 1963 with only 416 breeding pairs after suffering huge declines due to rampant use of DDT. The ESA served as an important tool to force the ban on DDT, and by 2006, there were 9,789 breeding pairs. Photo by Andy Morffew.

Species that are designated as warranted will move on to the next stage, where the agency may consider public comment and will designate critical habitat. If a species is eventually listed, after a whole lot more paperwork, time, and consideration, it will be designated as either Endangered or Threatened. Endangered species are in danger of becoming extinct, while Threatened species are in danger of becoming endangered. For listed species, a Recovery Plan is developed to lay out the exact steps the agency will take to ensure that the species returns to healthy population levels.

While this process seems like it is full of political mumbo-jumbo and legalese, it actually requires a lot of science to get it right. For instance, in order to develop a recovery plan, the agencies have to understand what the main causes of decline are, how the population is structured, the reproductive biology of the species, and what a healthy population actually looks like. Without answers to these questions, the recovery plan would be a map without roads, labels, a compass rose or even basic topography. To answer these questions, agencies employ an army of scientists and fund projects that are carried out by other institutions, non-profits, and universities. These scientists also track the progress of a species toward recovery to make sure that the ESA is accomplishing its stated goals.

Whooping cranes (Grus Americana) were listed in 1967 when there were only 43 birds left in the wild. In 2014, there were 440 wild birds, a 923% increase! Photo from

So what does success look like? Delisting! Once a species has recovered, it is removed from the list. Species that were designated as Endangered will often be “downlisted” to Threatened on their path to recovery. The factors that an agency considers for delisting include whether the threat has been controlled, the growth of the population, and the stability of its habitat.

Over the life of the ESA, 28 species have been delisted due to successful recovery. While many species still struggle with barriers to recovery, including human activity, ecosystem changes, and climate change, the ESA is a good example of how important it is to have protections in place for at-risk species.



Liz Allyn

Conservation Made Simple





Species Discovered in 2018

Before ringing in the new year, we would like to celebrate the species discovered in 2018. Each year brings new findings that expand the Encyclopedia of Life. Of the 1.74 million species that are on earth today, here are a few that became known to man in 2018.

Amphipod – Epimeria Quasimodo


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Photos by Cédric d’Udekem d’Acoz, copyright Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

This amphipod, who’s name you might recognize, was named after Quasimodo, the main character in Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The genus Epimeria is abundant in the Southern Ocean, south of the Polar Front and is known for its bright colors. In a 2007 publication about the genus Epimeria, it was thought that most species were already known. However, in a more recent investigation, the Epimeria quasimodo was discovered to be a new species!


Wondiwoi Tree Kangaroo – Dendrolagus mayri

wondiwoi Tree Kangaroo 2
Illustration by Peter Shouten
The rare Wondiwoi Tree Kangaroo was last recorded in 1928 by Ernest Mayr and was thought to have gone extinct since then. It was recently spotted and photographed in the remote montane forests of New Guinea by Michael Smith. These marsupials are tree dwellers and are related to the kangaroos and wallabies that inhabit the ground. Although very little is still known about this species, the rediscovery of the Wondiwoi Tree Kangaroo provides a hopeful story, as many tree kangaroo species are declining in population from overhunting, logging, palm oil farming, and mining.

Learn more about the Wondiwoi Tree Kangaroo:


Genie’s Dogfish: Squalus clarkae

genie's dogfish
Photo by MarAlliance
Named after the famed shark research pioneer and founder of Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, Eugenie Clark, the Genie’s Dogfish is a member of Squalus, a genus of dogfish. These deep-water dogfish are found in the Gulf of Mexico and western Atlantic Ocean. Although this species was previously considered part of the Squalus mitsukurii species complex, recent genetic analysis done by Dr. Pfleger and his team classified the Genie’s Dogfish as a new species.

