The Hebrides in the North West of Scotland is the home to the highest abundance of marine mammals in UK waters. For now, it is also home to a resident population of orca called the West Coast Community (WCC). The WCC consists of 4 males and 5 females, all physically distinct from other North East Atlantic orcas. With over 40,000km2 of Hebridean Sea, the chances of encountering these magnificent creatures are slim. Given the logistical difficulty in surveying them, much of their lives remain a mystery. But from data collected by the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, we know that they are a family at high risk of extinction. With no calves spotted in the last 20 years and the females thought to be post-menopausal, it is likely that they will become extinct in our life time.
The Zoological Society of London has just released the Living Planet Index Report stating that in the last 40 years we have lost 52% of our global wildlife. The demise of the WCC would be another addition to this scary and sad statistic. Their loss would be significant because we don’t understand why they are not breeding. If humans are to blame, we unwittingly risk the same fate to other creatures we share this planet with. It could be that the females are just naturally unable to bear young or because of some human derived effect such as suppressed reductive performance due to high pollution concentrations.
Earlier this year, the creation of 30 new Marine Protected Areas in Scottish Waters was announced; however, none were designated for the protection of cetaceans. Unfortunately, the lack of data prohibits plans for further protection to this population of orca. It would be a travesty to lose this family, especially if there was something we could have done to prevent it. With wildlife being lost at an unprecedented rate, the time to learn and act is now, before it’s too late.
By Dr Natalie Crawley
Marine Ecologist at Nature Bureau Ltd (www.naturebureau.co.uk)
Dr Natalie Crawley. Works as marine ecologist for a the conservation organisation 'Nature Bureau Ltd' in the UK. Her passion is in marine mammals, in particularly the orca (Orcinus orca).
Photo Credit: Kerry Froud of the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust