Facts about orcas abound in Colleen Weiler’s brain, because her role is to lead policy research and engagement around what we call the Southern Resident Orcas (SROs).
Her job is with the Plymouth, Massachusetts-based US headquarters of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation non-profit, established 32 years ago in England.
Our name is what we do.
Protecting cetaceans involves direct action, lobbying lawmakers, public engagement and education/outreach to the public.
Her official title is Jessica Rekos Fellow for Orca Conservation and, for the past five years, her focus has been on orca recovery. Now headquartered in Newport, she has also been tracking the efforts of Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s Orca Recovery Task Force.
Fact: orca comes from the Greek and Latin, meaning jar.
Fact: The killer whale (ballena asesina) moniker came from some of the first commercial whalers — Basques — who hunted bigger whales but saw the orca in action taking on sharks, seals and other whales as prey.
I meet the former Flint resident — who garnered a zoology degree in 2006 from Michigan State University before finding OSU as home to her graduate work — at Panini Bakery just before she spoke to a group of 25 at the American Cetacean Society’s fall speaker series at the Newport Oregon Library.
She is at ease among fellow whale and marine ecosystem enthusiasts, and her talk is detailed, as she exudes the confidence of a woman who has been doing this work probably since she was nine years old.
“Free Willy” and Fast Forward
When Colleen was nine, she went to the local movie theater and saw the 1993 flick, “Free Willy” and got hooked on this emblematic species, Orcinus orca. At the end of the film, she recounts there was a “for more information on protecting whales please contact” blurb. It was called the Whale Adoption Project out of Massachusetts.
For $20 a year, the young Colleen adopted a humpback whale named Colt, who spent some of his time in the Gulf of Maine. That whale is still alive and still adoptable at her Whale and Dolphin Conservation. The underside and trailing edge of the humpback whale’s fluke have helped scientists and amateurs alike to identify whales. Many humpbacks can live up to 50 years with some known individuals reaching 70.
Colleen says both of her parents were both pretty environmentally aware (“recyclers”), and her father helped organize the county hazard waste recycling project. Her older brother is a K12 teacher in Michigan.
As an undergrad at MSU, Colleen was part of the Lyman Briggs College (an honors program) where she completed a marine biology/zoology undergraduate degree.
The Details are in the Policy Work
The search for graduate programs landed Colleen at OSU, where she entered the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences with a focus on marine mammal conservation.
She tells me that no one in her program at that point had pursued a graduate degree in policy emphasizing marine mammals. Serendipitously, she got to partner with the Alaska Whale Foundation as a research assistant.
That work she was initiating with AWF was looking at humpback whale distribution in Alaskan waters and ship traffic overlaying ship strike risk on the species while also looking at management measures.
Six degrees of separation defines a lot of what I do. I spent a few hours with Alaska Whale Foundation researcher/board member Fred Sharpe, PhD, at our own Sitka Center for Art and Ecology at the beginning of the year. Sharpe was the Howard L. Mckee Ecologist visiting scholar at Sitka. We talked about humpbacks — he has 26 years under his belt studying the behavior of humpback whales. His specialty is on the bubble-netting proclivity of Alaskan humpbacks. He looks at the connections of this ecotype’s behavior as signals of enduring bonds, complicated task specializations, team hunting and communal tool use.
For Colleen, her purview is now focused on the Southern Resident orcas. Unfortunately, one community within the “resident” ecotype (there are 10 identified ecotypes) is in trouble. Colleen discussed with naturalists the differences in these orca ecotypes with their varying size, pigment patterns, behaviors, acoustics, social grouping and diets.
Colleen was quick to point out that Michael Bigg, a Canadian whale researcher, “changed the game for orca long-term research” with his identification techniques — photographing dorsal fins and saddle patch patterns.
When you can identify entire generations of orcas and the births, deaths and family relationships, we can get an exact population count.
The compelling story of the orca goes beyond the cinematic drama of “Free Willy,” and their imprisonment and virtual torture at places like Sea World (see the documentary “Blackfish”). Mothers and grandmothers of the Southern Resident orcas are at the top of the pod, and the sons and daughters stay with the mother for life.
Colleen shows her audience an aerial shot of a grandmother and great-grandson from the Southern Resident ecotype. One big Chinook salmon is a nose length’s away before being snatched up by grandmother, who then shared it with her great-grand-kid.
In her more than hour talking to people at the library, Colleen clearly is dedicated to policy work, which she likens more to a series of marathons rather than sprints. “There is often no immediate benefit seen, no immediate gratification. Policy takes time, years.”