Learn more about the Genie’s Dogfish:


Tosanoides aphrodite

tosanoides aphrodite

Photo by L.A. Rocha
Found at St. Paul’s Rock, a harsh, isolated island off the coast of Brazil, the Tosanoides aphorodite measures between 5-8 cm in length. Males of this colorful species wear alternating pink and yellow stripes, while females are a solid, blood-orange color. Named after Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, this newly found species may be one of the most vibrant ones discovered this year!

Learn more about the Tosanoides aphrodite:


Each year, thousands of species are discovered. Although this may appear like a large amount, it seems that we have only scratched the surface. Many scientists believe that we are entering a mass extinction caused by anthropogenic (human) influence, including pollution, habitat loss, deforestation, overexploitation, and more. It may become even more important to discover new species as the years progress, as new discoveries often help fund conservation organizations and attract media attention. Discovering new species also helps us better understand the surrounding ecosystem as well as previously documented species.

We hope that 2019 will be as fruitful in discoveries as the past year has been. Happy New Year from Conservation Made Simple!


Isabel Quimby

Vice President

Conservation Made Simple

Insect Revolution

One of the most pressing issues of our time is figuring out how to feed a growing global population while simultaneously upholding sustainability principles. Many of our current food practices are fraught with waste and inefficiencies that leave many people without sufficient food and continue to damage our planet.

One alternative protein source that has gained a lot of attention lately is insects. Insects are already a main protein source for over 2 billion people globally, but here in the US we are still a little squeamish about adding them to our regular diets. Here we are going to explore the potential benefits of replacing some of our current foods with insects to improve our collective ecological footprint. First, here is a list of all the ways they can have a positive impact on our lives.

bugs lookin crunchy


Insects are a good source of protein and amino acids for many people. Some types of insects have comparable protein content to other traditional sources, such as livestock and fish. Insects are used around the world to supplement diets that are low in certain amino acids, which are often missing from diets made up of cereal grains. Edible insects can also be an important source of essential fatty acids, which are crucial for development in children and overall health of adults. Especially in places that lack access to fish, which are often high in these essential fatty acids, insects may play an important supplementary role. Iron and zinc deficiencies are also common in developing countries, and insects are a great source of both of these minerals. Nutritionally, insects fill some of the same roles as our current protein sources, but are also able to provide minerals and nutrients that might otherwise be lacking.

Recent research has shown that life stage and insect diet are both crucial for determining the nutritional benefit of edible insects. These results open up space for scientists to determine the most efficient combinations of feed and harvest life stage in order to maximize benefit to the consumers.

Selling caterpillars in Kinshasa. Photo: FAO
Selling caterpillars in Kinshasa. Photo: FAO

Resource investment

Insects have a much more efficient edible biomass conversion. This means that for the same amount of feed investment, an insect will produce more edible product. In a cricket, almost 80% of the animal is edible, whereas in cattle only 40% of the animal is eaten. In addition, many insects can be raised on organic side streams, such as manure, compost or other organic waste. This is extremely beneficial because it reduces waste products and the emission of greenhouse gases from the traditional disposal of those waste products while simultaneously producing a high-quality food product that can be used to feed those same livestock. This closed-loop system reduces waste and increases energy efficiency because it eliminates the need for a separate agricultural sector dedicated to the production of grain for livestock feed.

Livestock also require a huge investment of water, which is already seeing shortages around the globe. While data on water use in insect rearing is presently unavailable, there is potential for it to be significantly lower, making insects a good option for drought-prone areas.


Images of livestock crowded into factory farms and feedlots across the US are disturbing for many people, and have pushed some away from eating meat altogether. Insects tend to crowd together naturally, increasing production without compromising ethics. There are many humane ways to kill insects as well, such as using dry ice to force them into hibernation without the use of expensive pharmaceuticals. In addition, many people see insects as a lesser lifeform, and the ethics of using them as a food source are simply less important to them.

