An endangered pod of orcas that hadn’t been seen in more than 100 days have finally reappeared in the Salish Sea, according to researchers.
J-pod, a group of Southern Resident Killer Whales, had not been seen in the region for 108 days, causing concern for their whereabouts, says the U.S.-based Orca Behavior Institute.
And J-pod wasn’t the only group of endangered orcas missing — K-pod and L-pod hadn’t been seen in weeks either.
But on Tuesday the organization said all three pods returned to inland waters and reached the west side of San Juan Island.
“It was an incredible moment when shortly after we started hearing calls on the Lime Kiln hydrophone, the dense fog suddenly parted to reveal the whales approaching across Haro Strait,” wrote the institute.
“We did not get a full assessment of who all was present, though it was easily 40+ whales and we did confirm Js, Ks, and Ls. They headed south this evening towards Eagle Point at dusk.”
The organization’s director Monika Wieland Shields said the mammals used to be seen on a daily basis during this time of year, so it’s alarming to learn that’s no longer the case.
“We’ve never had J-pod out of the area for that long in this peak season,” she said. “We know for many decades that this was their core summer habitat. And the fact that they’ve shifted what they’re doing so dramatically is definitely a cause for concern.”
Deborah Giles, a research scientist with Wild Orca and a killer whale researcher with the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, echoes the same sentiment.
“Pretty much every year, we’re getting yet another new record being set with the whales not showing up,” she said.
She explained that unlike humpback or grey whales, who’ve evolved to go through periods of fasting, these whales are supposed to eat every day.
“Yet these whales are going through long, long periods of starvation. And the reason for that is because the prey base is so erratic now. The salmon, the fish that these whales have evolved to eat over the millennial, are patchy at best,” Giles said.
The experts said the whales looked healthy and well-fed, which is a positive sign of them adapting.
“Short term, hopefully they’re finding enough to eat on the outer coast…but if we want the southern residents to recover and we want them to return to the Salish Sea like they used to, it’s going to be able recovering Fraser River chinook salmon,” said Shields.
Giles said there needs to be a re-imagination of how people fish, pushing to go back to more traditional and sustainable ways of fishing.
“When, where and how we fish needs to be taken into consideration in order to be able to leave more fish biomass in the waters for these whales to find,” she said.
Other factors that researchers say are leading to less and less salmon in the water are climate change and the Big Bar landslide in Fraser River, but scientists aren’t giving up hope saying the salmon population can come back with proper management.
Since 2013, southern resident orcas have been increasingly foraging on the west coast of Vancouver Island. But researchers are concerned their new habitat isn’t as protected.
While the Salish Sea is considered critical habitat for the southern resident orcas, Swiftsure Bank is known as a busy commercial fishing area, cargo shipping lane, with navy training sites nearby.
“We really need to be looking at that area for ways to protect the whales out there. The science is in, it’s just a matter of the federal government making it happen,” said Dr. Deborah Giles, a research scientist with Wild Orca.