Threats to Orcas in West Iceland

This is a short overview on several threats that wild orcas face in today’s world. For each topic we estimated the level of danger to orcas around Snæfellsnes. Our conservation section also features more detailed abstracts on specific threats and how we can work to prevent them. 

  • There is great concern about marine pollution threatening the survival of orcas around the world, and Iceland is no exception. Recent beach clean-ups have shown a high amount of marine debris (especially fishing nets and plastic bags) collected on Icelandic shores. Iceland has a good system of waste disposal, but a booming tourism industry raises concerns about monitoring, for example, the waste disposal from camper vans and wild camping. Iceland also has strict regulations on chemicals – the main industry on Snæfellsnes is fishing which is not allowed to use chemicals harmful to the environment. Furthermore, few boats on the water means a low pollution level. 

  • The amount of boats on the water is, at the moment, not of concern for the survival and well-being of the orcas around Snæfellsnes. Most boats in the area are small fishing boats, with some larger trawlers frequenting the area. There is one ferry in Stykkishólmur, and during the summertime some cruise ships visit the area on an irregular basis. Private boats are a rare sight – only the occasional megayacht comes through here in the summer. There is only one tour operator with only two boats (most of the time only one) for whale watching in the area, Láki Tours. There are no major shipping lanes for cargo ships or tankers around Snæfellsnes. 

  • Even though there are only a few boats in the area, the maneuvering of boats in the vicinity of orcas, if done recklessly, can quickly become very dangerous for the orcas. Boats driving fast through feeding areas are of great concern for orcas due to potential collisions and propeller injuries. When boats change directions rapidly, this can even become more unpredictable and, hence, dangerous for the animals. Láki Tours whale watching follows a very strict code of conduct of how to approach orcas, but we would like to extend this knowledge to private and fishing boats in the area as well. 

  • There are only a few boats frequenting Breiðafjörður, and they can only make so much underwater noise. The greatest and most widely heard noise is presumably produced by cruise ships travelling through the area. As shipping lanes for cargo ships and tankers do not exist, the noise from these vessels can be excluded as well. Our hydrophone recordings confirm these assumptions – they are clear, with waves producing the only disturbance in the sound-track. In these recordings, we can often even hear sperm whale clicks from afar. There is no offshore drilling in the area, and, hence, no disturbance through this activity. 

  • The threat of prey shortage has a serious influence on the survival of orca populations in other parts of the world. At Snæfellsnes, orcas seem to not only feed on herring, but also on marine mammals and other fish, which makes them less vulnerable. However, herring is what most orca groups in the area prefer, but is not the main target for fishing boats (most of them concentrate on fishing cod). After overfishing of the herring stock in the 1970’s, there are now strict quotas to further its recovery. We regularly see orcas feeding on both big and small herring, but the orcas have to follow the herring’s migration patterns which can be unpredictable.  

Threats to Orcas