NOAA, the Nature Conservancy, and Beijing Genomics Institute are collaborating to sequence the entire genomes of 100+ individual southern resident killer whales with the goal of understanding how genetics are influencing survival. They will compare the genomes to those of healthy Alaskan resident killer whales and transient killer whales.
Prey availability is without a doubt the number one issue, but I think having supplementary information on their genetics (especially when it sounds like it will be extracted from existing samples––researchers don’t necessarily have to go out and collect more, potentially stressing the whales in the process) can help us create more targeted solutions. I think it’s also worth pointing out that studies like this can happen in conjunction with prey recovery (which is actively ongoing––NOAA is working on salmon habitat restoration) and that doing genomics research doesn’t necessarily take away resources for other recovery actions.
That being said, I am very interested in what this study will reveal! Genes can have a major impact on how a population deals with environmental stress. We know that the southern residents are beginning to inbreed but we don’t know how this is impacting their health and this study could give us that information. Some females, like J31, are not producing calves though they are well into their breeding years while others still are. Do genes impact this? How does prey availability impact gene expression? Perhaps we can identify which whales have weaker immune systems and figure out ways to enhance their survival while salmon stocks recover––I don’t think many people realize that it takes a few years for this happen.