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Orca population hits 30-year low in Puget Sound

In this Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015, photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, (NOAA) a new baby orca swims alongside an adult whale, believed to be its mother, about 15 miles off the coast of Westport, Wash. AP PHOTO.

The Southern Resident orca pods are in a tough spot -- literally.

Their primary food source is dying off; the Trans Mountain Pipeline is expanding, which will increase the number of tankers trucking through the orcas' habitat by seven times, among other exposure risks like noise and spills.

And now comes the latest spot of bad news: For the last three years not one calf has been born to the shrinking pods of the black-and-white killer whales in the Pacific Northwest, resulting in a 30-year low in orca population.

The annual census of Puget Sound's resident orcas found that just 75 killer whales, across the three Southern Resident pods (J, K, and L), are still swimming through the Pacific Northwest waters. The J pod has 23 members, while K has 18, and L has 34.

In addition to finding no new births of Southern Residents, the census reported two missing and presumed dead members, 23-year-old Crewser (also known as L-92), and a 2-year-old calf named Sonic (J-52).

The cause of the dwindling supply? More of the same, according to many researchers who study the orca pod. Pollution, both old and new, accumulates in their primary prey, and gets stored in the fat on the orca, surpressing the immune system and making the whales more susceptible to disease.

Plus that prey, Chinook salmon (also known as king salmon), are not as big or plentiful as they once were.

"In 2017 -- a very poor year for Chinook -- and we're in the core area here where they used to feed almost daily," Ken Balcomb, a founder and senior scientist at the Center for Whale Research, said in video a last year. "We've seen the twice, three times this year.

"And the salmon (they do find) are smaller, much less numerous, and they are virtually all hatchery fish."

Additionally, the region they inhabit -- Haro Strait, between the San Juans and Vancouver Island -- is getting noisier.

"It's also essentially a big rock ditch where sound bounces off. When you add in commercial vessel traffic going to Vancouver, recreational boaters and whale watching operations, it's a pretty noisy place," Brad Hanson, team leader for recovery efforts for the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said to The New York Times.


Since orca bodies aren't generally recovered -- frequently sinking and becoming part of the ecosystem, or washing up on remote beaches -- researchers can't be sure what's behind the increase in deaths of the population. It could be a disease outbreak that the stress of their environment has made them more susceptible to, or it could be representative of a greater problem with the ecosystem, which has been warmed as much as six degrees above normal in some areas along the Pacific coast.

Steps are being taken: In March, Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order directing the state agencies to do more, and two months later he convened a task force of state, tribal, provincial and federal officials to think of some solutions.

"The orca will not survive unless all of us in the state of Washington somehow make a commitment to their survival," Inslee said, when he signed the order. "The impacts of letting these two species disappear would be felt for generations."

His approach includes calls for more salmon, quieter boat traffic, clean up of toxics in the water, and reducing the number of oil spills.

In short, the Southern Resident population won't be going down without a fight. But some researchers say that there's going to have to be a commitment to saving the animals from more places than one.

"It's an ecosystem-wide problem," Hanson said. "Things are out of whack and we have to get them back to where we can sustain killer whales. And the clock is ticking."

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