A Wildlife Article from All-Creatures.org

Iberian Orcas and Boats

From Orca Network
July 2023

'Since 2020, a small pod of orcas in the strait of Gibraltar has been interacting with sailing boats in a new way: ramming vessels, pressing their bodies and heads into the hulls and biting, even snapping off, the rudders. Over three years, more than 500 interactions have been recorded, three boats sunk and dozens of others damaged.'
~The Guardian, July 11, 2023.

Iberian OrcaPhoto from: Iberian Orca (Orcinus orca) Photo-Identification Catalogue. Curated by Dra. Ruth Estaban, Madeira Whale Museum

When one disabled boat was towed into port a group of orcas accompanied the boat, swimming parallel with it, not doing any more damage, just watching what happens. Maybe it tells us they’re invested in what they’re doing and the responses to what they’re doing.

On a population level Iberian orcas are severely endangered. It’s a small, culturally and genetically distinct population in immanent danger of extinction. The Atlantic Orca Working Group-GTOA has collected a wide assortment of images to produce an updated catalogue of Iberian orcas since 2020. 21,000 images were analyzed, of which 231 were selected, which are part of this catalog and which define a total of 66 individuals. “… the current census in 2023 of this subpopulation consists of at least 35 individuals…” This work was coordinated and prepared by Dr. Ruth Esteban Pavo, a specialist in the Iberian Orca.

Bluefin tuna are as important for Iberian orcas for their nutritional sustenance as chinook salmon are for Southern Residents. And like chinook, bluefin tuna are teetering on the edge of extinction. In 2010 there was a complete ban on catching bluefin that barely avoided their extinction. Now there is regulated fishing. According to an agreement reached at the annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of the Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) in 2023, the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) was increased from 36,000 tons in 2022 to 40,570 tons in 2023. The European Union has a 2023 quota of 21,503 tons, 2,043 more than last year.

The new quotas indicate that bluefin stocks have recovered somewhat from near extinction, enough to resume large commercial catches. In 2008, ICCAT scientists warned the Mediterranean bluefin tuna population was on the brink of collapse. A retailers' boycott of Mediterranean bluefin tuna, supported by WWF, was spreading throughout Europe. But in 2009, Malta, Cyprus, Spain, Italy, France, and Greece blocked a ban on bluefin tuna catches despite support from 21 EU governments. In June 2010, Europe’s fisheries chief banned large-scale bluefin tuna fishing entirely in the Mediterranean and east Atlantic seas. The ban followed a heavy depletion of stocks of the popular fish. “The closure of the purse seine fishery is necessary to protect the fragile stock of bluefin tuna,” a spokesman for EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki said, referring to the name given to large-scale bluefin tuna fishing.

The fishing bans seem to have succeeded in allowing the fish to recover just enough to resume large-scale fishing, leaving no quota for Iberian orcas.

Thus we see that for at least the past two decades the fishing industry has been taking almost all of the the fish that Iberian orcas depend upon for their prey base, to bring their young into the world, and to survive.

We don't have comprehensive yearly photo ID surveys of Iberian orcas in which every individual is identified to determine birth rates, or fecal studies to see their reproductive and stress hormones, to determine miscarriage and neo-natal mortality rates. If we could get the kind of information that we have in the Salish Sea, showing that Southern Residents are often losing their young before or shortly after they are born because they lack sufficient nutrition to nurse their babies, it might demonstrate that starvation is a severe problem for Iberian orcas. It would be helpful, but we don’t have that information so we have to infer.

"Although the adult survival rates were estimated to be within levels known to be consistent with stable populations, poor long-term recruitment suggests a inferred decline in the future unless conditions improve (Esteban et al. 2016b)."

I see a correlation between food deprivation and the Iberian orcas' recent disabling of boats.

Lack of food is the common denominator but the scarcity of bluefin tuna may be more severe than the scarcity of salmon for Southern Residents, or Southern Residents may have a deeper relationship with humans going back thousands of years that makes them less likely to do harm to humans or their boats.

Some media reports indicate that fishing boats tend to have rifles on board so orcas can’t go near the fishing boats except to depredate fish off their longlines at depth. Maybe they know that if they go near a fishing boat they’ll probably get shot. It’s not reported but it surely happens out there.

Are the last surviving Iberian orcas trying to tell us something? Are the trying to say “we can’t survive this removal of our only food.” Of course they are very intelligent animals and their situational awareness is robust, and they see their fish being pulled out of the water.

My education is in sociology, and of course sociology is only about humans on the assumption that only humans use language and have culture. But in 2001 Luke Rendell and Hal Whitehead spilled the beans that actually orcas use vocal signals to mediate their culture, that they create traditions and social systems, and they communicate to do that with vocalizations that they learn, just like we learn our words and languages. So they are capable of thinking in symbols. They are cognitively capable of sending a symbolic message, and maybe that’s what Iberian orcas are trying to do.

But we don't understand them. We underestimate them. We can't conceive of the possibility that they are trying to tell us something. They can’t speak English and we can’t communicate in their repertoire of calls. Maybe the only common language is getting our attention and hoping maybe we'll make the connections between humans overfishing their food and them damaging our boats. Maybe disabling boats means “don’t keep taking our food away! Our babies are dying because we can’t get enough food. We all know where the food is going. Humans are taking it. We don’t want to hurt anybody but we want to let people know that this is serious.”

Some of the captains and passengers have said they are getting that message in some way, that the orcas are trying to get our attention to tell us something, and not only should we not fight back, but maybe we should pay attention to what they need, to their situation, because it is caused by us.

I anticipate that most people will think orcas can’t be that smart, but I have yet to hear any other plausible explanation.

Posted on All-Creatures.org: June 21, 2024
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