She and the nonprofit she works for are not thrilled with the poor policy measures and enforcement of certain life-sustaining laws to help the endangered Southern Residents once they hit Oregon waters.
“I would add we’re not thrilled with these issues throughout their range (not just Oregon),” she said. The federal government has been slow to implement recovery measures; and the current administration is doing its best to roll back every environmental protection law we have. Washington and Oregon are stepping up to fill those gaps, but environmental issues often fall at the bottom of the list for resources and enforcement effort.
She is an observer of the Washington Governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force, and the sometimes-Byzantine task force recommendations as well as the sometimes counter-productive work of so many agencies and stakeholder groups at the table are frustrating.
The bottom line is the 35-year-old Colleen Weiler is here to stay the course, and push through the entire process of getting the 73 orcas left from the Southern Resident community help in their recovery and sustainability as a population. One challenge is their range — they spend a lot of time in Puget Sound but their entire West Coast range reaches south to Monterey. They are very urban orcas and overlap with many heavily developed areas on the west coasts of Canada and the US.
It is a Fight on Many Fronts — One Killer Whale at a Time
Colleen doesn’t mince words, “The Columbia is the most hydroelectricity developed river system in the world.”
While the 150-page report from the task force highlights dozens of measures to mitigate the failing Southern Residents, Colleen can whittle down the fight for the orcas’ lives to many factors, but a monolithic one is the loss of salmon runs, down to 3 percent of their historical levels of 10 to 16 million of all salmon species coming back annually to the Columbia.
Salmon populations have to be restored to some higher measure of returns — the Four H’s destroying the Southern Residents’ food source, Chinook salmon, point that out: habitat, hydropower, hatcheries and harvest.
“They don’t go off menu,” Colleen said. That means each ecotype and population of killer whales has very specific dietary preferences — while overall, orcas collectively have around 140 species of prey to include sharks, seals, rays, octopi, dolphins, penguins and sea lions.
Orcas are one of the top marine predators, and it is actually the largest member of the dolphin family, Delphinidae.
They are found in every ocean in the world; thus, they are considered the most widely distributed of all whales and dolphins. With different foraging behaviors and diets, many killer whales deploy a coordinated hunting strategy, working as a team like a pack of wolves.
Hunters and fishermen once targeted killer whales. Historical threats to killer whales included commercial hunting (not in the US but in other countries), and, worse yet, culling to “protect” fisheries from killer whales.
What has particularly decimated the Southern Residents’ total census was the live capture of killer whales for aquarium display and marine parks. From 1962 to ’77, up to 307 killer whales were captured and removed from the wild. At least 47 were from the Southern Residents.
Colleen emphasized that 98 percent of the Southern Residents’ summer diet is salmon — 80 percent Chinook and 15 Percent Coho. With a crash in salmon in the mid-1990s, the Southern Resident Orcas also crashed. Abundant food equals nourishment, big bodies, lots of fat on their frame and fertility.
These different populations — the Southern and Northern Residents — do not interbreed or intermingle. When the Southern Residents are in the Salish Sea, the Northern Residents are in coastal waters. Their habitats never overlap, she said. This exclusivity of ecotype society has gone on for hundreds of thousands of years, where significant genetic differences in the populations occurred a long time ago.
Colleen is quick to point out that she is “an observer” of the Task Force on Southern Resident Orcas so she can be a watchdog and keep things in perspective. While 18,000 public comments the first year of the task force is impressive, there is such a thing as task force fatigue.
It’s a big task force with state, federal, and local agencies, as well as NGOs, scientists, industry reps, and Washington state tribal nations.
Colleen said the 36 recommendations coming out of the November 2018 report are impressive. In a nutshell, increasing Chinook populations, reducing toxic contaminants and reducing vessel noise are at the top of the task force’s list of recommendations.
Controversy abounds. Whale watching outfits bucked the proposal to place a moratorium on whale watching. Consensus may be the goal for modern task force engagement processes, but that can also be the paradigm that hobbles action. If agriculture and barging interests on the Columbia River protest any talk of breaching those lower Snake River dams (which they did) — which are the cause of a large chunk of the salmon population declines — then everything gets tricky.
“As a whale person,” Colleen said, “I have learned a lot about salmon the past five years.”
Then there’s even controversy to get an added $10 recreational boater whale education endorsement for Washington state residents.
Add to the mix climate change, contamination from industries that produce PCBs, CECs (chemicals of emerging concern), forever chemicals and other toxics that can mess up reproductive, immune and endocrine systems, we then have a wicked brew of factors not only decimating endangered species, but other species.