Locusts in Madagascar. Photo: FAO

Reduced carbon footprint

Livestock is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions for many reasons. Rearing livestock requires converting productive, carbon sequestering land into open rangeland. Livestock require feed which was also grown on converted land, reducing the ability of the earth to naturally absorb some of our carbon emissions. Livestock are also a significant source of methane, which is also a greenhouse gas. In order to get the meat from the feedlot to the supermarket, it must be flown and driven from places that are suitable for livestock to the far reaches of the world, burning large amounts of carbon in transport.

Insects, in contrast, require much less space to be grown, preserving green spaces as important carbon sequestration tools. They can be fed a wide variety of feed, including waste products, which helps close the loop on food waste. Insects can also be raised almost anywhere, reducing transportation costs to get them from farm to table. To go one step further, insects can also be raised to feed other livestock and farmed fish, reducing the impact of those industries. When compared to traditional livestock, edible insects have a lower carbon emission by a factor of about 100.

Locusts snacks
Locust snacks. Photo: Amir Cohen/Reuters

While we should still be cautious about calling insects a miracle food, they are better than many of our current protein sources. Next time you visit your local market, think about what it would take to get you to buy insects for dinner!


Liz Allyn

Conservation Made Simple



FAO, Edible insects
Future prospects for food and feed security:

EPA: Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data:

Crik Nutrition, Why Cricket Protein:

Entomarket, Edible Insect Nutrition Information:


Riding the Southern Resident Killer Whale Bandwagon

The Current Status of the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW)

The population of Killer whales (Orcinus orca) native to Puget Sound, also known as the Southern Resident population, are on the brink of extinction. These majestic creatures have a long history in the Salish Sea area and are an important cultural icon for the Pacific Northwest, but human activities over the last few decades are threatening their future. Though this population was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, little has been done since to tackle the causes of their decline. The challenges facing the SRKW population are many, but they can be generally placed into three groups: water pollution, noise pollution, and prey decline.

Orcas are top predators, which exposes them to a process called bioaccumulation. Pollutants are concentrated in prey items at each level of the food chain, resulting in extremely high levels in the animals at the top, like Orcas. Researchers have found strong links between exposure to certain types of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and negative effects on wildlife. POPs are stored in fatty tissues and are passed from mothers to calves during pregnancy and nursing, and can re-enter the body when fat stores are burned for energy. These chemicals are likely at least partially to blame for the fact that this population has not had a successful birth in three years.

Our resident orcas rely heavily on Chinook salmon to get the energy they need. Unfortunately, local Chinook populations are also in decline, meaning the orcas have to work harder to find food and still may not be getting enough. As mentioned above, lack of food can cause the whales to be exposed to toxins that have been stored in their blubber, putting more stress on their already weak systems. To top it all off, noise levels in the Salish Sea have been increasing with boat traffic, making it more difficult for the orcas to communicate with each other and find food. Orcas spend most of their time in close-knit family groups and use highly coordinated behaviors to hunt, so the loss of communication further exacerbates the effects of prey decline on their ability to find food.

Photo: Dave Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research

Help is on the Way?

In early August, the world watched as Tahlequah (J35) carried her stillborn calf with her for 17 days and over 1,000 miles, giving all of us a window on her intense mourning. On September 13, Scarlet (J50) was also declared dead, bringing the overall population of Southern Residents down to 74.

“Watching J50 during the past three months is what extinction looks like when survival is threatened for all by food deprivation and lack of reproduction.” CWR Press Release, September 13, 2018

While many people were deeply moved watching the terrible events of this summer, decisive action has yet to come. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has made it clear that salmon recovery is the key to orca recovery, yet the dramatic actions necessary to make such a recovery possible are still elusive. After the death of J50, frustration was at an all-time high. This frustration and sense of helplessness is what led Seattle chef Renee Erickson to remove Chinook salmon from her menus. “I just couldn’t stomach the feeling like we were contributing to the starvation of this one whale as well as all the other ones,” she said of her decision, made in the wake of J50’s death. Other Seattle businesses, including PCC Markets, took similar action to remove Chinook from their menus and shelves. PCC Vice President Brenna Davis explained to KING5 news, “…in terms of how this will help the Orcas, we know that orcas are facing so many problems…this is just one small step we can take to both raise awareness but also hopefully help the salmon and orca populations.”

