FRIDAY HARBOR, WA – Images of grieving Puget Sound orca J35 carrying the body of her dead calf have been seen around the world. The leading orca research group in Washington is highlighting that the calf’s death is part of a “dead baby boom” among the killer whales that live part-time in Puget Sound.
The Southern Resident population has not had a successful birth over the past three years, and researchers blame that on a lack of Chinook salmon – a staple of killer whales’ diet. Before three years ago, about 25 percent of pregnancies succeeded.
“The larger environmental question reflected in the J35 story is that both the USA and Canada must redouble efforts to restore wild salmon (particularly Chinook) throughout Washington state and British Columbia for food supply for the SRKW in this region,” Center for Whale Research founder Ken Balcomb said in an appeal recently. “Whales in this Endangered population are dependent upon Chinook salmon for their primary food source. Unfortunately, Chinook salmon are also Endangered. We have long demonstrated that these fish-eating whales are getting skinnier and skinnier, and the death rate is increasing.”
The Center for Whale Research has been studying the Southern Resident killer whales for 40 years. The latest survey of the orca population found 76 killer whales living in Puget Sound in three separate pods – the lowest total population dating back to 1984.
Gov. Jay Inslee has created a task force to help the Southern Resident orcas survive. A main priority of the Southern Resident Orca Task Force is to increase the Chinook population. The group will release final recommendations on Oct. 1, but has discussed actions like increasing hatchery production and reducing the salmon harvest.
Orcas do not follow a regular migration pattern, according to whale researchers, preferring to go where food is most abundant. Chinook salmon, which can grow as big as 30 pounds, are endangered due to over-fishing and habitat degradation.
Find out more from the Center for Whale Research.
Image courtesy Center for Whale Research