For other whale species, another big issue hitting the radar of various industries in our neck of the woods, especially the Dungeness crab industry, is line entanglement. There are many regulations imposed on the Atlantic Coast for lobster traps, and reducing vertical lines by 50 percent is one proposed mandate to lower the number of entanglements with endangered North Atlantic right whales.
For us on the Oregon Coast, line entanglement affects our iconic Gray whales, but the requirement to reduce entanglement risk is driven by humpback whales, which have higher rates of entanglement than Grays and are ESA-listed, according to Colleen.
Orcas can become entangled, but currently this is not a pressing threat to the ecosystem changes, but all the other factors henceforth discussed do. The US Navy is harassing orcas (and other whale and dolphin species) just with their sonar testing in open ocean waters. Pier-side sonar testing in the Puget Sound is being proposed by the navy as part of their next seven years of training and testing activities in our area.
This could be another “hit” on the Southern Residents’ viability.
People at Colleen’s talk brought up recent sightings of two pods from the Southern Resident orcas — J & K pods — off Ballard near Seattle. Colleen said she saw images of some of them surfing on the wake of a barge.
Policy research turns from research into policy making, then legislation into enforcement — a long politically-charged process which still turns people like Colleen Weiler hopeful for these animals.
Paul Haeder: Name a couple of environmentalism influencers in your life, and why and how those people influenced you?
• Sylvia Earle, for being an amazing pioneer in marine science and a strong, essential voice for conservation and protecting our oceans.
• My supervisor and mentor at WDC, Regina Asmutis-Silvia, for her years of dedication to protecting whales and dolphins and teaching me how to effectively advocate for them.
• My dad, who shared his love of the environment and passion for conservation with me.
PH: As illustrated in your talk at the library on September 21, there is sort of an analysis paralysis and task force fatigue. Can you articulate a bit on these, and how we as the public can overcome the real problem of becoming disengaged when so many other things tied to global heating and extinction and extermination are on our radar?
CW: Interest and engagement in the task force definitely seem to have declined in the second year, within the task force itself and from those following it. The topics the task force is discussing this year are big issues — climate change, ocean acidification and population growth — which can feel overwhelming. But addressing these topics is important not only for the survival of Southern Resident Orcas, but for us as well. They seem too big to deal with, but they are all interrelated, and we must start having these conversations and taking action now to protect the ecosystems that we all depend on — salmon, orcas and ourselves.
PH: Your opinion of keeping orcas captive at say places such as Sea World? I continue to hear this time and time again: “To say that keeping captive marine mammals contributes little or no information/research that will aid animals in the wild is simply untrue.”
CW: Most of the research conducted in captive facilities on the whales and dolphins held there is specific to captivity-related issues like husbandry and captive breeding and have limited applicability to wild, free-ranging whales and dolphins. The Southern Residents were gravely impacted by efforts to take individuals into captivity, and their population today is still trying to overcome the effects. For more about how captivity harms whales and dolphins, see our website.
PH: The sciences as illustrated at Hatfield are becoming much more multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary. Have you seen this trend in your own work? Point out the positives.
CW: Yes, there is growing effort in science and in conservation for more communication and coordination among different disciplines. For example, we work with many partner organizations on issues such as salmon recovery, water quality and reducing toxic contaminants. Bringing people and groups together who work on different issues that all relate to environmental health helps us learn from each other, highlights the connections between these issues and creates stronger positions and arguments for protecting our shared ecosystem.
PH: All those cooks in the kitchen allusion with the task force being so big. I know you are in policy as a marathon, Colleen, but how can you keep stakeholders, especially the public, engaged when time and time again, very little action comes out of long, extended task force session where there are so many special interests?
CW: We try to keep people involved and engaged by celebrating the victories, no matter how small or incremental they may seem, and by living our WDC mission statement — amazing people with the wonder of whales and dolphins and inspiring global action to protect them. Luckily, we work with species that are charismatic and can keep people engaged without too much convincing.
The task force is a long process, but it is the most concentrated and strongest effort that has been initiated for Southern Resident recovery since they were listed under the ESA. We recognize and emphasize that, note the progress that has been made, and are also realistic about the long journey ahead. There has not been “little action” out of the task force, there have actually been significant wins like the legislative and budgetary highlights I mentioned — but like many policy things it takes time to see the results of those changes. There’s not a lot of instant gratification, which can make it hard to keep the forward momentum going.
PH: What gets you engaged and excited about your job every day?
CW: Getting to work in conservation to protect whales and dolphins, which continue to amaze and inspire me the more I learn about them.