PCC has been working to share the motivation behind this action with their shoppers in an effort to increase public awareness, but some scientists are skeptical that these actions are helpful at all. Ray Hilborn, a professor at the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, explained his doubts to KUOW in August.

“Any individual’s choice to not eat Chinook salmon would have no impact at all because it wouldn’t change the number of Chinook salmon that are being caught. If you don’t buy it, somebody else is going to. And this is true of basically all of these boycott movements.”

Dr. Hilborn argued that the only way for boycotts of this type to have an effect would be if they resulted in fishery closure. Even then, the orcas would still be competing with other marine mammals, including California sea lions and harbor seals, and with the overall decline of the Chinook population.

Photo: Dave Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research

The Dangers of Bandwagoning

This debate has brought to light an important idea that all of us at Conservation Made Simple have been grappling with lately. How do we make sure that inspiring action in others isn’t mistaken for action in itself? While rallying people to the cause and making sure our voices are heard is crucial for making sure that our concerns are addressed in larger political arenas, it is just as crucial to make sure that our actions don’t stop there.

If we think back to the Exxon-Valdex oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989, the immediate outcry was enormous. Media coverage ran constantly, spreading photos of dead, dying, and damaged wildlife to the far corners of the country. The immediate effects on the local communities and wildlife was obvious, and it was clear that they would continue far into the future. Studies released decades later continue to catalog the effects of the spill, long after the public memory forgot all about it. One study published in 2003 estimated that protected areas with mussel beds may require 30 years to recover to pre-spill conditions (Peterson et al. 2003). Next year, those beds will finally hit their 30 year mark.

Despite the massive outcry this disaster caused, history repeated itself in 2010 with the Deepwater Horizon explosion. By most measures this spill was larger and more difficult to manage by a long shot, and the media outcry was absolutely deafening. Everything the Exxon-Valdez spill taught us points to a long and unpredictably complex recovery, and yet there has been almost no action to improve spill prevention or response technologies.

In a recent study, this apparent collective amnesia was attributed to the media coverage (Humphreys and Thompson 2014). When news breaks, public outcry reaches a maximum as public awareness swells. But as coverage continues, viewers are lulled by the appearance of action and punishment and forget to question the systemic issues that led to the disaster in the first place. When coverage wanes, the public doesn’t even notice.

This dangerous cycle is why Chinook salmon boycotts could be more than just ineffective. If local companies set the bar for action this low, the public will follow. Our orcas deserve more from us.


Taking Effective Action

Raising awareness is a great first step as long as it is only the first step. Businesses and restaurants should collaborate with conservationists and researchers to develop a set of action items for the public to take. These action items should include easy changes to daily actions and more difficult calls to action to make it clear that simply knowing about the problem won’t be enough to fix it. The Center for Whale Research has a list of action items on their website that would be a great starting point for individuals. Looking at the bigger picture, here’s a wish list of things that should be researched and considered as potential solutions.

Reducing runoff of harmful chemicals and pollutants would be good for the whole ecosystem, and by extension the Orcas. Keep pharmaceuticals and chemicals out of the waterways, drive less and keep your car running smoothly, and work with your community to find better storm water drainage solutions that keep pollutants from entering the water directly.

Follow boater regulations when there are whales in your vicinity. Never approach whales, stay at least 200 yards away at all times and 400 yards from their direction of travel, and reduce your speed. When possible, view whales from the shore or from a licensed whale watch provider.

Source your food and other goods locally to reduce your overall carbon footprint. Climate change presents many challenges for the ecosystems in the Salish Sea, and predicting the impacts on our Orcas accurately is almost impossible. Keeping your purchases local also reduces the number of goods that have to be shipped across the ocean, keeping noise pollution at a minimum.

Stay up to date on proposed actions that might increase vessel traffic in the Salish Sea. Pipeline projects through BC have been the most recent threats, potentially increasing tanker traffic dramatically through important Orca habitat. Call your elected officials!

