The southern resident orcas typically spend most of their summers in the Salish Sea. But this year, one pod has been missing.
“They used to be seen here on a near-daily basis this time of year. So a near 100 days without them is really concerning,” said Monika Shield, the director of the Orca Behaviour Institute.
“They’re telling us something is wrong and something has changed.”
Scientists say J-pod has never been gone this long from inland water ever before.
Even more concerning, they’re not the only southern resident pod that’s missing.
“Really except for one half of a day, of K-pod being here on July 1st, we would be going on over three months of no members,” said Dr. Deborah Giles, a research scientist with Wild Orca.
Scientists say that day K-pod spent less than 24 hours in the Salish Sea scanning the region for food.
“There weren’t enough fish, and they left that night,” said Giles.
Orcas are where their prey is. So if they’re not in the Salish Sea, researchers are worried the salmon aren’t there either.
“The decline in their presence here in the Salish Sea is really linked to the decline of chinook salmon returning to the Fraser River,” said Shield.
However, there is hope. Southern resident orcas have instead been spotted off the west coast of Vancouver Island near Port Renfrew.
“There have been a couple reports earlier this month of southern residents at Swiftsure Bank,” said Shield. “The hope is that they’re intercepting salmon from multiple runs out there.”
Since 2013, southern residents 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 Giles.
Meanwhile, a leap of optimism.
L125, who was born earlier this year, was photographed on the west coast of Vancouver Island breaching this week. Fisheries and Oceans Canada describes the calf as healthy and happy, identifying L125 for the first time as a girl.
“That she was seen out there is such great news because it means she’s still alive. It means that her family has found enough food to keep her alive,” said Giles.
Scientists are hopeful the southern residents are adapting, but the larger concern for now is for the Fraser River and the wider ecosystem which relies on the chinook salmon run.