13 southern resident killer whales declared vulnerable

J27 is one of the 12 orcas observed in poor body condition. (SR3 Sealife Response, Rehabilitation, and Research/Twitter)

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has declared 13 southern resident killer whales vulnerable due to their poor body condition, and one because of a late-stage pregnancy.

Researchers from SR3 Sealife Response, Rehabilitation, and Research used drones to observe the orcas and noted that 13 from the J and L pods were in poor condition.

The researchers also identified several pregnancies in the orcas.

“While we have reason to remain hopeful with the reports of recent pregnancies, the reality is that there are several Southern Residents that aren’t doing well and we’re very concerned about the population at large,” said WDFW Director Kelly Susewind in a news release.

“We’re taking action today to address these immediate concerns, and we continue working with our partner organizations to implement the Governor’s Task Force recommendations for the long-term health of these orcas.”

One of the pregnant orcas is also listed as being vulnerable.

Twelve of the vulnerable orcas have been observed as having poor body condition, which puts them at a two-to-three-times higher risk of mortality.

The following orcas have been observed with poor body condition:

Additionally, L72, a 36-year-old female named Racer, has been listed as vulnerable due to being in a late-stage pregnancy.

“Our non-invasive photogrammetry research can identify whales in poor health that have a higher risk of death in the subsequent months, and our aim is to identify these vulnerable whales before their condition becomes terminal,” said Dr. Holly Fearnbach, marine mammal research director with SR3. “Similarly, we can identify females in the latter stages of pregnancy, which is an important but fragile time for successful reproduction.”

Southern resident killer whales in late-stage pregnancy are listed as vulnerable due to the high chance of a failed pregnancy, and because failed pregnancies can be lethal, according to WDFW.

K12, K20, and K27 were observed in September 2021 as being pregnant, so their pregnancies are believed to be ended, but if they are observed still being pregnant they will be added to the vulnerable list. Recent online videos show a calf travelling with the K-Pod and WDFW says one of these three is likely the mother.

As a result of the poor condition of the orcas, the state has issued an emergency order requiring commercial whale-watching vessels to keep at least one-half nautical mile away from endangered Southern Resident killer whales this summer.

“Whale-watching operators are often the first to spot and identify Southern Residents when they’re present in the Salish Sea,” said Erin Gless, executive director with the Pacific Whale Watch Association. “Our operators will be working closely with WDFW officers to communicate Southern Resident sightings whenever they’re spotted, while still giving them plenty of space.”

All boaters are also asked to adhere to the Be Whale Wise guidelines,

Laura Brougham

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