By UVA 3rd-year student Becca Danese

Too often the words “environmental movement” and “sustainability” get bogged down with grim predictions of the future and become near synonymous with hopelessness. But this does not have to be the case. Too much progress and too many events that deserve to be celebrated get lost in the sea of upsetting policies and predictions.

This blog post will remind folks that good things and measurable progress are happening in the world of environmentalism. “Charismatic megafauna” (polar bears, tigers, whales) are often the focus of heartbreaking images and statistics, but in this blog post, we will go over some uplifting and exciting conservation events, and some ways to contribute to the efforts which have brought about these successes. 

 

Southern Resident Killer Whales: New Babies and New Laws

The orca, whose debut in the animal-welfare and environmental movement came with the movie Free Willy, is often cited in the discussion of salmon populations. In the northeast Pacific ocean is a population of 74 orcas who are almost entirely dependent on Chinook salmon. Referred to as the Southern Resident killer whales, these individuals make up three pods -- J, K, and L pods. It is the only population of orcas listed on the Endangered Species Act. 

The salmon, and therefore the orca, population levels have been struggling for an assortment of reasons including: dam building on rivers used for spawning, warmer waters, water pollution from deforestation and agriculture, and over-fishing. The population decline closely follows the harvesting rates, and only 22 of the historic 37 Chinook populations in the region still exist, with some of them as low as 10% of their original population size. This fish species is not only a critical food source for the orca population, but is also culturally important to First Nations tribes in Canada and Native American tribes in the U.S. 

The attempted use of hatcheries has been mixed. On one hand, it has been shown to cause the loss of natural population identity, diminish adaptability, and interfere with natural salmon population recovery. On the other hand, it has allowed these orcas and First Nations people to have some access to wild populations. 

Scientists are now using non-invasive drone technologies to spot orca pregnancies. Photo credit to TEGWYN HUGHES from Vice News).

There has been some evidence that the orcas will eat non-Chinook salmon, but it is very much their preferred food. This is likely because the fish are the largest and fattiest of the salmon species, and thus provide the most calories. This very specific diet makes it difficult for the whale population to thrive. 

However, there has been some positive news regarding the J pod. Using drone technology, three orcas (of the 23 J pod members) have been discovered to be visibly pregnant! This is extremely exciting news for the precarious population of orcas. Though orcas tend to have a high rate of stillbirths and deaths within the first year, three new babies, along with the ones born over the past few years, are a promising sign for this subpopulation. 

Such drone technology has been a useful and noninvasive way of keeping an eye on orca health. The most recent baby, known as J56 or ‘Tofino’ in the J pod, was noted to be losing weight and appearing generally unwell. In response, an emergency rule was invoked by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife stating that commercial whale-watch tours must keep at least one half of a nautical mile away from the baby or her family, if she is with them. This rule attempts to keep boating noise, a known disruption to whale echolocation and communication, at a minimum, as well as to prevent whale and boat collisions, which can maim or kill whales. The emergency rule is even more stringent than the state law and Whale Wise Guidelines, which state that boats must: 

  • Stay 300 yards from orcas on either side;
  • Stay 400 yards out of orcas’ path — in front and behind the whales;
  • Reduce speed to under 7 knot within a half-mile of  orcas; and
  • Disengage their engines if orcas  appear within 300 yards.

Such laws are highly encouraging that the plight of the Southern Resident killer whale is being taken seriously and action is being taken to protect and monitor the populations accordingly. 

 

California Condors: New Babies Taking Flight and Genetic Discoveries

The California condor is one of the great success stories of conservation efforts, and there is only more good news happening! These remarkable animals were over-hunted, and their population consisted of a mere 22 birds in 1987. Through a carefully managed breeding system, this 40,000-year old species is now on the rise, with a wild population of 500 birds. 

California condor #1111 successfully took flight in Zion National Park. Photo: K. Sophie Will, Spectrum News.

To add to this success, hatchling #1111 has just successfully taken his first flight in Zion National Park, adding to the skies as one of 103 California condors in the area. He is the fourth hatchling from his parents, and is the sibling of condor #1000, the first hatchling to ever fly in Zion. In order to protect him, the east side of Angel’s Landing, a popular hike in the park, has been closed so as to not disturb the new fledgling and his parents. 

More good news for California condors has come from UC Berkeley’s research program looking at genomes of species brought back from the edge of extinction. The researchers found a surprising amount of  genetic diversity in the current California condor population, despite all of the modern population having come back from 22 birds. This bottleneck event had the potential to severely handicap the genetic diversity of the species, but it appears that the once widespread and abundant nature of the species was enough to allow for diversity to make it through even the most harrowing of near-extinction events. More analysis is being done on the genetics of the original 22 birds, and this information will be used to steer the modern breeding program in such a way as to avoid inbreeding. 

Tuna: Four Species Removed from IUCN Endangered Species Classification

Photo by Nikola Bačanek on Unsplash

Tuna conservation is going swimmingly! Four species are on a path to significant recovery after a decade of regulation. According to International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species:

  • Atlantic bluefin tuna moved from Endangered to Least Concern
  • Southern bluefin tuna moved from Critically Endangered to Endangered
  • Albacore and yellowfin tunas both moved from Near Threatened to Least Concern
  • Pacific bluefin tuna improved its position from Vulnerable to Near Threatened in this update due to the availability of newer stock assessment data and models, but is still depleted.

For such a global species as tuna, such success speaks to international commitment to conservation efforts and regulation. It also shows that sustainable fishing is very possible, and that it can still be profitable for all parties involved. Global coordination of conservation efforts is extremely difficult, which makes this success so remarkable.

Tuna fishing can be devastating to non-tuna populations as well, due to the methods used for their capture. With that in mind, here is a guide to buying tuna sustainably!

 

Hawaiian Monk Seal: Citizen Science at Work

Hawaiian monk seals are an adorable and, unfortunately, critically endangered species of seal whose pups have most recently been falling prey to hagfish traps. The pups get their noses stuck inside the trap, which can lead to severe injury or death. Such traps are used for catching hagfish and there are two main harvesting grounds, neither of which are in Hawaii. Off the coasts of Korea and California are the two largest areas where traps are set up, and these traps are being carried via current to the Hawaiian coast, where the seals can find them. 

However, Project Surfrider is putting together a citizen science-based project to combat the problem. They seek not just to remove the traps from the beaches and protect the seal pups, but to trace the traps back to their original fisheries. Hopefully, this will lead to stopping the traps at its starting point from drifting to the monk seal habitat. 

Know of any other exciting conservation wins? Email them to sustainability@virginia.edu so we can continue to spread the word. 

 

 

Becca is a 3rd year student at UVA studying Environmental Science (B.S.) and German Studies (B.A.). She works at UVA's Office for Sustainability as a member of the Green Living Team and is especially interested in biodiversity conservation and environmental law. She loves animals, running and hiking outdoors, and baking.