Coextinction, a new documentary about the loss of top marine predators in the North Pacific and the perfect storm of human interference that threatens their very existence on our fragile planet, is now streaming for free in Canada and Australia. At the heart of this beautiful and persuading film is the true cost of human consumption and our insatiable appetite for profit at the expense of the lives of the creatures with which we share our only planet.
Coextinction begins with a devastating statistic about the orca species that call the North Pacific waters off British Columbia (B.C.), Canada, their home. These Southern Resident killer whales “have lived in the Pacific Northwest for almost one million years. There are now only 74 left.”
Previous popular documentaries about orcas focused on exposing the evils of taking these sensitive, intelligent mammals out of their natural habitats and keeping them in marine parks. Many such parks have since shut down their orca capturing, breeding, and performing programs, but the damage to the wild population has already been done. Having “lost a third of their population in captivity,” Coextinction discovers “now they’re dying in the wild.”
Gloria Pancrazi, conservationist and maker of the film believes “a lot of people know that orcas shouldn’t be in captivity but they don’t yet really understand that orcas are suffering in the wild as well.” Gloria and other conservationists and scientists track the Southern Resident Killer Whale population around B.C. One young orca calf being tracked was suspected to have died of malnutrition. Another, a pregnant mother, from starvation.
Orcas, like sharks, are indicator species, “an organism whose presence, absence or abundance reflects a specific environmental condition. Indicator species can signal a change in the biological condition of a particular ecosystem, and thus may be used as a proxy to diagnose the health of an ecosystem.”
Leading expert on the Southern Resident killer whales and senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, Kenneth Balcomb has watched “these whales interact with each other and - their whole lifetime - have these relationships that are very caring and supportive of each other. They’re living in a society that’s figured out how to live with others, and we haven’t.” The presence of small boats as well as massive fishing vessels and oil tankers in B.C. waters interferes with the orcas’ ability to find food. All boats prevent orcas from finding food by either overfishing their prey sources, interfering with their sonar systems for locating fish, or causing them undue stress on a constant basis. The waters of Washington and B.C., known for these orca populations, are densely populated with boats that are a leading contributor to the death of so many orcas and the impending risk of extinction of these beloved animals.
Boat noise interferes with orcas’ biosonar system, which they use to find fish to eat. Small boats account for approximately one-third of the noise that interferes with orcas’ sonar, but the majority of the noise comes from huge ships like oil tankers. With the building of the new Trans Mountain pipeline, these tankers will be 700% more frequent, meaning orcas in B.C. waters will be constantly surrounded by these massive vessels that interrupt their hunting abilities and risk their lives and the existence of the species. Unfortunately “our oil addiction continues to fuel the climate crisis, continued colonization, and the extinction of a species.”
Top marine predators like orcas and sharks are suffering from human overconsumption. “We’re in the midst of a mass extinction crisis” of both Southern Resident killer whales and a mainstay of their diet: salmon. We eat salmon at such an extreme rate that we need to farm them to supply people’s high demands. Chinook salmon make up 80% of the orcas’ diet, but now “40% of Chinook salmon runs are locally extinct in the Pacific Northwest.” The salmon that are a mainstay of orcas’ and other apex predators’ diets are disappearing from river systems in B.C.
Any virus or disease infecting salmon farms also gets out into the water and affects the wild salmon. Alexandra Morton is a salmon biologist that has experience testing salmon for viruses like “Piscine Reovirus,” which is “a Norwegian virus that is infecting 80% of farmed salmon.” According to Alexandra, “When I test farmed salmon in supermarkets, 95% of them are infected with this virus, and it causes the hearts of these farmed salmon to weaken, it just destroys the muscle in the heart. But research recently has shown that when this virus gets out of the farms and gets into Chinook salmon, it simply causes their cells to explode.” Alexandra has also seen increased cases of sea lice in wild salmon because of their exposure to salmon farms in their waterways. The lice eat away at the salmon and also contribute to the dramatic loss in the wild populations, which orcas and other marine predators rely on for survival.
According to ‘Namgis First Nation Chief Ernest Alfred “…the real law breakers here, and makers, are the Canadian government. They’re not even following their own laws. They’re not testing for Piscine Reovirus, you know, and so there’s no problem…it doesn’t exist.” Local aboriginal people have been sustainably fishing the wild salmon in the same waterways in which the fish farms now do business for centuries without affecting the orcas’ wellbeing. If these fish farms are allowed to stay in the rivers, the local wild Pacific salmon populations will go extinct and species above them on the food chain will suffer to the point of extinction.
Unfortunately, fishing and farming are not the only threat to the salmon and their natural predators. Dams in river systems force native salmon populations to pass through pipes in order to make their historical routes through the rivers, but most salmon do not survive the dangerous journey. Each dam kills around 2 million salmon who try to travel through the system. Between overfishing, dangerous dam systems, and rampant disease, salmon populations don’t stand a chance and won’t be around much longer to feed their predators, risking the very existence of Pacific orca pods.
Elena Jean, conservationist and Coextinction filmmaker, reminds us that “We need to change the way that we see nature. We need to not just think of it as a commodity or a resource. Salmon are living and breathing organisms that we are related to. It’s not just food on our plate.” Since the filming of this documentary, fish farms in the Broughton Archipelago are being decommissioned and the Canadian government has promised to remove all remaining open net pen fish farms in the Pacific Northwest by 2025. You can watch the full documentary for free in Canada and Australia at www.coextinctionfilm.com and follow along with the team on Instagram. ~Selina Barker