Mobilize your community and find neighbors and friends to team up with. Your creative solutions will mean the world to future generations in the Pacific Northwest!



Liz Allyn

Conservation Made Simple


Further reading


For more information about the SRKW see:

The Center for Whale Research at

UW Center for Conservation Biology:

The Whale Museum:


For more information about water pollution locally, see:

Puget Soundkeeper website:

UW Puget Sound Institute:


For guidelines and information for boaters, see:


Clean Boating Foundation:


For more detail on the impacts of POPs, see:

Lundin, J. I. et al.2016. Modulation in Persistent Organic Pollutant Concentration and Profile by Prey Availability and Reproductive Status in Southern Resident Killer Whale Scat Samples. Environmental Science & Technology 50:6506–6516.

Mongillo, T. M.2016. Exposure to a mixture of toxic chemicals: implications for the health of endangered southern resident killer whales. US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Seattle, Wash.].

Ross, P. S.2006. Fireproof killer whales (Orcinus orca): flame-retardant chemicals and the conservation imperative in the charismatic icon of British Columbia, Canada. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 63:224–234.


For details about salmon populations and conservation efforts, see:

NOAA Fisheries website:

Kareiva, P., M. Marvier, and M. McClure. 2000. Recovery and Management Options for Spring/Summer Chinook Salmon in the Columbia River Basin. Science 290:977–979.

Rechisky, E. L., D. W. Welch, A. D. Porter, M. C. Jacobs-Scott, and P. M. Winchell. 2013. Influence of multiple dam passage on survival of juvenile Chinook salmon in the Columbia River estuary and coastal ocean. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110:6883–6888.

Williams, R. et al.2011. Competing Conservation Objectives for Predators and Prey: Estimating Killer Whale Prey Requirements for Chinook Salmon (Killer Whales and Salmon). PLoS ONE 6:e26738.


For guidance on sustainable seafood, see:

Seafood Watch:

Marine Stewardship Council:

Note: Sustainable seafood guides usually do not factor in carbon footprint, so local is still (almost) always better

Agnew, D. J., N. L. Gutiérrez, A. Stern-Pirlot, and D. D. Hoggarth. 2014. The MSC experience: developing an operational certification standard and a market incentive to improve fishery sustainability. ICES Journal of Marine Science 71:216–225.

Sampson, G. S. et al.2015. Secure sustainable seafood from developing countries. Science 348:504–506.


For details about noise pollution impacts on the SRKW, see:


Houghton, J. et al.2015. The Relationship between Vessel Traffic and Noise Levels Received by Killer Whales ( Orcinus orca). PLoS ONE 10:e0140119.

Veirs, S., V. Veirs, and J. Wood. 2015. Ship noise in an urban estuary extends to frequencies used for echolocation by endangered killer whales. PeerJ PrePrints.

Williams, R., C. Erbe, E. Ashe, A. Beerman, and J. Smith. 2014. Severity of killer whale behavioral responses to ship noise: A dose-response study. Marine Pollution Bulletin 79:254–260.


For more information on pipeline projects happening in British Columbia, see:



New York Times:

New York Post:


Fountain, H. 2013. Lessons From the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. The New York Times.

Humphreys, A., and C. J. Thompson. 2014. Branding Disaster: Reestablishing Trust through the Ideological Containment of Systemic Risk Anxieties. Journal of Consumer Research 41:877–910.

de Luna, R. 2018. Seattle chef Renee Erickson pulls king salmon from menu. KUOW.

Malcom, K., and A. Hurst. 2018. Boycotting chinook salmon to save orcas? It won’t do much. KUOW. All Things Considered.

Mapes, L. 2018a. Southern-resident killer whales lose newborn calf, and another youngster is ailing. The Seattle Times.

Mapes, L. 2018b. Orca J50 presumed dead but NOAA continues search. The Seattle Times.

Peterson, C. H. et al. 2003. Long-Term Ecosystem Response to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Science 302:2082–2086.







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