This report brings some good news and some bad news. Our last report discussed the absence of our endangered Southern Resident orcas around the San Juan Islands and Salish Sea during the summer months, when they typically stay in the area feasting on Chinook salmon. The salmon were scarce, and so were the whales. The Fraser River Chinook salmon run was very low this year, but word is that Chinook salmon numbers off the Washington Coast were good, so it is likely the Southern Residents spent much of the summer off the coast of Washington and the west coast of Vancouver Island, where there were more salmon to sustain the pods over the summer.
We wondered what the fall/winter season would be like after such an abnormal summer. The Southern Residents seem to switch to a diet of chum salmon during the winter season, and make forays into Puget Sound following the chum runs. We are happy to report that the Southern Residents have been coming through Admiralty Inlet, and into Puget Sound in their usual pattern, which brings some relief and likely means there are good chum runs to help make up for the lower numbers of Chinook in the Salish Sea this year. They first came into Puget Sound on Sept. 21st, then again at the end of October for a four day stay, then three days in early November, and again today, December 1st.
The sad news is that we have lost another Southern Resident orca, 80 year old J8. Though she lived a long and healthy life, she was a well known whale, with a distinctive "wheeze" to her blow, so you could always easily identify her. This loss brings the total population of the Southern Resident orcas down to just 80 whales - nearly as low as the last time their population tanked, in the late 1990s, when they were down to just 78 whales. The last dip in their population followed several years of steep declines for Chinook salmon, and triggered listing the Southern Residents under the Endangered Species Act. Much research has been done on all the elements that affect their health and survival - lack of food (mainly Chinook salmon, which are also endangered), toxins in the ocean and fish that they eat, loss of habitat and ocean noise (boats of all types, cargo ships, military ships and sonar, seismic airguns, etc).
But it all seems to come down to the salmon - during years when the Chinook salmon runs are the lowest, we see more deaths and fewer births in the Southern Resident orca community. Though much research has been done since the Southern Residents were listed under the ESA in 2005, there needs to be more action taken to preserve our endangered salmon runs, in order to preserve the Southern Resident orca population.
We worry and wait to see what happens next with the Southern Resident orcas - will more die? will we have some births this winter? Will we take action to increase Chinook salmon runs in time to save the orcas? One piece of good news to leave you with is that the Elwha River is already seeing large Chinook salmon return to the river after the removal of a dam, restoring a historic food source for the Southern Resident orcas. There is still work being done to complete removal of the 2nd dam on the Elwha, but the salmon are already returning, showing us that if we just give nature a chance, species often come back sooner than expected and thrive in newly restored habitats.
Orca Network continues to work to track the travels of the Southern Resident orcas, to educate people and raise awareness of the need for clean waters and healthy salmon runs, and to do all we can to preserve this fragile community of orcas in the Salish Sea.
In our last report, we talked about the population crash of Southern Resident orcas that triggered their listing as Endangdered under the Endangered Species Act, when their population dropped 20% over a six year period from the mid 1990s to 2001. This occurred after the population had finally somewhat rebounded (to nearly 100 individuals) from the removal of 1/3 to 1/2 of the population in the 1960s and 1970s for the marine park industry.
Sadly, this summer we have more bad news to report. For the first time since this population of orcas has been studied (beginning in 1976), we have experienced an eerie absence of their presence in the Salish Sea, where they traditionally have appeared each summer, between May and September, feeding on Chinook salmon.
This summer, the whales have scarcely been seen in the San Juan Islands, and when they do come in, they stay only for a day or two, then leave again, likely heading back out to the ocean in search of Chinook salmon, which aren't being found in numbers large enough to sustain them in their accustomed feeding grounds in the Salish Sea.
The Center for Whale Research states the current population of Southern Resident orcas is only at 82, and an additional male orca is missing and presumed dead, bringing the number down to 81. Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research, stated in an August 28th report in the Journal of the San Juans, "There is no doubt that our beloved local Orcas...are at risk of extinction in this century if things keep going the way they are," and "...the total number of whales in this beleaguered population is not as relevant as the number of breeding age whales and the success rate of their reproduction. It takes twelve to twenty or more years for a baby whale to grow up and become a member of the breeding population....There are only 24 females and 8 males currently in their prime breeding years, and offspring survival has not been very good in recent years due to a variety of causes...."
