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'It's a sad day:' Researchers claim Puget Sound orcas are starving and dying

FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2014, file photo, a female orca leaps from the water while breaching in Puget Sound west of Seattle, as seen from a federal research vessel that has been tracking the whale. Whale researchers who track the small endangered population of Puget Sound orcas say three whales are believed dead or missing since summer. The Center for Whale Research says that as of Friday, Oct. 28, 2016, there are only 80 animals. Two females and a 10-month old calf are believed gone. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

SEATTLE - It was funeral for a friend, nobody met personally, but had followed her life intimately.

Researchers claim, J-28, a 24-year-old resident orca, that they had watched from afar, died of malnutrition along with her calf.

Her obituary, written by long-time whale researcher Ken Balcomb, was read to a group of activists on the observation decked of Pier 66 along Seattle's waterfront on Friday.

"It's a sad day," said Balcomb. "I've been to several funerals and that's what this feels like."

But, Balcomb's obituary had a point to it. The founder of The Center for Whale Research and other activists used the occasion to renew calls for the removal or breaching of four dams located on the lower Snake River that feed into the Columbia River.

The researchers believe the dams are impeding a historical salmon run that could number one million fish. It's fish J-28 and the other Southern Resident Orcas that call the San Juan Islands home could feed on.

During the summer, researchers watched as J-28, and her calves began to get thinner and thinner, believing they were not finding enough salmon to feed on.

When that happens, contaminates stored the whales blubber are sometimes released into the body said Lynne Barre, marine biologist and Fisheries and manager of the Protective Resources Division for NOAA,

"If they are not getting enough to eat and using that blubber, that's when the contaminants have other health effects effecting their immune system and their reproduction." said Barre.

Although the remains of the two whales have not been found, Balcomb believes they died because of a lack of food.

"Malnutrition is what triggers their problems that end in their death," said Balcomb.

He said for the last 25 years, the southern population of orcas has hovered around 80, far less than the 100 that has been a goal for many biologists.

The Southern Resident Killer Whales were put on the endangered species list in 2005. Their preferred source of food, Chinook salmon is also on that list.

While transient and Northern Resident Killer Whales include seals in their diet, the southern population does not, said Howard Garrett, the head of the Orca Network and Balcomb's half-brother.

"We need to do whatever we can to feed the orcas," said Garrett. "We need to bring back wild salmon."

The Snake River contributed up to 45 percent of the Columbia River Chinook runs prior to the dams being built. Removing the dams would allow the Chinook to spawn naturally and in turn, allow more fish for the orca's to feed on.

"These four dams are a worn out, worthless tools that need to be thrown out and replaced with an alternative," said Jim Waddell, a former Army Corps of Engineers supervisor that worked on the dams.


Jeffery Ventre, a former whale trainer for SeaWorld in Orlando was featured in the film 'Blackfish' that documented the demise of SeaWorld's captivity program.

He has a dream.

"I want SeaWorld to come back and help fix this because they can," said Ventre. He said SeaWorld removed 40 percent of the orcas in Puget Sound for its shows.

Making sure the orcas have enough to eat may sound strange, given the killer whale is at the top of the food chain, but Balcomb said that's not the case.

He concluded his obituary be saying, "the family requests that in lieu of sending flowers and cake, well-wishers please send more wild Chinook salmon to and from Pacific Northwest rivers."

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