One of our Whale Sighting Network's most critical functions is to track the Southern Resident orcas during the fall and early winter months, when they tend to switch to eating chum salmon, which enter Puget Sound inland waters in large numbers during this time. Orca Network is located on Whidbey Island, where the whales pass by chasing the chum salmon runs into Puget Sound. Beginning October 1st we excitedly watch the waters off Whidbey looking for fins and spouts, so we can report on the travels of the Southern Resident orcas to researchers and agencies working on recovering this fragile population, and to citizens who are excited to watch this annual foray of the whales into Puget Sound waters, where they can be observed along hundreds of miles of shoreline, including the urban Seattle area.
But this year we are wondering if the Southern Resident orcas will come back into the Salish Sea and Puget Sound this fall and winter, or if they will remain offshore where they have spent the majority of the summer. Since it is believed they are after chum salmon when in Puget Sound, and chum salmon runs are much healthier than Chinook salmon runs, we are hoping it will mean we have an increased number of visits from the Southern Residents this fall. But if they are having to travel further away to find Chinook salmon when they aren't in the inland waters, it is also possible we may experience an absence of them in the inland waters this fall and winter as well.
This season is an important one for our Whale Sighting Network, as the data we collect through sightings of the Southern Resident orcas in the inland waters this fall and winter will provide valuable information for researchers who are working to help the whales. Given the unprecedented absence of Southern Residents in the Salish Sea this summer, we want to make sure we collect the best data possible on their use of the inland waters of Puget Sound this fall and winter, as well as keep track of any new births or further deaths to this endangered community of orcas.
As Ken Balcomb states, "This summer should serve as a "wake-up" that our "resident" whales will simply take up residence elsewhere, or keep moving from here to elsewhere in search of a suitable food supply.....but the "resident" Orca provide the indicator of the health of the local ecosystem that we all depend upon. Lets keep them around."
Your support is needed now more than ever. As the population of the Southern Resident orcas continues to decline, unfortunately, the funding for programs such as ours, working to find answers to help this fragile population survive, is also in decline. Our Sighting Network DEPENDS on contributions from people like you, who care about the whales, and want to see this community of orcas survive for future generations.
Thank you for your support, and we hope our next report will have cheerier news to relay to you, hopefully news of a new calf or two to increase the numbers of the Southern Resident community of orcas ~
Governor Inslee has officially proclaimed June 2013 as Orca Awareness Month
The Southern Resident orcas (J, K, and L pods) were listed as Endangered in November 2005 under the Endangered Species Act, yet we have only begun to learn about these whales' intelligence and social systems.
Major factors in the decline of their population include dwindling salmon runs, captures for marine theme parks in the 1960s and 70s, toxic pollution, loss of habitat, military training exercises, and increasing vessel traffic and noise levels in the Salish Sea and throughout their critical habitat.
During the month of June, Orca Network and other organizations, businesses and individuals will join together to educate the public and focus attention on the plight of the fragile Southern Resident orcas, to honor their presence in our waters, take action to improve conditions for their survival, and hasten efforts to recover their population.
Contact Orca Network to learn how you can participate in Orca Month!
Visit our Orca Month webpage for a list of Orca Month events and more.
We will be posting "Orca Tid-bits" on our Orca Network Facebook page every day during Orca Month - here is our first post:
J pod and the L12s foraged and socialized all the way up Haro Strait to Boundary Pass today. They have their own schedule unbeknownst to us, but this is June 1, the first day of Orca Awareness Month for 2013, so here's your Orca tidbit of the day. In the realm of demographics, field studies over the past 40 years have shown that orcas have lifespans, reproductive years, post-reproductive years (for females), birth rates, and other parameters very similar to humans' demographic profile. The greatest difference may be in male mortality rates. Orca males seem to die decades earlier than females, at around 30 on average (although J1 Ruffles lived to about 60), leaving far more females than males in the overall population. It should be noted however, that these numbers are based almost entirely on the 4 decades of continuous photo-ID field studies on the Southern and Northern Resident communities in WA and BC. These populations, especially the Southern Residents, have been seriously perturbed for decades, starting with random shootings probably since hunting with guns began, followed by a decade of unlimited captures, followed by an influx of persistent organochlorine toxins into the food chain, and all accompanied by periodic, but gradually decreasing runs of Chinook salmon, now known to be the mainstay of the Southern Residents' traditional diet. Between 1995 and 2001, extreme el nino years when Chinook runs were all drastically reduced, the Southern Residents lost almost 20% of their small number. They seem to rely almost exclusively on Chinook, although in the fall months they often subsist partly on chum salmon. All this is to say that the population data from the No. and So. Residents may or may not apply to other orca populations worldwide.
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